Samana’s legs were too long. Or the skirt was too short. She really could not settle on how the skirt was wrong. And her ass was too wide. In some circles, it would be considered wide enough (or even, not wide enough), but for her new job, was it too wide? She imagined, four months from now, the written evaluations from her students, 87% of whom would be white: “her clothes were too provocative,” “she was too urban,” “she dressed nicely,” “she looked unprofessional.” If there was a question, Samana reasoned, if there was a concern, then the skirt wasn’t right. And the shirt was too bright against her burnt umber skin. She took off the pink blouse and threw it on her bed. “Clothes aren’t made for black women,” she thought.
She finally picked clothes that she considered professional but incognito, then made her way to the university. She was still awed that she got the job. A tenure track position teaching writing at a university. First in her immediate family to get a college degree, first in her entire family to get an advanced degree, and she had, somehow, made it. Of course, the position was hundreds of miles from anyone she loved. And her new city was bereft of people who looked like her. But it was a job. A career in academia!
Once on campus, Samana tried to find her office with the map in her hiring packet. She had been to the campus twice before, but her sense of direction was horrible and she had forgotten where everything was. Besides, the university was sprawled over one thousand acres, so finding any building wasn’t easy. She disembarked the bus near Adams Hall, so she wasn’t too worried about getting lost. Still, she feared that she looked like a tourist and that someone would stop and offer help. Sure enough, an older gentleman wearing a bowtie and a tweed sportscoat came to her aid.
“Do you need help finding one of your classes, miss?” he said. “You still have a half an hour before the first sessions of the day.”
Samana thought of the many responses she could offer her colleague, including ‘black don’t crack but I’m obviously not eighteen,’ or ‘actually, sir, I was on my way to Chicago and I thought I’d stop here at this quaint little college in this quaint little town.’ But she smiled; his offer, she decided, was sincere and she shouldn’t be so suspicious. She introduced herself. “I’m Samana Towns. I’m joining the English Department this semester and I can’t remember where Adams Hall is.”
“John Newton,” the man shook her hand. “Welcome to campus! I have some time, so I can escort you, if you like. There are some good people in Adams. I’m over in Calvin Hall, myself, in chemistry.” He led Samana to her building, which was only about a block away.
She went upstairs to her office and unlocked it, happy that she had moved most of her things in and placed the books on the shelves. Samana wanted to use the time before her class began to finish setting up her office. But should she leave her door opened or closed? If she kept it closed, she thought, then she may seem standoffish or uncooperative to her colleagues. Opened, then she may seem inconsiderate and brash depending on the noise. Samana stood at the threshold, holding the door ajar, trying to decide what she should do, when another colleague came to offer his help.
“Are you waiting for Dr. Towns?” he asked. “She should be in later this morning.”
Samana looked at the man who stood there, jeans and plaid shirt, holding a coffee mug decorated with Shakespearean insults.
“Excuse me?” she said. “George, you interviewed me. I am Dr. Towns!”
“Oh.” His face went immediately red. “It’s just that you looked, uh—”
Samana waited, wanting him to complete the sentence because she was curious. But she wanted to fit in and not make her colleague uncomfortable, so she helped him out. “Lost, yes, I look lost. I was trying to decide if I wanted the door opened or shut.”
George smiled. “We have an open-door culture here. Welcome, Samana! I’m so sorry.”
She smiled back at him and nodded her head. “It’s okay.”
Her first class was two buildings away. She walked there, she worried, with the confidence of a first-year student—unsure of her surroundings or of the people. She found the building without issue and easily found her classroom. Students stood outside—her students—waiting for the class before theirs to end. One woman turned to Samana and looked her up and down. She was tall and blonde with fancy glasses and a flowery summer dress. She smiled and said hello and Samana greeted her back. Then, the student said, “I hope this Dr. Towns is not a dud. They’re new, so no info on Rate My Prof.”
Surely, there were nontraditional students on the campus, but didn’t Dr. Towns at least look professorial to her student? Apparently not. Samana started to correct her, but decided instead to shrug. “We’ll see,” she said instead.
Soon, the other class finished, so Samana and her students filed in. The young woman who spoke to Samana in the hall tried to follow her, maybe meaning to sit next to her, but changed directions when she saw Samana stop at the head of the classroom and place her briefcase on the table. Eventually, the students found seats and Samana looked out at them warmly. She looked forgivingly at the girl who mistook her for a student. She didn’t want to make any of her students feel ashamed for making a faux pas on the first day of class, even though she was bothered by the girl.
