Open Letter to an Anonymous Evaluator or Girl, What You Gon Do Now? (Essay 3/52)

*This is my third essay in Vanessa Martír’s #52essays2017 challenge. I suggest reading this open letter once without following the footnotes and then once with the footnotes. You will see why I’ve chosen this form. This was fun.

Girl, Girl, Girl, Girl, Girl[1],

I just had to reach out because I’m worried about you, Sug[2]. What you gon’ do now that you have pushed me from sad to sickening? Just what will you do now that you got a bitch[3] on her toes with a plan to actually give you even more to hate?

See, it’s one thing to be hated for who you are. It isn’t pleasant, but it is life’s way of presenting you with opportunities to claim yourself, to affirm that you are your own best thing[4]. When someone hates the person that you have intentionally crafted to get you through this leg of the journey, you get to tell yourself all the reasons that they’re the fool for not seeing what you saw when you hand-selected each of your traits and put them together like a fresh Derby[5] fit. But when someone hates the shell of yourself, the persona you were accidentally occupying just trying to get through a rough time, it throws you off balance. You scream, “But you don’t even know me!” in your head and then ask yourself why not. Why didn’t you know me last semester? And if you didn’t know me, which persona did you attack?

I mean, who is this woman you hate? Nervous Nancy[6] with the shaky voice standing in front of a small group of girls typing text messages on their cell phones? Was she the absolute worst? Haven’t you ever seen somebody’s confidence shake for a minute before righting itself?

Who taught you to ride your bike? Really. I want to know who held on to the back of your seat and then let go, trusting you to find your own balance. I want to know who picked you up when you fell, told you that falling was a part of the process, dusted you off, then put you back on the road until you got it. Who was it? And then I want you to imagine learning to ride without that person. Imagine finding your balance when nobody is behind you yelling, “You got it! I’m here![7]

I don’t want to make assumptions. Perhaps you learned to ride alone. Perhaps you did everything on your own and I seem like a punk to you. Perhaps my fear reminds you of the feelings you repressed when you were teaching yourself to do hard things when you were too young to do them. Perhaps I remind you of the thing you had to kill to survive. I can understand that. I fucks with that feeling. I know how it feels to chastise someone else before you realize you are actually talking to your own mirror. It’s called parenting.

But anyway, girl, bike or no bike, I don’t think you can keep up with who you have pushed me to become. I can tell that you know all about that life on the other side of “You got me fucked up!” I can tell you know how to make a muthafucka sorry they[8] ever tried it. I could tell when you wore your good, good Remy hair the day after the class period you spent texting so fast and furiously that you had to be fighting with a boo.  Girl, I know you know how to throw some lip gloss on a rejection and keep it moving. And that’s just what I plan to do, but I’m so worried about you because I just don’t think you’ll be ready.

I swear you’re not ready for my “perfeshonal” drag. I was so content to be my Daddy’s daughter last semester, what with my scuff-toed sneakers and jeans that sagged in the butt[9]. But after your comments, I had a come-to-Jesus moment with my mentor who told me I needed to use style to put more space between me and you. See, you’d mentioned my age in your evaluation and surmised that I just wasn’t old enough to be teaching you[10]. And while I appreciate your compliment, girl, I am so worried about your teeth this semester. I mean, the winter months are probably the worst time to leave your mouth hanging open, what with the cold air and all. More than 57% of adults suffer from tooth sensitivity and I’m just saying that the frost we’re expecting will likely bother your exposed dentin. I noticed you were a tooth grinder, which can exacerbate the condition, but maybe that’s just when I’m talking. Anyway, take good care. I recommend a good scarf to protect your mouth from these tailored blazers and ankle pants, honey. You have no idea what Professional Gamine Pinterest and morning texts to my glamorous mother are about to do to your feelings.

