Ain't Going Out Like That
It was scrawled in red at the top of the page and sat there; heavy. Like a stone. I was shocked. I was so sure I had done better. Yet, there it was-unmovable. This was my first grade on my first exam of my first African-American History class at The University of Illinois. (I-L-L!)
The grade wasn’t actually that unusual. In fact professor, Dr. Juliet E. K. Walker had warned us that very often people didn’t do well on her first exam. Her tests were difficult. She had warned us.
Although I had studied and knew the material, the grade still sat at the top of my paper, anchored and unblinking. It looked like a boulder. The more I stared at it the more heft it gained. I could have sworn it began to have it’s own gravitational pull. I almost passed out! (No I didn’t. I’m being dramatic.)
Around the room, a lot of Black students were outraged. “This is ridiculous!”, they hissed. “There’s no reason this class should be this hard!” Many vowed to immediately march to their counselors in order to drop the class. And they did, leaving big muddy, stomp-tracks as they clomped across the quad. (The stomping and mud part prolly didn’t happen either. Drama!)
Ironically, a lot of the White kids in the class seemed unperturbed. Most of them had done well. Apparently, they knew how to take this kind of test. The reason we all knew how well they had done is because Dr. Juliet E. K. Walker had a practice of announcing all the A’s and B’s. “98, Mr. Wallace!”, she would declare before handing the test back. The grades lower than a B were handed out randomly and without comment. I think she did this to show us that even though her tests were challenging A’s and B’s were not impossible.
“F*ck that! I ain’t going out like that!”, I said to myself. I made an appointment with Dr. Juliet E. K. Walker.
“You started off well.”, she said. “It’s clear you understand the material, but you spent too much time answering the questions. You gave me way too much information. It seems like at the end, you ran out of time because you didn’t answer the last two questions. That’s why you got a D.”, She adjusted the large framed glasses on her nose before continuing, “Keep in mind, I’m only looking for three pieces of information.” She explained what she was looking for and I jotted it down in the blank spaces on my test. “You just need to manage your time better. You can do it.”, she smiled. I nodded and thanked her.
I went back to my spartan one bedroom apartment and hung the test on the blank, white wall behind my drafting table. It hung like a piece of art. I Stepped back and admired my work.
“F*ck that! I ain’t going out like that.”, I whispered to no one in particular.
Everyday, I would walk in and see the the red “D” tacked to my wall as a reminder to get to work. Visitors would ask why I had such a poor grade up on display. When I told them it was my motivation to make sure it never happened again, they looked at me curiously. For me though, it had become neither a source of shame nor pride. It was what it was. Simply an indication that I needed to work smarter.
Dr. Juliet E. K. Walker was announcing the grades as she passed out the next exam. She said my name and laid the paper on my desk. She tapped at the grade, and winked. The red “A” on my paper seemed a lot lighter than the heavy “D” that had sat on my previous test. (Ha! Heavy D! I’m dope!)
I would go on to get an A in the class, but this is not a story about how amazing I am. (We already know that.) Along the way, I had gained an understanding of the history of Black people in this country. I learned that fundamentally our history has been one of advancement and retrenchment. From the 15th amendment of the constitution in 1870, which guaranteed the rights of Black people to vote, to the Civil Rights act of 1964, which guaranteed the same thing, our country has been engaged in a racial tug-of-war that has lasted centuries.
Almost thirty years later, I draw from the well of things I learned in Dr. Juliet E. K. Walker’s class and continue to pass those lessons on to my children. It was the hardest and most profound class I’ve ever had and Dr. Juliet E. K. Walker was one of the most challenging and best teachers I’ve ever had. She taught me about myself in more ways than one. (Thank you Dr. Juliet E. K. Walker.)
And so, here we are with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Many people are understandably worried, angry or sad. Maybe all three at once. Some are advocating retreating into themselves, reading Jane Austen and leaving the country to its own devices, or like the students who dropped Dr. Walker’s class, abandoning the country altogether.
Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury. I have two Black teenagers, both of whom are amazingly talented and have a lot to offer. But because they are Black, they and others like them will often be overlooked. That’s ok, (not really) we have prepared them for that reality and they are both extremely resilient as are a lot of their friends. Still, It’s my responsibility as a parent to engage in society in order to provide them with as much air cover as possible.
And so, I have another suggestion. Let’s take the “L” on this election. Take a minute to be sad or angry if you need to, but let’s quickly get over it and post it onto our collective walls as a reminder everyday that we have work to do. Let’s be very clear-eyed and ask ourselves, What did we do wrong and more importantly, what have we learned? I think similar to my African-American history test, we started off strong, but will find that we left the last two questions blank.
Also like my test, it is neither bad nor good. At this point, it is what it is and there is something to be learned from it. If we don’t like the outcome, (and according to the popular vote, the majority of us don’t), what are we going to do about it?
My sixteen year old son made this comment about the election, “We should not be optimistic or pessimistic about it, we just need to be “mistic” and get to work.” So rather than becoming despondent and thinking of dropping out or retreating, I think our attitude should be,
F*ck that! We ain’t going out like that!
Let’s take the “L”.
And then get to work.