Recently, I went to hear the remarkable musician Marcus Johnson at DC’s oldest jazz and supper Club, Blues Alley. To be sure, I went to listen to this prolific and well-known musician and to enjoy the club’s warm and welcoming atmosphere. So far, so good.
But, to my surprise, the highlight of the evening had everything to do with education — one of the many poignant and powerful stories Marcus shared with the audience. This particular recounted story is still haunting me – days later.
Marcus described visiting a professor’s office as an undergraduate student (at an HBCU) and mentioning that he wanted to go to law school; the professor responded tartly, “Where are you going? Cracker Jack Law School?” The Blues Alley audience gasped loudly. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, in describing the same incident in his recent book, For the Love of Flo, Marcus asserts that the professor refers to the hypothetical law school as “Captain Crunch” university, not exactly an improvement given that that term is used to described debasing sexual acts and drugs.
As an educator (including ironically 30 plus years combined as a law school professor and a college president at an institution that served almost 70% first generation students), the story stunned me. What professor on this planet would actually think that, let alone say it? Where have I been living – in some fake civility bubble? And, what professor would be so crass as to use the multi-meaning and often deemed offensive and racist word “crackerjack?” And, how could this have happened at an HBCU, a grouping of institutions dedicated to supporting minority students and fostering and facilitating their success in the workplace?
What happened next in the story was Marcus’ stunning response to the professor. Marcus went off to Georgetown Law School (he got an MBA too) and had a business card made while still a student, which he dropped off at the offending professor’s office. In addition to identifying Marcus as a law student, Marcus wrote something to this effect to the professor on the card’s back: “Don’t ever treat a student that way again. You never know which student you teach today will be a leader tomorrow, following his or her dreams. Who are you to quash dreams?
With the audience listening as raptly as they would to his music (well, this story and the others are a sort of musical poetry), Marcus then said: “Professors shouldn’t do this kind of thing to students. They are the keepers of the future and that carries with it an enormous obligation. As a professor myself now, I know that.” And, then Marcus composed an album after this whole incident titled perfectly: Poetically Justified. He played a piece right then from the album.
This isn’t, sadly, an isolated incident, right? This isn’t the only undergraduate professor who demeans students. If we add K-12 teachers into the discussion and graduate school professors, the number of offenses increases exponentially. I still remember the viral video of the teacher who sent a first grader to the corner for making a small math error – demeaning and embarrassing her before her classmates. That incident received lots of public attention, and I wrote about the fact that it was the teacher, not the student, who needed to be sent into the corner for a prolonged time out.
That these incidents happen is bad enough. That they happen to vulnerable students makes it feel worse for me as the comments can not only be taken to heart but worse, they oft-times cannot be dispelled at home or in one’s community.
The harder question is what can we do to address and curb these instances. Surely we must have some workable strategies beyond public humiliation of the instructor through social media. And by the by, these occurrences are not infrequent; I am pretty sure many of them roll under the radar screen, internalized by students but never brought to the attention of principals, deans or college/university presidents.
Yes, Marcus has responded in three remarkable and highly unusual ways. He went back to the professor and “dissed” him royally. And, he shared and continues to share the story with audiences as a sort of shock therapy for those of us who get complacent about the power and possibility of education. And he composed art in response.
But, while both impressive and important, these responses are not enough. I remember asking the faculty at the institution I led, “Would you send your own child here to this college (assuming the fit was right)? Are all the professors ones from whom you would want your children to learn? And, if the answer is not yes, find ways to make the institution and those within it better. Change institutional culture – no small task for sure.
More recently, I have been reflecting on the distinction between teaching and teachers. There is a growing literature suggesting that the focus on teachers is misplaced and lacking in utility if we are seeking wide scale educational improvement. Instead, we need to pay attention to the process of teaching to achieve systemic reform. Perhaps but that excuses behavior like that just described.
Bottom line: the “crackerjack”/ “Captain Crunch” comment is likely not unique; stopping it is difficult if not impossible, and we live in a world in which teachers/professors — the launchers of the future — quash hope and belief in self.
It’s a rare student – who is also a rare musician – who can fight back with such conviction and commitment to self. In the absence of a more doable and realistic solution, my answer to this problem (with only a touch of sarcasm) is that Marcus Johnson needs to be cloned — literally and figuratively.
Note: Another thank-you to MW — who helps me see new things and enables me to grow and flourish every day we are together. What’s better than that when you are not a kid any more and there’s less ahead than behind in terms of time?
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.
Karen Gross serves as Senior Counsel at Widmeyer Communications and is the Former President of Southern Vermont College. Karen also serves as an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.