Monday, January 10, 2011


Many of you will chuckle when I suggest that I have a "practical" side. Not a word one often uses to describe me. My practical side has not served me well. So what triggered this reflection? I proposed a course to a colleague in the Education Department. It's a course I've wanted to teach for years: "Inner City Blues." At the end of the proposal, I explain to my colleague why I, an English teacher, want to teach a course in his department. It's complicated.

I've wanted to be a teacher since high school. I've known that I'd pursue a Ph.D. since I was a little girl. Even before I understood exactly what it was, this "doctor of 'losophy," as my great-grandmother called it, was a source of pride in my extended family. Granny could barely read, but her son, R.D., was a graduate of Cornell. He had a Ph.D. I wanted one because I wanted my family to be as proud of me as we were of R.D.

When the time came, at 35, I decided to go back to school. There was a dilemma: Education or English? University professoring was NOT the goal. I intended to return to public school teaching, possibly move to becoming a principal or even a superintendent. That was the plan. Yes, I loved literature and reading, but I needed the credentials to continue my work in public schools. A well-meaning benefactor and mentor, herself a professor a Stanford, reminded me, in an uncomfortable kinda way that "there are more Black people with degrees in education than in the humanities." Though I knew that, there was something in Shirley's tone that bothered me--a note of caution or even a warning. Ironic because she taught in the ed school while maintaining "an appointment" in English. So I applied to 5 schools--all Ivy. Felt certain I'd get into 3 of 5. Applied to 4 programs in English; 1 in education: Harvard. It worked out exactly as I thought it would: Penn, yes; Brown, yes; Hopkins, no; Stanford, no; Harvard, yes. Harvard worked hard. Money. Calls from grad students. It's what I wanted to do, but there was the nagging fear and Shirley's words: "Get the degree in English. You can take courses for whatever certifications you want. Get the degree in English." My practical side answered and answered again when, out of the blue, an offer of a full fellowship came from the English Dept. at LSU, an institution to which I'd hadn't even applied. 4 years. Full ride: tuition, fees, no TA duties and a check. English and LSU it was.

It took me all of 15 minutes to realize that practical is just that--practical. No one was reading literature in English classes. It was all theory all the time. Hated it then. Hate it now. I wanted to engage in "real world" conversations about issues that affected "real people." I wanted to read policy and make policy and be in the schools. Practical gave me Derrida, Barthes, Hegel, hermeneutics. "Help me, Jesus." My classmates were chattering in the language of theory, gushing and carrying on with exhibitions of erudition. I sat, sulked and wondered where the hell practical had taken me.

It took me all of 15 minutes to realize that I didn't want to do what my professors did. In short, there was no way I wanted to be a professor. No friggin' way. I wasn't interested in literary studies or literary scholarship. I didn't want to write about books or theory. I wanted to be in the field teaching teachers, teaching students, working on issues in public education. My mentors and professors, all male and all white, guffawed when I told them that I wanted to go back to public school teaching. James asked how I could "waste" the time, study and energy it took to get a Ph.D. by returning to public schools. How could I, among his best students, betray him by going back to public school teaching? I was 40. I knew myself, and I knew what I wanted to do. The appeal to the practical me: "Who wouldn't want to be a university professor?" was strong, and then there was the issue of gratitude and making them proud. So when the offer to be the head of English at the brand new Mississippi School for the Arts came, I declined even though I knew I shouldn't have. I believed the guys knew better than I. After all, I had never been a professor. I was missing an opportunity of a lifetime.

I gave up. Began to apply to colleges and universities, and again, even in this, I didn't follow the dictates of my own heart and mind. If I HAD to be a professor, I knew I wanted to teach at a small, liberal arts college. I knew that. But, once again, I let the practical advice from those who "knew best" change my course. "Research 1. That's it. No little no name school in the middle of nowhere. You represent LSU wherever you go, and you're one of our outstanding grads." That's how I ended up at Vanderbilt. Kicking and screaming. Knowing all the while that it wasn't where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do or, or, or.........

I have given my life to teaching. It's what I do. It's my passion and my vocation. That, however, is the only aspect of my professional life that I claim as mine. I've done other things, but I've always been in the classroom. I've kept that commitment to myself, and I think I've done some good from time to time. What I express now is not regret. No point in that, but this remembering gives meaning to the meaning of that proposal I sent to my colleague last week. That brief course description is the expression of my professional desires for the past 25 years. It is a proposal for a course for aspiring teachers; it is a proposal for a course on current issues in urban education. That course proposal is the expression of the work I've always wanted to do. It represents the freedom to follow my own heart and mind, and the commitment to live the rest of my life in ways that seem right to me rather than to please, make proud, be proud, change perceptions, break stereotypes (or not) and be practical. The proposal to Jim acknowledges that some deferred dreams can be reality.

What others see as impulsivity, desperation or foolhardiness is rarely that. I think carefully about most decisions I make. I'm much more reluctant to accept well-meaning or even considered advice about the direction of my own life, and I refuse to believe that anyone knows me better than I know me or knows what's best for me. It's living the life that Margaret wants to live and doing lots of stuff that I've put on hold for many, many years. I'm so excited about life every, single day. I now trust myself. I'm an authority on me, and it feels great!