I’m also worried about your emotional labor this semester. I’m just wondering how you will comfort your crushing friends, the ones who come crying to you because they weren’t born 20 years earlier and hence, aren’t on my radar as possible mates. I mean, you have pushed a bitch to the MAC counter and GIRL. A bitch found her cheek bones and got an eye-crease tutorial. I’m sickening, I tell you, and your friends will surely need your help this semester. If I’m lyin I’m flyin and I don’t do heights.

And sweetie, pray tell[11], just what do you plan to do about these legs? When I was busy being the worst professor ever, I took the lazy route through fashion and wore African print[12] maxi skirts like a uniform. I was subconsciously hiding my legs because y’all ain’t never had feminists organizing on this campus before and your young men are unschooled, honey. I can tell nobody has had an honest conversation with them about how it feels to be ogled or reduced to the body parts that titillate[13]. And without y’all’s help, I’ve had to have these conversations by my damn self and these boys are actually more understanding than y’all give them credit for. But I know where you’re coming from. My undergraduate experience was also full of gender wars that elders could have steered us clear of if they weren’t intentionally letting us do our own thing. Anyway, I have created the conditions in which it is safe to show these legs and I don’t think you’re ready for the ways I’ve been blessed by my Daddy’s genes. I mean, if you were jealous of my light in those dowdy print skirts then, girl, what will you do when I’m stomping the yard like my first name’s Dominique and last name’s Dawes? Girl, these calves have victims. I’m talking full on strokes and heart attacks and shit[14]. Three years ago these calves put a stud in a coma and her mama said she just came out. Another time, these calves made a man lose control of his car and hit the statue of Jefferson Davis and that’s how it got removed from University of Louisville’s campus. On my last campus, these calves stopped traffic for a whole two blocks which is unfortunate because somebody coulda gave me a ride to the library. It was hot that day. Most recently, these calves made a Jehovah’s witness stop ringing doorbells and come to Sunday School just to catch a glimpse of me in my Sunday dress.  If these legs ain’t gospel, I don’t know what else to call the light. So what you gon’ do when they make a believer out of you?

Let me stop playing now. After all, looks aren’t everything. I hope you won’t have to learn that lesson the way I did: by finding out on Facebook that the person who loved, then dumped you the hardest messed around and married a white girl who looks like she has a good heart[15]. But I digress.

So on to heart matters: from what I gather from your evaluation, it’s not what I did that pissed you off. It’s what I didn’t do. You wanted me to do more than pose discussion questions in class and center the knowledge of the people I was hired to teach. I’m being fully transparent when I tell you that I get that. For real. I understand wanting someone who looks like you to model this work. I get feeling that what you already know is not good enough to do anything remotely interesting with the text in front of you. I can empathize because the same feeling blocks me from completing my dissertation and saving myself, once and for all, from this shadow of myself people keep calling “Ms. French.” Ms. French is an undone project. Ms. French is ABD. She is defined by those letters and her career is stalled by them. There are not enough fashions in the world to dress up that “but,” the thing she cannot complete. Ms. French has been wearing those letters for 5 years now and she imagines a day when their weight will be behind her like Oprah’s 1988 wagon of animal fat.

But Hatin’ Hattie, you have dragged[16] me from “one day” into the spectacular now. You wanted what Ms. French had; you weren’t worried about what she’d failed to finish. You wanted her reading of “The Lesson,” her explanation of how she got there. You wanted her references, her jargon mixed in with everyday language. You wanted the mirror I thought you were denying me when I tried to see myself in your face and found a teeth-grinding girl who’d closed off her eyes. I wish I’d known how to do that. I wish I’d done it. Real talk.

But that was last semester. It’s behind the both of us and I think we are both better for it. You have your “A” and you’ve had your say. I have my bruised ego (the catalyst to any valuable change) and the determination that only girls who’ve been pushed to “You got me fucked up!” can muster. And I have lectures. I work on at least three every day and they don’t feel like the death of good pedagogy the way some schools of thought might have you believe. Instead, they feel like legacy.

