The “Are You Sure’s” and Doubting Sylvias

December 30, 2014

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio, c. 1601-02, uploaded April 13, 2005. (Dante Alighieri via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio, c. 1601-02, uploaded April 13, 2005. (Dante Alighieri via Wikipedia). In public domain.

We all have doubters in our lives. Even if the only doubters turn out to be ourselves. As someone without much of a roadmap for any success, doubt has been a constant companion, one that I often had to ignore to experience any victories in my life. To have those with influence pretend to be on my side but add to those doubts, though. As a twenty-year-old, it was somewhere between bewildering and rage inducing. As a forty-five year-old who regularly advises students, love ones, friends and others about their futures, looking back at those doubters, it’s almost unforgivable the seeds they attempted to plant.

Of all the non-relatives in positions to advise me, few were worse than my high school guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo. For four years, Fasulo forced me to listen to her “Are you sure…?” questions about difficult classes, the colleges I wanted to attend, the career paths I thought about taking. Her patrician Vassar arrogance toward me as the poor Black kid drove me up a wall every time I walked into her cigarette-filled office.

"Raleigh's First Pipe in England," an illustration in Frederick William Fairholt's Tobacco (1859), June 8, 2014. (Materialscientist via Wikipedia). In public domain.

“Raleigh’s First Pipe in England,” an illustration in Frederick William Fairholt’s Tobacco (1859), June 8, 2014. (Materialscientist via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I hated having Fasulo as my counselor especially once it was time for me to apply for college. She was condescending, demeaning and chain-smoked up my clothes for my troubles. Most of all, I hated having to reveal things about myself to her that I otherwise wouldn’t have shared. Like my family’s financial situation. Fasulo became only the second person I would tell that we were on welfare, that my father and mother had divorced and that he hadn’t made a child support payment since ’78. I had to talk to her about my role in my family as acting first-born child and my responsibilities. It was necessary and humiliating at the same time.

Despite and not because of Fasulo, things worked out for me in the end. Going to Pitt, meeting the people and the professors I’d become friends and colleagues with, was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. Still, I had one parting shot from her in the middle of my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the holiday season in ’89, and I took time while home in Mount Vernon to visit my favorite teacher, the late Harold Meltzer. I had just missed him, but bumped into Fasulo. It was about as fortuitous as having diarrhea and being nowhere near a toilet with toilet paper.

She asked me where I was in school, and I told her about my considerations for graduate school, law school and the world of work. It was a toss-off sentence, my attempt to end a conversation, not begin one. “Being a lawyer’s hard work,” Fasulo said in response. She then went on to tell me about 70-hour work weeks and billable hours and the bar exam, as if any of this was supposed to be surprising or would somehow scare me. I cut her off, saying “You know, you’re not my counselor anymore, so thanks but no thanks for your advice,” and left her office while she tried to explain her idiotic perspective.

Tiki Barber, the personification of a doubter, at the American Museum of Natural History, October 16, 2008. (Jamie McCarthy/ via

Tiki Barber, the personification of a doubter, at the American Museum of Natural History, October 16, 2008. (Jamie McCarthy/ via

A quarter-century later, and though I am more than content with the fact that I opted for a PhD over a JD thirteen out of every fourteen days (people with law degrees do make more money on average), I sometimes question if the PhD in history was worth it. After all, a JD is far more portable. A JD would’ve served me better in my nonprofit and consulting careers than having to explain a doctorate. I wouldn’t want to think that I went in the direction of a graduate program for five and a half years simply because I had a conversation with a racial elitist.

It’s probably more likely that I didn’t go to medical school to earn an MD because my Mom and my idiot late-ex-stepfather both told me I couldn’t be a surgeon because I had “ten thumbs.” By more likely, I mean highly unlikely on both counts. I ultimately did what I wanted to do educationally speaking, despite own my doubts, despite the doubts of those who believed it was their job to advise me. But constantly asking, “Are you sure, Donald…?” isn’t exactly the best way to advise or mentor anyone, especially someone in their teens or a literal twenty-year-old. You lay out options, you ascertain what’s going on in their heart as well as their mind. You introduce them to other people who could provide better advice, based on direct expertise or experiences. Otherwise, you’re a doubter, not an advisor or a mentor.

