For Steven, Who Failed the Class

A teacher remembers a former student.

When she was a little girl, there was a popular romance novel. It was titled Love Story and its first sentence was famous. "What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?" For Professor Josephine K, teaching and learning, words and writing, were her lifetime love affair. It has been years since Steven was her student. To this day, Prof. K. still asks herself, "What can you say about a twenty-year-old student who failed?"

Steven may have long forgotten Prof. K. Prof. K. has never forgotten Steven. When Prof. K. alienates her Woke friends on social media, it's because of Steven. When Prof. K. shouts at the New York Times, it's often because of Steven. Years later, Prof. K. still tinkers with key moments. "Should I have … " "What if I had … " trying to figure out how to rewrite history so that Steven passes the class.

A casual observer would resort to the word "average" to describe him. Steven was average height, about 5'9". He didn't have the sickly thinness of the kids doing opioids. He wasn't, as too many students increasingly were, morbidly obese. Steven had the kind of face that would suit a newscaster or a juror or someone you'd want your daughter to marry. Not handsome enough for trouble; not ugly enough for pity or rejection. He wore the American uniform: blue jeans, t-shirts, baseball caps.

The clues that abused kids telegraphed might be invisible to others, but not to Prof. K. There was that flicker of wariness in the eyes, that stance and those gestures spring-loaded with fight-or-flight rapid response. There were the constant apologies – "I'm sorry!" – and the constant challenges – "Oh yeah? Who says? Why?"

Steven gave off no whiff of trauma. When he leaned back against his chair and relaxed, his facial, arm, back, and leg muscles all looked easy and slack. He got along well with other students. His clothes were clean and new and he never smelled as if he had slept on a park bench and had no access to a shower, a washing machine, or an indoor toilet. He arrived, at a leisurely pace, on time, and lingered after to class to socialize with friends. He didn't have the look of someone struggling uphill through a wind tunnel as did those self-supporting students rushing to and from jobs. Someone, probably two loving parents, was paying Steven's way.

Steven entered the writing class ahead of some of his classmates. Prof. K. hoped that someday she'd write a letter of recommendation placing Steven as a white-collar office worker, an elementary school teacher, or a nurse. These were the kind of jobs her students looked forward to. Such jobs were better than their parents' jobs. These careers, these futures, were their American Dream.

Students produced a writing sample on the first day. These writing samples were one of the best things Prof. K. did. They were so, well – they were so wonderful, that she couldn't bring herself to throw them away. Even today, when she suspects that Woke hegemony, combined with cratering college enrollment means that she might never teach again, she has yet to recycle years worth of "first day writing samples."

When she is tempted to lose faith in humanity, she thinks of those writing samples. "I want to serve my country as a police officer." "My dream is to heal." "I love my father and I want to have a relationship with my children like the relationship I have with him." "I have been out of school for a while, working in the corporate world, but I really want to learn more and I am so excited about being a returning college student." Even students who would later do poorly, because life intervened and they hadn't the skills to defeat setbacks and stay on track, wrote papers full of hopes, full of dreams, and full of promises to the best parts of themselves.

The first day writing samples weren't just about gaining familiarity with students' personal lives. "Writing clearly is thinking clearly." Just as a doctor can diagnose a patient's overall health from one blood sample, an astute teacher can tell much about a student from one three-paragraph essay. Does the student know how to organize a sentence, a paragraph, an argument? What vocabulary can a student command? Was the student in touch with a reality beyond his street, his tribe, his worldview? The first day writing sample was as good a predictor as any of how the student would perform for the next fifteen weeks. The essay was a palimpsest. Written over the student's words is another document, a prescription, that the teacher alone sees. This is what we need to work on: clarity, expressivity, originality, rationality, courage, coherence, power, focus, balance, depth, truth.

In the pile of papers that made Prof. K. gasp, or tear up, or hope and pray that this student never dropped out, was Steven's paper. Steven's paper bored her. Steven wrote an encomium to Tom Brady, a football quarterback. Steven didn't fill the page, and what he did write was so repetitious that if all repetitions were removed it would be about two sentences long. Steven apparently was familiar with jingoistic sportscaster-speak. His paper was a weak imitation of that style: "awesome," "the greatest of all time," "awesome" again, and "no one will ever forget the day that Brady" accomplished some feat.

