Seven years ago I moved from Chicago to teach African-American Studies at the University of Montana. Nine years of intensive anti-racism organizing and another six of figuring out how to be a historian through the rigors of graduate school had left me drawn out, uncertain, thin. I knew I longed to be a professor, but I was not convinced I would ever prove as influential in the lives of my students as my professors had been in mine.
Many nights that first semester, I lay in bed convinced that I had little to offer the students who showed up in my classes. As my friends can attest, I became a little maudlin.
My students, however, soon turned me around.
On her first day in class Carla* told me she wasn’t really interested in Black people but needed the credits. Yet by the end of the semester she said she couldn’t wait to learn more about the African-American activist Pauli Murray, the subject of Carla’s research paper.
A veteran of the Iraq war, Tray* struggled with the life-altering affects of post-traumatic stress disorder and tried to be patient with his classmates’ idealism about nonviolence. One day Tray informed me that he had drawn strength from the history of African-American resistance to racism. A few months later, I watched in awe as, with grace and confidence, he accepted his diploma.
René* and Pamela* both frowned as they walked across the grounds of Fort Missoula in search of a lecture I was giving on the emancipation proclamation. Interested only in earning extra credit, they were not pleased about giving up a Sunday afternoon. Three years later they walked into my office with big smiles, having completed all requirements for the African-American Studies minor.
And Bobby* and Stewart* spent the last hour of the last day of their semester telling me what they had learned by writing archive-based 20-page research papers – papers they had re-written at least a half-dozen times. Rather than complain, they spoke of becoming scholars, of gaining grudging respect for the very religious communities that had once rejected them, of falling in love with the arduous, frustrating and incredibly satisfying process that is the production of new knowledge.
But one memory more than another has validated my decision to choose Montana as a place to wake up in the morning ready to grade another paper. One semester end, after all grades had been turned in and there was no reason in the world for them to do so, two students asked to meet. Over glasses of iced tea, they spoke of learning about the harsh realities of racism, inspiring stories of struggle, understudied histories. And then, to my surprise, they gave me a broad and brazen tie on which they had carefully sewn two cloth patches – one bearing an image of Martin Luther King, Jr., the other of Malcolm X. They told me it captured the tension in which I had chosen to teach.
Each semester on the first day of class, I proudly wear that tie as a symbol of all the gifts that my students have given me. Even though I know that the University of Montana has many challenges ahead, I am grateful to be surrounded by hundreds of committed faculty who also give to their students and are gifted in return. In a season when we recognize our graduates, those gifts are more than worth remembering.
* All names have been changed.