AP US History Exam Day & Harold Meltzer

May 13, 2014

AP Day (cropped), May 9, 2014. (Tim Needles/

AP Day (cropped), May 9, 2014. (Tim Needles/

Twenty-eight years ago on this day/date, I was on my way to Mount Vernon High School, listening to Mr. Mister, Simple Minds, Sting and Whitney along the way. I was a few minutes away from a three-hour exam that could change my future. It wasn’t exactly the sunniest or warmest of days, though. That second Tuesday in May ’86 was brisk and heavy with clouds, a high of only 52°F. Still, with the way I felt that morning, May 13th might as well have been sunny with a high of seventy-two. 

I’ve written about my AP US History exam experience and Harold Meltzer ad nauseum here in this blog, as well as in Boy @ The Window. How I felt in the months and weeks before the exam. My expectations for a “5” and what that meant in comparison to taking something much less representative of the college experience, like the SAT. My perspective on my AP classmates and the general sense of obnoxious whining that permeated our classroom in throughout March and April ’86, and in whispers the following year. The keys to my academic success, and me being conscious of those keys, for the very first time. And, of course, the mentoring and tutelage of the late Harold Meltzer, the only teacher after elementary school who took a genuine interest in my development as a human being, not just in my grades or in my intellectual abilities.

I was a high school junior whom, at sixteen years old, had more wisdom about what would leave me well prepared for college than most parents, teachers and so-called education reformers possessed in ’86 or in 2014. Taking Algebra in eighth grade, AP courses in eleventh and twelfth grade, accelerated math and science classes all through high school. I knew even then that the APUSH exam was far more representative of my academic preparation than any SAT score would indicate, no matter how high.

AP US History For Dummies cover (2008), May 13, 2014. (

AP US History For Dummies cover (2008), May 13, 2014. (

Yet I’ve found myself in debates with folks in recent months over an issue that’s been well settled in the education world for more than a decade. Over a single four-digit score that many thought should be the difference between going to an elite school and attending a no-name local technical institute. These folks refused to recognize what even the College Board and ETS recognize. That social class and racial privilege have been infused in the SAT process for years, with so many students taking SAT-prep courses at Princeton Review and Kaplan being all the prima facie evidence I need.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Advanced Placement (or International Baccalaureate, for that matter) is much better. But in terms of the actual amount of time spent in direct preparation, with the right teacher, even an impoverished Black kid like I was could attend a public school with a magnet program and earn a “5” — without spending $1,500 on Kaplan or Princeton Review. 

Enough on that. Today, I can truly say that AP US History Exam ’86 Day was a fundamentally important milestone for me. It sealed the deal I made for myself in the midst of the summer of abuse, to get out of 616, out of Mount Vernon, and into college. Thanks Humanities. Thanks, Mr. Meltzer. Thanks, classmates. And, thank God!

One Good Job, On Real Education Reform

January 31, 2014

PCAS Visual Model, AED, June 14, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins and Lynda Barbour).

PCAS Visual Model, AED, June 14, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins and Lynda Barbour).

Yesterday marked ten years since I accepted the position of deputy director for a brand-new, embryonic initiative known as Partnerships for College Access and Success (PCAS). Who knew that, given the circumstances, this would turn out to be the best full-time work of my nonprofit sector years, with a good boss, a large measure of autonomy to make decisions and to brainstorm new ideas? And to put together a plan that, in the end, was about getting more low-income/first-generation students and students of color into and then through college? Looking at where corporate education reform has moved since, it’s a wonder that this initiative got off the ground at all.

There were two problems with this new position, neither of which were related to the job itself. One was that it kept me at the Academy for Educational Development (AED – now FHI 360), an organization that had screwed me in terms of pay and had left me in a hostile work environment with my then immediate supervisor at New Voices. I was a bit burned out from having to work in this environment of cynicism, distrust and bipolar disorder by the end of January ’04. Two was that my new boss, Sandy, would be more than 200 miles away from me for most of the time that we were to work together, since the job didn’t pay enough for me to consider a move to the New York City area.

