photo by seanbjack on flickr

First day of class. Looking around the room full of new student faces, I see front and center a stern unsmiling young black woman.   Oh dear, hostility already?  As the days passed and I tried to work my reassuring charm, nothing changed.  She refused to smile and consistently challenged almost everything I said.  I began to feel that all my energy was going toward finding ways to graciously respond to her ongoing contempt.  It seemed that no matter what I did or said, I was wrong and I was seriously pissing her off!

I took my concerns to a friend, a black professor (I am white) who also has this young woman in a freshman orientation class.  He was shocked, as in his class she is very quiet and hasn’t made her presence known at all.  Okay, so what did that tell me?  That I just somehow have a pissing-her-off  personality?  Not much help in moving through this stuck place.

My friend and I talked about defense and survival mechanisms, about how issues of race and socio-economic status are often lurking in our black and white interactions, about how so many of our students come from segregated (both white and black) high schools and don’t know how to deal with mixed classrooms (it truly breaks my heart to write that sentence!)  Black students from our neighboring urban areas in particular develop defense and survival mechanisms that don’t necessarily serve them well on this predominantly white campus.

I began to speculate that her demeanor was designed to protect her from the slings and arrows of being a young black woman on a predominantly white campus.  It shifted my perception, and I started noticing that she was one of my strongest students, always on time, homework always done, willing to answer my questions in class.  huh.  Not the student I had created in my head at all (see another post on this same issue here).  Still stern, still unsmiling, but present in the class.

The real breakthrough came when we did a role-playing activity in class.  She was outstanding (though still unsmiling) and I complimented her acting skills.  She grinned (I cannot tell you what a joy that was to see!) and said she had always thought about being an actress but had never done anything about it.  She came by my office later that day to ask a question and I once again shared my enthusiasm for her talent.

She still doesn’t smile, but I have changed.  I smile inside every time I look at her, and we have found a working respect for each other that does not depend on her smile.  I don’t feel that I have the right to advise her to smile more –  there are so many bad echoes in that advice.  Also, see my previous blog about the stunning lack of success I had the last time I offered unsolicited advice to a student!

I haven’t let go of my concern entirely, for the lack of a softening smile can definitely be an issue in how we relate to each other.  I saw that clearly one day as I watched her interact with a young man in our class.  He needed a pencil, and she tossed him one which he didn’t catch.  She teased him with “Nice catch” but no smile, and he looked unsure as to whether she was kidding or criticizing.  I know she was trying to tease him, but he didn’t.  The cue he was familiar with to identify friendly teasing – the smile – wasn’t there and its absence made him unsure of her intent and the appropriate response.

We all moved on with no lasting problems, and I will remain alert to any possible teaching opportunities to share with the class what a difference a smile makes.  But for now, I am pleased to say that I am learning to look for the student behind the protective curtain.  Thank you, oh great and powerful wizard of Oz, for that!

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