Samana quickly introduced herself. She said they would begin with an icebreaker game. “Each person has to say their name and their major, then the next person has to say the previous student’s name. The third student has to say the first two students’ names, and so on, naming as many of the students before them as possible.”
One of her male students raised his hand and said, “Don’t you mean ‘his or her’ and not ‘their’ name? I mean, you’re only talking about one person at a time, right?”
The question—the correction—almost caught Samana off guard. Wasn’t this the generation that fought for the recognition of all genders? Beyond that, what was the student trying to prove by questioning his English professor’s language? Still, keeping her decorum, Samana tried not to glare at the student for correcting her.
“I’m striving for inclusivity here,” she said. “Not all of us may identify along the binary.”
The student didn’t respond, but only gave her a hurt look.
“This is not high school,” another young man said. “Why are we doing this name game?”
Samana’s breath caught in her throat and she coughed a little before answering. She did not expect these kinds of challenges on day one.
“This is a workshop where we’ll be looking closely at each other’s personal essays. You will very much want to know the people who are in this classroom. At the very least, you’ll want to know their names.”
Another man raised his hand. “I don’t understand. Aren’t all peer reviews online?”
Samana placed her fingertips on top of the table. “How’s that now? Online?”
“Yes,” he said, “all of the classes prior to this point—in English and otherwise—have peer reviews online.”
“Who am I addressing, sir?”
“My name? I’m Ranger.”
“Ranger,” Samana said. “Huh. Well, this is a writing workshop where we’ll parse through each other’s pieces as a working group. But I am getting ahead of myself. I hope it suffices you to just understand that we need to know each other’s names. We need to know each other. By the third week of this class, I want us to know each other more than—again, I am getting ahead. You first. Your name and major.”
The class stumbled through the icebreaker, showing some mirth and cooperation. When they were all done, Samana told them her full name, but asked that they address her as Professor Towns. A student named Emily asked what was the meaning of the name Samana.
“It’s the name of the town where my great-grandfather was born and raised. It’s in the D.R.”
“So then you’re not American?” Ranger asked.
“My great-grandfather was from Samaná, but he immigrated to the States for work and fell in love with my great-grandmother.”
Rosalie, the same girl who had talked to her in the hallway about the professor being a potential dud, raised her hand. “Have you even published anything before? No offense, but you look so young.”
“Not only that,” one of the men whose name she couldn’t remember said, “it’s that, you know, are you a diversity hire?”
“A what?” Samana asked.
“No offense, but there aren’t many colored faculty—”
“You mean faculty of color—”
“Right, there aren’t that many here, so,” the student trailed off.
“So you think I was only hired because of my race.” Samana watched the student start to speak, then stop himself. She glanced around at the rest of the class. Each white face looked guilty. “Should I open the question up to everyone?”
“Do you want to be here?” someone asked.
“But you’re not from here,” someone else said.
“She’s not American,” Ranger said.
“I am American.” Could her class see that she was so angry that her ears were red? They probably could not. They might not have known to look. “Did anyone bother to look me up online? I thought everyone Googled their professors.”
“There’s Rate My Professor.”
“No, find out about your professors. Learn about their research, their publications, their credentials. Learn where they got their degrees.”
“Where did you get your degree?”
Samana took a breath and sat down. “Do you know how academia works? Do any of you know how I got this job?”
The students shook their heads. “It’s just that you’re so young,” one student said, “so you could not possibly be a doctor, right?”
“I’m not that young.” Samana could do two things and she knew this: she could get angry, or she could treat this as a teaching moment. She decided to do both.
“Let’s talk a little about the academic job market and how it works. Before I begin, I just want you to know that you need an advanced degree to teach here unless you’re a TA, and I am not a TA. And in the English Department, you need a PhD.”
Samana then told the students about how faculty jobs are advertised and how few jobs there were. She told them that her position was coveted and though race may have been an asset to her employment (“I will never know. No one will ever tell me if I was hired to make the rainbow more complete,” she told them), it was not enough to secure her the position.
“So, have I published anything? Of course, I have. You can learn about any of my publications if you did just a minute of research. But let’s not talk about me, okay? Let’s do some writing. I’ll write a one-page bio and you all will do the same. Type up anything you want the class to know about you and bring it with you the next time we meet. I’ll bring mine, too.”
That night, Samana cried to her mother, who was nearly one thousand miles away, who consoled her over the phone.
“You deserve to be there,” her mother said. “You have the background and the degrees. You did the hard work that won you that spot.”
“But I don’t fit in. It’s so important for faculty to be a good fit, Mama, and I’m not. That’s apparent.”