A week into January ’04, I interviewed with Sandy for the first time. After weeks of interviews with two other organizations — not to mention three years with AED — I actually had low expectations as my Amtrak train arrived at Penn Station. Somehow, though, being in the city again, riding the 1 down to 14th Street and walking over to Fifth Avenue did take me out of my metro DC malaise.

Union Square, Manhattan (about two blocks from NY office on Fifth Avenue), November 14, 2005. (Postdlf via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 3.0.

Union Square, Manhattan (about two blocks from NY office on Fifth Avenue), November 14, 2005. (Postdlf via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 3.0.

I went up to the eighth floor and realized that I already knew two people at the NY office, one whom had overlapped with me during my Pitt/Carnegie Mellon grad school days. More importantly, though, I met Sandy. After three years of working for duplicitous people, at least Sandy was honest, maybe too honest, about the job and about her thinking regarding the people around her. For me, this was definitely refreshing. Maybe this was the Mount Vernonite/New Yorker in me that yearned for old-style New York honesty. It caused me to relax and to talk passionately about my writing and education, about what reform really should look like, about my disdain for data as the answer to everything, about the need to reach students and then help build the skills necessary for college.

After two hours, I learned a few things. Sandy could be a bit scattered, sometimes even sound a bit paternalistic, like a good, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ’60s-era liberal can. Meaning she could rub folks outside of New York the wrong way, like the potential funders for this initiative. But Sandy wasn’t stuck in that moment, either, and the fact that her ideas for this new initiative were wide-open was wonderful for me. PCAS was so new that the grant money wasn’t quite in yet, and the folks at Lumina Foundation for Education wanted more clarity as to what we meant when we said partnerships.

So when I was offered the position three weeks later, I wasn’t actually surprised. I came pretty cheap, didn’t need to learn how AED worked, and had experience with providing technical assistance and in higher education (particularly in teaching teachers about the history of K-16 education and education reform). Still, how was working in DC with my boss in NY with a team of technical assistance folks scattered throughout AED (not to mention consultants, Lumina Foundation, the eventual grantees, the independent third-party evaluator in Philly) going to work successfully?

Ultimately, it was about having a foundation that was open, at least initially, to trying out new ideas. It was because we selected grantees with a variety of nonprofit organizational experiences around college access, youth development, workforce development, grassroots organizing and high school reform. We entrusted them to know their local context, their school district and college/university connections better than we could operating in DC or NY. We worked as hard as we could to help these organizations build real partnerships with their local high schools, school districts and colleges, because we and they wanted to reach students and encourage their pursuit of a college degree. And I had a good boss in Sandy who trusted me to do my job and to grow the work.

Current Lumina Foundation logo (at least their 3rd change in eight years), January 31, 2014. (

Current Lumina Foundation logo (at least 3rd change in eight years), January 31, 2014. (

It was a good four-year run, one that ended in no small part because neither AED as a whole nor Lumina were interested in increasing college access and retention for underrepresented students. They were both interested in finding out where the dollars were or in leveraging those dollars to remake K-16 education. In AED’s case, it became about data and data systems, because of course, that’s where a lot of the Gates Foundation money for education has been since ’06. For Lumina, a change in leadership at the beginning of ’07 meant a shift away from a diversity of initiatives to a big focus on research grants into making college more affordable through student loans.

My last day at AED as a full-time staffer will be six years ago tomorrow. The grant funding from Lumina was almost done, and after seven total years, I needed to build a future beyond AED for myself. I learned a lot working for and with Sandy and did a lot working on PCAS. The sad truth is, though, that an initiative like the one we were able to put together, make work and grow wouldn’t happen in today’s corporate reform environment. And where does that leave someone like me?

The Lazarus Woman

August 22, 2013

Barbara B. Lazarus, obituary picture, July 17, 2003. (

Barbara B. Lazarus, obituary picture, July 17, 2003. (

Now that my book’s been out for a couple of months (between two and four months, depending on the e-book platform, actually), I’ve found that my thoughts sometimes drift toward those that are no longer around to read it.

