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A dream lay dying

Times columnist and editorial board member Bill Maxwell kept a promise to himself, to become a professor at a small historically black college, to nurture needy students the way that mentors had encouraged him as a young man. His second year started with promise but ended in despair.

By Bill Maxwell
Published May 20, 2007


After spending the summer trying to shake off the disappointment over my first year as a professor at Stillman College, I began the 2005 fall semester looking for even the smallest signs that I could make a difference in the lives of black students by setting high standards and inspiring them to rise to the challenge.

The first ray of hope that August morning came as I unlocked my office door and was greeted by Constance Bayne, my most diligent journalism student. The mere fact that she had bought her textbooks made me feel some degree of success. My first year, many students had refused to get the textbooks even when they had vouchers to cover the cost. Constance's enthusiasm was reassuring, and I remember thinking that if I had 10 students like her I could transform the college into a place that attracted other high achievers from throughout Alabama.

I became even more hopeful that afternoon when I met with Stillman president Ernest McNealey. He had invited me in 2004 to leave the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, revive the journalism major at the small historically black college in Tuscaloosa and fulfill a promise I had made to myself years ago. Now McNealey agreed it was time to order new computers and other supplies to open a newsroom for the student newspaper and for editing and design classes.

During those first few weeks of school, the new equipment began arriving and my hopes continued to rise. My first year at Stillman, which had fewer than 1, 000 students, had not been as smooth or as fulfilling as I had hoped. My students' academic performance had been generally disappointing, and I could not persuade most students to even attend class regularly.

Still, I believed that with a real newsroom we were ready to make significant progress. Before my arrival at Stillman, my colleague Lucinda Coulter had produced the student newspaper on her home computer without charging the college a dime. With a campus newsroom, we assumed that our students would begin to take the profession seriously and would love hanging out in their own space.

We soon learned that we had been naive. Nothing changed. Students rarely came to the newsroom except for classes. The majority preferred to socialize with their friends during their spare time, and others knew that one way to avoid an assignment for the newspaper was to avoid the newsroom where story leads and tips were posted on the bulletin board.

My colleagues and I were witnessing the result of low admission standards. Were we expecting too much of young people who scored poorly on the SAT, who were rarely challenged to excel in high school, who were not motivated to take advantage of opportunities to learn, who could not imagine where a sound education could take them?

An unfortunate truth was that most of my colleagues and I never got an opportunity to teach the breadth of our knowledge. I had great difficulty, for example, teaching something as simple as the distinction between "historic" and "historical" or between "infer" and "imply, " distinctions that careful writers, especially journalists, want to know.

I wasn't the only one. A white professor labored to get her students to critically read the assignments. She could not discuss the major themes and literary conventions when her students did not read. When she got nowhere with Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, she asked me to speak to the class. Perhaps a black professor would have more success talking about one of the best-known black authors.

A few minutes into my exchange with the class, I realized the white professor was not the problem. The students simply did not - or could not - read closely. My colleagues and I could not teach what we had been trained to teach.

"My students don't use me, " an English professor said. "At most, I may run into two or three a year who make me work. Talking over your students' heads is a waste of everybody's time." 

Treat students as your own children

Nonetheless, president McNealey and his administration wanted us to nurture our students. During faculty meetings, we regularly were encouraged to treat our students as if they were our own children. We were responsible for saving them all. This was familiar terrain; a generation earlier my professors had nurtured me at two historically black colleges, Wiley in Marshall, Texas, and Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach. Some of them even had given me a few breaks I may not have deserved.

Many of my Stillman colleagues regularly invited their students to their homes for dinner. The discussions often were about personal matters involving romantic relationships, family crises and money problems. Professors were the first confidants many students ever had. Indeed, they often became surrogate parents.

As a single man living in a small apartment, I did not feel comfortable inviting students over. I did go to my colleagues' homes whenever I was invited to have dinner with students, and faculty members often attended student-sponsored events on and off campus. Some professors even showed up at their students' churches on Sundays. I am not a churchgoer, but I rarely missed a football or basketball game.

The bottom line was the same as it is at most HBCUs. Professors who had the best success connecting with students, especially below-average male students, emphasized friendly, personal and supportive involvement in their lives. For example, Stephen Jackson, who taught sports writing, was an effective professor because he understood the importance of winning students' trust. He even ate lunch in the cafeteria with students each day.

This style of teaching, which I grudgingly adopted, was unlike anything I had used during my previous 18 years of teaching on traditional campuses such as those of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northern Illinois University. On those campuses, professors were respected for their achievements and position. Subject matter usually was taught without developing strong personal relationships between students and professors, and professors may not have cared if students liked them.

