Diamonds in the Rough

For all the frustrations students sometimes give their professors, Christopher Phelps writes of the way some of them inspire.

December 17, 2007

I can tell you stories. Teach on a regional campus of a public university where incoming students’ ACT scores range all the way down to 11 and all the way up to 32 (out of 36), and you would be left with plenty of tales, too.

Consider, for example, the students who receive their first disappointing college grade. Perhaps they turn surly, aggressive, and fire off angry e-mails. Or perhaps they sour class discussions. Or perhaps they give up, cease to attend altogether, and fail the course.

But I’d rather tell you about Lisa.

Lisa didn’t do so great on the first assignment in my early American history survey this fall. For an assigned three-to-five page critical essay on a book about Pocahontas, she turned in barely more than one page, with minimal substance. I awarded it a D+. On the day I handed the papers back, she came up to me after class. She was diminutive, her demeanor meek. She looked terribly young.

"I just want you to know," she told me, "this is not my best work."

Lisa’s next paper warranted a C+. Her final paper merited a B-. Because I allow students who write beyond the two mandatory papers to keep only their two highest grades, Lisa had permanently erased her D+. I realize that there are students for whom a B- would be a catastrophe, but I respect Lisa as much as any of them. Her improved score was a triumph of tenacity and determination.

I witnessed another kind of courage this autumn in another student, Suzanne.

At the beginning of every term, I hand out blank cards to students. I ask students to share something unique about themselves, so I can attach a personality to the name. Usually students tell me about their favorite video games or sports. Not Suzanne.

"After 28 years and 10 months of service," wrote Suzanne, “Wellness, Inc., closed down the factory. This only put 500 people out of a job.” After 28 years spent as a health-products factory worker, in other words, a job she expected to hold until retirement, Suzanne was back in college, sitting in a roomful of 19-year-old students.

The state initially wanted Suzanne to go to technical school with the transitional funds it provides to displaced workers, but she battled to make it possible for herself to be at the university. Higher education did test her limits. After class one day, talking in the parking lot as we frequently did after class, she waved her arm at the campus and said, "This is hard.” Often she came to class late, her bags rustling. She teasingly labeled me "Mr. On-Time."

But Suzanne had a pride that made history real to her, and an admirable fearlessness. In the middle of a lecture on American slavery, when I was talking about differences in work conditions for field hands and domestics, she raised her hand: "Can I just say something? The house slaves didn’t look like me. They were lighter-skinned."

Put on the spot, I had to say that I didn’t think that was necessarily true, that darker-skinned African Americans were often assigned to tasks like raising children, cleaning, and cooking. I told her that my impression was that later, during Jim Crow, sharp internal differentiation emerged among blacks based on shades of pigmentation.

Fortunately, Suzanne wouldn’t take my no for an answer. The next session, she remained after class. "Can we agree to disagree?" she asked. She told me that she had discussed the issue with a 90-year-old man in the community who swore that the former house slaves he had known were lighter-skinned. I promised I would look into it more.

I rooted around in some textbooks and found images of house slaves confirming my view. But when I e-mailed Ira Berlin, the distinguished historian of slavery, he reported that slave-owners who had relations with their slaves often did favor mulatto offspring with easier or privileged work, whether in the home or as artisans. To be sure, there were also owners who, out of racism, sometimes picked the darkest slaves to be subordinate to them in the home, but as a group lighter-skinned blacks were most likely to be freed by their masters and to occupy the most desirable slave positions.

I returned to class, humbled. I reported that I was wrong, that Suzanne was right, and that I was right (for all three things were true to one degree or another). I showed the photographs I had found and explained that some house slaves were definitely dark-skinned, but then I conveyed what Ira Berlin had told me, overwhelmingly in confirmation of Suzanne’s view.

Had Suzanne not been in my class, had she not had a tough confidence in herself honed by decades on the shopfloor and in the community, I would not have had that opportunity to model the way historians seek to resolve controversies and uncertainties. Students would not have had the chance to see how important it is to revise one’s understanding in light of new evidence. And the power of black folk memory was brought home to us all.

Lastly, let me tell you about Sonya. Her beginning-of-term response card informed me that she was 25, worked at Starbucks, was born on the Fourth of July, and had been homeless in three states, including California. Not your typical student.

Intrigued by her thoughtfulness and sparkle in class discussions, I found a private moment a few weeks later to ask her how in the world she had ever come to be homeless in three states.

"I'm a heroin addict," she responded. She became addicted at age 14, but having kicked the habit, she has arrived on campus in hopes of finishing a degree and starting a narcotics rehab clinic in an area that does not have one. Several times, when stopping by the library this fall, I saw Sonya studying intently, always at the same table. Her final exam was positively brilliant, the best one I read this term.

Grading finals can be discouraging. Students confuse Andrew Jackson with Andrew Johnson, or Nathaniel Bacon with Nat Turner. Less excusably, they think the Erie Canal ran from New York to Florida, or from New York to Mississippi. They write essays on the American Revolution as a conflict between North and South. Those are the tests that try men’s souls. They make you realize that reading, concentration, listening, comprehension, and retention of information are tenuous, possibly even endangered, skills.

But in other students, it is possible to discern heroism. They persevere and question. They take defeat as a chance for redemption. They struggle and strive, informed by a profound sense of personal responsibility. They view the university as more than a credential mill or a ticket to the middle class. They are primed for education as a process of self-transformation, as a source not only of knowledge but wisdom.

Thoreau requires an asterisk. Some of us lead lives of quiet inspiration.


Christopher Phelps teaches American history at the Ohio State University at Mansfield. He changed the names of each of the three students here to protect their privacy, but all are actual students who were enrolled in his fall 2007 classes.


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