Not so much my family or nemeses, though. Sarai, my only sister, who died in July ’10, would likely have never read a word of Boy @ The Window — it would be too honest an assessment of life at 616 for her. My late idiot ex-stepfather Maurice Washington was already unhappy with my numerous posts about his borderline personality issues and constant psychological and physical abuse of me and family when I picked up the phone one day that same week my sister passed.

As for my former classmate Brandie Weston — to whom I’ve dedicated my memoir (actually, a co-dedication that includes my son) — maybe, if she had been well enough. My favorite teacher, the late Harold Meltzer, though, would’ve begun reading  Boy @ The Window five minutes after it had gone live on!

But of all of those folks who are no longer a part of this corporeal world (or who have gone into some state of seclusion from it), one other person stands out today. My dear friend and mentor from my Carnegie Mellon years (and the six years after I finished), Barbara Lazarus. I’ve discussed her here before, but not lately. Probably because I do tear up sometimes when thinking about her support of me specifically and her work at CMU in general. Barbara helped make my otherwise rough and dehumanizing experience at CMU manageable and even career-affirming.

As I wrote about Barbara for the memorial service at CMU in September ’03:

I want to communicate to you that I am in complete solidarity with everyone who attends the gathering at CMU on October 17.  For me, Barbara’s work was more than about women’s equity in the engineering and science fields.  She was about ensuring that all (regardless of gender or race, and regardless of the degree) who attempted the grand enterprise of competing for a degree actually made it through the process … Barbara was a dear friend and mentor who truly believed in me, even in spite of myself.  I loved her, and I will surely miss her, as I am sure you will also.

That only approximated how much she meant to me during and after my four years of doctoral success and failures at CMU. The months immediately before my advisor Joe Trotter and my committee approved my dissertation were the worst, as is well documented on this blog. Barbara convinced me to not become hot-headed and drop-out of the program with a completed first-draft of my dissertation under my belt. She also managed to keep me from requesting a change of advisors so close to the finish line. She did offer to “step in” as her duties as Associate Provost would’ve allowed, but warned me that this political solution would delay my graduation. My connection with Barbara kept me from meeting Trotter in one of CMU’s parking lots late at night wearing a ski mask and dark leather gloves!

She became my best reference professionally and otherwise after those dark days ended with the end of ’96. She read my articles and my first book before they went to print. We swapped stories about family and life and religion. We stayed in touch even after I moved to Silver Spring, Maryland in ’99. Barbara died on July 14, ’03, just sixteen days before my son Noah was born. It’s been a decade, a month and eight days since she passed, nearly as long as I actually knew Barbara (roughly between October ’92 and July ’03). Boy, I wish I could’ve shared my first photos of my son with her!

There were a few people like Barbara at CMU during those years. Susan McElroy (now at UT-Dallas), John Hinshaw (at least prior to my Spencer Fellowship), Carl Zimring (before the O.J. verdict), the Gants and the other Black doctoral students I’d met there (all fourteen of us) were my CMU lifeline beyond multiculturalism and Trotter tired sense of migration studies.

But Barbara Lazarus and I had a friendship that went well beyond academia and career, and went undamaged by petty jealousies or sudden bursts of outrage from jury verdicts. I’d been to her home, met her husband and her kids, learned something about her as a person, and in the process, managed to be my better self even in the worst of circumstances. That is being a good mentor, friend and person. I just hope that I was the same to her, and that Boy @ The Window proves to be the same to others.

Remembering Harold Meltzer

January 9, 2013

Harold Meltzer obituary (via Frank Pandolfo), January 9, 2003. (Westchester Journal News).

Harold Meltzer obituary (via Frank Pandolfo), January 9, 2003. (The Journal News).

Harold Meltzer, my favorite and best teacher of all, died on January 2, 2003 at the age of sixty-six, ten years ago last week. He was all too young and all too bitter about his years as a history teacher at Mount Vernon High School. But then, dealing with entitled parents and unrepentant administrators in Mount Vernon, New York for thirty-five years would do that to most people. Despite that, Meltzer was a rock, the first teacher since my elementary school years that I genuinely trusted with my family secrets and my inner self. He was the first and maybe only teacher I had in my six years of Humanities who actually seemed like he wanted to teach us (see my post “No Good Teaching Deed Goes Unpunished” from May ’11).

