“I can’t ______________”

My 4-year old daughter can do anything.  She can fly, turn into a cat, sing, write a book, you name it she can do it.  Just ask her.  While she will admit to be working on a few things-she has put off poddy training until she is 5- she is quite forthcoming about being able to do just about everything.

A approximately twenty year old student in my Education and Culture class here at Emory University recently e-mailed me about an article in the NY Times about being black at Stuyvesant High School in NYC.  He asked if we might talk about it in class, as he found it very compelling and knew that another student in class had attended Stuyvesant High School.  Being the student-centered pedagogue/overwhelmed professor that I am, I agreed and asked if he might want to lead the discussion. He agreed and I sent the article to the rest of the class, wondering just what the student was going to do

A little background.  The student is from Jamaica and after attending four very different high schools here in the states- charter, inner-city, private and magnet (I think)- has a passionate interest in improving education for all students.   He is sharp as a tack, one of those students you want to plant in every class to ask the hard questions.

I let him run with it and he did not disappoint.  He had prepared a presentation along with questions that engaged the whole class.  He tapped the student who had attended Stuyvesant and confronted head on the deeper cultural assumptions about race and achievement that ran through the article and for that matter our society.   He hit it out the park to the point where I think the class forgot I was there.  They even forgot about their Iphones and Ipads.  This made me so uncomfortable that I had to reassert my academic omniscience with a ten minute lecture that sent many clambering for their social media. Seriously though, it was one of those moments I live for as a teacher, when students engage each other about questions that are near and dear to them in a respectful and open way.  I think we all learned something that day.

I talked to the student after class and complimented him on his presentation.  I told him he had “professor” written all over him.  Before I could begin to dissuade him from going to graduate school, he laughingly told me he could not write. It stopped me in my tracks, as I realized that he was not kidding.  My mind flashed back to his skimpy essay for the class and it all made more sense.  He could write, but somewhere along the way he had learned that he can’t write.  This meant that he could not be a professor, because as he told me professors write books.

I remember thinking I could not write.  I remember getting back papers that looked as if they had been in a slasher movie, full of red corrections and crossed out words.  Grammar ain’t never been my strong point.  It took me a long time to realize that writing is not grammar, that it is my right, an act of expressing my thoughts and ideas on paper.  It also took me a long time to learn that I could learn to write better, and by doing so even think better.

Which got me thinking about my daughters.  I hope and pray that school does not teach them they can’t write, or for that matter that they can’t_______.  I also hope that in the next two years I can help this Emory student realize that he can write while at the same time help him become a better writer.  I am not talking about instilling in him or my daughters a naive sense that anything is possible, but rather a sense that life is about doing the hard work of moving beyond ourselves, about learning how to take the “T” off of the end of can.