This time twenty years, I was a week or so away from turning in a 4.0 first semester of graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. It wasn’t exactly first and foremost on my mind at the time. I was just trying to get through the semester, and I was beginning to run out of gas. Between my independent study course with Larry Glasco and my graduate semester in pre-1877 US history, not to mention my third-semester Swahili course and History of Black Pittsburgh class, I’d been too swamped to pay attention to my grades. It was a sure sign that I was no longer in the mindset of a Humanities student, a grinder concerned only with A’s. It was also a sign of how much the gatekeepers in Pitt’s history department had pissed me off.
I know for an absolute certainty what I was doing by the end of the first week in December ’91. I was putting together what would become a forty-five page master’s paper comparing the intercultural and multicultural education movements in US history for Larry, while also finalizing my master’s readings paper on African American self-perceptions during an after slavery. It was a counter to George Fredrickson’s book The Black Image in the White Mind (1987). I was also in the midst of doing interviews for a paper on civil rights activists in Pittsburgh and the collaboration (or lack thereof) between Black and White activists in the 1960s. Swahili, really, was easier, as all I had left was to convince my Tanzanian teacher Rashidi that I was proficient in conversational Swahili.
Luckily, I’d already been in a zone since the beginning of November, so none of what I now had left to work on was a last-minute deal. I knocked off all of these tasks and more a full week before the end of the semester. For some odd reason, I was completely confident that I’d done well. I just didn’t know that I’d earned straight-As for only the second time in ten years, or in four semesters.
But that was only about a quarter of what was important at the time. In addition to my actual grades, I’d knocked off two graduate-level seminars that semester (counting my independent studies course), and in the process, knocked off my two master’s papers for the degree. In the middle of the semester, I took and passed my language requirement for my master’s, taking a written proficiency exam in Swahili — despite some initial push-back from Larry to take it in Spanish.
I also used a loophole in the University of Pittsburgh handbook to allow I graduate seminar I took my junior year to be counted toward my master’s degree a year and a half later. Once again, I had to go over the head of our LSD-affected graduate advisor, Joe White and the department chair to the dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Pitt. I cited the exact code in the handbook that allowed me to count as many as nine credits from my undergraduate courses toward my master’s degree, provided that these were graduate-level courses to begin with. And, they approved the use of my Comparative Slavery course as credit to this degree as well.
Having done all of that, having survived an asthmatic cough — my first sign that I had asthma, really — that had lasted more than a third of the semester, having shaken off all of my doubters in the department. I realized by the beginning of December that with two more graduate seminars and a graduate course in another field, that I could my master’s done by the end of April. That minor epiphany made my head swim for a few minutes, just before I dove back into my intercultural education research paper.
A week or so later, I talked with my mother about what I knew was about to happen and about what could happen by the end of two semesters of graduate school. She said, “Well you showed them! You know, you never liked to be told you can’t do something.” I knew this was true. But as I said in response, “But that wasn’t and can’t be the main reason I continue to do this,” I knew that so much more motivated me than the professors who doubted me or getting straight-As.
The point of all of this was so that I could find a purpose for my life and all of the skills and talent I’d been blessed with. This great first semester was merely the start of the journey, not the end.