I’ve been an adjunct professor in the Midwest for three years now. By virtue of location and profession alone, I have enough material to write twenty parts to this Cultural Purgatory series.
But let’s take it one culturally dissonant experience at a time. I teach at two schools: one is a large, practically isolated, suburban four-year state university; the other is an urban, two-year community college with open enrollment. As you can imagine, one has three times as many minorities as the other. And as you might surmise, I feel far more at ease in one environment than the other.
On average, I have 3.5 Black students per semester at the four-year, usually spread over a two- or three-class population. I shouldn’t, but I always find myself expecting to bond with my one or two Black students. It isn’t always a conscious expectation. In fact, I usually don’t know that I felt it until I realize it hasn’t happened, a month or more into a term, and a strange wave of disappointment capsizes me.
This semester, it hit me this morning. There’s only one black student in my morning class. We’ve discussed her work, one-on-one, once. It was a simple exchange: we talked about whether or not she’d chosen an essay topic. She had. We were genial enough, I guess. And my default style is a flat classroom affect, so I don’t want to give you the impression that I was effusive or ebullient or anything.
But sometimes, there’s something behind the eyes. There’s a flicker of recognition, a relational attraction, an unspoken sentiment: we’re both here, both different. I see you. Sometimes, it exceeds that and a full-on friendship develops. Other times, that’s all there is: a single acknowledgment that you are among the very small portion of your current populace who has to do the double-consciousness thing.
There’s none of that with this girl. And that’s fine, of course. I have no right to expect this ineffable Thing to exist, just because I’m a Black teacher and she’s a Black student at a predominantly White college, in a predominantly White state.
It’s just that I do. I do expect it. I expect it every semester. And these aren’t the first times.
In grad school, there were three writing concentrations. Among them, in my graduating class, there were two Black women in fiction (other than myself) and one in non-fiction. These were the only Black MFA candidates I knew. And over a two-year period, I never established a lasting rapport with any of them. As with my Black students, I won’t pretend I made all that much of an effort. Several random emails to one, shared class banter with another, a cordial glance or broad smile at the other: but nothing remotely like, “Hey, girl! Wanna go see Saul at the Bowery?!”
There was none of that, in either direction. And that was fine, of course. Because there’s no reason why there should’ve been. For one, writers can be a solitary and/or exclusive bunch. We spend massive amounts of time alone, composing. Some of us (okay, maybe just me) have a really difficult time with large-scale public interaction.
I’ve always been socially awkward—so all of this may have more to do with my inability to sustain conversations and forge friendships, period, than it does with any culturally- specific shortcomings.
Then again, it isn’t like I don’t bond with any of my students. And it isn’t that I didn’t make any friends in grad school. I just don’t find myself effortlessly connecting with My Own.
… Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
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