MAXWELL: Lessons from college  

12/12/2004 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.

Many readers familiar with the column I wrote for the St. Petersburg Times for 10 years, until last June, have inquired about my new experiences here at Stillman College as scholar-in-residence. (What a title!) During the first semester, which ended Friday, I taught one course in journalism and one in freshmen English, co-advised the student newspaper and performed an assortment of other academic duties.

In my final column as a Times staff member, I explained that I was leaving my “dream job” to keep a promise I had made with my professors at historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and Bethune-Cookman College, in Daytona Beach: At the appropriate time, I would return to a historically black institution to teach in the classroom or on the football field.

I must acknowledge from the start that the grass is always greener on the other side, as it were. As I moved from St. Petersburg to Tuscaloosa in July, I imagined myself walking onto Stillman’s campus, entering a classroom of, say, no more than 10 freshmen eager to imbibe the wisdom of a gray-bearded veteran of the language wars.

To my dismay, however, I walked into my first classroom and faced 32 either scowling or knowingly grinning mugs. And these young folks were loud.

I raised an arm and asked for quiet. Half of the room calmed down, but the other half, mostly males in the rear rows, ignored me. I raised my arm again, this time begging for quiet. After everyone shut up, I introduced myself.

“You don’t look like no professor,” a strapping male in the rear said.

“Well, I be,” I said, which brought down the house. “What does a professor look like?”

He studied me briefly and sought encouragement from the other males near him.

“I don’t know,” he said, “but you ain’t it.”

“Well, I is it,” I replied, again bringing down the house.

This young man and those near him were football players, one the starting quarterback. They were determined to “handle” me, but I was determined that they would not. I knew how to deal with these young paragons of pride and testosterone. (Several of them wound up being my best students, which I will explain later.)

As the students introduced themselves, I learned that most were from little towns in west Alabama. Anyone who keeps up with the news knows that Alabama ranks near the bottom nationally in all categories of public education.

I assigned an in-class essay to assess the students’ writing ability. Needless to say, the results were scary, as I would learn that night at home while reading the papers. Some of these young people were barely literate. From what I could tell, the public school system and parents had conveniently passed these children along to get rid of them.

Now, I, along with my colleagues, have to deal with the consequences of institutionalized benign neglect. Instead of being discouraged, I am glad that I came to Stillman. More than ever, I understand the importance and the continuing viability of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Without apology, I can say that my colleagues and I at Stillman and at the 106 other HBCUs are dealing with a special population. Consider: According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, about 23 percent of all undergraduate students at U.S. colleges and universities nationwide receive federal Pell Grants, which are earmarked for low-income students. At a majority of HBCUs, however, two-thirds or more of all enrolled students receive Pell Grants. At seven HBCUs, including Stillman, 90 percent of the students receive Pell Grants. At Voorhees College in South Carolina, 97.5 percent of the students come from low-income families.

Students from poor, dysfunctional families bring special problems to the academy. I know of four students at Stillman, for example, who have legally adopted their siblings because, for one reason or another, the parents abandoned their children. Amazingly, these students are carrying full academic loads, while working part time and acting as surrogate parents.

I have a student in my journalism class who grew up in several foster homes in Los Angeles and Belle Glade. She was raped and impregnated at age 12. Her journey to Stillman, which I will not recount, is a tale unto itself. She has two part-time jobs, carries a full academic load and writes for the student newspaper. She is an inspiration.

For the first time in many years, I actually feel as if I am a normal black man. I am in the company of fellow African-Americans who do not refer to me, or other lovers of books, as an Uncle Tom or a “sellout.” The overwhelming majority of the students here consider being intellectually smart a virtue and not a vice. In other words, being smart is not “acting white.”

I was honored a few weeks ago when a student asked me to co-sponsor the college’s first chess club. The other sponsor, also an English and journalism professor, and I hosted a party for the chess club and the newspaper staff. During my years of being a student and a teacher, I have participated in many discussions of ideas. I must say that the discussions at our party about abortion, George Bush’s re-election, the war in Iraq, relations between black women and men were remarkable for their sophistication and passion. Anyone who thinks that young African-Americans are not eager for intellectual engagement has not visited Stillman.

Being back in the academy _ around people who share my aspirations _ has renewed my hope that the next generation of young African-Americans will take charge of their destiny.

All of my plans are working out. Last Thursday, the curriculum committee approved my proposal to create a journalism major, and the college president approved my request to place commercial advertising in the student newspaper, which will permit us to add color and style to our pages.

Now, back to those unruly football players of the first day. By midterm, they were some of my most serious students and were making the best grades. They regularly came to my office to go over their essays.

What did I do?

At least once a week, I walked to the football field and spent an hour or more observing these young men practice. I made sure that they saw me, especially when I talked with the head coach. I showed them that I care about them as scholar-athletes.

In sum, I did the right thing by leaving the Times and coming to Stillman.