“Of course they want you to think that,” her mother said. “Honey, remember when you first went to college? Your daddy and I drove you five hundred miles away and settled you in. When we got home, you had left us four voice messages telling us to come back.”
“Mama, this is different.”
“It’s the same damn thing. You complained that there were no black people, no people of color, no poor people. You complained that your roommate only listened to heavy metal.”
“But that was for only four years.”
“We had to leave you there for a month until you found friends.”
“This is a career. This is my life! I can’t live like this.”
“A whole month until you found your friends, your favorite teachers, and comfort. You came home for a weekend and you were happy to go back to school.”
“You’re telling me to give it a month?”
“You are a grown woman. Give it a year.”
The next day wasn’t as horrible for Samana. She had two students of color in her first-year composition course and met another professor of color, a gender studies professor who was Southeast Asian. She even had lunch with George, who again apologized for not recognizing her.
“It’s just that you look like a student or something,” he said.
She considered just accepting his apology.
“George,” she began, “was it like this for you when you first started here?”
“What do you mean?”
Samana took a sip of her latte. She continued. “You’re, what, in your thirties? Early forties?”
“Late thirties.” He bit his sandwich and while still chewing, he said, “But I’m just a pasty white guy. And you have good skin.”
“Oh? But I don’t look like a kid, right? I’m not saying that our students are kids; they’re young adults. But they are so much younger than me. And I know there are nontraditional students here, but they look, I don’t know.” Samana stopped speaking. “I don’t know how to say this.”
“You’re hurt that I mistook you for a student?”
“Yes, I am.”
“But you should feel like it’s a compliment. You do look pretty young.”
“George, we’ve met. You interviewed me. You escorted me from the airport when I was here for my campus visit. I know I should feel flattered that people—and yes, it’s many people here on campus—mistake me for a student but really, I feel like it challenges my professionalism. Is it the way I dress? Or it’s the skin.”
“The good skin.”
“Mmm,” Samana smiled at George. “I hope I didn’t make you feel uncomfortable.”
“Me? Samana, you’re the one who should be uncomfortable. You think it’s a race thing?”
Samana nodded and laughed. “Oh, yeah, I do.” George looked worried. “See? You’re uncomfortable.” Samana laughed again.
On the third day of classes, she met her nonfiction class again, and they dutifully brought in their bios. She learned that they were high school valedictorians, prom and homecoming queens, and star quarterbacks. Her students were late bloomers or early readers, guitarists, flautists, drummers, and violinists. Her students had published in the student literary journal and student newspaper. They hoped for the annihilation of entire countries or world peace. They had cats, they had dogs, guinea pigs and hamsters, snakes, fish, and even a miniature pony. They listened to rap, pop, country, and hip hop.
Her students were also sometimes hungry, sometimes homeless, and sometimes defiant. They had family they had to take care of, they had two jobs so they could afford tuition, they had to put things off.
“Where’s Ranger?” Samana asked.
Her students shrugged. She was disappointed that he was not there. She wanted to show him—she wanted to show them all—that she had a right to be there and that she was the best choice. Samana shrugged herself, sad that she may have lost one, but grateful that most of her students had stayed.
After class, Rosalie went to Samana at the front of the classroom.
“I think our prof is not a dud. Well, not so far,” she said.
Samana grinned at her. “Good! It’s probably because she has a class full of bright and talented students.”
“Will you ever tell us how old you are?”
“Rosalie, as a writer, we learn how to figure that out without asking. I’m sure you can search for me online and find my age if you wanted to. Maybe we will discuss fact finding in class.”
After Rosalie left, Samana thought about what her mother told her over the phone: she deserved to be there. She did the work to land her the position at that Midwestern university. Samana agreed, but that she had earned a spot there did not change the way people treated her. She felt as if she was borrowing space and time until someone more worthy came along. She could call her mother and complain again, after her first week of school, to ask for advice. But, Samana thought, if she considered herself fit for the part, she had better stop indulging in expectations and challenging all assumptions.
Samana gathered her bookbag and left the classroom. How could she doubt herself? She was perfect for the position of moving her campus forward. Of course she was a good fit.
DeMisty D. Bellinger’s writing has appeared in many places, including WhiskeyPaper, The Rumpus, and wildness. Her chapbook, Rubbing Elbows, is available from Finishing Line Press. She teaches creative writing and women’s studies in a small Massachusetts town, and she lives in that small town with her husband and twin daughters. You can read more from DeMisty at demistybellinger.com and find her on Twitter @DeMistyB.