Why I Teach

Anne Moody (1940-2015)

Anne Moody (1940-2015)

Friday night, before I went to bed, I saw a tweet that said veteran civil rights activist Anne Moody had died at the age of 74. I shed tears as if someone in my family had died because I felt as though I knew her. We were both born in the “Great State of Mississippi,” and I have assigned her memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi to my American history classes many times. Her story seems to resonate with college students, perhaps, because she was close their age when she wrote the book.

Although I was sad about her death, in a strange way, my thoughts about Anne Moody made me realize why I teach after a week during which I needed some reassurance. This week had been a difficult one at the small southern college where I teach.

A student in my American history class, angry that I had assigned three books, in addition to the textbook, had complained to me in person and by email about having to purchase the books. Then, last week, she angrily confronted me after class. She reiterated that she could not afford the additional readers–two of the three which can be found online for free, while the third is less than seven dollars. She was also displeased with my teaching methods. It was clear that she liked nothing about me or my class.

In retrospect, I know that the student’s anger, although directed at me, had little to do with me. But I was not thinking of that during “the confrontation.”

This incident made me question my career choice. Sometimes the resistance to me, my classroom instruction, and my assigned readings is almost too much to bear. I asked myself, Why am I doing this if the students don’t appreciate it? Even though other students who witnessed the student’s verbal attack reassured me that her critique was not indicative of how they felt, I was discouraged.

Interestingly enough, this is where Anne Moody comes back in. The next morning I woke up thinking about her and all of the times that I had assigned her book. I also thought about the history that I had introduced to my students over the years–through lectures, discussion, readings, photographs, documentaries, and audio recordings.

I know there is value in learning about the past and its connection to our present. There is value in learning about people and our common humanity. So, I am here for the students in the “Amen corner,” who engage in call and response because they are feeling what I am saying. I am here for the students who have come to me in tears after a documentary on Wounded Knee. I am here for the student who seemed disinterested but then surprised me when he wanted to to talk to me about a website I recommended on Goreé Island. I’m here for the non-traditional student in my class who came up to talk about monopolies after I discussed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. I’m here for the student who said she actually enjoyed my lectures. I’m here for the students who had not read Coming of Age in Mississippi before my class but ended up thanking me for assigning it.

Yes, that is why I am here. Thank you, Anne Moody, for reminding me of that. Rest in Peace.

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