Professor Josephine K surveyed her classroom. It was ugly. The cinder block walls were painted the gray-green of old pus. A misguided architect had placed this classroom’s single row of hopper windows so high so that no student or teacher could glimpse outside. Spring was out there. Winter’s monochrome and claustrophobia had retreated. Eye-popping color and wide open spaces replaced snow and cold. This wasn’t a prestigious university, but you couldn’t tell that from the grounds. Acres of rolling, green hills seemed to extend all the way to the Manhattan skyline. Professor K was on this campus so long ago that she remembered the World Trade Center punctuating that skyline.
Overhead fluorescent lights seemed to tinge everyone in the class with a touch of gray-green. Prof. K was always surprised when she had to make a library or conference run to the nearest Ivy League school. Ivy League students all looked like they’d stepped out of a Vanity Fair multi-page ad for designer clothes. Perfect teeth, posture, hair, accessories.
Not on this campus. These students were up all night working at a bakery. Or these students were first generation and their mamas proved to themselves that they’d overcome homeland oppression and poverty by stuffing their children with Little Debbie Cakes until they were obese. Or these students were, for reasons Prof. K might never know, without easy access to bathroom facilities and basic hygiene rituals. Prof. K liked to move around the classroom, and she always had to brace herself passing through some students’ territories; the odor was gag-inducing. Clothes were never new, always whatever was closest to hand. Even the youngest faces were etched with anxiety; prescription-or-recreational-drug-induced lethargy; or the kind of sadness that should only drench the face of a much older person. And then there were the faces ready for combat, the kind of facial expression that silently shouts, “You want a piece of me?”
What would a stranger see who walked into this room? An obese girl whose leggings barely completed the forced march around her buttocks; leggings that not only didn’t conceal, but that enhanced to topographic-map-intensity, the cottage-cheese-like cellulite of her thighs. The boy with the nervous tick. A short, skinny kid whose mere physical appearance seemed an engraved invitation that any bully could decipher. A 19-year-old girl sneaking glances at her phone because she left her two toddlers in her parked car. She couldn’t pay the daycare bill.
The one thing they all had in common was that they had nothing in common. A few were black, but “black” meant born in Newark, NJ, to descendants of slaves. Or born in Guyana and spent early years barefoot and in a shack. Or born to two doctor immigrants from Nigeria and now a straight A student and headed to a free ride at an Ivy League grad school. A few were white and “white” meant a very good high school student who was cut from his college of choice because they weren’t taking any more white males; rejected by his dream, he came to this campus, and has resented it ever since. “White” also meant a 17-year-old cancer survivor, not assured of many more years, but getting a college degree just in case they come up with a permanent cure. In any case fulfilling the dream of going to college was better than sitting at home, passively waiting for the Grim Reaper. Many students were various versions of the catchall term, “Hispanic:” Caribbean, Mexican, Peruvian.
That’s what a stranger would see. That’s what Prof. K saw when she first walked into the class, five months before. She saw an ugly room and students who didn’t look happy, or even capable of happiness.
That very first day, as she always did on every first day, she required all students to introduce themselves and one other student to the class. She learned that the girl in the overstuffed leggings was writing a romance novel – and was producing publishable prose. She learned that the angry white boy was taking care of a father with lung damage caused by his work as a fireman. She learned that the frail looking student lived in a haunted house. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but his account was mighty convincing.
Over the course of the semester, this ugly room and its ragtag students was transformed from a pumpkin to a magical carriage, just like in the old Disney Cinderella cartoon. Prof. K would be crying when she exited this room. Today was the last day. It had been one heck of a semester. But, then, it was always one heck of a semester.
The four, ugly walls of this classroom were her castle keep. She had to push so much out, to nurture anything of value within.
“Oh, yes, I let them use their phones in class. So what if they are playing games or doing Facebook? If they are not interested in the class, that is not my concern.” “Sure, let them arrive late. This is a commuter campus. They are coming from jobs. We have to be flexible.” “Oh, all my students call me by my first name.” Prof. Josephine K heard her fellow professors voice these opinions of modern pedagogy. Prof. K wanted all of that kept out of her classroom, as if it were the plague, a microbiological threat to the life she hoped to cultivate. A life that many of her students had never been exposed to.
She demanded that they arrive on time. That they put their phones away. That they raise their hands and be recognized before speaking. That they address their fellow students by name, and make eye contact with them. That they read. Write. Think.
Prof. K remembered that terrifying phone call on the first day of the semester. It was her boss. Why would a boss call her at home? She hadn’t felt this nervous since nuns called her parents to report an infraction. Her boss told her that her syllabus had traumatized a student, and the student had complained to a dean. “Your syllabus says that students must attend class if they want to pass. We can’t make such extreme demands.”
