My one and only teaching “success”

Some years ago the semester’s topic of student writing for my classes was “Homelessness in Dallas.” I don’t remember why I constructed the assignments for argumentative writing around that topic. I think the topic had been in the forefront of political bickering in the city for some reason, and I realized it inhered enough apparently insoluble problems and enough seemingly irreconcilable differences of opinion that the students would have no problem writing rhetorical pieces of different types about it. Arguments to inform, arguments to explain, arguments to persuade.

Helping out - the 24-hour Club

Helping out – the 24-hour Club

I made contact with the director of the “street-zine” program in Dallas, whose name I do not remember and who moved from Dallas shortly after that semester, and asked her to speak to my classes. She did so twice—the first time simply as an authority on the problem of homelessness. The second time she brought with her a man and a woman, both of whom were homeless, to tell their stories. And yes, before you jump to any stereotyped and judgmental conclusions, both were quite sane and remarkably articulate about their circumstances.

He was an alcoholic who had recently become sober and was attending AA meetings regularly at the Twenty-Four Hour Club but was not living there. The woman had been divorced some time earlier; her ex-husband was in default on their financial settlement, and she had lost her job and, consequently, her apartment. She was living at one of the Dallas shelters. Her children were in the care of Texas Child Protective Services pending her finding work and a permanent living arrangement.

He was white and she was black. The director of the Street-zine program explained carefully that they were somewhat atypical of the homeless population in that neither of them—but for his alcoholism—was in any way mentally ill.

My classes were the typical mix of SMU students. Except for several members of the football team and a couple of students at the Meadows School of the Arts, they were white, almost 100% from upper-middle- or upper-income families. Several of them were from the Dallas area and were at least peripherally aware of the “problem” of homelessness in Dallas.

I have regrets about the semester: I did not keep any kind of journal (or student papers), and I did not write an academic article about our experience together.

At the risk of stereotyping all of my students, I will say that many of the white students from privileged communities such as Highland Park had the idea that, if “those people” would only get jobs, they would not be homeless and a drain on society, i.e., wasting their parents’ taxes.

The other AA's 24-hour Club

The other AA’s 24-hour Club

At the beginning of the semester an icy chill had settled over all my classes. The students who were not interested were hostile, and the students who were interested were intimidated. I cannot correctly recount the story of the change that occurred in all four of my classes. The change was gradual and subtle—that is, until the end. I am not exaggerating or boasting when I say that virtually all of my students had a change of attitude about the “problem.” A few of the more privileged students did not come to a new understanding, but they were definitely a small minority. Perhaps one or two in each class.

However, I clearly remember one of the classes. A young woman from Dallas who had attended the Hockaday School and was both uncommonly intelligent and articulately vocal took it upon herself to prove that all that I was presenting to the class was biased, liberal, and incorrect. One of the members of the football team was also uncommonly intelligent and—when he found his voice in the class—articulately vocal.

I’ll cut to the chase. Toward the end of the semester the young black man had had as much of what he saw as the sanctimonious and judgmental pronouncements of the young woman as he could take. He commandeered the class one day and—I don’t know any better way to say it—let her have it. He spoke with more passion than I have witnessed before or since in a classroom about his experience as a poor black boy from South Dallas. He talked about racial profiling. He explained that he had always been conflicted about his talent as a football player because he knew it was his way out of his family cycle of minimal income (he was not really a “star,” but his brother was a “star” of the team at TCU), but he also knew that first his high school and then SMU used him to enhance their own reputations while refusing to take him seriously as a student—or as a person.

I won’t say the class experienced some kind of conversion, but they did become a group. His passion and honesty gave all the students permission to be honest. They did not come to some great happy meeting of the minds, but all of their minds changed. All of them were suddenly aware of each other and each other’s realities as they had not been before.

The young woman never again mentioned “if they would only get jobs” and wrote in her final argument that the “problem” of homelessness was far more complex than she wished it were, and that perhaps the problem had to be confronted on a person by person basis.

On the last day of the semester she stood and asked permission to speak. She thanked me for helping her see the subject differently. I, of course, had done nothing except present material and then try to get out of the way. At that point the member of the football team jumped up and rushed over to me and—in the presence of that group of college students including three or four of his football colleagues—planted a kiss—smacked me loudly—on my cheek so squarely I was dumbfounded. And everyone in the room cheered.

He then told me that was the first class he had ever been in, either high school or university, where he had been allowed to talk about himself honestly and without fear. And the class applauded.

I don’t know what your definition of personal freedom and/or academic freedom is, but that’s mine.
Jeffries Street homeless

2 Responses to My one and only teaching “success”

  1. Mary Kalen Romjue says:

    As a teacher myself, I recognize this experience as one of the most sincere and validating experiences any teacher can ever hope to have. Bravo! I do not believe very many teacher EVER have this during their careers. Thanks for sharing it.

    Mary Kalen

  2. Thank you, Mary Kalen.

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