MAXWELL:  A valuable life lesson learned in school
6/26/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

You know you are getting old when a former student writes to thank you for teaching her a valuable lesson that helps her rear her children.
Last week, I received such a letter from Janice Anderson, an African-American, now 49, who took an honors English course I taught at Broward Community College in 1984. She was an excellent student _ but not always so. At midterm, she made an F on her examination and a D on her essay. She stormed into my office and demanded to know “the real deal” with me.
I informed her that “the real deal” was her lack of academic discipline. I detected from the poor quality of her work that she was not reading the texts closely, that she was not writing her essays thoughtfully and that she was not revising her work critically. She had the wrong attitude toward learning and education to succeed in the academy.
She went to the dean, a 44-year-old white man, who called me into his office and demanded that I explain myself. I agreed to do so but only with the student present. I wanted the two of them to hear me at the same time.
This is the gist of my explanation: Janice was intelligent, but she did not appreciate the inherent value of learning, the complex process of lively inquiry, of using reason and logic to question everything and anything.
But she had a bigger problem, which I detected in the way she interacted with other blacks on campus: Janice was afraid to be smart because she feared what other blacks would say. I knew she was smart because I heard all of those sharp, subtle observations she muttered under her breath. I explained that I could not be blamed for her academic failure. She, Janice, had to do the hard work away from school, in her home.
“Real Learning _ learning that matters for a lifetime _ is lonely,” I told her.
I knew where she lived, a few blocks from where I was born in northwest Fort Lauderdale. The area was an anti-intellectual drug haven, where being a “down brother” or a “down sister” was the litmus test for “belonging.”
I was surprised when she acknowledged that I was right. Indeed, she was embarrassed to let her friends see her reading a book or trying to type an essay. She did not want to seem different; she wanted to fit in with her longtime friends.
I will never forget her last words that day: “Being dumb is too high a price to pay just to fit in.”
Here, I would love to avoid a happy ending and do the cynical journalist routine. But that would be a lie. The raw, real-life truth is that Janice transformed her relationship with school. I know because she wrote about it. The quality of her work and her grades improved considerably.
She stopped working full time and took a part-time job. She applied for a student loan and received it. She gave her friends strict orders to leave her alone, which included telephone calls only during certain hours. Reading, typing and sounding smart became points of pride rather than signs of “betraying the race” or “selling out.”
Her boyfriend _ “my old man,” as she called him _ felt neglected. He complained, beat her several times, moved out and found a new uneducated love to dominate.
Here is the real point of this column: That meeting with the dean and me changed Janice’s life and made her an exemplary mother who reared two children alone.
“I make a good living as a nurse because I stopped worrying about what the people around me are saying,” she wrote. “You made me realize that only I can help me. Only I can read for me. Only I can study for me. Only I can think for me. The real beauty is your challenge. You challenged me to teach my children to go against the grain. You challenged me to make them study. You told me to teach them to take pride in being smart. You told me that being dumb is just that _ being dumb.
“That was a valuable lesson. Both of my kids attend Dillard. As you know, Dillard made an F on the FCAT. But my kids passed easily. They passed because I work with them at home. They play like other kids, but I make them do their school work. This summer, we’re doing math and vocabulary sessions at home. They actually like it.
“I’m taking them to plays and concerts, like you recommended years ago. My kids will attend college. You can bet on it. It really boils down to what goes on in the home. You always said that in class. You said it didn’t matter where you went to school so long as you study hard. Dillard may flunk FCAT, but my kids won’t flunk. Thanks for being mean to me at BCC.”