I met Meltzer on our last day of tenth grade, after three days of finals and Regents exams, on June 21, ’85. He had summoned fourteen of us to “Room 275 of Mount Vernon High School,” as the invitation read. We had all registered to take Meltzer’s AP American History class in eleventh grade, our first opportunity to earn college credit while in high school.

Meltzer started off talking to us about Morison and Commager — who I now know as the great consensus historians of the ’50s, until the social history revolution made their textbooks irrelevant by the ’80s — as we sat in this classroom of old history books and even older dust and chalk. Meltzer himself looked to be in his late-fifties (he was actually a day away from his forty-ninth birthday), tall and lanky except for the protruding pouch in the tummy section. His hair was a mutt-like mixture of silver, white and dull gray, and his beard was a long, tangled mess.

Met Logo and A full house, seen from rear of stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House (former bldg, 39th Street), for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937. (National Archives via Wikimedia). In public domain.

Met Logo and A full house, seen from rear of stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House (former bldg, 39th Street), for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937. (National Archives via Wikimedia). In public domain.

The way he spoke, and the way his eyes looked when he spoke made me see him as a yarmulke-wearing preteen on his way to temple. The force with which his words would leave his mouth hit me immediately. As much as I noticed how frequently spit would spew out of Meltzer’s mouth, the rhythm of his speech was slow and sing-song, like an elder or grandfather taking you on a long, winding, roller-coaster-ride of a story. Most of all, I knew that he cared — about history, about teaching, about us learning, about each of us as people. Maybe, just maybe, for some of us, he cared too much.

But for at least for me, Meltzer’s eccentric space in which he told Metropolitan Opera House stories and talked about egalitarianism extended beyond the historical. He was the first teacher I had since before Humanities who’d ask me if things at home were all right, and knew intuitively that things weren’t. He was the first to ask me about how poor my family was and about hunger. And he was the first teacher ever to ask if I had a girlfriend. Needless to say, these questions were unexpected. Yet through these questions, Meltzer had begun to crack my thin, hard wall of separation between school and family.

Because Meltzer cared deeply about reaching students — about reaching me — our student-teacher relationship because a friendship after high school and a mentoring one as well. I wasn’t looking for a mentor, and Meltzer was only being Meltzer. Still, his stories about his battles with MVHS administrators, Board of Education folk, and with upper-crust parents who believed their kids were entitled to A’s just for showing up, were filled with lessons of perseverance, patience, and looking beyond everyday headaches in order to reach people. While this wasn’t a factor in my going to graduate school and spending a significant part of my life as a history professor and educator, these stories have helped me over the years.

1972 Dodge Dart Dark Green (similar to '74 Dodge Dart Meltzer owned when I was at MVHS), December 25, 2009. (

1972 Dodge Dart Dark Green (similar to ’74 Dodge Dart Meltzer owned when I was at MVHS), December 25, 2009. (

But unfortunately, it was a factor in why Meltzer became embittered and took early retirement in June ’93. The end of the Humanities Program, the intolerance of some administrators toward Meltzer as a “confirmed bachelor,” the lack of decency — forget about gratitude — from many of his most successful students. Those changes, these things, all would take a toll on any teacher who’d stay after school day after day to run Mock Trial, to facilitate study groups, to work on letters of recommendation for students. But no, most of my former classmates who had Meltzer between ’85 and ’87, all they could say was that “Meltzer was weird” or that “I didn’t understand” his lessons.

I’m thankful that I did have Meltzer as a teacher, friend and mentor between ’85 and ’02. I’m thankful that I had a chance to interview him for what is now my Boy @ The Window manuscript in August and November ’02, just a couple of months before he passed (see my post “Mr. Meltzer” from June ’09). I’m glad that despite his physical and psychological pain, Meltzer welcomed me with open arms and answered my questions about his life and his career. I just wish that my former classmates and some of Meltzer’s more cut-throat colleagues had taken the time to really know the man.


