She taught the research class at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I needed the course to earn my master’s degree. It would be easy. I’d written dozens of research papers at Iowa State.
She said we could choose any topic. All we had to do was take a position, defend it with an intro, middle, and conclusion, using proper footnotes and a complete bibliography.
I’d read an article in the Omaha World Herald, my Sunday paper, about Mexican Americans who had branded themselves as Chicanos. Many of them belonged to an organization called La Raza, which took pride in maintaining the Mexican culture even though the members now lived in the U.S. Think polar opposite of the melting pot theory. Since I was a Spanish teacher, I took an interest in it and decided to write about it for my research paper. I took the pro position that it was a good thing.
I stared at the big red letter on the front of my paper when she dropped it on my desk. She had given me an F. My heart raced in my chest. I’d never gotten an F in my entire life.
After class, she tapped me on the shoulder.
“Come see me tomorrow in my office.”
The next day, after teaching farm kids how to conjugate verbs, I took the extra thirty-mile drive into Omaha. I walked into her office and sat down.
“Do you know why I gave you an F?” she asked.
“No, not at all,” I said.
“I grew up in Laredo, Texas,” she said. “I’ve dealt with these people. Your pro stance is wrong. These are not good people. Oh, the stories I could tell you. . .”
“You are saying all Mexican Americans are horrible?” I asked, making my point that she was prejudiced.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “Either rewrite the paper with a less-pro position or keep your F.”
This was 1980. I was twenty-four years old. I had a full-time job teaching high school. I needed to pass her class to get my master’s degree.
I stood up, took my paper, and left her office.
People on the highway could see the fumes pouring out of my head as I drove back to my little farmhouse. Who did she think she was? Forcing her opinion down my throat? She’d said we could write about anything. She was a flipping liar.
I had three choices:
1. Rewrite the paper as a watered-down version of my original one.
2. Go to her boss and file a complaint, costing me time, effort, and a possible bad outcome, grade-wise. I had no idea who her boss was or how he/she felt about Chicanos, either.
3. Keep the F and fail the class.
I did what any other stressed-out, overworked high school teacher would have done. I rewrote the paper. I didn’t believe what I wrote. I did it for the grade, the credit, and the degree.
Ironically, she gave me an A on the rewrite.
Thirty-eight years later, I am not proud of what I did. But I don’t regret it. The professor was a racist bigoted jerk with all the power. I needed what she had, a passing grade. To this day, I can see her mean little face as she sat, cross-legged on top of her desk, ranting about the bad teaching contracts UNO had for professors and her hard road to tenure. I hope to God she never got tenure there or anywhere else. She was an unenlightened woman who should not have been teaching at the university level.
Maybe I could’ve helped stop her, but I was too young, too tired, and too afraid.
Couldda Wouldda Shouldda
If I would’ve made a stink about the professor, the university would have mediated the situation, giving me the option of retaking the course with a different professor or taking a C for the work I had already done. I would’ve taken the C, still earned my masters’ degree, and would still be writing picture books in English and Spanish, paving the way for others to publish their stories about Chicanos, Peruvians, Venezuelans, and everyone in-between.
Or . . .
I would’ve quit the university, not earning my master’s, thereby not getting my second teaching job at Lewis Central, thereby not moonlighting as a bartender, thereby not meeting my future husband, thereby not moving to California, thereby not falling into writing for children. I would be living in Nebraska making quilts and selling them at street fairs, not a bad life, just a different one.