The Refuge of the Classroom

By  Emily Bernard |  July 16, 2014

1. Body Language

I am not in love with Mason Griggs, but my affection for him is deep and true. We call each other “baby” and “my baby,” but we are not boyfriend and girlfriend. We mean it literally: In our fantasies, we are each other’s little boy and girl. Our play is more soothing than romantic, and much more intimate. Because it is sacred and because it is strange, we play “baby” only when we are alone, which is only in the corners of time, since we are in the third grade and not entitled to privacy. Of course, “baby” allows us to touch with impunity. Even though we are eight, we seem to intuit that any romantic bond between us would be untenable: He is white and I am black, and it is 1975 in the still-segregated South. At eight, we are not up for the struggle. Years later, I will discover that Mason’s father, a prominent local reporter, had taken part in the Nashville sit-ins.

A few of the other girls—white girls—and I find Mason in the bathroom and throw crumpled pieces of paper over the stall door. The same white girls write “Mrs. Mason Griggs” in newly mastered cursive in their notebooks. They whisper to me about their crushes on Mason, call him “cute,” with his mop of dark hair and tawny skin. To the white girls, I am safe, invisible. I listen dutifully, feeling smug inside because, while any one of them may well become Mrs. Mason Griggs, none of them will ever be his baby.

One day, during an unexpected free period in Language Arts, Mason and I sit across from each other at a long brown table with metal legs that are cold no matter the weather. It is sunny and warm today. I can see tree leaves waving outside, even though the vinyl roller shades are drawn at half-mast. Soon it will be time for recess and the “baby” game, during which Mason will, once again, try to pick me up. So far, my feet still brush the asphalt. It's hard to concentrate on my drawing—a rainbow? a unicorn? my family?—but I do. I am an obedient child, another reason why the “baby” game is so thrilling.

Next to us, a black girl and a white boy are arguing. I no longer remember the name of the white boy, but the black girl, Charnita, will become my friend in the fifth grade. As an eight-year-old, however, I find her exceptionally intimidating and never more than in this moment when she lectures the white boy in language more sophisticated than I am accustomed to hearing from a child. They are talking about racism, and she is bold, clear, and decisive in her indictments. Racism is wrong, and Black Power is the only hope, she insists, and then stops to glue one piece of construction paper onto another. She shares art supplies with the boy, who agrees with her, surprisingly. But even though they are in concert, neither seems satisfied. Their discussion ends with an angry silence that is disturbed only by the sound of snapping scissors.

As an eight-year-old, I do not yet exist in the world of black and white. It is not because the signs of racial difference and racial prejudice are not all around me. As a child who listens more than she speaks, I overhear my parents talk about the goings-on in our neighborhood—all-white except for us—and certainly about the country club down the road from us with its “No Blacks, No Jews” policy. I watch a lot of television, and scenes of violent struggles over busing are always on the news. I prefer Sesame Street (even well into adolescence), with its lessons about harmony and equality. Born in 1967, I will forever be the child of peace signs, bell-bottoms, and love-ins. In the third grade, I am experiencing the early symptoms of depression (the “blues” is what my mother calls it), so better to replace ugly things with pretty things, like unicorns and rainbows. I keep drawing.

Our classmates resume their argument, which grows fiercer. Not only is Black Power the only answer to racism, Charnita says, it’s likely that blacks and whites will never get along, never truly understand one another. The white boy, who appears to be worn down by Charnita’s verbal prowess, agrees.

At some point, it dawns on me that Mason, my baby, is white. I look up, startled and confused. Mason and I regard each other with identically bugged-out eyes. We are sharing the same realization. Toni Morrison has referenced this profound effect that racism can have, the way it works on children, teaching them that the people they love are not worthy of love, that they are wrong for loving.

The jig is up. Mason is white and I am black, it turns out, and we will never get along. Our sacred bond is a lie.

But slowly Mason’s face relaxes as he continues to hold my eyes. Then he does the most remarkable thing: He shrugs. The shrug says, Who knows?The shrug says, Does it matter? The shrug says, This race thing is over my head. The shrug says, I have more important things to do, like finish this drawing.

It is a very important drawing: a picture of us holding hands. In the picture, we are not parent and child but equals, not black and white, but only outlines, to be filled in later. He gives me the drawing, and then pulls out a new piece of construction paper to begin another one.


2. Unlearning to Read

My mother taught me how to read. I remember how she read in the early morning hours. Now a mother myself, I marvel at this. How did she have the energy at 6 A.M. to sit at the kitchen table and read, having already finished chores and prepared breakfast for her family? I will always remember my mother as a person of great intellectual industry. I was lazy. “Mom, what does this word mean?” I would whine, dawdling over homework. She might be ironing, or reading in the chair next to me. She would point in the direction of the two-volume dictionary on our bookshelf. “Look it up,” she would invariably respond. Now I model my teaching on her teaching. “Look it up,” I tell my students.