Given the paucity of errors in spelling and grammar, Prof. K. assumed that Steven was underperforming. His words sounded canned, as if he'd lifted them from another source, rather than his own head and heart. Somewhere along the line, Steven had learned to fake it in school. She determined to try to encourage Steven to put more of himself into his schoolwork, and to take this use of his time seriously.

Prof. K., as she did for all students, wrote a personal note to Steven. "Dear Steven, I'm not a sports fan, and I don't know much about Brady. I'm curious as to why you like him so much. I hope that this semester we can develop your writing so that when someone like me reads something you wrote about a topic she knows nothing about, after reading your paper, she will feel familiarity with that topic. In terms of grammar and spelling, your paper contains few errors, so we can cruise past those aspects of writing, and continue on to making your writing more memorable for your reader, and both more fun, and more powerful, for you."

Steven could have easily gotten an A in the class. His tuition dollars, either from a government loan, that might, under a Democratic president, be someday "forgiven," or money he or his parents earned themselves, would be well spent. He'd be better off after the class than he had been before it. He'd learn not just about how to write for school, but how to write a letter to his congressman, how to polish a resume, how to sell his skills to an employer, how to instruct underlings in a difficult task, or how to communicate his love to his wife, his parent, his child.

Of course, if Steven did earn that A, and if Steven went on to graduate from the school, he would be in the minority. Only twenty percent of students at this taxpayer-supported institution graduated within a reasonable number of years; that's comparable to national figures. Steven was an African American male. Graduation rates in his demographic were the lowest of all.

Liam was a toxic waste dump in the center of the class. It's really not nice for a teacher to call her student a toxic waste dump. But Prof. K. believed, with Josh Billings and Mark Twain, that the difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. Liam was a living "Portrait of Dorian Gray" for American manhood. Decades ago, when you thought of an American male, you might think of a person who might be played, onscreen, by Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda or pre-Woke Tom Hanks. If a movie were made about Liam, his character would be played by the overweight, sloppy, awkward, pot-addicted Seth Rogen.

Liam wore wrinkled, old clothes to class. He stank of stale human, that is, any liquid or solid associated with a human body that can go bad and requires periodic removal. Liam kept up a patter of muttered derogatory commentary. He did no work. Not in class. Not homework. Possibly not anywhere in his life. Liam had the soft body and flaccid face of someone whose most demanding pastime was lighting his next joint. Liam was close to the same age as Achilles when he arrived in Troy. Liam was a bit older than Joseph Argenzio, the youngest American soldier to storm the beaches on D-Day; specifically, 17-year-old Argenzio landed at Omaha, the deadliest. Liam was several years past the age, 15, when Michael Phelps first qualified to swim in the Olympics. That is, Liam was at the age when a male is conventionally at the height of his physical powers. Sobering to realize Liam, physically, had no place to go but down.

Liam was white. "White," in Liam's case, meaning "living in a suburb with no crime and too many McMansions." "White" as in "Daddy will pay for that." "White" as in "I get to goof off, and when the time comes for me to get a no-show job that will underwrite my pot, porn, and video game addictions, I'll do what I have to, but not until that day."

Liam, like a lot of white boys, sometimes known as "wiggers," was a rap fan. As Steven walked past Liam, Liam, barely holding his slack body up enough to appear to be "sitting," would look up at Steven and mutter a choice lyric. To Prof. K., all the lyrics sounded the same: "Kill the pigs, pimp the hos, snort the coke; my gun; my penis; n-word, n-word, n-word." But that's not what the lyrics sounded like to Liam, or to Steven. Liam was communicating, "In spite of my basement-video-game-pallor and my brand new car parked in the lot outside, I am a gangsta. Steven, though you are clearly middle class, you are black, so it's your job to fulfill my fantasies. We don't take none o' this "college" s--t seriously. We be gangstas. It's our job to undermine this entire enterprise. Keepin' it real, bro."

