It is the first day of class at the university. From a couch next to my classroom I watch students enter, oblivious to all around. Most don’t notice me, except him: a young man wearing the athletic jersey of the university. He walks toward me with the class bulletin and demands: “Speak!”
I instinctively stand: “Excuse me?”
“Oh! You don’t have an accent,” he says with relief. “The bulletin says the teacher is Rodríguez, and I wondered how a Hispanic could teach English, you know?”
No, I don’t know! He walks into the classroom, and I take a deep breath.
. . .
After class I speak with my supervisor. She opens a desk drawer, takes out a piece of paper, signs her name, and hands it to me: ADMINISTRATIVE REMOVAL. It’s an incident report that would remove the student from my class. She has already signed it. “I do not tolerate racism in any venue,” she says.
Racism? This is my first tangible encounter with racism.
. . .
That night I pull out the ADMINISTRATIVE REMOVAL form from my messenger bag. I glance over it: Student; Time and Location of Incident; Parties Involved; and Signature From Professor for Student Removal.
I replay the incident in my head. I remember every detail. The way he slouched in the back of class with arms crossed and the unnecessary yawn. What will I teach him by removing him from class? I take a deep breath and reach for a pen.
. . .
The next morning (as I expected) the student sits in the aisle chair, last row. I walk in and casually slide the folder in front of him. The form has been filled and signed: “Student challenged the integrity of the classroom by demonstrating lack of decorum during lecture and by engaging in racist comments toward professor.” I have placed a Post-it note that reads: “Let’s talk. This is a copy.”
. . .
In the hall he asks if he can walk with me to my office. Sure. He needs this class to stay on the basketball team; he has a scholarship. I stop walking. Silence. My gaze does not move from his eyes. Finally, he looks at the floor and asks why he is being dropped. He didn’t understand? I learn he doesn’t read “good.” He says he is good only at sports.
I ask if he has contemplated that the basketball teams he plays will be racially diverse; if he has thought of the possibility that his attitude toward race may have legal repercussions one day. He is scared and looks at me waiting to hear something positive.
I take the folder. I have an offer: tutoring at the Writing Center two hours a week, and a weekly meeting with me for a progress report. He is embarrassed by his tears of relief and gratitude. I smile at him and say: “Latin. I am Latin.” He asks if looking up the difference between Hispanic and Latin is his first assignment. I shake my head. Your first assignment is to respect others; respect the heritage, race, and identity of others. THEN you can speak. There is no room for hatred in a world coming undone. As he walks away I feel hope.
Dixil Rodríguez, a university professor and volunteer hospital chaplain, lives in Texas.