A Dream Lay Dying

Bill Maxwell, St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, May 20, 2007

After spending the summer trying to shake off the disappointment over my first year as a professor at Stillman College, I began the 2005 fall semester looking for even the smallest signs that I could make a difference in the lives of black students by setting high standards and inspiring them to rise to the challenge.

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I became even more hopeful that afternoon when I met with Stillman president Ernest McNealey. He had invited me in 2004 to leave the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, revive the journalism major at the small historically black college in Tuscaloosa and fulfill a promise I had made to myself years ago. Now McNealey agreed it was time to order new computers and other supplies to open a newsroom for the student newspaper and for editing and design classes.

During those first few weeks of school, the new equipment began arriving and my hopes continued to rise. My first year at Stillman, which had fewer than 1, 000 students, had not been as smooth or as fulfilling as I had hoped. My students’ academic performance had been generally disappointing, and I could not persuade most students to even attend class regularly.

Still, I believed that with a real newsroom we were ready to make significant progress. Before my arrival at Stillman, my colleague Lucinda Coulter had produced the student newspaper on her home computer without charging the college a dime. With a campus newsroom, we assumed that our students would begin to take the profession seriously and would love hanging out in their own space.

We soon learned that we had been naive. Nothing changed. Students rarely came to the newsroom except for classes. The majority preferred to socialize with their friends during their spare time, and others knew that one way to avoid an assignment for the newspaper was to avoid the newsroom where story leads and tips were posted on the bulletin board.

My colleagues and I were witnessing the result of low admission standards. Were we expecting too much of young people who scored poorly on the SAT, who were rarely challenged to excel in high school, who were not motivated to take advantage of opportunities to learn, who could not imagine where a sound education could take them?

An unfortunate truth was that most of my colleagues and I never got an opportunity to teach the breadth of our knowledge. I had great difficulty, for example, teaching something as simple as the distinction between “historic” and “historical” or between “infer” and “imply, ” distinctions that careful writers, especially journalists, want to know.

I wasn’t the only one. A white professor labored to get her students to critically read the assignments. She could not discuss the major themes and literary conventions when her students did not read. When she got nowhere with Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, she asked me to speak to the class. Perhaps a black professor would have more success talking about one of the best-known black authors.

A few minutes into my exchange with the class, I realized the white professor was not the problem. The students simply did not—or could not—read closely. My colleagues and I could not teach what we had been trained to teach.

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Treat students as your own children

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The college did not keep an accurate count, but we knew many young women on campus were mothers. One of my students was a 20-year-old mother of two pressed for time and money. But she had good attendance and turned in passable homework.

I met several students who had legally adopted their siblings. For one reason or another, their parents were temporarily or permanently absent. Some of my colleagues and I empathized and gave these students breaks, such as giving them take-home quizzes and exams and sometimes excusing them from class if they had written excuses from their employers.

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I always was amazed that so many of the women tolerated the crude way the men spoke to them. One afternoon in my English class, a male student called a young woman “a big-assed ugly bitch.” I expected her to slap him, and I would not have intervened. Instead, she dismissed the whole thing with a wave of her hand and turned to chat with her roommate. After class, I asked her about the insult.

“That fool don’t mean nothing to me, ” she said. “He ain’t nothing but a stupid brother from Anniston or somewhere.”

The lesson was clear and disheartening: Personal insult, crude language and threatening behavior were a way of life for many students. I saw this kind of exchange repeated dozens of times in the classroom and on The Yard. I had no doubt that the influences of hip-hop contributed greatly to this ugly reality and other deleterious trends.

“Have you noticed that our students never have a sense of urgency?” a colleague asked one afternoon as we walked to a faculty meeting. “They don’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. They just stand around or mosey along. Frivolity.”

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We treated the students, even those who disappointed us, as if they were our children. I often wondered if we were doing more harm than good with our generosity.

One taker for a big trip

In early October, Lucinda and I planned a field trip to Washington for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Million Man March. Learning often takes place outside the classroom, and we thought our students would benefit from being around thousands of other black Americans who would travel from across the country to the National Mall. They also would see how professional journalists cover a national news story.

We reserved a college van for the 800-mile drive from Tuscaloosa. Six students agreed to come, and Lucinda and I reserved several Washington hotel rooms on our personal credit cards. But the day before we were to leave, all but one student backed out and we canceled the trip. Once again, I was angry and disappointed.

This wasn’t the first nor the last time many students would pass up an opportunity to escape the campus and learn something.

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Chalk? Forget about it.

The mean women behind the counter

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That episode reflected my ongoing difficulties with the staff, the majority of whom were middle-aged to older black women with local roots. Instead of feeling like a professor, someone of relative importance and value, I felt insignificant. Even worse, students routinely experienced similar problems.

In an essay, a female student wrote: “Each time I go to the financial aid office, I get my feelings hurt. The ladies behind the counter talk to you like you’re dirt. I hate to go in there. They don’t know how to treat people, and they don’t try to help you. They make everything so hard. My mother said they’re just a bunch of sadiddy niggers, and I shouldn’t worry about it. But I have to worry. They give me my check or they don’t give me my check. You better not make them mad.”

Many of my colleagues agreed. They told me that much of our students’ hostility was the result of the constant rudeness and humiliation they experienced while trying to do something as routine and essential as completing the right forms for a loan or a grant.

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Setting fires in the dorm

While disagreeable staff members and financial red tape were constant irritants, nothing was more appalling than the students’ disregard for college property.

During the spring semester, the Tuscaloosa Fire Department put out trash can fires in King Hall. I was angry and embarrassed to see a team of white firefighters trying to save a dormitory named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that black students had trashed.

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Even without the fire damage, the place would have looked like a war zone. Holes had been kicked and punched in the walls. Windows were broken, floors were scarred and most of the furniture was damaged. The two dorms routinely underwent major repairs after each semester.

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I’ve wasted two years

By the end of the spring semester, I knew that I could not remain at Stillman another year. I had a few good students, but a few were not enough. One morning as I dressed for work, I accepted the reality that too much of my time was being wasted on students who did not care. I felt guilty about wanting to leave. But enough was enough.

A week before I left Stillman as a professor, I drove through the main gate en route to a final exam. As always, I saw a group of male students hanging out in front of King Hall.

The same four I had seen when I drove onto campus nearly two years earlier were milling about on the lawn. I parked my car and walked over to the group.

“Why don’t you all hang out somewhere else?” I asked.

“Who you talking to, old nigger?” one said.

“You give the school a bad image out here, ” I said.

They laughed.

“Hang out somewhere else or at least go to the library and read a book, ” I said.

They laughed and dismissed me with stylized waves of the arm.

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College

Student Body Percent black Tuition/fees Acceptance rate* Pell
 Grants**
6-year graduation rate
Stillman 804 92
percent
$11,605 23
percent
77
percent
29
percent
Alabama A&M 5,047 94 $4,420 43 70 33
University of Alabama 17,550 12 $5,278 72 23 63
Bethune-Cookman 3,090 91 $11,230 74 73 35
FAMU 11,913 92 $3,264 71 58 33
Florida State 30,783 12 $3,175 62 25 66

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