At Stillman, being professional but impersonal created frustration for the student and the professor. Students, especially males, liked and respected the flexible professor, and they learned when they respected the professor.

The flexible professor encouraged lively exchanges of subject matter, ideas, beliefs and opinions during class discussions. The flexible professor often did not require written responses or exams. The flexible professor let students keep pace by retaking exams, completing take-home exams or giving classroom presentations.

I had difficulty becoming flexible. The majority of my students in the English class failed to complete most of the assigned readings. Most of their essays were unacceptable, and attendance was low. I had a choice: Abandon my syllabus or flunk more than half of the class.

I abandoned the syllabus. Instead, I lectured and made assignments based on the problems and errors in the students' writing. I went over the same material, such as writing the topic sentence, again and again because some students could not master it.

"We're crippling these kids by mothering them, " I told a colleague over a drink one evening.

"We're loving them to death, " he replied.

'Some of them don't belong here'

During the fall semester, I would try to make eye contact with students and speak to them as we passed in the halls and on The Yard, the grassy campus gathering spot. Very few of them would return my greetings. Most were sullen. But I also saw something more disturbing in their faces: Many of these young people were sad and unhappy. Very few smiled.

A colleague who had taught at Stillman for more than 10 years confirmed my observations. "Our kids haven't had many good things in their lives, " she said. "Many of them are angry and negative and rude. They've had hard lives. Some of them don't belong here."

She was right. A number of students had criminal records, and others were awaiting trial on criminal charges. Stillman accepted them because they could not attend college anywhere else.

Terry Lee Brock, a 41-year-old freshman, was shot several times by a woman around 2 one morning in early February in front of the Night Stalker's Lounge. He died a short time later at the hospital. His trial for rape had been scheduled to begin the following week.

I did not learn until after his death that many of our female students were afraid of Terry. At least two told me they had complained to college officials that an alleged rapist was allowed on campus.

While we had students such as Terry who had no business being on a college campus, we went out of our way to help others who faced adversity and worked to overcome it.

"A lot of my students reared themselves and their sisters and brothers, " Lucinda said. "They're adults before they're ready to be adults."

One of my students, a 25-year-old senior journalism major, grew up in several foster homes in different states. At Stillman, she had a part-time job, carried a full academic load and wrote for the student newspaper. She was an inspiration. When she graduated, I wrote a letter of recommendation that helped her land a public relations job in Atlanta. Her boss e-mailed me a few months later to say that my student was doing well and could stay with the firm as long as she wanted.

The college did not keep an accurate count, but we knew many young women on campus were mothers. One of my students was a 20-year-old mother of two pressed for time and money. But she had good attendance and turned in passable homework.

I met several students who had legally adopted their siblings. For one reason or another, their parents were temporarily or permanently absent. Some of my colleagues and I empathized and gave these students breaks, such as giving them take-home quizzes and exams and sometimes excusing them from class if they had written excuses from their employers.

We also had a handful of exemplary students. Leonard Merriman IV, who wrote for the student newspaper, was from New Orleans and did not know the whereabouts of his mother for several weeks after Hurricane Katrina. He was an inspiration to students and professors because he was intellectually curious, read voraciously and dared to be a nerd in an environment that celebrated everything hip-hop and categorized students by their fraternities or sororities.

After I had assigned a paper on the 2004 presidential election and required students to quote at least three political experts, a football player raised his hand one day and asked if he could use Leonard as an expert. The class cracked up, but I had to think about the question. Leonard claimed to have read all of George W. Bush's campaign speeches, and he easily rattled off statistics and summarized Bush's positions.

I decided Leonard was an expert and the football player could quote him. But we did not have many students like him. Instead of taking pride in being exemplary students, many were devotees of hip-hop culture. They were anti-intellectual, rude and profane.

I always was amazed that so many of the women tolerated the crude way the men spoke to them. One afternoon in my English class, a male student called a young woman "a big-assed ugly bitch." I expected her to slap him, and I would not have intervened. Instead, she dismissed the whole thing with a wave of her hand and turned to chat with her roommate. After class, I asked her about the insult.

"That fool don't mean nothing to me, " she said. "He ain't nothing but a stupid brother from Anniston or somewhere."

The lesson was clear and disheartening: Personal insult, crude language and threatening behavior were a way of life for many students. I saw this kind of exchange repeated dozens of times in the classroom and on The Yard. I had no doubt that the influences of hip-hop contributed greatly to this ugly reality and other deleterious trends.

"Have you noticed that our students never have a sense of urgency?" a colleague asked one afternoon as we walked to a faculty meeting. "They don't seem to be going anywhere in particular. They just stand around or mosey along. Frivolity."

