My story is about Dr. Dolores Margaret Richard Spikes, who died earlier this week. She was one of the most beloved and respected education leaders in this country.
My story begins before she became chancellor at Southern University’s New Orleans and Baton Rouge campuses, and before she became president of the Southern University System, making her the first woman to head a college system in the country. It starts before she was president of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and before her leadership took on national and mythical proportions.
My story starts in spring 1973, on my first day in Dr. Spikes’ math class on Southern’s Baton Rouge campus. I knew of Dr. Spikes because she was a legendary graduate of my alma mater, McKinley High in Baton Rouge.
I didn’t know at the time she was just two years removed from being the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D in math from LSU.
That didn’t matter because just 10 minutes into class, I was lost. I had found math troubling ever since the name changed to geometry and trigonometry. Lord, there was even something called calculus.
My classmates seemed excited about Dr. Spikes’ assuring and calm style of conveying her message. I was thinking about lunch.
The next time in her class, I moved away from the middle of the room. “Out of sight, out of mind,” was my thought.
I asked a classmate if she understood what was going on. She laughed and said she loved Dr. Spikes’ teaching methods. So I guess it was my problem.
As class broke up after the third class, Dr. Spikes, without looking up from her desk, called out, “Mr. Pratt, would you wait for minute? I need to talk to you.”
Uh-oh, the jig was up. Now what would happen to me? Dr. Spikes prolonged my agony as she took her time putting her papers in order.
“Mr. Pratt, you don’t get what’s going on in here, do you?” she asked. Was I that transparent, even from the corner of the classroom? “No, ma’am, I don’t have a clue what is going on,” I answered.
She studied me with a look that rattled me. Then she told me to follow her to her office. “That’s never a good sign,” I thought.
She gave me a math worksheet with some of the problems we had to solve in class that day. She told me to complete the worksheet and bring it back to her office after the next class, and she would check it. I had to promise her that only I would work the problems. This routine would go on for the entire semester.
I was embarrassed at first. But after a couple weeks, I noticed that I was getting better. I even answered a few questions in class. Admittedly, though, I was wrong as often as I was correct.
As a matter of pride, I never told anyone I was getting the extra help. She didn’t, either. Later, I discovered I wasn’t special. There were a couple others just like me.
When the final exams came around, Dr. Spikes had us spread out in the gymnasium to take the test. I was scared. Occasionally, I would look toward her, hoping an answer would float out of her head into mine.
Even so, I was confident that I would do well. I made a B, and I smiled at Dr. Spikes when I received my score. I wanted to hug her, but that wouldn’t be cool, and it would look a bit suspicious to the rest of the class.
Years later, she and I would become friends, and I would marvel at her kindness, toughness and wisdom as she ascended the ladder of education leadership.
Today, I join so many people who celebrate the greatness of her life. But for me, of all the accolades that have been and will be bestowed on her, there will be nothing to rival The Question: “Mr. Pratt, you don’t get what’s going on in here, do you?”
Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.