Who’s With Me in the Classroom

May 25, 2017

image of Susan Eaton in front of a classroom blackboard

By Susan Eaton, professor of the practice and director, Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy

My phone began to buzz, ping, ring just a few minutes after the news broke about President Donald Trump’s executive order that bans people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. 

A young woman I’d met in Idaho while I was researching a book included me on a group text about her stepbrother who’d been visiting relatives in Somalia. He was now in Nigeria but traveling with a Yemeni passport. Would he be able to get home to the United States? I doubted it. But I wasn’t sure. Several friends from Mexico wrote or called asking slightly differently worded versions of the same question: “How long, do you think, before Trump comes for us?”

Turning into the Heller School parking lot the next morning, my phone rang again, this time flashing the name of my friend Fawzia with an image of her blowing me a kiss. My first thought was, “Thank goodness she’s a U.S. citizen.” Then Fawzia’s story tumbled through the speaker, her voice catching. She reminded me that for years she’d been working through legal channels to bring her elderly mother to the United States. Fawzia’s mother had fled to Kenya decades ago to take refuge from the brutal civil war in her home country, Somalia.

“Will they consider her Somali or Kenyan?” Fawzia asked me. 

“I have no idea,” I told her. “I’m so sorry.”

“Can I go to her?” Fawzia asked me, audibly crying now. “Will I never see her again?” 

I told her that as a citizen, she could travel freely but that she needed a lawyer. And then I told her I needed to hang up, that I needed to go teach. Her cry evolved into a wail. “I am sorry,” I said again, hating myself.

A few minutes later, I walked into a classroom at the Heller School. This would be the second class session in a course on immigrant integration that I co-teach with my colleague, Dr. Jessica Santos. I had to get myself organized. But Fawzia’s wail haunted me.

As class began, I worried that I didn’t have enough answers or the right answers or the most perfectly considered answers for a day when my students and, for that matter, my friends had so many questions. That Friday will likely not be the last time I feel anxious in front of a classroom. But I never feel alone up there. My own teachers, past and present, are always with me. It helps me to remember that the teachers whose lessons I draw upon and who shaped my values and intentions as an educator did not know every fact every person needed to know at a given time. They helped me build knowledge about subjects, yes, but also forced me to reckon with myself and hone an authoritative voice in service of social justice. During such a turbulent political period, spending time in the service of thinking has felt at times like a guilty luxury. But then the lessons from my best teachers remind me that what people think matters, if only because it determines how they will act.

My liberal politics did not match the conservative philosophy of one of my first—and my favorite—political science professors at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Jean Bethke Elshtain. But in spite of all the ways I disagreed with her, Professor Elshtain drilled into me the importance of integrity. She required us to evaluate political action against several measures, including what I remember as the “Will I Be Able to Look At Myself In the Mirror?” standard. I learned from her that “winning” within a political context can’t be referred to as winning if you compromise your values and credibility in the process. 

In 1986, my senior year at UMass Amherst, James Baldwin – yes, the James Baldwin, the writer, activist, genius and subject of the new film, I Am Not Your Negro – taught a lecture class. I was lucky enough to get a coveted seat. We students sat awestruck, as Baldwin lectured about the historical context in which he wrote his non-fiction. He spoke eloquently about the role of the socially concerned essay in American society, and of how racism misshapes each one of us, particularly white people. Around campus, he’d sport wraparound sunglasses and acknowledge us with cool nods. He quite often sat alone at a restaurant and bar in downtown Amherst as admiring students, including me, floated around before approaching him gingerly. With bemused detachment, Baldwin indulged us, grinning mischievously. James Baldwin and I did not become best friends; I would never claim him as a mentor. But he did influence me profoundly. 

In the only private meeting I had with him, he told me, simply: “I think you are a writer.” My heart stopped, but in a good way. Then he added: “But do you know yet why you are here? Why you sit in my classroom? Why you find inspiration in Frederick Douglass? In me, for that matter?” I can’t recall my response. I am sure I didn’t yet know the answer.  But that he’d considered me worth a moment of interrogation was enough to force myself to figure it out and shape my writing, my career, my activism, my life, accordingly. 

Many years later, my doctoral advisor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Gary Orfield, was the first to demonstrate the possibility of being a scholar while wading deep into the political fray. Gary collaborated with civil rights lawyers in active litigation and worked as an expert witness in civil rights cases related to fair housing and anti-discriminatory public education. He helped litigators, elected leaders and advocates use scholarly research to strengthen legal arguments and theories and to improve policy arguments before local school boards, in state legislatures, at the U.S. Capitol and the White House. School superintendents and officials from the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Department of Education called upon him to advise them on how to end racially discriminatory practices.

Knowledge to him was to be built and then pressed into service in advancing racial justice, fairness. I am quite sure I would not have understood the purpose of graduate school if hadn’t had him as a mentor. I was lucky to work alongside and in collaboration with Gary, as we wrote and thought and planned and strategized to exact influence beyond the academy. He emphasized the importance of understanding the past but just as important, to know what was happening right now, of mapping action, of identifying needs. As a result, I left graduate school able to locate an appropriate role for myself within a field -- civil rights and education -- that accorded with the values and passions James Baldwin and Jean Bethke Elshtain had forced me to understand, articulate and act upon.

Now, some 20 years later, as I stood in front of the classroom, teaching about immigration at the Heller School, I clicked to a slide that provided hyperlinks to the leading policy and advocacy organizations and think tanks working on immigrant rights, immigrant integration and refugee resettlement. No attached theory or citations or regression analyses. It was just a slide, a list. This slide, in part, was intended to contextualize the theory and scholarly research we’d discuss later in class. But this slide was also a stepping-stone on a path leading from thought to real-world action. So many teachers had guided me along that path. Now I hope I can be something of a guide too.

After the students had left that morning, I called my friend Fawzia back. I didn’t have any more information than the little I’d had when I’d hung up with her a few hours before. But at least I was able to connect her with a lawyer.

“Hey,” she asked, “How did your class go?”

I told her it was probably not my best performance, that I got emotional because I was preoccupied with our conversation, that part of me wished I could be with her, helping to develop a strategy to get around Donald Trump’s orders.

“No. No,” she said firmly. “You are where you need to be. Those students of yours? You need to help them get ready for a big, big fight for America’s soul.”


This story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Heller Magazine. Read the full magazine online or download it here