Archive for June 7th, 2018

20 Years

amywink June 7th, 2018

It has been twenty years since James Byrd was murdered in East Texas, when I was teaching at Stephen F. Austin State University. My memories of that time still cause a visceral reaction and my voice shakes when I tell about it, though I keep telling it. But it is different when I write and perhaps that is why I write instead. I originally published this piece in the Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. 11(Winter 2005-06). I still remember holding her hand.

The Middle of Difficulty

Sometimes in my writing classes, I have asked my students to write about a community problem and determine what action they, individually, can take to affect change. In essence, what can an individual do on a personal level to solve a large, sometimes overwhelming, problem? They do very well describing and pointing out problems, writing ardently about things that need change. They flounder when describing what they can do, falling heavily into cynicism and ennui. It’s not that they don’t want to create change, it’s that they do not recognize how an individual continually creates and re-creates the world in which he or she lives. This year, I may tell this story:
In the summer James Byrd was dragged to death behind a pick-up truck outside of Jasper, Texas, many of us in the region were fixed in our horror. The heat was unbearable as well, rising to near 120 on many days, as if Hell had been invited in and decided to stay awhile. I was teaching an eight o’clock class to heat-exhausted undergraduates. One day, a colleague noticed one of her basic writing students, an African-American woman, nodding off in class. When she asked her if she was ill, her student replied that she was very tired because she had been walking to the university from her home . . . 30 miles away. Her story unfolded. She had been refused Medicaid benefits for her epileptic son because, when she’d gone to court in her clothes from Goodwill, the judge thought she dressed too well to need the money for medication. Because she didn’t have enough money to keep her car, and she knew that getting her education was the only path she had out of her life in poverty, she walked. Because she wanted to be in school, she walked, starting well before dawn so she could make it for her first class at 8:00. She walked in the dark, in the piney woods of Deep East Texas, which stretched on to the east, where her cousin James had recently been killed.

Profoundly troubled, my friend started to find assistance for her student, whose needs were so many. If nothing else, we will get her a ride, I said. I asked my class if anyone came from the same direction. My quietest student, her Irish ancestry clear in her red hair and porcelain skin, volunteered, her eyes widening when I told her why she was needed. We arranged for our students to meet and they began their daily commute together. When I met my colleague’s student that day, she could not speak but to this day, I can still feel her hand grasping mine. I had done a tiny thing, but the impact was great. Her world changed. My student later wrote how much she learned by talking with her new friend as they drove to campus, and I asked her if she ever thought about what she might be teaching with her own being. My friend and I continued to find help, and while we could not change everything– the history of racism and sexism compounding the difficulties of her personal life, the poverty she struggled to escape– we did help. And we found more help. No, this small connection did not end racism, did not cure her son of epilepsy, did not free her from poverty. But if we had thought only of solving these problems, we might never have solved the most immediate one. She needed a ride to school. We found her one.

I hope this is a story my students understand. I hope they learn to see solutions as easily as they see problems. I hope that they see how they might practice in their lives the small changes that affect the larger world. I hope they understand the necessary union of theory with practice. I hope they consider how their ordinary lives can exemplify larger ideals. I hope they understand that generosity blesses the giver and the gifted. I hope that they see in the middle of difficulty, there are many opportunities awaiting discovery.