I wish you could have seen the way I killed that lecture Thursday. I mean, I wish you could have felt Professor Roberts’ energy rushing through me. I wish you could have seen me feeling myself like Ms. Cole did on the days she wore her black leather pants and red lipstick. I wish you could have seen my version of Dr. Carr’s southern preacher teacher style. I wish you could have seen me borrow Dr. Boykin’s calm genius or Dr. Jackson’s wry humor. Ooh, I wish you could have heard me talk as pretty as Dr. Hampton—the way I mix home language and jargon in ways that let you know you don’t have to drop one to pick up the other. I wish you could have seen me be a reflection of all the gifts freely given to me by those I would never call the worst. I wish you could have seen me shine. Not to one-up you but to reflect that which is already in you, that which brought you to this place despite the trials you faced and gave you the courage to demand more when someone was giving you less than her best.

Now, I could tell you that there are better ways to get what you want than the route you took but then again we are all using the tools we have to get the results we think we need. You have pushed me toward my toolkit with your hatin’ ass ways and at the end of the day, I’m more grateful than annoyed.

But Girl. I still don’t know what you gon’ do now that you have turned the worst professor into the baddest[17].

Good luck with that,

Ms. French


[1] So girl, I wanted so badly to tell you about Sula, by Toni Morrison. About the way those words were uttered in lament and nostalgia for girlhood, that magical place where we learn to reach toward our own reflection in the eyes of an/ other. Which means I also have to teach you about Kevin Quashie and his theory of girlfriend subjectivity. But since I’m the “worst professor [you] ever had in your life,” I’m sure you wouldn’t be interested in learning anything I have to teach.

[2] Girl. Sug is short for Sugar, which is a way to call you sweet, which is a bit of Black Southern irony given that you are so damn hateful but which is also hopeful given that I write in the tradition of Alice Walker, whose character named Sug Avery started out treating the main character Celie really spitefully and hatefully but then ended up being the catalyst for her change and a great love. And while I hold no hope that you will be a great love, I do realize (because of Walker) that you are a valuable catalyst who can’t be reduced to the insults you hurled. And I wish you would have hung in there long enough to hear this too, but then the worst professor ever probably couldn’t have shared this information either.

[3] Girl, I sure hope you aren’t offended by my use of the B word, especially when it’s self-referential. I’m sure this is a surprise to you because you’ve probably never thought of me as a bitch. Probably never muttered it under your breath or told your friends I was one or anything. Probably never wanted to type it in your course evaluation before you opted for “worst professor ever.”

[4] Honey, I sure wish that I could have mentioned Sethe in passing during a lecture one day so that you would understand the weight of these words. Beloved was such a powerful novel and I wanted to get into it in class so that by the time Paul D got to telling Sethe that she was her own best thing, you, too, would have felt the weight lift from your shoulders as you realized that all ghosts ain’t yours to carry and that you owe it to yourself to live rather than nurse those who couldn’t make this journey with you. But I digress.

[5] Girl, and you from Louisville! I can’t believe somebody from home would be such a hater when they know full well that I make the daily drive from the city of their mother’s cooking to the city of cafeteria food. Girl, I could have, would have, been your delivery service. Would have brought your mama’s cornbread to your dorm room, wrapped in wax paper and still warm from the oven. Could have been a laundry delivery service too because I know how hard it is to find quarters on campus and every place in Louisville is just 15 minutes away. You have no idea how I bend for those I love because we didn’t have the opportunity to love each other—busy as I was being the worst teacher and busy as you were organizing Team Hate.

[6] Sweetie, that’s alliteration which I’m sure you remember was covered in the poetry chapter. I understand why that chapter was boring to read. All jokes aside, you have nudged me toward understanding what students really want, and how their desires are both black and beautiful. I mean we are a people who prefer tongue over text. We were raised on stories told out loud, and, in the wake of your evaluation, I have come to realize the ways I cheated you of that birthright—that which I received both at home and at Howard. I’m really sorry for that. I’m sorry I expected the chapters to pull so much weight instead of diving into the deep of the story and making class a place that felt more like church. I can do better, just not in overtly hostile conditions.