There were many really tough stories in that class with Liam and Steven. In front of Liam was a perpetually silent black student who had suffered extreme abuse at the hands of parents. Prof. K. turned herself inside out trying to get counseling for that student, and trying to get that student to make eye contact with her or with anyone else in the classroom. She failed at both. The counselor did email the student, the student emailed back, but never showed up for meetings. "We cannot force them," she was told. "Oh yes you could if you wanted to," she thought, but did not say. "You just don't want to go through the effort."

There was an older, Hispanic student who was more gifted and more mature than everyone else in the room. He sat by himself, handed in a few papers, and then just stopped coming, without ever formally dropping. It killed Prof. K. to record an F grade for this superior student at the end of the semester. Bureaucracy demanded that record.

There was a white boy who had already failed this class, taught by a different teacher, the previous semester. He was a muscular laborer and wore his blue denim uniform, complete with his name embroidered above his heart. He was no Hemingway, no orator, no reader of books. He sat up front, his back to everyone else, to every little drama, and he ignored all of Liam's shenanigans. He did everything Prof. K. told him to do, so obsessively that she could assess the clarity of her instructions by his performance. On his job, he had to place bricks in the right place, with the right relationship to other bricks; to perform these functions, he had to select the right tools. Prof. K. told him to take the same approach to dashes and semi-colons, to restrictive and to nonrestrictive clauses. He got an A. 

Steven kept his eyes on Liam. Liam kept his eyes on Steven. Steven began to perform for Liam. Liam wanted his black protegee to disrespect white, female, Prof. K. No real black man would do what a white woman told him to do. Steven disrespected the teacher, and Liam smiled.

Suburban Steven from a good home would playact the role of an "authentic" black man as defined by Liam. They could have dropped the class, and received an I, an "incomplete" grade. An "I" grade would be less damaging to their records than an "F" grade. But they stayed in class, disrupted and undermined it. Playing the spoiler in a freshman comp class on an obscure campus was more important to their self-concepts than protecting their own permanent academic records.

Prof. K. observed her students' arcs throughout the semester. The son of a doctor who had gained admission to an Ivy League school, screwed up there, and was "too good for this place" realized that Prof. K. cared, and he soared. The porcelain-skinned girl returning to school after going off heroin cold turkey looked grimmer and grimmer, and admitted that she thought of returning to her drug. Prof. K. implored her. "The choices you make now affect the whole of humanity. We are rooting for you. Stick it out with all of us trying to be a decent person, in spite of all of our pains and fears, for one more day." That girl would earn a final A. The immigrant from Honduras, working full time as a bus boy, skyrocketed. He produced some of the best student writing Prof. K. had ever seen. Other students began to defer to him. The other students were not impressed by Steven or by Liam. They were impressed by a man old enough to be their father, who worked a miserable job, but, damnit, he knew how to handle a relative clause.

When Liam discovered that he had failed the class, he didn't seem to care, any more than he seemed to care about anything.

Steven appeared shocked. At some point, clearly, educational professionals had communicated to Steven that he could be a cut-up in class, he could stop handing in work, and he could still receive at least a C, a passing grade. Or even a D. But an F? Never an F. Nobody gave out F grades any more! Steven sent Prof. K. imploring emails. "But I got a B on that one paper."

"That was one paper, Steven. One paper out of many. Many that you did not hand in at all."

And then the email arrived.

"Prof. K., my name is Nakeisha Jackson and I am the diversity, equity, and inclusion officer on campus. I have a report here from one of your students concerning a racist incident in your class. I would like to meet with you."

Prof. K. was angry. This happened every semester and she was sick to death of it.

One semester it was a Ukrainian. She was convinced that Prof. K., who had a Polish last name, was discriminating against her, because of historical conflicts between Ukrainians and Poles, conflicts Prof. K. had never mentioned. Another semester it was a student who was afraid of rain. She said that Prof. K. had penalized her for missing a mandatory exam on a rainy day. This was against the Americans with Disabilities Act, the student was convinced. And then there was the student who claimed that the syllabus had traumatized her because it stated that one had to attend class in order to pass. The student went to, and was received by, a dean. If a student requested a meeting with a dean to suggest a campus-wide charity drive or trash clean-up or new Christian club that student would probably not be received. If a student just said, "I'm lonely. I'm confused. I'm overwhelmed," that student would not be received. Claiming fake injury, fake victimhood, fake discrimination, opened the doors and the imitation hearts of the powerful.