She wanted to dig a moat around her classroom. She wanted to erect high, impenetrable walls. She wanted control over the drawbridge, to allow in, only, that which served her goal. She wanted her students to think.
Her syllabus told students to go to the bathroom before and after class, not during class. This shocked them. Not to wear baseball caps in class. “Apparel communicates to the body, and to the audience: this is what I am about. We are not here as part of a sporting or social event. We are here to serve truth.” Students would get up and charge out of the room, with promises to report her.
“Report me? Get in line,” she’d say.
She was ready to be hated. She was ready to be fired. But she was determined to teach. Because she was once one of them. She was once the fat girl coming off of an eight-hour shift as a nurse’s aide, still wearing a pink polyester uniform; or from cleaning houses, still smelling of Clorox; or with sawdust in her eyebrows, after doing the university’s carpentry, to make school possible. She was dyslexic, outside of her natal culture, not speaking her first language. And she had discovered, in classrooms like this, truth. And she wanted others to have access to that.
The other professors taught a relativism that mocked the very idea of truth. She wanted, within this castle keep, to let students know that truth matters, and that they could get as close to truth as anyone else, using time-tested methods inherited through Western Civilization from the Greeks on down.
Truth is abstract. How to communicate that abstraction to someone whose first language is not English? How to communicate the value of truth to someone who is just attending college to go through the motions necessary to get a degree? How to inspire students whose friends didn’t get degrees, but made good money, legally or not? How to bring on board students whose friends did stick it out, who laid out the massive expense for tuition, and ended up working produce at Shoprite? How to get past the message from parents who somehow both wanted a child with a college degree, but who had complete contempt for intellectual activity? Who actually punished their children for “wasting time” by reading when they should be looking after abuela? How to communicate to that student that this wasn’t going to be like other classes, where you didn’t show up, or showed up late, or showed up on time and used your phone to text with your friends throughout class, and still got an A, if you could, at the last minute, pump out a three-page paper on how oppressed you were and how much America sucked?
“You’ve just been told that you have a brain tumor,” she said to her students. “Or your mother. Or your kid. A brain tumor. What do you do? You go to the internet. You find a website that recommends that you drink apple cider vinegar and take coffee enemas. You do that, then, right? Because you found it on the internet. So it must be true, right?”
The students would stare at Prof. K. Were they supposed to be taking notes? Would “Coffee enemas cure cancer” be on the final exam? The embittered, smart white guy couldn’t wait till class was over, and he could tell those high school friends, who had gone on to more prestigious universities but who had stuck with him through his disappointment, that he was paying tuition to hear some lunatic tell him that coffee enemies cure brain tumors. Which had nothing to do with the subject matter, and wasn’t on the syllabus at all.
“It’s not true,” she finally said to her students. “You know it’s not true. Coffee and cider vinegar don’t cure cancer. Look, you can speak up in this class. If someone says something absurd, you can object. You should object. Every time you sit still when a professor says something absurd to you, you are practicing to be a cog. Not your best self. Not an integral, thinking, being made in the image and likeness of God. Not an active participant in democracy. The key is to object in a civil, scholarly way. Don’t shout or throw tomatoes or post an anonymous critical comment online along with my name and address. Tell me to my face why you know something is not true. Why you know that if you, or someone you love, God forbid, is diagnosed with cancer, you will not dose that person with vinegar and coffee.”
And they’d be stumped. How do you differentiate between fact and fiction? The standard in other classes worked like this: My tribe, true; enemy tribe, false. A “white man” was not my tribe. Without that standard, how do you find truth? And then how do you disagree without cancel culture’s tools of rage? These questions segued into the semester-long conversation about the scientific method, and peer-reviewed scholarship, and cui bono, and Occam’s razor – all terms they seem never to have heard, previously.
She remembered meetings with other, tenured and tenure-track professors. These meetings always seemed to begin with a joke about how stupid the students were, and how much better it would be to be on a more prestigious campus, though the view of Manhattan’s skyline reminded professors why they wanted to be here. With good traffic, you could make it downtown in an hour. But, yes, it would be so much better for the career if one had better graduate students with whom to conduct serious research.
