What I Learned In The Back Of The Class


I had this teacher in college that was…a Chinese lesbian woman dying of cancer. She taught my Literature by US Women of Color class back at SFSU in 1993. There were two white women in the class, myself and my friend. The rest of the women were all colors, nationalities, spectrums and then one random guy that dropped out after the third class.

On the first day, our teacher told us to sit in the back row and not to speak, for the entire semester. Not one word. The two white girls that is. We did as she asked. She was intimidating.

We read all kinds of great works in there. It was the first time I’d read Beloved by Toni Morrison. We’d read the book, then discuss it in class then write a 500 word book review, of sorts. I never, in all of my college career, worked as hard as I did on those book reviews. Remember, I wasn’t allowed to talk in class while women of color could/did. Which was her point, the teacher’s point was that I shouldn’t have a say in anything to do with women of color? I think. I don’t really know. I was so petrified of the teacher, I worked extra hard on the papers. Hours and hours and hours on 500 words. I didn’t want to come off as only white. I wanted to come off as open minded and experienced.

When I tell people this story, they always get bent that she made us sit in the back of the room. I never felt that way. I’d spent a summer in rural Costa Rica right before this class and I’d seen how people there had treated me so differently. How they’d circle me on the bus and ask to see my blue eyes, how they moved a little faster to accommodate me. Colonialism wasn’t lost on my youth.

I was so scared when I turned in my first paper, I cried. I had a high GPA in college and I didn’t want it blown by this one woman. I agonized, felt absolute fear when she handed the papers back. A “B”. Failure in my eyes. I wasn’t a “B” level student.

But now I was pumped. Like alright, challenge accepted. I worked harder. Read deeper. Swirled ideas late into the night. I bumped on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Cried, wrote, cried, fought through it, threw it away, tried again. And again. Until I got my first “A”. It was a good “A”, a very good “A”. Like better than my Molecular Biology “A”.

On my last paper, she handed them out as we left class, one by one. When she handed mine back, she smiled. The first smile I had seen all semester. I was shocked. Totally shocked. Her acknowledgement of me was HUGE. I’d felt a silent war inside me, clawing for this grade, for her to notice how hard I was trying, to not see me as just a privileged hetero white girl. And either she did or she just felt like smiling. Either way, she changed the way I write to this day and fueled my inner perseverance. And for that, I give her the utmost props for challenging me to be better, try harder, work harder and perhaps be forced to listen from time to time. For that, I give her props today during Women’s History Month. For changing the course of my History.