I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical so it’s humiliating. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other. I have a lot to learn from other people.
For me, getting to Grinnell was somewhat of a long-shot. My mother met my dad at a Latino Students meeting, went to prom with him, then had my sister shortly after. I came a year after that. My parents joined in what would grow to be a ramshackle marriage. Both were in their late teens, both were in their late teens, both were raising two kids, and neither would complete high school. So the odds weren’t impossible, but they definitely weren’t in my favor.
My mother, a buoyant and petite beauty, seemed to have all the answers. As a high school dropout with two kids, she had to get her shit together pretty quickly, even when things were messy. She quietly endured verbal lashings from my father and, after he had left the room, would tell my sister and I that they were just teasing each other. After she left my father, we spent two weeks living in a motel. At the time, it wasn’t homelessness, it was a vacation: a queen-sized bed with huge covers, a bathroom we didn’t have to share with other family, and a TV with cable. My mother managed to veil the situation, to help us maintain some sense of comfort through it all. How she did it, I’m still not sure. Her education wasn’t classroom based. She had to learn how to become a mother, become her own person, and still maintain some sort of dignity through it all.
Recently, I’ve started tutoring my mother with her schoolwork. She’s in classes at a community college fulfilling the pre-reqs for entrance into the nursing program. She calls me and I walk her through math problems, which I was never even good at. At times, I feel my patience wearing away. The list of things I have to do grind against my mind and build a sawdust pile of anxiety while I explain over the phone what it means to divide 25 from both sides of the equation.
Around the same time, I started volunteering with the Prison Program at the Iowa Women’s Correctional Institution in Mitchellville. I walk incarcerated women through their practice GED tests, ranging in age from their mid 20’s to a charming grandmother who once called me a “young buck.” At times, the women are reserved. They will sometimes defeat themselves before they even try a problem, perhaps all too used to being dismissed as moronic, or just hesitant to try something they may fail at. More than once I’ve seen a pencil put down on the table, followed by, “See, these problems I just freeze up on, I can’t do them.”
There’s Heaven, a Native American woman who once pointed out her tribe on a map of Indian reservations, letting me know that Omaha is pronounced “Oh-Mauh-Haw.” The morning, she told me, she had seen an eagle fly above her cell block, and read it as a good omen that her hearing would go well. Then, there’s Shantay, who giggled constantly. She giggled when she was nervous, when she did a difficult problem right, when she messed up an easy problem, or when I asked her if she was confident about her next exam. Once, upon leaving, I quoted RuPaul, telling her, “Shantay, you stay. I must sashay away,” and she busted out laughing.
For some reason, I am never frustrated with the women at the prison. Yet, for the longest time, I would get fed up with my mother. My comments were brisk, my tone short, and my exasperation evident. She even said once that she didn’t want my help because I made her feel stupid.
The schoolwork that I wanted to focus on wasn’t algebra I learned in 8th grade. It was an education that costs $27,000 a semester: signification, platonic claims and responses, language attitudes and ideologies, the tropes of slave narrative, courtship and love in 17th century English. It was beyond what I was helping my mother with, and I was being a dick about it.
Maybe it was the fact that I’m so close to my mother that wore my patience thin. I let her see how easily frustrated I get, how stressed I am from everything I have to do, even the melancholy of trying to communicate with her over the phone when tutoring would be so much easier in person. My education had made me unrelatable, who had the patience to tutor strangers at the prison, but not his own mother.
Education is a strange thing. Once people attain it, it can be hard to connect to a world apart from it. How many students at Grinnell come from college educated families, from parents that are doctors or college professors? Education is a privilege There are occasional Alt Break trips to Atlanta to help “underprivileged” communities, but this is more of a stooping down to help people “in need.” I’m not knocking Alt Break trips, I think they’re great. But how many people who go on the trips actually take the opportunity to learn from it as a step into a life of mutual dignity and respect, besides a few weeks where they can feel good about themselves?
A lesson in privilege came to me in the form of Natasha Trethaway, National Poet Laureate of 2012-2013. standing at the front of a crowded JRC 101. My advisor, Shanna Benjamin, introduced Trethaway in a soft, milky voice, caressing her poetic abilities, and ended with “Trethaway is the truth.” After extended applause, Trethaway took the stage. Her voice didn’t sound like that of a nationally recognized poet. Her vocal chords didn’t pound like war drums. She was a calm, dignified person, poking fun at Dean Bakopolous.