[7] What I’m saying is my Daddy died and I lost my edge for a little while. I don’t say this for you to feel sorry for me, but by way of explanation for a semester that wasn’t my best.

[8] Girl, don’t let your so-much-better-than-me professors make you afraid to use “they” instead of he or she. A better professor would be right about pronoun and antecedent agreement, but they’d be missing the point that the way we have constructed gender as a binary is violent and exclusive to lots of people who find themselves on middle places on the gender spectrum. I just want you to take that with you because I know you’ll have a lot of contact with professors who are better than me and, from what I can tell so far, few will feel the way I feel about grammar as a tool of colonization. So I just wanted to drop this note to encourage you to use the language you want to use no matter how many red marks you get. The grammar rules that matter are ones you can pick up easily by reading, not by editing a piece to death for mechanics rather than concept. I was trying to get to this lesson when I was busy being the worst professor ever, but I just spent so much time asking people to look up from their cell phones that it must have slipped my mind.

[9] Honey, I was going through it last semester and fucked around and lost my ass. Which is something my other class caught onto though they were too kind to identify the signs. Students just started checking on me more frequently because we’d built the kind of relationship I couldn’t figure out how to build with your class, what with the side comments and rolled eyes and all. I’ll be honest. Rolled eyes just shut me the hell down and take me to middle school all over again. I don’t know if I will ever outgrow that girl with braces and an asymmetrical haircut who just couldn’t figure out how to be liked. But what you have taught me is that I can’t let her make my decisions anymore. You know what I mean? I have to let her know that I’ve got us now, that I’m creating the type of life for us that won’t be destabilized by cliques’ feelings about me. You have pushed me to do the work to secure my life beyond the reach of triggers and learned behavior. My gratitude should not be confused with shade. I mean this from the bottom of a healing heart.

[10] You’ll just have to take that up with my mother, who passed her anti-aging enzymes down to me through an umbilical cord that was cut a full ten years before you guessed.

[11] That means please tell me.

[12] Girl, them skirts was made in China. I found that out during the first half of the semester and I really wish we could have had that conversation about the Dutch, colonization, cultural appropriation, and the tense relationship between 1st generation African Americans and the progeny of those who survived and are still surviving Maafa. But alas, I was just the living worst.

[13] That’s a play on words. Girl, I wish I had the confidence last semester to point to the way Toni Cade Bambara similarly plays with language in the stories I assigned but when I even offered an alternative reading to your interpretation of “The Lesson,” you were so damn resistant to anything other than the surface that I said, ‘Fuck it’ and just nodded and let you have your way. I know better now, thanks to you. That’s a real thanks. No fake. No phony.

[14] We could have had so much fun talking about the Stagolee tales, Blues women, and Moms Mabley so you’d understand the line I’m intentionally standing in when I tell these tall tales.

[15] Girl, it’s the kind of face you don’t take pictures of. Meanwhile, I’ve never seen him look happier so her looks don’t make me feel better at all. I mean, whether she looked like Beyoncé or the singer Lorde, she would still look like not me and I would still be writing a fiction about their happy life the way I am writing a fiction about the world in which you’d be open to anything I am telling you in this letter.

[16] In more than one way. I mean, you dragged the hell out of me in those comments and you’ve also inspired me to don professional drag, which has had a surprising effect on my confidence. There is something about “faking it” that teaches you the fragile nature of confidence, the way it is always “put on” and sometimes falls off—the way it is all a cycle that you have more control of than you think. Gain confidence, lose confidence, then make a shift to gain it again. This is life, girl. You’ve helped me know that.

[17] And girl, you thought I was 8 instead of 18 when Trina’s cd came out! Now that’s the one gift from your evaluation that just keeps on giving. Thank you.