June 10, 2012

“Murder of Cain by Abel,” Ghent Altarpiece painting (1432), Jan van Eyck, January 6, 2007. (Paunaro via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I’ve written about the infamous Estelle Abel in my blog on this date (or at least, this time of year) for each of the previous five years (see “My Last Day,” “The Last Class,” “AP Exam Blues,” “Honors Coronation,” and “Twenty Years in a Week” for the full scoop). She was the chair of Mount Vernon High School’s Science Department while I was a student there, and remain so for years afterward.

As anyone should be able to tell from my previous posts on Abel, I have a bit of an ax to grind. More like a samurai sword, actually. The woman and her ten or fifteen minutes of berating me as both a student and as an un-Black young adult Black male ruined my last day of high school. Forgive me, then, for not being completely objective when it comes to the subject of Estelle Abel and her methods of teaching, motivation, and guidance on issues of academic achievement and race.

Though I’ve also forgiven her, I’m not God, and with my memory, I can hardly forget. But if there had been any chance at forgetting, I lost that opportunity in a conversation I had with my late AP US History teacher Harold Meltzer back in the ’89-’90 school year. Estelle Abel came up as a topic because of something that had occurred with one of his AP students. Apparently, this particular student, a female basketball player, had made the decision to apply to some predominantly White institutions, and had left HBCUs off her application plate. And apparently, Abel had gone after this student for doing so, all but calling her a traitor to her race by taking the route that a majority of traditional African American students have been taking since the ’70s.

Two Oreo Cookies, February 7, 2011. (Evan-Amos via Wikipedia). In public domain.

In all, it took Meltzer about twenty minutes to tell what would’ve been a five or seven-minute-story for the long-winded. That’s how much he could meander in the forests of his stories sometimes. Then I told Meltzer my Estelle Abel story from my last day of school. It sparked a conversation that I wasn’t quite prepared to have. One not only about Estelle Abel, but about the African American faculty at Mount Vernon High School in general.

For most of the rest of the conversation, Meltzer was in full gossip mode, telling me things about individual teachers that I shouldn’t have known, and mostly have forgotten, thankfully. But I did say to him early on in this part of the conversation that I really didn’t know much about the Black teachers at MVHS. The reason was simple. I didn’t have a single Black teacher as my teacher in four years of high school. Humanities classes — particularly the Level 0 and Level 1 classes — had few, if any, Black teachers, much less any teachers of color.

I didn’t say that exactly, but it was the essence of what I said and thought about while Meltzer yammered on about the disunity among MVHS teachers. To think that from Ms. Simmons’ math class in seventh grade at A.B. Davis Middle School until my history and Black Studies classes my junior year at Pitt, I’d gone without a single African American teacher or professor. I knew that some of the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of my guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo, Humanities coordinators, MVHS’ leadership and the Italian Civic Association.

But how much of this was my fault, being so myopically focused on grades, college and getting away from 616 and Mount Vernon, I didn’t know. After all, I learned in the middle of my senior year that Dr. Spruill taught a Black history class, that there had been efforts to bring in more Black teachers and other teachers of color at Mount Vernon High School dating back at least four years.

Uncle Ruckus screenshot, from Aaron McGruder’s animated TV series The Boondocks, July 4, 2011. (Grapesoda22 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of picture’s low resolution.

Still, none of that really mattered to me that year. I had already and unsuccessfully attempted to thread the needle between a cushy senior year and a year that prepared me for the rigors of college. Anything else, whether it was Black history, a trip to West Africa or a visit to some HBCU campuses, was hardly on my radar.

Whatever my lack of focus could be construed as in ’86-’87, it wasn’t because I wasn’t Black enough, or ashamed of being Black, as folks like Estelle Abel implied or accused me of in their thoughts and words, and with their eyeballs that year. Sure, I was weird, and readily admit to being weird, aloof, and emotionless in my MVHS days. But given the hell that I lived with at home and in that community in my last years in Mount Vernon, weirdness and a focus on getting out through college should’ve been applauded, or at least tolerated, without teachers like Abel staring at me as if I was demon-possessed.