But her poems swam in a sea of themes: the racial legacy of Louisiana, an inner and outer self, a girl’s alternating desire for and fear of an absent father, and a winged poem about how her mother (a black female) got mistaken for Trethaway’s maid when she was young and had coins pressed into her palm by pitying strangers who mistook the woman as destitute. She let her humanity write her poems for her, and her poems write out her humanity. She was enchanting.
Walking out, I approached two well-read upperclassmen in the mailroom.
“What’d you guys think? Wasn’t that awe- some?” I nearly shouted.
“I actually wasn’t that impressed.” One of the them replied, his horn rimmed glasses crouching beneath his furrowed brows. “I thought the language was trite and the themes were so explicit that I didn’t have to do any work as a reader. It didn’t do anything new for poetry.”
“I agree,” the other one said, broad shouldered and nearly stooping to talk to the two of us, his eyes darting back to Glasses between every word. “She just spoon-fed me po-co.”
“Po-co?” I said.
“Tha fuck?” I thought.
They both looked at each other, then back to me, and then simultaneously recited, “Post- colonialism.” The look exchanged between them, the self-assured and delighted chance to reveal the meaning of what was essentially an emoticon for a school of literary criticism, was enough to make a librarian hot and heavy, to give an 11th grader picking up Nietzsche for the first time a hard on.
My mind blanked. I couldn’t work up a response, or even feel indignation. I felt my face drop, and I guess they must have seen this because they instantly began defending what they had just said.
“Yeah I feel like you’re not allowed to say this stuff because people think you’re an asshole but I mean, yeah,” Shoulders said. It was one of those times when you qualify a comment by distancing yourself from exactly what the comment reveals about you, like I’m not racist but, or I’m not trying to be a bitch but, (one I personally use all the time), in an effort to deny that you are indeed racist, a bitch, or an asshole.
I got my mouth to work again. “Well I thought her language was unassuming, but I don’t think that means it was trite. I think it helped her tell her stories.”
“But come on, she’s the National Poet Laureate. I expected a little more.” Glasses said as we opened the door out of the mailroom and towards the loggia. I was shaking my head as the conversation drifted.
But in my mind, the conversation was al- ready over. I recognized a belief that, unless they were some postmodern genius, writers of color are simply trying to draw out a tale of struggle and disenfranchisement that reveals their oppression on a life-long journey dedicated to taking down “the white man.” Which to some extent, we are. But come on. These boys had conveniently forgotten poems that had nothing to do with po-co, like a poem that portrayed the memory of her mother dying as a recurring nightmare/reunion.
Nearly at the loggia, Glasses brought the point back up, claiming that my opinion was “legit,” and to his credit, Trethaway’s poetry wasn’t exactly groundbreaking. I said that the two of them probably weren’t her target audience.
“Well come on that’s not fair. I don’t wanna just read old dead white men,” Glasses said. I shrugged my shoulders and left them to enter my dorm. Reaching my room, I reiterated the entire exchange to my roommate.
After explicating, the realization emerged from behind my consciousness: it wasn’t my job to school these white boys. My silence hadn’t been so much a surrender to their beliefs as an unconscious understanding that the conversation was going nowhere. How was I supposed to teach them, in the span of a three minutes walk, why a poet, simply because she was biracial and wrote about racial legacy, couldn’t be watered down to “po-co.” God forbid Trethaway was a poet that was exploring human quali- ties. Relegating her to an abbreviation of a genre was a way for them to be comfortable with their white identity. Nah, unless we’re in class or I’m on my Facebook, ain’t nobody got time for that.
Shortly after, I called my mother to tell her what had happened. I stomped around the room, steaming, shouting out how frustrating it was.
“Some people are just book smart.” She said. “And you know why they said that? Because some people are comfortable in what they think they know, and are afraid to let something else in.”
Maybe this education is just another layer we’re applying to our egos, a defense mechanism to contain the world through definition. How separated are we from understanding and appreciating the things we learn in class as knowledge, and not just supporting evidence for a paper or ways to sound smart at the dinner table? The connections not easy to make, but not making it is like keeping a horse in a stable. You take it out when you need it, then put it back when you don’t, so when it’s time to try and take it out when it’s not racetime, your horse is so eager to get out its running so fast you can’t make sense of anything passing you but you and your horse.
Our professors are people too, and maybe they can laugh at a fart joke. Our classmates aren’t rivals, and your papers aren’t a judgment before Anubis. We’re learning, and learning should be pleasurable. It should get you closer to, not into, yourself. Learning how to write this, even, is a learning process itself. It’s one worth learning, because nobody wants to sound like an asshole, nobody wants to feel threatened, and nobody wants to feel stupid. We’re not here for that.