|Artifacts And Academics: The Award
October 30, 2019
Anyone who has ever taught, especially effectively, has developed friendships with students that transcend the three, four, five, maybe more, classes that the students eventually take with you. It's one of the reasons why teaching can be such a rewarding profession.
As I was cleaning out some boxes in my basement recently, I came across some of the items that were in my office when I was an Instructor of English, Speech and Humanities at the Detroit College of Business in the 1990s and 2000s. Among those were two "Instructor of the Year" awards I received in 1997 and 1998. Instead of me perhaps basking in the glory of those awards, which were determined by student votes, I thought of the one student, Chajuana Thompson, who lobbied so long and hard for me to win that award.
Chajuana is one of those students who became a mentee and a friend, as described in my opening paragraph, long after she had taken me for Composition I, Composition II, Introduction to Public Speaking, Report Writing, Western Civilizations I, Western Civilizations II, and Introduction to Literature. In other words, long after she had taken every class I could teach, and well beyond the general education requirements within my areas.
I think I earned Chajuana's undying respect from the first class, that Composition I, when I did a roll call. I looked at her first name and gave it my best effort: "Chu-wanna Thompson?" She waved her hand and smiled. "Did I get the name right?" I asked. "Oh yes," she beamed, "so much better than my last instructor. She read my name as Chimichanga and everyone sat there in silence. She tried again with 'Chimichanga' and I just sat there. It was so far from my name, I didn't even think to respond."
Today's first lesson, students: don't ever, ever underestimate the power of names, getting them correct and remembering them. Chajuana would be hard to forget, and I suspect even harder for me to forget if I had butchered her name that first day. She was a spitfire, and luckily I don't ever remember that spit (or vinegar) being fired at me.
One of the reasons Chajuana became one of my favorite students is that she was in a group of students who all showed excellence in some way, almost regularly in terms of kindness, respect, and intellectual curiosity. Even now, I often find myself in conversations with faculty or administrators and we bemoan how a current group of students seem to be less motivated, less respectful, less prepared for college. We probably don't spend enough time remembering the classes (in both academic senses of that term) that were defined by their strengths, not their weaknesses.
So, at least for the time Chajuana was in my classes, I remember her surrounded, either directly or indirectly, by some of the greatest students I have ever known: Jermaine, Richard, Kelly, Lovie, Dan, Jody, Paula, Eric. When teachers have groups of students like this, the extra duties don't feel like duties. At a time when I was teaching 5 classes a semester, being a union president, writing regular columns for the union newsletter, transitioning into a Chair of English, Speech and Humanities position, managing the work necessary to keep the college strong, I was taking on more and more advising roles with student groups, because it was impossible to say "no" to Chajuana and the gang. I went from being the advisor for the student paper, to also being the advisor for the student council, to also being the advisor for the diversity club, to also being the advisor for the literary arts club. Every week I was helping to plan some event, some publication, some student-led initiative.
I forget what Chajuana came to Detroit College of Business to study initially, but I know eventually she became a writer and a teacher because of the passions she unearthed in my classes. To indirectly put someone on a path to economic hardship, I should be banished to hell. But I was proud of her.
Eventually as I moved on to higher levels of administration, and as she graduated, went on to get her masters, and seek a professional career, we lost touch. It seems inevitable, but that just may be an inevitability for me. Prior to FaceBook, I didn't do a good job at maintaining many friendships long distance.
Second lesson, rapt audience: you have to put in everyday what you hope to maintain for future days.
When we reconnected in 2012, we found that we both had written and published, her more traditionally than me; had both been seeking each other out through the new-fangled (for us) Facebook platform; and that our mutual admiration society had not dissipated.
I have delayed offering more insight into my admiration for her. Chajuana had not had an easy life, as had few of the students who attended Detroit College of Business. While she was taking my classes, she was a single mother of a daughter she adored, Tatiana; she expressed challenges with family, perhaps extended, that I could never have dreamed; and she suffered significant health issues. Through all of that, she was always trying to better herself through education, always ready to answer the question in class, always the driving force behind so much of the activities that she and her friends organized at DCB.
So, when I reconnected with my friend in 2012, little did I know that it would be for a very brief time. Eventually her health gave out and in August 2014, Chajuana passed away. While we had read each other's work, laughing and admiring the words, through our virtual friendship, I had not managed to get back to the Detroit area to see her (even then I seemed to know that her traveling to southwest Michigan was not going to happen). I had heard how proud she was of the adult Tatiana, who had traveled similar educational paths that Chajuana said started with me. I had delighted in hearing about the virtual work she had found within education that allowed her to still be a proud, functioning member of society when mobility was probably not possible for her. I had come to admire the fine person that this Dave Fleming acolyte had become.
So, when I opened the box this week and saw the "Instructor of the Year" awards, I didn't think of myself, I thought of the faces that I influenced, and especially the one whom, when I accepted the first one at an annual banquet, I called my unofficial "campaign manager." It probably made her happier than when I got her name right that first day in Composition I.
Continue to rest in peace, my friend. I have also learned this week of the death of another beloved faculty member from the DCB days.
Final lesson, kids: it's the love that is remembered after you have passed that defines the character of what you were alive.