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besesakaAfter having 3 migraines in 24 hours, I went to work today for 5 hours of advising. It wasn’t as chaotic as I thought it would be, and I was glad I had some tissue to share when a young woman sat down and burst into tears. She had hoped to earn a scholarship to Barnard but then a friend and a close relative committed suicide in the same year. She withdrew from all her courses and took a full-time job but was eventually let go. Now she’s back at school, feeling like she messed up. I don’t know a whole lot about our degree requirements (I take a training every year but the rules keep changing) but I know a little something about losing a loved one to suicide. I hope that student believed me when I told her that 1) she was not responsible for what happened to her loved ones, and 2) it wasn’t too late to resume her studies and impress the scholarship committee at Barnard. As expected, she hadn’t told them about her extenuating circumstances and so I encouraged her to write a letter or explain in person. I probably only advised 10 students today but talking to them one on one reminds me why I love to teach at the college level—and why I write for young adults. They’re on the cusp—no longer innocent yet so much of the world is still unknown to them. Life is still exciting and they believe in their own potential; they haven’t yet become jaded or defeated. I received so much support from the educators in my life, so I hope I’m doing the same for my own students. My high school English teacher read The Deep and sent me this rave review in an email:

The Deep is a real page-turner that had me on the edge of my couch, reading fast to find out what would happen next.  I really enjoyed the characters, the whole mad idea, and the well constructed, believable dialogue.  I was sad to see the last of Nyla, although I believe she is on to a new phase that you will bring to your readers. The idea of her finding her mother is very gripping, while the other characters are also quite credible and interesting. I was surprised at how effective the whole idea was, because at another level, of course, it is outrageous to imagine: it was impressive to recognize the invented separate world that the reader could accept along with carefully devised characters from the real world. These parents behave like normal parents and the long-lost mother shows very interestingly the different sides of her torn character. The edge of ruthlessness in Nyla’s personality is both shocking and encouraging: the cause needs her courage.

Then yesterday, in between migraines, I got this lovely message from my aunt who had just finished the novel:

I didn’t want it to end…and turned the last page muttering…’NO”…you can’t do this to me!”

Zetta “The Deep’ is so good…The ultimate fight of good over evil is so skillfully portrayed and your character development took me intimately into the lives of D, Keem, Nyla, Roan and Lada…
So you know what I am going to ask you…the sequel? When? Hoping you will reach under your bed and pull out the finished manuscript and say…Oh…well…I was going to wait but Faith needs it now so I will publish it sooner :))
I am so incredibly proud of you…of your ability and the way you are developing strong black women in literature as role models…
Love you…
Lately I’ve been having a conversation with a friend about gratitude. To me, gratitude isn’t something you give (or owe) to another person; it’s something you cultivate within yourself so that you see abundance in every area of your life…

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indexIt’s the end of the semester and that means students are starting to panic. I have the usual knot of dread in my belly as I wait for a student to dissolve in tears or explode in a fit of rage over something for which s/he refuses to take responsibility. Yesterday an enraged student took a shotgun to a school in Colorado and shot a female student when the teacher he planned to kill wisely left the building. I’ve visited three middle schools so far this month and I have four more visits next week. At first I worried I wouldn’t have enough energy to interact with kids after grading mountains of essays and journals and reports and portfolios. But yesterday I realized that public schools are sites of love for me. I often say that teaching is like parenting in my mind: it’s a one-way street. Teaching can be rewarding, but many students treat their professors like their own personal valet. You’re there to serve and in the mind of many students and college administrators, the customer is always right. Tressie McMillan Cottom writes,

But hurt feelings can be bad for business. And a lot of powerful people think colleges should act more like businesses. When they do, students act more like customers…If I want to piss off the majority of higher education’s customers, then defying the natural superiority of men by being a female authority figure…would seem like a good way to go…

Teaching what people would rather not learn is especially tough if you are a woman or a minority professor. Research shows that our customers rate Asian-American, Hispanic, black, and women professors lower than white male professors across all subjects. Most disturbingly, student evaluations of women of color are harshest when customers are told that the results will be “communicated to a third party for the purposes of evaluation.” Our customers are not only disinclined to like tough subjects; they’re also inclined to take their discomfort out on minority professors, who are the least likely to have the protection of tenure or support from university administration.

Now, I teach Ethnic Studies to students who are Black and Latino. When I do have white students in my classroom, they’re usually there because they have a progressive attitude toward race. I don’t generally get any push back from my white students. But I do consistently have black male students who don’t feel they have to respect black women. And when I go into a middle school here in Brooklyn, I do wonder how long it will take for some of the sweet boys I meet to turn. They often approach me after my presentation has ended and they’re full of praise (“You’re a really good reader!”) and quiet revelations (“I’m working on a novel, too”). Yesterday I spent close to two hours at a school in Bushwick and from the moment I arrived, I was warmly welcomed and embraced. I don’t think of myself as an egomaniac, and not all schools put up signs and displays with my photo and book covers. But there is LOVE in those libraries and classrooms and auditoriums. It’s palpable. And maybe that’s why I’d rather be an aunty than a mom—I get all the adoration with none of the drudgery. I don’t feel taken for granted as an author. And even when kids are buying my books, they act like *I* am giving them a gift. And as I prepare to leave, the host teacher or librarian will almost always say, “The kids are going to remember this forever.” With my college students, I’m often left wondering if I’m even making a dent—if they even care about the work we do together in class. It’s not a nice feeling. But the semester is almost over and I at least have the assurance of knowing I did all I could to help them learn. I’m just going to keep soaking up the love I get from these middle schools. And once all the grading is done and my students’ demands/complaints have stopped, I will go back to doing what it is I do best: write.

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