He was right. Greek organization activities such as step shows - the rhythmical, patterned dance movements favored by fraternities and sororities - and any excuse to party and play music were the most important events on campus.

When a professor brought a special lecturer to campus, the rest of us would require our students to attend the event. But more often than not only a handful would show up, a great source of embarrassment for the professors. I never invited any of my fellow journalists to campus. Besides the stinging embarrassment of low attendance, I resented the hassle of rounding up students for their own enlightenment.

'I'm going to be a nurse'

The effects of poverty made teaching and learning arduous. I asked a student why she always fell asleep in my reporting and news writing class.

"I work full-time at Target at night, " she said. "I can't get enough sleep."

I asked the obligatory questions: Why did she work so many hours? Did her family help her? What was she spending her money on? Did she have financial aid? Did she have a scholarship? Did she live on campus?

Her life's story was heartbreaking and yet typical of so many others. Born and reared in Selma, she was 19 years old. She had met her father once when she was 10. Her mother had been in and out of jail until her death in 1996 at age 34. Her then-64-year-old grandmother had assumed responsibility for her and her three siblings.

Although she had a student loan to help pay tuition, she had to pay for everything else and needed a car to get to work and to drive back to Selma. She also had to send money to her grandmother, who was living on Social Security and money from a part-time job as a caretaker for a disabled woman. Everyone except her grandmother said this teenager had no business attending college. Her place was in Selma with the rest of the family.

"Everybody told me I was just going to be a hoochie mama, " she said. "I'm going to be a nurse."

I had no doubt she would become a nurse. Although she had a C average, she was one of my hardest-working students and had one of the best attendance records.

As we talked, I noticed her stealing glances at the basket of cosmetics and toiletries (soap, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, lotion) I had placed on my desk for the first time the day before. These were items I had collected when I traveled and stayed in hotels.

Trying to ease her embarrassment, I said: "If you want some of that stuff, take it. I need to get rid of it."

She hesitated. Faking nonchalance, she studied the items without touching anything.

"Go ahead and take what you want, " I said.

She picked up bottles of shampoo, lotion and conditioner.

"Take some toothpaste, too, " I said.

She took a tube of toothpaste, smiled and thanked me. I told her any time she needed something to feel free to take it. Embarrassed, she thanked me again and left.

Word got around about the basket. A few days later, several other students dropped in to inspect the items. A week later, the basket was empty.

Each week after that, I went to Kmart and CVS and shopped for travel-size cosmetics and toiletries to replenish the basket. I learned that several other professors also found acceptable ways to make personal items available to students free of charge.

We treated the students, even those who disappointed us, as if they were our children. I often wondered if we were doing more harm than good with our generosity.

One taker for a big trip

In early October, Lucinda and I planned a field trip to Washington for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Million Man March. Learning often takes place outside the classroom, and we thought our students would benefit from being around thousands of other black Americans who would travel from across the country to the National Mall. They also would see how professional journalists cover a national news story.

We reserved a college van for the 800-mile drive from Tuscaloosa. Six students agreed to come, and Lucinda and I reserved several Washington hotel rooms on our personal credit cards. But the day before we were to leave, all but one student backed out and we canceled the trip. Once again, I was angry and disappointed.

This wasn't the first nor the last time many students would pass up an opportunity to escape the campus and learn something.

We took only four students on a three-day trip to the University of Georgia and its student newspaper because eight others refused to go.

One didn't want to spend four hours in a van. Two others said they had quizzes on the morning that we were to leave, even though they would have been excused from class. When it was time to go, they simply did not show up.

They missed a great experience. At the University of Georgia, our four students attended lectures and spent two evenings at the office of the Red & Black, the student newspaper. They had never seen the newsroom of a daily publication. They attended a budget meeting, where the staff members decided which stories to publish in the next issue. Each Stillman student shadowed an editor and a reporter, and each worked on a real story in real time.

Since the college would not give us an advance for expenses, Lucinda and I paid more than $1, 200 for the trip. We never were reimbursed.

We also personally paid for several in-state field trips to places important to the civil rights movement, such as the Safe House Black History Museum in Greensboro. That is where a handful of local residents hid the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. overnight from a white mob. We took students to other civil rights landmarks in Anniston, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery.

Lucinda bought two digital cameras, one that she and I used to shoot photographs for the student newspaper and one for our students to use. I regularly bought disposable cameras for our students without seeking reimbursement.

Campus-wide, professors bought many of their classroom and office supplies. In my building, for example, we rarely had an ample supply of paper for our copy machine. I learned early to buy my own paper and keep it in my desk.

Chalk? Forget about it.

