I started teaching at the University of New Orleans four years ago, and since then I’ve been amazed by how talented, curious and insightful the students are. And I think that’s what we’re forgetting in the midst of these severe cutbacks and elimination of programs that are affecting UNO as well as all public universities in Louisiana: the students. It seems to be all about the university with an abstract U. This crisis, unfortunate as it is, has motivated me to write about them and their capable and original minds.
These students at UNO have to fight for their education. Since I’ve been teaching as an assistant professor of English, I’ve met just one student who didn’t have a job. Many students have two jobs and some even three. Students at UNO work because they have to. They come from less fashionable neighborhoods in New Orleans, they come from the bayou, they live in trailer parks and in difficult neighborhoods. Some have troubling situations at home with alcohol, abuse and drugs in the picture. Yet, here they are. They themselves are working class, in class.
My undergraduate writing students are male and female, some in their teens, some in their 20s and 30s, some even older; they’re all races. Some are married. Some have children. Some have tattoos of considerable breadth and creativity. They are education majors, chemistry majors, business majors and so on. They are not dressed in the latest student fashions. They are rough-edged, alert, somewhat shy and very smart. They might look out of place at an Ivy League college, but not here. Not at UNO. They fit in here.
Some of these students arrive not knowing what a metaphor or a simile is, and yet they’ve created some startling and original metaphors and similes. I’m looking at this room of students, many tired, some with distracting problems, and yet look at what they create. Here are a few examples, quoted with permission.
A young woman writes about a visit to her aunt’s farm and the world she finds in the backyard: “Squinting through the bright rays of the sun, I can make out hundreds of small particles floating about the air. The specks seem to be floating faster than just dust and in a prepositioned pattern.” It turns out they’re bees. Later, the sun descends and it starts to get dark: “In the deepest part of the branches of those thriving trees, fireflies begin to show themselves. Only a few at first, and more with each proceeding moment. They look like moving constellations behind the moon that lives in the leaves.”
There is the young African-American man from an introductory writing course. He’s in the Army and is getting his education while serving his country. He writes about going to an Army base and learning how to shoot a rifle. He’s on the firing range, prone, shooting down range. He writes that the targets “were these dark green silhouettes about the size of a grown man, three hundred meters out” and that “in my view were about the same size as the nail of my pinky finger in comparison.” He fires a tracer bullet: “When fired, I could see what looked like a beautiful glowing neon colored dart flying so gracefully in the direction of my other bullets.” Then he writes, “All my focus would zone in on anything that moved. A target would pop up like a person giving you the finger. I would easily shoot it and lay it down.”
These are the kinds of students my colleagues and I find at the University of New Orleans. Without UNO, or with a severely diminished UNO, what would happen to them and to the thousands like them who, most likely, will not be able to feel the measure of their powers? Many would not be given the opportunity to flourish. The University of New Orleans, in many different ways and with many wonderful, skilled and dedicated teachers, gives them that opportunity. That’s why UNO matters so much, and why every budget cut and every closure and every firing has such grave consequences.
Richard Goodman is an assistant professor of English at the University of New Orleans. He’s written for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Harvard Review and other national publications. He’s the author of “French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France.”