Prof. K wanted to scream during those comments. The tenured professors weren’t just talking about their students, they were talking about her students, and they were talking about her. Similar professors from similar prestigious universities had said similar, disparaging things about her and her classmates when she was an undergrad decades ago. Ultra-liberal professors with hip “No Nukes,” “Save the Whales,” “My Other Car Is a Broom” “Love Makes a Family,” and “McGovern” bumper stickers would say, in class, to their students’ faces, that the nature of a less prestigious school made it difficult, if not impossible, to get to the heart of this essay, this poem, this theory, this work of art. There was this better world out there – Greenwich Village, Princeton, Cambridge, Provincetown – where the really smart, sophisticated people hung out. And this artist, this theory, this theorem, would be understood there. By the better people. Who, it was understood, would not, as most of these students did, attend church, or live at home with their parents, or work blue-collar jobs, or vote Nixon, or feel constrained by having been brainwashed by capitalism and the bourgeois work ethic.
“Our students are not mentally retarded!” Prof. K shouted, more vehemently than she had hoped, at one staff meeting. “They can learn just as much as anyone! We just have to raise the bar and make sure that they make it over that raised bar. As long as we keep lowering the bar, as long as we keep assigning A grades for mediocre work, we sabotage our students. It’s not fair for us to complain about their performance when we are the ones shaping their performance with our teaching, our evaluations, and our expectations.”
Everyone stared at her. The meeting paused. And then it picked up again, and no one referred back to what she said.
But the “Our students are so inferior” lament was not the worst thing she heard at a staff meeting. Nor was the frequent and gratuitous knocking of Christianity. The worst thing she heard was “Our students would have no interest in / ability to understand / use for that.”
“Our students, being majority minority, would have no interest in Shakespeare … dead, white males … Ancient Greece … the rigor of a formal research paper … Standard English … The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
She knew they were lying. She knew students came to this country, to this college, wanting to master the riches of civilization. She encountered the students’ yearning in their efforts at hypercorrect speech patterns, in their awed mention of cousins who had gone to more prestigious schools, in their references to their parents’ dreams for them, in their grasping at any excuse to drop a famous name into a conversation. “As Socrates said … ” they’d begin. They wanted someone to know that they had heard that name. “Socrates.” And they wanted to be guided to being able to drop that name with more skill. “Did I get that right? Will you talk to me as if I am one of you? Can I be part of this now?” their eyes begged, after they dropped famous names.
Powerful professors were deciding that minority students, poor students, students from the inner city, had no place in the most advanced traditions of Western Civilization.
“I use rap lyrics in class … I have them research questions on their phones in class … whoever gets the first answer gets a prize … sonnets are a white form and minority students don’t respond well to them … they don’t like rigid writing rubrics. I show them something like the George Floyd video and have them write about their feelings. Very successful.”
Four gray-green cinder block walls. She had worked on those walls with the diligence of a medieval mason. She had practically earned a signet ring with a square and compass insignia. Inside these four walls, a student who may or may not be dead from cancer in a few years researched a final paper topic that had nothing to do with cancer. She got to lose herself in the search for truth. A resentful young white man became best friends with someone whose parents were born in Nigeria. A conspiracy theorist switched from “doing your own research,” meaning, in his mind, finding websites that fed his private fears and rages, and dipped into peer-reviewed articles, and decided that he was wrong about something: “Maybe vampires don’t exist!”
And then there was Sancta. When Prof. K walked into the class the very first day, her eyes met with Sancta’s, and Prof. K knew she would either win Sancta over, or she would be defeated by Sancta. Prof. K was not to be defeated.
Sancta was big and hard. She was from a violent and notorious ghetto. When she told other students where she was from, they waved their hands as if they’d touched something hot. The good, white student sat as far away from Sancta as he could get. He just didn’t want any of that drama, and he knew drama was inevitable.
Sancta was rude, obscene, disruptive. One day, Sancta tried to convince the class that “The Jews” had carried out 9-11. Sancta was genuinely innocent when she insisted on this. Sancta had no idea why it was outrageous or even controversial to pin 9-11 on “The Jews.” In Sancta’s tiny universe, that “The Jews” had carried out 9-11 was knowledge, not hateful conspiracy. Sancta had almost certainly never had any close contact with Jews in her life. And she had already learned, not just to hate Jews, but to regard them as non-human, as diabolical. Sancta worked in a neighborhood where young black men regularly were seen in surveillance videos beating up on Jews.
Prof. K said, “This is really interesting, Sancta, because I am Jewish, and I disagree with you.” Prof. K wasn’t Jewish, and she would, before the semester was over, reveal the ruse she was using. She wanted Sancta, simply, to think, and letting Sancta know that Jews are real people, people she might meet in real life, shook Sancta up enough that she began to think and behave differently.
Do I punish this student in front of the rest of the class, as an object lesson? Do I ignore her? Do I try to befriend her? There were so many different methods. You tried one, you moved on to another, you tried to stitch together enough minutes devoted to learning, not to trying to get Sancta to focus. One day Prof. K tried pizza. She brought a couple of fresh, hot pizzas into class and distributed the slices. That seemed to win some over. But what ultimately worked with Sancta seemed to be what Prof. K had been trying all semester. Truth. Thinking. Being introduced to one’s own mind, one’s own questions, one’s own path of discovery through the routes laid down by scholars long past.
