This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Michael Cotto is an instructor of English literature at Lehman College who’s recently completed his PhD in English literature at the CUNY Graduate Center.
It’s Friday afternoon. I’m finally heading home from teaching a course in advanced expository writing at a senior college. To be honest, I’m completely exhausted. Even though I had only ten students for today’s course to teach, as opposed to my typically brutal twenty-five per, I’m still dealing with this week’s accumulated after-effects: preparing lessons, instructing in-class activities, and grading craggy mountains of homework and papers. Don’t get me wrong. As a result of agreeing to teach a second one-year full-time substitution lecture line, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.
Anyway, just because I’m exhausted, it doesn’t mean I can’t take it. I’ve taught five courses in one semester before, so I know I can do it again. I can teach advanced Shakespeare, the structure of modern English, two sections of business writing, and advanced expository writing. And I can teach all of them well. In fact, as primarily a senior adjunct instructor, it is an honor to serve as a full-time employee for another year! How can I complain when I have a full-time gig that pays me well enough to do what I love doing: reading, writing, and lecturing about English lit? How can I complain when I’m finally getting paid a decent, reasonable wage? How can I complain when I’m finally getting a little respect for the career path that I’ve chosen: to be an English instructor teaching respectable courses at a respectable college that’s part of a respectable university?
And yet . . . And yet . . . I go to Starbucks to pick up my usual cup of coffee, and while thinking the thoughts mentioned above, I blurt out the following: “May I have a venti Afro caramel macchiato, S’il vous plaît!”
“What! You wanna what?” The barista bursts out laughing. Why is she laughing? I’m annoyed.
“Can I get a caramel macchiato, please!”
“Hey mister, that’s not what you said the first time,” as she continues laughing. “You said, ‘May I have an Afro caramel macchiato, see you play.’” Ok, I could correct the French, but the Afro? Let her laugh. Just leave it alone and just get the damn coffee.
“Get me a hot venti caramel macchiato, please.”
Embarrassing . . . And yet . . . And yet, on the topic of my full-substitution line, I know that my Afro is very much part of what I was thinking about. I remember when I was first seeking work as a literature instructor. I was told to cut my Afro by an already hired adjunct of the Afro American persuasion. “Look,” he said. “Most who work for the department here are old white dudes, and even though they give you all that pseudo-liberal crap about accepting everyone for who they are, they really don’t. It’s just political spin for appearances. So, don’t keep wearing jeans, plaid shirts, and an Afro. They won’t go for that.”
After occasionally meeting up with him and several others at various and varied bars, cafes, and diners, where I got a chance to confirm the hired adjunct’s view about my style of clothing and coiffure, I decided to make the change. What triggered me to make my decision to transform permanently, though, was when I simply got a new short hairdo and changed into white shirt, tie, and black slacks for a day. The reactions were ridiculously amazing!
“Hey! Good morning!”
“You look professional!”
My thoughts, then, finally rested on being cynically pragmatic: “This is bs, but if I have to fake it ‘til I make it, so be it.”
After a couple of years of strutting my new hairstyle and sartorial transformation, I got a job as a senior adjunct instructor. And yet . . . And yet . . . As time went by, I did get accepted to a PhD program in New York, and they did accept nearly half the credits from my master’s program to start. More importantly, I knew that I could continue teaching as a senior adjunct with the thought that I must be really preparing myself for a full-time position since I had been teaching a full load of courses that not only required that I taught the materials well but also knew them at a scholarly level.
But I’m beginning to think that I’ve made too many compromises as a result of my ambition and that Karma or her cousin has finally caught up with me. I think that my ability to adapt has always been some sort of survival mechanism. You see, I’m not from the upper or middle classes. I’m from the lower ones. I’m straight out of the hood, as some still call it these days. To be specific, I grew up in the South Bronx during the 1980s, where gang banging, crack dealing, and AIDs spreading occurred. I’m not saying this out of any pride or self-pity. I’m putting this forward because I’m trying to describe the many worlds that I’ve morphed into and out of in order to survive.
When I was a kid, I saw too many of my friends die in gangs, on crack, and through AIDS. It was terrifying. For that reason, I retreated home into books. I escaped to read and read to escape. At first, I read plenty of comic books, which I admit were mostly Marvel: Spiderman, Avengers, Thor, and so on, which a little later led to my reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, The Lost Worlds, and John Carter, which finally led to Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Corsican Brothers, and so on.
