Back when the Virginia Tech massacre happened I was teaching at an HBCU. Not quite a year before I had been offered a position there and chose, instead, the position at the HBCU. I couldn’t imagine my young twenty-something life in the town. I was unready to live outside of high density housing, and where would I find my shea butter, incense, and importantly, my people? (I was encouraged to hang out at the Black Student Union). Oh, the concerns of being twenty-something. Finally, being as averse to cold weather as I am to this day, I kept thinking about the earlier onset of, and longer, winters in the mountains. The chairperson called me on a Saturday morning after the offer and told me, kindly, she would understand if a young Black woman chose not to take the position and that she had struggled with the same choice years earlier and as a single parent at that. Her call felt like the kindest omen, and I took it.
Less than a year later, I walked into my HBCU classroom to somber students who had heard about the shooting across the state and clearly needed to talk about it more than any thesis statement conversation we had planned. So we did. We talked about a strategy for their escape before such strategies were ever in place. We talked about how I would be the last to leave, if leaving were an option, and they protested that part. I had never thought about any of this before this moment. But I knew what seemed right and I explained, without having prepared or thought those thoughts before. The potential that existed in the room was far greater than my singular experience in which I had enjoyed at least some of mine. If someone had to be sacrificed, as it were, it would be me. I also explained to them the role I played–any parent, guardian, or whomever was loving and cheering their potential would expect that the person in charge would, well, take charge. And at the ripe old age of twenty six or seven, I was that person. It was my job to take charge and protect, who I was then calling in my head, “my babies.”
So I read about the UVA shootings this week. Before I knew what little I know, I knew Professor Davis. I have tried to leave the exploitative, collapsing institution that is higher education so many times. I have divested myself of everything but “the babies” so many times in the past couple of decades it’s laughable. It is a job I tell myself. And I do my job so that I can get paid and go home. Then there’s yesterdays. I drove ninety minutes to meet with a student to talk about transferring. I have petitioned for resources and come out of pocket to create sacred spaces for students. I am the “Have you eaten?” “Here’s something to drink” professor. I have been entrusted with secrets and dilemmas. Have let students talk my face off as my stomach rumbled. Stayed long after my appointed hours. Wiped tears and celebrated big and small victories. Entertained children and once, a puppy. And I’m scared of dogs! I don’t say this to seem special. I say this to confirm that I know Professor Davis. She is so many of us. Curating a safe space in an environment that feels especially hostile for students of color; students who may have limited experience with higher ed and feel out of place there; unsure if they belong; students that we love on and set high bars for, and sacrifice for because we value their potential.
You want to know something else? I had to turn down an offer at UVA about a year ago because I could not imagine a “life” given the offer. I’m not twenty-something anymore, and even if my needs are similar, I have learned from living that I can curate a life out of less than I think I need. Then unironically, I returned to the same HBCU of yore shortly after rejecting the UVA offer.
It has been a hard transition. My students are not those students of yore, and frankly I am not that person. But at the core, they are 18ish and needy and though I am more easily exhausted by 18ishness, I am still that professor who writes, “I know you overslept; you must have needed rest. There is no penalty for caring for yourself. Here’s the assignment and lecture notes.” Someone, somewhere–perhaps their parents and loved ones; perhaps their future clients or kids will benefit and rely on professors like us. The weight of our impact and the pressures it brings are familiar to me. So I hold Professor Davis in so much love and light. I hope she is being well supported. I hope we all are, in the quiet work that happens outside performance reviews and tenure packets; as we hope it will not be us but quietly accept the possibility and responsibility.
Here’s what else is troublesome: in this semester, several of my students have written that their hometowns are sites of unending violence. This narrative is not new. I have lost at least one student to hometown violence. Their attempts to escape have been met with campus lockdowns due to guns on campus. They have expressed fear. I cannot eliminate the guns, the trauma or post-trauma, I can’t even protect myself.
About that possibility and responsibility? We shouldn’t have to accept this part. I don’t have all, or maybe any, of the answers, but I know that the number of emails I’ve received from students acknowledging depression, expressing anxiety, describing unwarranted crying fits, admitting to being “unable to get it together” is percentage-wise, greater than any time I recall in my career. As our schools boast increased enrollments and the latest publications or grantsmanship of our professors, we need to secure and provide support and resources in place for the so-called enrollment, and we need Professor Davises. Because they are probably our best resource. They retain students. They make students persist. They make alumni. They make your university money (since that is usually the bottom line). And they need support too.
I didn’t intend to be another think-piece on this violence even though I have other thoughts about it. I just wanted to, as we say, hold Professor Davis in light. But can we do that without acknowledging why it’s so important that we do? I don’t think so. So, here I am.