What all these cases had in common was that the campus bureaucracy encouraged the students to regard themselves as victims, and actively rewarded students for defining themselves as victims. The bureaucracy punished professors for making any demands on students at all. America has become "a nation of whiners," many commentators report. If that's true, the whining was incentivized by educational professionals.

Now Steven, who was failing the class, had made a false allegation of racism to the DIE office. Prof. K. shot an enraged email to Nakeisha Jackson. She knew that shooting out angry emails to people with more power was a suicidal move, but she wanted to live in truth more than she wanted to play this phony game. "The accusation is false. Happy to meet with you. Thank you."

Prof. K. arrived early. The meeting room was a long and narrow basement space with no windows. There were cubicles and garbage cans that needed emptying, especially of a rotting banana peel. Ancient, deserted, dog-eared textbooks littered mostly empty aluminum shelving; this was horrible feng shui.

Dr. Jackson was plump and very black. She arrived alone. "Steven admitted to me that he lied," she immediately said.

Prof. K. did not breathe a sigh of relief. Prof. K. felt no sense of triumph. Rather, she pounced.

"He lied for a reason, Dr. Jackson. He lied because administrations encourage students to lie, and reward students for lying.

"Dr. Jackson, do you care about Steven? Does this institution? I care about him. You want to see the emails I've sent him, begging him to perform? Simply to hand in work? I can show you those emails right now.

"Steven stopped handing in any work a quarter of the way through the semester. He's abandoning his own dream to succeed. Why does the admin spring into action when the word 'racism' is dropped, but ignore it when a student abandons his own academic career? I've got a student in my class who is crippled from child abuse. A black student. Why no rapid response team for that?

"If you care, Dr. Jackson, demand performance from Steven. Raise the bar, and make him rise to meet it."

Dr. Jackson surprised Prof. K. "I can see that you are a dedicated teacher. Can you convey to Steven any of what you just said to me?"

"Sure, I can say it," Prof. K. responded. "But talk is cheap. My words mean less than consequences. My words mean less than institutional priorities. I had no one to report to when Steven stopped handing in work. I tried talking to my superiors. You want to know what they said? 'Yeah, yeah, it's sad, it's sad. Can't save all of 'em.' There was no suggestion of possible avenues of further action. But Steven knew exactly what door to knock on when he had a bogus story about racism. What does that tell you? What does that tell Steven? What really matters to this institution?"

Steven arrived. Dr. Jackson demanded that Steven apologize. He did. Dr. Jackson then turned to Prof. K. and asked her to communicate to Steven what she had tried to say to Dr. Jackson.

"Steven, you have what it takes to get an A in this class. But you'll get an F, because that is what you earned. Writing is power, Steven. Words are power. My parents were immigrants. English was not their first language. They saw their parents treated poorly. They determined to work for better lives. My mother speaks English as well as she speaks Slovak. No accent. She could harness words to vivify her life. You could do the same. People would listen to you. Commanding words means commanding power."

Prof. K. saw, then, in Steven's eyes, what she craved to see in student's eyes. That look, that light. The student was, inside, going someplace he never thought he'd go. He was, internally, released from previous bonds, and ascending to a new level.

Prof. K. wanted to cry. She wished she had seen that light in his eyes when there was still time for Steven to pass the class.

In a March, 2006 essay in the New York Times, Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson attempted "a cultural explanation of black male self-destructiveness." The gangsta pose, Patterson argues, "was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug … it also brought them a great deal of respect from white youths … it has powerful support from some of America's largest corporations. Hip-hop, professional basketball and homeboy fashions" are all huge commercial successes. Patterson was aware of the Liams of the world, as well. "Young white Americans are very much into these things, but selectively; they know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book."