That it wasn’t tolerated was the real shame. It took me years to get over it, that uncomfortability of being judged by other Blacks as too smart, too weird, too un-Black in their eyes for my own good.

Paula Baker and the 4.0 Aftermath

February 1, 2012

Paula Baker speaking (screen shot) in response to Donald Crichlow's book, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism at The New School, New York City, March 1, 2006. (

Of all the professors I worked with in grad school, there wasn’t a tougher one on me than Paula Baker. Or a better one. She wanted and expected more out of me than even my advisors, Larry Glasco and Joe Trotter. If it weren’t for her, I probably would’ve been content with earning all of my degrees at the University of Pittsburgh. But if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have discovered my ambivalence about academia in the first place.

I took an upper level history course in US history since 1945 and an independent study with Paula the semester after earning straight-As, the one that made my master’s program a seven-and-a-half month one instead of two years (see “The 4.0 Of It All” from December 2011). It was her second semester as an assistant professor in our department, and given the demographics of the ol’ White boys club, I thought it a good idea to take a professor whose graduate studies were still going on while I was in high school. That, and learning of Paula rare feat (at least for ’84) of publishing an article in the Journal of American History while still a grad student herself at Rutgers University, appealed to the competitor in me.

Paula Baker, University of Virginia, Miller Center, December 2006. (

I sat down for my first meeting with Paula in her small, windowless office (except for a glass partition that she had covered up so students couldn’t look in), just across from the grad student cubicles on the third floor of Forbes Quad. She said, “What are you doing here?” I didn’t understand her question at first. What I soon realized was that Paula was asking me the kinds of questions I should’ve asked myself two years earlier, when I first started applying to grad schools. She said that there were better options for a doctorate in American and African American history than Pitt, including the University of Michigan and UCLA.

There were two things that made Paula, though. One, she regularly broke the law while anyone was in her office, including pre-asthmatic me. Paula smoked as if her life depended on it. For me, it was the first time I thought that I might end up dead before I turned thirty for second-hand smoke and lung cancer. Mind you, my mother, my father and my idiot ex-stepfather all smoked, but not in a space unfit for a sardine.

Two, and more important in my second semester of grad school, was her uncompromising perfectionism when it came to my research and writing. Obviously my writing was already good. But it wasn’t scholarly, at least not as scholarly as it needed to be. In writing my paper on the influence of Marxist ideology (perceived and actual) on the early Civil Rights Movement, I must’ve done at least seven drafts for Paula.

She probably used up about three ball point pens editing my drafts, crossing out whole paragraphs at a time, demanding that I raise my level of analysis ever higher. And when it was all said and done, Paula assigned me a grade of B+ in my independent study with her, the lowest grade I’d receive in three years of master’s and doctoral work. Still, she turned me on to Adolph Reed, Jr. and Theda Skocpol.

What Paula didn’t know was that by the middle of February ’92, I was mentally exhausted, mostly from the previous semester’s work and the lack of a holiday break. I wasn’t at my best in her class and in her office. Somewhere in the midst of struggling to stay on task, I learned how to read for arguments, how to use book reviews to supplement my lack of historiographical knowledge, and to expand my thinking to include other fields, like philosophy and sociology.

I also learned that I really didn’t like writing in scholarly-speak. It felt fake, as if I had to learn French and German and high English in order to make an argument that would make old White farts stand at attention. I didn’t blame Paula for this. I fully understood what she was doing and why she was doing it. But I also knew that this wasn’t me, the scholarly world wasn’t quite an exact fit for me. C’est la vie!

After April ’92, I took one other independent study with Paula, the following year, to get ready for the comprehensive exams for my doctorate. I took it as a non-graded course, as I knew I was about to transfer to Carnegie Mellon. She eventually left Pitt — not exactly a surprise.

I bumped into her once in ’01 right outside Union Station in DC, while she was a fellow at Woodrow Wilson Center and I was in my assistant director job with the New Voices Fellowship Program. Paula didn’t seem happy to see me, but then again, sarcasm and irony always seemed to be the key to getting her smile. Like the irony of me not using my degree in academia.


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