February brings out all manner of stories and history related to the African-American experience. But as my friend, Anthony, put it the other day, "I'm black every month of the year."
He's right. It's always a good time to discuss. I've been thinking back to influential people in my life, recalling those who have helped lead me where I stand today. And it so happens a person on my mind is Dr. Jacquelyn Jackson, the most imposing college professor of my life - a strong educator who deserves praise, whether for Black History Month or otherwise. Dr. Jackson was a true teacher, not just in her role as English professor, but of life and raising the student's awareness of himself and the world.
Dr. Jackson brought a proud HBCU heritage to the classroom, a Tennessee State University graduate in 1958 and 1971 (master's) with a doctorate from the University of Kentucky earned in 1985. Dr. Jackson was part of the reason, along with Eddie Robinson's Grambling football team, I became interested in the legacy and profound impact of HBCUs throughout the country.
I searched Dr. Jackson's name today to see what appeared. The top hit was some rate-my-professor website filled with belly-aching, whining and opinions bordering on libel. Honestly, I'm having a difficult time not engaging in a mud-slinging exercise with these former students as I'm reading this bitterness. But what's the point? This was years ago. Dr. Jackson is retired, and I hope she's enjoying life. And I certainly can't speak to others' experiences, which seem to have been awful and offensive.
For me, Dr. Jackson's sophomore-level English course was transformative. I was 19 years old, attending college before online professor rating systems. We relied on word of mouth. And while no one ever verbalized the nasty things I've read about Dr. Jackson online, the overwhelming sentiment among students I knew was to avoid her classes.
She was tough. She took no nonsense, suffered no fools. She demanded attention to detail. Her homework assignments, reading lists and exams required quality time.
I have no idea what compelled me to enroll in Dr. Jackson's class. Maybe I wanted the challenge. Maybe I'd already enrolled before I heard people's opinions. Maybe I was just meant to be there.
Turns out, Dr. Jackson was tough, the toughest professor I've known.
A couple of experiences still stand out. I remember a drab, rainy day, late February or early March, probably middle of the week, after I'd lost any momentum from the start of a new semester, when I was way too far from the end.
We were supposed to read a short story or multiple book chapters for class. All of us shuffled in for our morning routine, and Dr. Jackson started the discussion. She called on one guy; he had no idea what she was talking about. Hadn't read the material. Frustrated, Dr. Jackson called on another student, and another. Each time, unprepared. She was steaming.
Finally, she turned to me. Certainly I had read the assignment, she said. Could I contribute to this discussion? I squirmed, felt hot. I quietly told her I couldn't. I had skipped reading the night before, thinking I could skate through and jot some notes later. I failed her.
Dr. Jackson swept up her papers, books and binders in a jagged pile and kicked us out of class. Just like that, five minutes or so into it, with a dire warning not to arrive in such a delinquent manner the next time, or ever again.
I'd never seen anything like it. A full-blown "get out of here." And I admired Dr. Jackson for it. Why should she waste her time on a bunch of soft teenagers who hadn't fought for much of anything in their lives? Dr. Jackson's response commanded respect and ensured the integrity of her classroom.
Another experience had a cumulative effect. One of the major projects of the semester was a research paper. Dr. Jackson provided a list of possible topics, and she did not disappoint. While she demanded much from us, she also went beyond the typically boring material you can imagine.
Possible research topics delved into jazz, blues, pop culture and sports. From Dr. Jackson's list, I chose to write about the death of Hank Gathers, a college basketball player I loved to watch on a high-flying, late-80s Loyola Marymount team I loved to follow.
I don't remember the exact requirements. For a 19-year-old, it was something unwieldy...researching and writing a paper with a minimum of 20 pages. I laugh at that now. 20 whole pages. DOUBLE-SPACED! BIBLIOGRAPHY! But, hey, this was a serious concern back then.
Inspired by my subject, I launched into microfilm at the library. I dug into newspapers I'd only heard about growing up in the Illinois countryside. I kept reading and learning, forming my story, managing all the details and sources. And I loved it.
Dr. Jackson planted a seed or unlocked an internal element or something. Whatever you call it, I discovered a love of deep work - the thinking, the writing, the researching - that drives me today. Projects similar to the one Dr. Jackson assigned that semester are the most satisfying types of projects I work on now. If I had to mark the time when the act of writing exploded into a thousand possibilities for me, it was in Dr. Jackson's classroom.
Does she remember me? I doubt it. I sent a note several years ago, but heard nothing. That doesn't matter. Her impact is tangible.
But consider the opportunities I missed! To hear about her life in Kentucky in the 1940s, her experiences at Tennessee State University, being a woman of color striving for excellence. There was so much more to learn in that classroom I never realized.
In honor of Dr. Jackson, I'm posting her senior-year photo from the 1958 Tennessee State University yearbook, when she was known as Jacquelyn Logan. She was a psychology major, and member of the Methodist Student Movement, Psychology Club and English Club.
I like to think she was launching into the world after her own positive, influential experiences with strong professors.