When I was a teenager, my mother introduced me to the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston and Chester Himes and the poetry of Langston Hughes and Robert Hayden. Nothing failed to interest her. Her library reveals the breadth of her interests: The Book of Psalms; the fiction of James Thurber, Charles Chesnutt, and William Faulkner; An Interpretation of the Five Books of Moses. Histories of Africa, the Civil Rights Movement, and Dutch culture in the Golden Age; biographies of Van Gogh, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Walker Evans. The poetry of John Donne, Maya Angelou, and Sylvia Plath. The Holy Bible. The GodfatherOedipus. Every book the Naipaul brothers—Shiva and V.S.—ever wrote.

My mother taught me to be open to art, not as something separate from life, but as itself alive and dynamic. She taught me that to be a reader was not simply a gateway to good marks but a portal to engaged citizenship in the world. These lessons I took with me through high school and college, but in graduate school I forgot.

In graduate school, I forgot my mother’s wisdom because there was so much else to remember. There were new terms: discourse, methodology, interrogate. Books were no longer books but “texts” to be “interrogated” in the correct “discourse.” Ordinary words were used in unusual ways: “privilege” was not a noun but a verb. One “privileged” certain texts and ideas over others. Problems were not bad but good. One “problematized” something to make it more interesting. I figured out that it was important to use these terms in papers, even if you didn’t quite understand what they meant. During our discussions of the texts we read, we talked about arguments, not content. Most ungenerous detectives, we hunted for flaws. Literature was an enzyme; reading was a science. This was not true of every class and every student, but it was true of enough of them. Once, a highly regarded student slashed through a text she didn’t care for, wielding her discourse like a scythe. Our professor beamed while the student salivated over her kill. Meanwhile, I sat and marveled at the book in front of me. I was a country bumpkin, full of “gee whiz,” whereas everyone else interrogated and problematized in perfect New England lockjaw. I was not alone, not by a long shot, but I wouldn’t discover this until later.

Later occurred during the middle of my career as a graduate student when I came across an essay by the writer Michele Wallace, in which she described her own alienation—and subsequent breakdown—in graduate school at the same institution. Even as I read the essay, I knew that Wallace had eventually returned to graduate school, earned her degree, and gone on to have a successful career in academia. I left graduate school, too, for a while, but during my furlough, I reread the essay and thought, Since it all works out in the end, why not just see it through? So I learned the appropriate vocabulary, and eventually became proud of my fluency in that foreign tongue.

Unlearning to read like a graduate student took nearly as long as learning to read like one. The unlearning didn’t begin until my first job, when I taught a class on twentieth-century African-American literature. At the end of the semester, Jocelyn, a tender girl with light-brown hair and large eyes and one of my best students, approached me after class and asked if I had realized that there had been a rape or a murder in every single book we had read that semester. I had noticed these scenes but not seen them for what they were. I had treated them only as texts within texts, to be interrogated stripped of flesh and feeling. I called my mother and told her what Jocelyn had said. “How could you forget?” my mother asked, referring to the way she had taught me to read. Several of the books on my syllabus were ones we had read together.

“It is always shocking—it’s always shocking—and I insist on being shocked, I am never going to become immune,'” Toni Morrison said once in an interview, referring to the racially motivated violence that happens in this world. I think the same must be true with the books that we read. We should always allow ourselves to be moved, I tell my students, and open to being transformed. Books afford us the opportunity to be shaken by violence, exhilarated by daring ethical choices, and to marvel at the power of language. More than ten years into my career as a teacher, galvanized as much by Jocelyn as by Toni Morrison, I’ve begun to take more chances in the classroom. “Why not get inside of that paragraph and wallow around?” I suggest to my students. Some laugh, and others look at me sympathetically, as if I were demented. But others take that leap, and inspire their peers to leap with them.

This unlearning to read savagely is a process that challenges me anew every semester. I have to practice marveling, or else, I know, I will forget again.

Until the end of her life, my mother marveled. She was too sick to do much other than read. During one of our last conversations, she poke to me excitedly about an upcoming biography of V.S. Naipaul that she wanted us to read together. Unfortunately, she died before it came out. I read it on the plane going to her funeral.


3. Learning to Speak

If you count one student, who is in both classes, twice, I have a total of five black students in my two African American-studies classes this semester at the University of Vermont. Her name is Indygo. She sits in the back and has yet to speak a word. We are four weeks into the semester.

“In-dye-go?” a white student asks cheerfully after she sees Indygo’s name on a piece of paper.

I know that it is not easy to be black in an African American-studies class at the University of Vermont. Students who anticipate the class as a refuge find that there is no refuge. There are not enough black students on campus for any class to become a refuge. In an African American-studies class, you are still a minority.

Because the majority of my students are white, the students who demonstrate the most facility with the material, who are the least embarrassed to take chances and to risk sounding silly, therefore, are white. Last semester, another lone black student, a campus leader, approached me in tears. She told me how frustrated and inadequate she felt every week, how she admired her peers, white students, for their skills and insight, but at the same time, how their talents made her feel inadequate and lost.

