When I was
a junior at Dillard University, I left my home campus to study for a year at
Wellesley College. This experience was my first real opportunity to study
outside a segregated environment and the change brought with it great
apprehension. As a visiting junior, I was one of a small group of African
Americans at Wellesley. Having chosen to major in French, I was doubly
isolated as few minority students took upper-level French courses. So here
I was in 1965, a black student from a black college studying at Wellesley where
I was feeling isolated in many ways. The fact that I did not speak or
understand spoken French made me feel even more alien because my French classes
were taught in French.
no international and few transcultural experiences as a child, when I became a
college student, I sought out foreign language study because I felt it would
liberate me intellectually as well as socially from the narrow racial and
cultural horizons to which the South of the fifties and early sixties consigned
me. Most language instruction of that era was in English. As a
result, I had mastered French vocabulary and grammar without having encountered
native speakers or been afforded the opportunity to become proficient in
understanding spoken French. I had not been introduced to a high-level
program in language study where oral proficiency was expected. In my
junior year, when one takes more advanced courses, this proved to be a problem.
historically black college in New Orleans, was a familiar, homogeneous,
supportive environment for me. Wellesley was an entirely different world
where wealthy students studied in an isolated, though beautiful environment
steeped in New England white culture. As an impoverished, young, urban
black woman, I felt that I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb.
several weeks of sitting through classes in a fog and missing all French
assignments, I summoned the nerve to inform one of my instructors that I could
not continue. I stated firmly that I could not understand lectures and
that I had to drop his course. To my surprise, he stated rather
matter-of-factly, "Don't worry. Just keep doing the work and
attending class and eventually you'll understand the lectures."
by his apparent insensitivity to my plight, I was doubly disheartened.
However, I continued the work.
it turned out, was extraordinarily correct and even inspired. Had I left
that course, I would have left French behind and changed my intellectual
direction. I would also have been persuaded that there were some endeavors
that lay outside of my range of intellectual ability. Because of his
insistence that I could do the work, I stayed in the course and, with time, I
came to understand and speak French, achieving fluency much more easily than I
thought possible. Eventually I earned a Ph.D. in French at Harvard and
served as a professor of French like the Wellesley instructor who taught me how
to have confidence that I could stand up to intellectual challenges.
important, since that moment, I have never felt intimidated by any problem that
could be solved by intelligence. There have been many moments in my life
when I have been tempted to declare that success was impossible.
Inevitably, I remembered the words of my French professor and the glorious
feeling of freedom and empowerment that I felt when the impenetrably foreign
sounds of spoken French gave way to a clear matrix of meaning no longer closed
students come to see me to proclaim that they wish to drop a course because they
do not understand the material, I tell them this story. In many ways, this
simple advice given to me by my French instructor empowered me in my lifelong
quest for education and convinced me that the most important thing one can do
for children is not accept the limitations they are so willing to impose on
from The Right Words at the Right Time,
passage by Dr. Ruth Simmons, President of Brown University