English Prof. Helps Rewrite Student's Self Image

Friday is National Day of Listening, and this year, Story Corps is focusing on the impact teachers have made. Regular Tell Me More contributor Lester Spence speaks with his University of Michigan professor, Ralph Story, whose guidance helped him believe in his potential.

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TONY COX, HOST:

We turn now to another oral history project. Today is the National Day of Listening, the annual event when the folks at StoryCorps ask people from around the country to interview the people who matter most to them. This year, we're hoping you might pay tribute to a teacher.

TELL ME MORE Barber Shop contributor Lester Spence has this story for the project. After high school, he was accepted into the University of Michigan, but the notion of attending a prestigious school was bittersweet. Riddled with self-doubt, Spence recalled his first time on campus and how he desperately wanted to show he belonged there.

LESTER SPENCE: You know, I hoped to God that I would fit, because it was just wonderful going from a place where I felt that nobody understood me, and then coming to a place where only a couple of people knew me. And what that meant was that I could basically kind of recreate myself. I could start from scratch.

COX: Lester's self-doubt came after years of his teachers in Detroit schools telling him he wasn't good enough to attend college, but that all changed when he met Professor Ralph Story. He encouraged Spence to show his natural intellect in his English class.

SPENCE: Do you remember Anger(ph), by any chance? Anger?

RALPH STORY: Her name sounds familiar.

SPENCE: Yeah. Anger Lovings.

STORY: Yes, yes.

SPENCE: Was that her last name?

STORY: Yes, yes, yes. I do remember her. Yes. And as I recall, you guys got into a kind of debate or exchange that was very heated.

SPENCE: Oh, my God. We would get into these running battles.

STORY: Yeah.

SPENCE: I mean, these running...

STORY: Sort of gender battles.

SPENCE: Yeah. Whether it was black male-female relationships or...

STORY: Relationships. Right.

SPENCE: ...race versus class. I mean, we would get into these heated, heated arguments, right. And that was the - in fact, that was the first space we had those discussions in. The whole idea of black male-female relationships being like a space for political discussion, or, better yet, being something - a subject that was worth writing about, that my experience was worth writing about, as opposed to something I'd have to leave outside of the classroom, I mean, that was really empowering.

Now, could you talk to me about how you - I mean, so it's one thing to use a Socratic method. But it's another thing to use it with very specific issues that spoke to those kids in that classroom.

STORY: Okay. What happened is that when I first came to Michigan for graduate school in the late '70s, by the early 1980s, the whole notion of gender and gender battles and male-female relationships was constantly in the popular media and, in particular, it was in the African-American media, like Essence and Ebony.

But what really intrigued me was Robert Staples was a guest lecturer at the Center for Afro-American African Studies, and he would hold these forums, and the forums would be packed with over 100 people.

SPENCE: Yeah.

STORY: And so it seemed that he had carved out a kind of ideological and philosophical space within the teaching of sociology to address this topic, almost like Harry Edwards did with the sociology of sports. And so I assumed that this would be an excellent subject for my students to write about, because it was close to home and it was essentially argumentative.

SPENCE: So imagine this - and maybe for some of the listeners, it won't be hard for them to imagine. But there's this whole population that probably would get it. The closest I had come as a student to being able to deal with those issues in the classroom, or issues even remotely related to black people, right, was when I tried to write an essay about Prince in my English class in high school. And my English teacher was like, no. You cannot - I don't want to read about this guy. You can't choose him as a topic.

It's the idea that I couldn't - in a way, I had to leave my blackness. I had to leave all that stuff at home and could never deal with that in a classroom setting. Right? So when you talk about being able to go to a college - not just a college, go to Michigan, one of the best universities in the nation, right - and all the sudden, somebody tells you, like, you can write about this, my mind was literally blown. And that was the first time anybody had ever talked to me in that way, that they had identified what I felt was inside me, but I just didn't know for sure was really there.

STORY: I'm very proud of you, Les.

SPENCE: Thank you very much. That means a great deal to me, man...

STORY: You're more than welcome.

SPENCE: ...to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COX: That was Professor Ralph Story and Professor Lester Spence telling their story for StoryCorp's National Day of Listening. We're hoping you might thank a teacher today on Twitter with hash tag #ThankaTeacher, or on the StoryCorp's Facebook page.

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