The mean women behind the counter

Early in the spring semester, I realized I had never received an official roster for one of my classes. I went to the appropriate office to find out what had happened.

The woman who waited on me sharply responded that famous newspaper people would be treated no differently than anyone else.

"Why are you being so rude?" I asked.

"Rude?" she responded. "You just have to wait like everybody else."

That episode reflected my ongoing difficulties with the staff, the majority of whom were middle-aged to older black women with local roots. Instead of feeling like a professor, someone of relative importance and value, I felt insignificant. Even worse, students routinely experienced similar problems.

In an essay, a female student wrote: "Each time I go to the financial aid office, I get my feelings hurt. The ladies behind the counter talk to you like you're dirt. I hate to go in there. They don't know how to treat people, and they don't try to help you. They make everything so hard. My mother said they're just a bunch of sadiddy niggers, and I shouldn't worry about it. But I have to worry. They give me my check or they don't give me my check. You better not make them mad."

Many of my colleagues agreed. They told me that much of our students' hostility was the result of the constant rudeness and humiliation they experienced while trying to do something as routine and essential as completing the right forms for a loan or a grant.

I tried to conduct all of my affairs by e-mail. Unfortunately, I had to go to the business office to deduct funds from the $100, 000 that a Tampa donor provided for me to establish the journalism major. The woman in charge was routinely arrogant and uncooperative.

Another example: The Tuscaloosa News printed our student newspaper for $1, 500 and billed the college. One of the News' designers, Danny Dejarnette, did our layout for each issue for the bargain price of $500. On more than one occasion, the college did not pay the News or Dejarnette in a timely manner.

Embarrassed by such a lack of professionalism, Lucinda would pay the printing bill out of her pocket and I would pay for the layout. We would submit our receipts and proper forms to the business office. After several months and regular reminders, the college would reimburse us.

Setting fires in the dorm

While disagreeable staff members and financial red tape were constant irritants, nothing was more appalling than the students' disregard for college property.

During the spring semester, the Tuscaloosa Fire Department put out trash can fires in King Hall. I was angry and embarrassed to see a team of white firefighters trying to save a dormitory named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that black students had trashed.

"Why do they do this to their own buildings?" a white firefighter asked me.

I went inside the dorm to see the damage. Students had stuffed trash cans with paper and fabric and set them on fire. The smoke damage was enormous. The walls were blackened, the windows were smudged and the pungent smell of smoke lingered and stuck to everything.

Even without the fire damage, the place would have looked like a war zone. Holes had been kicked and punched in the walls. Windows were broken, floors were scarred and most of the furniture was damaged. The two dorms routinely underwent major repairs after each semester.

Two of my students, both journalism majors, were desperate to move out of King Hall. The last time I saw them, one had found an apartment and the other was looking for a place he could afford.

I've wasted two years

By the end of the spring semester, I knew that I could not remain at Stillman another year. I had a few good students, but a few were not enough. One morning as I dressed for work, I accepted the reality that too much of my time was being wasted on students who did not care. I felt guilty about wanting to leave. But enough was enough.

A week before I left Stillman as a professor, I drove through the main gate en route to a final exam. As always, I saw a group of male students hanging out in front of King Hall.

The same four I had seen when I drove onto campus nearly two years earlier were milling about on the lawn. I parked my car and walked over to the group.

"Why don't you all hang out somewhere else?" I asked.

"Who you talking to, old nigger?" one said.

"You give the school a bad image out here, " I said.

They laughed.

"Hang out somewhere else or at least go to the library and read a book, " I said.

They laughed and dismissed me with stylized waves of the arm.

I walked back to my old Chevy Blazer, sad but relieved that I would be leaving.

In my office, I sat at my desk staring at a stack of papers to be graded. I'm wasting my time, I thought. I've wasted two years of my professional life. I don't belong here.

I put the papers in a drawer. I did not read them. Why read them?

 

Two years at Stillman

May 13: The first year: Trying to make a difference.

Today: The second year: A bad situation gets worse.

May 27: The epilogue: Should historically black colleges be saved?

Join the discussion about this series on It's Your Times

Some comparisons by the numbers

The chart below compares a private historically black college, a public one and a traditional large public university in Alabama and in Florida.

 

College

Student Body Percent black Tuition/fees Acceptance rate* Pell Grants** 6-year graduation rate
Stillman 804 92 percent $11, 605 23 percent 77 percent 29 percent
Alabama A&M 5, 047 94 $4, 420 43 70 33
University of Alabama 17, 550 12 $5, 278 72 23 63
Bethune-Cookman 3, 090 91 $11, 230 74 73 35
FAMU 11, 913 92 $3, 264 71 58 33
Florida State 30, 783 12 $3, 175 62 25 66