During the second week of the semester, I give a quiz in both classes. It is, more or less, the same quiz on the same book, Zora Neale Hurston’sTheir Eyes Were Watching God. It is not a difficult quiz; it is a gentle, “welcome to my quizzes” quiz. I all but give them the questions beforehand: I want them to succeed. Essentially, all they have to do is read the book. 

I read both of Indygo’s quizzes at the end of a long day of grading. She has left the short-answer section of each quiz blank. For the essay portion of both quizzes, she has written six sentences about why she did not read the book. She didn’t realize it was required, she says. At this point in the afternoon, I have graded fifty quizzes, some superior, some inferior, most in-between. Indygo is the only student to fail, and she has failed twice. I turn away from my desk, which is glowing faintly with the late-afternoon light. Outside my office window, Lake Champlain sparkles. I turn back to Indygo’s exam and write a note on the last page of her second quiz, asking her to come to my office. I don’t believe she didn’t read the book. I think she is afraid.

Up close, I see that Indygo’s eyebrows are perfectly groomed. Her hair is neat and styled prettily. She is polite in an old-fashioned way. She is from the Caribbean, like my father. On the first day, I commented on our mutual heritage in class, and she smiled shyly. In my office, I refer again to this common point of ancestry. She smiles and drops her eyes to the notebook in her lap.

“I’d like to find a way not to fail you twice,” I tell her.

“I accept the consequences,” she says with an accent more pronounced than I realized. “I didn’t do the reading.”

“Maybe there’s another way…” I say, and let my voice trail off deliberately. This is where she is supposed to jump in and seize the opportunity for redemption. Instead, she is silent and looks again at her lap.

“You could hand in some extra work,” I say.

“No. But thank you,” she responds. I do not ask her why. She is a private person, clearly, and I understand that such a question would not be welcome. We chat for a few minutes, and then she tells me she has to go.

I typically offer all of my students who are failing the chance to write extra papers or take additional quizzes, not only to save themselves, but also to show me that they are serious. If they are trying, if some problem has gotten in the way of their academic performance, I’ll give them a break. 

I don’t know for sure that Indygo is trying, but I don’t believe that she is lazy. I don’t think she is failing because she is bored, or has no respect for the work, and I certainly don’t think it’s because she lacks the necessary skills to comprehend the material. She is failing, it seems to me, because her fear—of the other students, of hearing her own voice, of trying at all—has put her at a remove, somewhere outside when she should be inside. It is as if she is not present. 

I become more and more upset about Indygo. At first, my feelings are as mysterious to me as they are gigantic.

“What is this about” asks my husband, who is white.

“You don't know what it’s like for me here,” I respond miserably.

But it isn’t here I am upset about. It is there, the past, where I often spend too much time. Over these weeks, particularly, I am flooded with the ghosts of college classrooms past, and long, miserable semesters when I could not speak, when I was unable to transform my thoughts into words, classes in which I was terrified to open my mouth, and cursed myself afterward, and made pledges about the next time, and found myself unable to speak then, too. I went to Yale after attending a public high school in the South. At college, I became intimidated by my prep-school peers who seemed to be fluent in a new, more beautiful language than what I knew.

A professor I admired once said to me, “Emily, I see you read and read, but you never say anything in class. Why don’t you say anything?” 

"You can't save her if she doesn’t want to be saved,” a colleague warns me about Indygo.

“People have fought for her to stay here,'” says another colleague. “Sometimes you have to wonder if this is what she really wants.”

One of the people who fought for her says, “If she messes up again, she’s gone.”

A friend in administration says, “On the one hand, you want to help her. On the other hand, you don’t want to be so completely focused on her, just because she’s black.”

A friend who teaches at another university says, “You always get so wrapped up in your students. She’s making a choice. She has to live with it, not you.”

Meanwhile, Indygo continues to sit in the back, silent but directly in my line of sight.

Several weeks later, in the middle of the semester, Indygo’s work suddenly improves, and her grades begin to rise.

Something I can’t see has happened. She comes to my office to ask for extra-credit assignments. She moves to the front row and raises her hand. It takes all of her courage to do this, it is clear, but the other students, perhaps just as surprised as I am, make room for her. Gradually, Indygo begins to talk with increasing ease and frequency. Even when I hand back a paper flooded in purple ink, she simply asks to rewrite it. I say yes.

At the end of the semester it’s time for the final exam. An hour into grading, I open her blue booklet. Check, check. Yes. Yes! I race through her answers, and then go over them again, slowly. There are still mistakes, but not like before. A door has opened and she is here, on the page. It doesn’t matter how she got here, only that she has arrived.

I eventually learned how to speak in college, too, and I did it in my own time. My professor’s prodding intimidated me more than it motivated me. In part, I just became more comfortable with the predictable routine of classroom discussions. But mostly, I simply grew up and came to accept the fact that silence was not a refuge, it was just a way of saying nothing.