Sancta wanted to know something. Prof. K helped Sancta to find the right peer-reviewed articles, to ask the right questions, to fashion the right thesis statement, to devise a research design, to carry that research out. Sancta and Prof. K worked on the project after class in a shared adjunct office. Sancta would stick around the office longer and longer, even after her work was done. One day, Prof. K realized, “My God; this girl loves me.” And Prof. K felt very embarrassed. She had no idea what to do with love. She’d been working too hard on building a castle keep, within which scholarship could take place.
But it didn’t matter that Prof. K didn’t know what to do with Sancta’s love, because, as happens every semester, the semester was now over. And Prof. K would never see any of these young people again.
“So, today’s the last day,” Prof. K said to the class. The students looked, as they always looked, bored. Prof. K soldiered on. She’d been teaching long enough to know that “Students look bored” didn’t always mean that students were bored.
“Remember when you were writing your final papers, and I gave you such a hard time about placing the period outside the parenthetical citation, rather than inside? And you became so angry, and said, that’s such a petty thing, what difference does it make?
“Well, here’s what difference it makes. After you leave this room, and this campus, you are going to want to continue making your life better. You are going to apply for jobs. And the person hiring you may not be smart enough or careful enough or have enough time to discover what you have to offer. They will end up judging you on something petty, like whether or not you know where to put a period after a parenthetical citation, or some other task that proves that you know how to follow instructions. As the saying goes, ‘Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.’ Learn where that period goes and put it there. Then, once you’ve taken care of that, expand your wings, and make your unique contribution.
“Why did I work so hard to hammer all that into you? Because the world is a tough place, and I want you to be ready for it. I want you to conquer it. Not with rage or nihilism but with your blossoming beauty. Every spring new flowers knock our eyes out, and make us forget last year’s flowers. Do that. Be that. Be the new blossoms.
“I hope that whatever else you’ve learned in this class, you’ve learned enough about the search for truth, that if some pompous person tries to belittle you or talk down to you or pull the wool over your eyes with some statement you don’t really understand, you can deploy what you learned in this class. Throughout the rest of your life, people are going to throw information at you, as if you were a soldier on a battlefield bombarded with information.
“‘Buy this! Sign up for this! Worship this! Join this!’
“Pitchmen of various types will toss big words at you, packaged in incomprehensible sound bites: ‘Remember what the Nazis did! So sign this petition!’ Or, ‘We can’t take that route! Remember what happened to the Albigensians!’
“Now you know how to handle that. If someone tells you to remember what happened to the Albigensians, or mentions some other word you’re not familiar with, you can research it. You don’t have to stumble alone in the dark. You won’t be intimidated. You’ll be able to keep your head and your self-confidence in spite of any confusion you might feel. You’ll know how to find out exactly who the Albigensians were, and why this person brought them up. Use your tools for finding truth, and come back at that person with all you’ve got, all you learned in this class. Goodbye now, and have a great life.”
That was it. Prof. K said her goodbye. The students would leave the class, and, alone in the room, she could shed a few tears before beginning her own way home, and the preparations for next semester.
But something was wrong. The students were not leaving. The class period was over. They had to leave. Go to other classes, go to their jobs, go get their kids. But they just sat there. Prof. K had no idea what was going on, or how to react.
Sancta raised her hand. Prof. K wanted to say, “Sancta, it’s the last day. You don’t have to raise your hand any more.” But Prof. K said, “Yes, Sancta?”
“You have to tell us,” Sancta said.
“Yeah, you have to tell us,” the young white man said.
“You can’t let it go at that,” said a student in the back who had barely spoken all semester.
“About the Albigensians.”
“Who were they? You have to explain. Tell us the story. What happened,” they had to know before they could leave, “to the Albigensians?”
Prof. K wanted to die and go to Heaven right then. But she did not. She gave a brief talk on the Albigensians, on the last day of class, a beautiful spring day.
Our students can’t do that.
Yes, they can.
Our students don’t need that.
Yes, they do.
Our students won’t benefit from that.
Yes, they will.
These events occurred almost ten years ago. The barriers to conveying Western Civilization and scholarly methods to students are higher today than they were even then.
Prof. K, a humanities and social sciences person, knows one thing about physics. Pendulums swing. She hopes that when the wild swing of recent years reaches some equilibrium, it will be in a place where students are taught about truth, about scholarship, and about a history that, no matter their skin color or economic background, rightfully belongs to them.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.