“Class and culture erect boundaries that hinder our vision…”Mike Rose “Lives on the Boundary”
I don’t write about him often, but I have to admit that one of the best things I inherited from my dad was a steadfast sense of ownership of knowledge; or rather, an ease with which I can exist in almost any educational context. My dad was one of the first in his family to go to college and, from a very early age, I would hear stories about how, despite working long and tiresome hours out in the fields, my grandmother always emphasized the importance of education. My dad was a focused and diligent student and that diligence would pay dividends in college as he would eventually end up getting an internship with the federal reserve. He also passed the CPA exam his first time (which, according to my godfather who was an attorney, was far more difficult than the bar exam). As the first born, I was delivered into a world and family that, by virtue of being his son, expected even more from me. I’ve written about my love of libraries and my reading habits and this infatuation with learning would serve me well from the very first moment I wandered into a classroom (Magee Elementary in Corpus Christi, Texas, FYI).
As I got older and became a surly young man, I naturally bristled at these expectations. I remember one of my older cousins matter of factly telling my mom how I was “definitely going to go to an ivy league school”. As with any self-loathing misanthrope, my college years saw me engage in an endless cycle of fucking up, culminating in actually failing out of the University of North Texas. Even though I had planned to take time off from school to regroup and lick my wounds, I still couldn’t stay away from the class and ended up taking out private loans to help pay for my tuition that first semester (a decision that continues to haunt me). The fact of the matter is, despite failing, I couldn’t stay away from a college campus: whether it was my second year at the University of Texas at Dallas, or my third year at Collin County Community College, or even back at the University of Texas Pan American (now UTRGV), I could never not be excited about sitting in a classroom. Once I had my eye on graduate school, I committed myself to living a life on a college campus, which led me to Purdue.
“…the more I come to understand about education the more I’ve come to believe in the power of invitation…
After selling almost five grand in music gear, I barely made it to Lafayette, Indiana. I was living in a butthole studio apartment in a state known for both corn and fundamentally sound basketball players, far away from my family and friends in Texas and the initial isolation had me nervous. Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to fall into my cohort and was even luckier that I had two other MA’s learning the ropes along with me. With the support of a great cohort and some extremely approachable faculty, I quickly regained that sense of belonging in the classroom. One of my professors in particular, Samantha Blackmon, was instrumental in building that sense of community–so much so, that I was comfortable enough to get into lighthearted arguments with her over readings. This comfort was crucial to my survival those first two years as a master’s student, as I had to satisfy a breadth requirement and take courses in literature and linguistics. I quickly learned that my literature colleagues were far more adept in those classes than I every could be, which shook my confidence something fierce. [Side note: ironically enough, the director of our program would later tell me that she had to argue for me to have satisfied the second language requirement as a native speaker despite the fact that I was one of only 3 brown people in our program and despite the fact that my name is Enrique fucking Reynoso. Go figure.] My grad life often meant early mornings teaching stretching into late evening grad seminars.
“In their hearts [they] know how tenuous it is, how many times they’ve failed before…”
But even in a supportive and invigorating environment, the academy extracts a toll. The mad dash of the end of semester grading and seminar paper churning and comp exam prep and conference planning drains you. One particular day I have seared in my memory: because my piece of shit Volkswagen wasn’t running, I’d hitched a ride to campus with my roommate in the morning, but had to stay late for a seminar. Rather than bother him, I decided to walk home at 10 PM. As I walked on the precarious nonexistent shoulder of North River Rd, it began to rain. Compounding that misery was the fact that I was wearing a pair of work boots my dad had sent me that I’d never broken in, not realizing the steel support heel was immovable, and ended up tearing skin off of my Achilles tendon. There was the loneliness of only being able to see friends and family from afar, the heartache of losing several family members, and the inevitable separation between you and your cohort as everyone spreads out across their country post-graduation to their new jobs. Years of living a transient lifestyle begin to weigh on your psyche, especially if, like me, you are prone to self-isolation already. Those moments can leave you feeling as if your nerves are exposed, the tendrils shaking you to your core with each shift of wind; and so you get those days and nights where you walk in and the conversation and reading hit you in a particular way. In my case, it was Mike Rose who pulled me over the threshold: I was sitting in our 680M Minority Rhetorics seminar one evening as we were discussing his book “Lives on the Boundary” when I pointed to this quote:
[In the] journey up through the top levels of the American educational system…[you’ll need] support and guidance at many, many points along the way. You’ll need people to guide you into conversations that seem foreign and threatening. You’ll need models, lots of them, to show you how to get at what you don’t know. You’ll need people to help you center yourself in developing ideas. You’ll need people to watch out for you.”
I had initially read that quote the week prior, underlining it several times and writing “fucking-A” in the marginalia. But there, in class, late at night as I read that quote, my voice began to crack as the emotional weight hit me as my eyes began to water: all of those years of schooling, the constant stress of stretching our meager grad stipends, the soul sucking fights with the financial aid office, the hoop jumping, but mostly the weight of all of my life building up to this fucking PhD felt in that quote. As much as I wanted to believe myself a fully self-sufficient person, I couldn’t betray the family and friends whose support helped carry me throughout my life. I also couldn’t linger on it because, as Mike pointed out, BIPOC scholars don’t have the luxury of dwelling on their precarity because doing so can paralyze us with fear, so we learn to exist in constant survival mode–and survival mode is what kills us at an early age. All of these thoughts, the heartache, the frustration of not wanting to be a token Mexican-American scholar, but also not wanting to fail, every last precarious scenario, built up in the crack in my voice in that classroom on the second floor of Heavilon Hall. Even me, with all of my educational experience and years of feeling like I belonged in a classroom, that sometimes I even owned it–I couldn’t hide the pain I felt in that text. Never was I more grateful to be sitting in the back of the room.
“Error marks the place where education begins.”
As raw as that moment felt, I’m grateful that Mike Rose’s words made it happen. It helped me realize what a gift my privilege was and how precious a thing it is to feel belonging. That, as uncomfortable as it is to come face to face with your own privilege, it’s important to both accept and do something with it. That as educators, it is our responsibility to help students take ownership of the class to the best of our ability–to help foster a sense of belonging, especially for those students who don’t come from supportive and caring environments, or don’t have those mentors or models from which to learn. It was “Lives on the Boundary” that helped me move from the survivor’s guilt of “why me” to reclaiming ownership of “why not me”; because the one space I know well, where I have the longest history and where I always seem to return to, is the space Mike Rose spoke of so lovingly-the classroom.
Rest well, Professor.