An Owed To Josie and the Brave Professors Like Her: Thanks for Listening
I took the advice of a mentor who suggested that I collect unemployment while I finished up my last two semesters of undergrad at New Jersey City University.
My overzealousness caused me to sign up for two majors and a double minor. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed school and the opportunity to learn.
In one such class, Intro to Creative Writing, I found myself surrounded by student very much unlike the typical evening students which was mostly comprised of seasoned adults and fatigued full time workers. I’m not sure if things would have turned out the same if I hadn’t chosen to go to school during the days this one time.
The evening professors seemed rushed and often allowed us to skip class in lieu of turning in papers and acing midterms and finals without penalty for our lack of attendance. I didn’t mind attending a full load of classes while also working both a full time and a part time job while also being the single mother of a pre-teen daughter.
Upon our first class, the professor, a bubbly neat 30-ish White man handed out thin marble notebooks to each of us that we were to use as journals. He informed us that we were to write on the topics given to us and that he would read and grade each of our journals every week. There would be no tests. There would be no required reading. This classes grade would depend solely on our writing assignments.
Writing has never been a problem for me. Words flow from my fingers easier than they ever did from my lips. My problem came later when I stared at the blank pages trying to figure out what to write, and how. The topic required us to write about a moment in our lives.
I chose to write something entirely made up. Something fabricated and easily digestible. I thought it would be more appropriate than detailing the days of my life for this white man to read and recoil from. He wasn’t having it, and returned my journal to me with another weeks grace period. I was to respond to the topic with my honest words and experiences.
“Tell me your story”, he said, as he pushed the thin book towards me while I sat in the chair placed next to his desk for these discreet discussions.
“Your story deserves to be heard.”
Not sure how he knew my entry was entirely made up it took nearly a week before I did as I was told and wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more. I detailed the words and actions of myself and others and when I was done, I was exhausted.
The following week we were told to place our desks in a circle, we were going to read our stories aloud but only if we chose to do so.
The other students read off the details of their lives. Mothers and wives, and fathers, and husbands read their stories. People with friends and families who were part of the ‘normal’ fabric of society were my classmates. With each narrative, it became more and more clear that I was not like these people.
My turn came up. My face flushed red. My heart was beating and I wished myself anywhere but where I was at that moment. I looked at the professor, and he nodded encouragement to me from his chair at the edge of our misshapen circle.
I opened my book to the page containing the beginning and gulped back apprehension. I hadn’t read out loud since grammar school but didn’t struggle or stumble over the words. The sound of my voice was foreign to my own ears. The whispered chatter of the other students ceased as I made my way through my journal entry.
I spoke color to the gray shadow of my dark memories. I quoted words and recalled the action of those around me. My voice sped up and slowed down in a mixture of fear and excitement. By the end I was speaking through my tears and when I was done there was nothing but silence.
I looked up to see each and every person in the room staring at me. Some had tears in their eyes. Others sat with their mouths gaped open. A few looked unsettled and caught off guard at what I had just read.
Then a clap. And more claps. Someone patted me on the back. Tears dropped from my eyes and smeared the pages of my journal. I blinked them back and looked at the professor who also had tears in his eyes.
“Thank you for being brave enough to let us into your world”, he said. I smiled in relief. The class didn’t laugh or run away from my adversity. They didn’t taunt or blame me. They didn’t whisper and avoid eye contact to make me feel invisible.
They thanked me. They smiled. A few people hugged me after class.
“You are so amazing.”
“You have such talent.”
“Are you a writing major? If you wrote a book I would definitely read it.”
Although I can’t recall his name, I’ll always be grateful for his encouragement and the support I received from my fellow students during that lazy summer of matriculation.
I still don’t consider myself a writer, with my poor grammar and non-standard way of expressing myself. Instead, I call myself a storyteller. I had learned to use fabrication to shield myself and the good sensibilities of those who would rather not deal with the life of a displaced, abused and neglected black girl. Now I tell stories to the people willing to listen to my truth.
This is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but only for those willing to be brave enough to listen. I can only imagine the secrets learned through working with students like myself. I can’t imagine the pain and sorrow felt by teachers who place humanity at the feet of their students. I can only offer my thanks and appreciation for the gentle urging and safety offered through these expressive exchanges.
I hope they all know how much the power of being heard helps those like me turn the gray of the past into a beacon of light. To illuminate the past to make way for a brighter future in the life of a young person must take it’s toll.
I thank you for paying the price for our freedom.