Her hair was thin, streaked with a bothersome auburn rather amateurishly rinsed in. She wore more makeup, I thought, than most other 50-year-old women I knew; her cheeks seemed glazed, her lipstick a bright, cardinal red against her shiny, dark skin.
She was Cuban, she told me, a refugee. She spoke with an accent, and she was unlike any other student in my college writing class. I was fifteen years her junior, and, like most of the rest of the students, I was lily white--in country of origin, like them, some flavor of European.
Writing teachers get to know students well because what we read from them comes from the insides of their minds and hearts and souls. I looked forward to reading the Cuban woman's papers because I wanted to learn what she could teach me.
When she wrote her personal narrative, I expected something as fascinating as she was. What I got was an account of the what she felt, years before, at the near-drowning of her daughter on a beach in Cuba--how breathlessly scared she was at the moment, how awful it might have been to lose that child.
I expected something exotic written by a middle-aged Cuban emigre, and what I got was the story of a mom. I expected the specific, but what I read was far, far more universal.
I like to think that beneath the colors of our skin there lies a humanity with more to share than to differentiate. The horrors of the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota began when four young Indian males got out of control, just lost it, did insanely stupid things. Does that ever happen in other cultures? Seems it does.
Honestly, I have an aversion to bean-counting, to tallying the numbers of minorities in any given situation, as if making sure we have a token person of color on our committee insures righteousness or equity or that totally blessed word these days, "diversity."
However, yesterday I sat in a lecture hall to hear yet another white male hold forth--admirably, I might add--before an assembled audience of college students, most of whom had their note pads out in front of them. Another white male. Like me. When it was over, someone announced the next speaker in this semester's special series. Yet another white male.
Twenty years ago, I taught--for the very first time--a course in "the short story." There among my more traditional students was a non-trad, the wife of a visiting professor, who took the course. After the final class period, she came up to me. I remember the room, remember it empty because she waited. She told me that she enjoyed the course. She was polite, not pushy.
And then she said the line that I'll never forget. "Do you realize that all semester long we didn't read one woman writer?"
What hurt even more than the truth of her assertion was that I honestly didn't realize what she said was true. I hadn't thought about it. Skinheads and neo-Nazis aren't the only folks guilty of racism or sexism. I was. I am.
Some of us--me, for instance--have to work at being deliberately inclusive.
Why? When I was one of those students, years ago, I read a book by a man named Frederick Manfred, who'd come from northwest Iowa, where his roots were Dutch Reformed. When I read his novel, I suddenly understood that the very life all around me, as a Dutch Reformed kid, was fair game for fiction. I didn't know anyone in my childhood who wrote books before I met Frederick Manfred between the covers of one of his own most obscure novels. But when I read him, I knew I had a place, even a calling.
And there's this. The most significant cause of the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota wasn't a bunch of testosterone-wild kids gone berserk and out of control; it was starvation, poverty, and cultural genocide created by the Great White Father and his minions, who perhaps would have been more generous and just (that's speculation, of course) if it hadn't been for the fact that in 1862, no one in Washington D. C., was thinking about the lowly Dakota out in the territories. There was, after all, this war going on, the Civil War.
Yesterday, an uninterrupted string of white males reminded me of all that, but most specifically of a day I stood in an emptying classroom and discovered something about myself and my course I honestly hadn't realized.
Something I haven't forgotten.