America has relegated Patterson to the sidelines of racial debates. American elites have chosen, instead, critical race theory and Ibram X. Kendi.

"Any difference in what students have or what they achieve is due to systemic racism" was a critical-race-theory-inspired tenet in Virginia education. That tenet was "rescinded," under the leadership of Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, in February, 2022. Other CRT dogma: equity of outcomes should replace emphasis on educational excellence. Translation: every student should receive an A, no matter that student's actual performance. White students should be treated poorly compared to black students in order to make up for past discrimination. "Power imbalances" should be "mitigated." Translation: the eighteen-year-old student knows every bit as much as the professor with decades of teaching experience, publications, and a PhD. "I ain't got nutin" is as acceptable as "I don't have anything." Arriving half an hour late is just as good as arriving on time. Being "on time" is white supremacist.

In rejecting the concept of personal responsibility, America has chosen Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi is a history professor at Boston University. Kendi's statements about race are so extreme one has to read them to believe them; one could start here. Kendi attributes any problem any black person experiences to white supremacy. He insists that whites must be discriminated against, and blacks must receive favorable discrimination, in order to make up for previous discrimination against blacks.

In 2020, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey handed Kendi ten million dollars. Kendi is a bestselling author. One of his bestsellers is the children's book Antiracist Baby. Antiracist Baby recommends that parents teach their babies to focus on government policy, not individual human beings and their actions. Yes, the book really does this. Mugged by a black teen? Blame government policy, not the teen's behavior. Tell your babies this, or you are a racist. Kendi has received up to $20,000 per lecture.

Kendi is flogging a new book, How to Raise an Antiracist. In a June 13, 2022, National Public Radio interview, Kendi reported telling his six-year-old daughter that there are few "brown people" graduating medical school because of white supremacy's "bad rules." The NPR host summed up Kendi's ideas thus "If school testing shows Black [sic] or white or Asian kids performing differently, that does not mean the kids of one race have some cultural or social problem." Rather, "the test or the standards or the schools are racist." Kendi himself says, "when you have a gap between racial groups … in education, in, you know, incarceration rates, in health disparities, in wealth, there's two explanations for that gap. Either that gap is the result of bad rules … or racist policies. Or … certain kids are smarter or they're working harder." The latter idea, the idea that some kids, like Americans of East Asian descent are "working harder," is "racist."

America chose Kendi and critical race theory over the concept of personal choices and personal responsibility. America made that choice for several reasons. Leftists control the institutions advancing critical race theory, especially education and media. Leftists want to overturn the West and replace it with a Woke Utopia. Identity politics balkanize and weaken national cohesion. Pumping everyone full of grievance weakens any faith in institutions. Telling everyone that he is a victim weakens the individual.

Americans are nice people and dread being labeled racist, so they may embrace something that they don't know much about but that they vaguely hope will make things better. And white narcissists want to be the star of the national narrative. When black people achieve on their own, when even such horrors as Jim Crow can't stop black conservative success stories like Condoleezza Rice, Shelby Steele, and Clarence Thomas, white narcissists can't stand it. They want to be responsible for black success. And Ibram X. Kendi and CRT make them responsible, and strip black people of any agency, and any adulthood, whatsoever.

A CRT-and-Kendi-inspired professor would have just assigned an A grade to Steven, though he handed in only twenty percent of the required work. Such a professor would have ignored the injustice of assigning such a high grade to Steven, who did almost no work, and the same grade to the white student who was white-knuckling it through heroin withdrawal, and still managed to arrive to every class, on time, never speak out of turn, and hand in every paper, evincing improvement after improvement. And that CRT-and-Kendi-inspired professor would feel so very proud of herself. She was the white savior, the white star of the show. She'd never have any second thoughts at all, unlike Prof. K., who, years later, thinks of Steven. Steven could have played his victim hand to some handout from the university, but between the time he first contacted the DIE office and the meeting with Dr. Jackson, Steven admitted that he lied. There's much good in Steven. To this day, Prof. K. asks, what could I have done differently, so that Steven would have passed that class?

Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery


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