To survive, I escaped into escapism. But that still doesn’t explain why I did what I did, and why I do what I do. When I think about it all some more, I can’t help but think that my grandfather instilled a sense of the beyond in me from his being a former Pentecostal Minister. According to him, the whole world is a veil, and so are our bodies. We are spirits in a material world, and for that reason, what you see is definitely not what you get. Yes, theologically speaking, the outside or external world does not matter much. For that reason, we shouldn’t concern ourselves much with it. Or to express it in the New Testament way, we are in the world but not of it. So, we must look to transcend it.
And yet, transcendent escapism doesn’t help when you and your family become homeless. There’s no escaping or traversing to the great spiritual beyond when you’re out in the streets, especially if those streets happened to be in the South Bronx during the 1980s. After one of my mother’s many men cruelly dumped her, she could no longer pay the rent, so we lost our place to live, and, well, I was forced to learn how to hustle with my brothers. We would, for instance, go to supermarkets wearing oversized coats so that we could quickly shove cans of tuna, sardines, and salmon inside our oversized long sleeves. What can I say? We loved fish! Later, we used to sell weed for the local dealer who would give us a paltry cut. It was dangerous, though. He always thought we were pinching some of the money from him. So, he would beat us. Much later, we graduated to snatching gold chains from kids we knew who bought them from chain snatchers. We knew they wouldn’t call the police without telling on themselves.
My friend’s mom, a beautiful Afro American mother, though, took me away from all that. I was 15, and she asked me if I wanted to stay with her family for a while. Because I met my friend through an honor’s program in ninth grade before experiencing homelessness, his mother knew me and realized that I was going through some harrowing life experiences. She really took pity on me. She took me into her home, and I stayed there for a year and a half. Of course, her children went to school while I stayed at their place. I understood. It was a clean and well-lighted place. So why would I complain about that? They were extremely kind to me, and my best friend’s mom made it her business to get me to study for the General Equivalency Diploma (GED). And I did. I studied several GED prep books from back to front. At the same time, I got a chance to read some of the books that she had on her three shelves: James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Richard Wright’s Black Boy. I can’t say enough about these works and writers. But I can definitely say they gave me the strength to go into the world with a new Afro American mindset that prepped me to survive.
I also knew that the problems that I was going through came down to one thing: money. I had to find an occupation that would provide me with enough money for food, shelter, and clothing so that I could have some stability in my life. After much thought, I decided to join the Navy at one of the military kiosks that were available at Fordham Road in the Bronx during the mid-eighties. First, I went to see what the requirements were. Did I need a high school diploma? I thought I did. But they told me that I should take the ASVAB (a military entrance exam), which would, they told me, let me know my options. Even though I needed to score twenty points higher than those with a high school diploma to pass the exam, I did, and I made it. Two months later, I was in the United States Navy at the tender age of seventeen.
Seventeen years of age, and I was in the United States Navy. Did I take advantage of my opportunities there? I sure did. I took remedial courses in English, reading, and math, and scored the highest in all three of them. About a year after preparation, with high scores in all sections, I passed the GED. A little later, I signed up for a couple of courses at a public university: English composition one and an introduction to astronomy. I did well in both courses. I also took certification workshops in the Navy and became an emergency medical technician (EMT), an advanced cardiac life support team member, and an electrocardiogram technician. At that time, I seriously thought about becoming a medical doctor. The point, though, is that I studied, studied, and studied.
After four years in the Navy, it should come as no surprise that afterwards, I went directly to college. I did, however, change the direction of my studies: instead of attempting to become a medical doctor, I wanted to become a writer. Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin inspired me. And for that reason, I studied English and philosophy. The idea behind that was by studying the two, I would be emphasizing content and critical thinking. That’s what I thought. So, I did the required and elective courses and ended up taking so many that an advisor even suggested a third major: linguistics. Why not? I wasn’t married, I had no major responsibilities, and more importantly, I had the GI Bill that I put my own money into to extend my educational prospects.
With honors, I graduated with three BAs: English, philosophy, and linguistics and ended up teaching a composition course for the department. While still teaching and working as a writing center coordinator there, I decided to get a master’s degree. And I did. Moreover, after two years, I also was accepted to the doctoral program, too. Of course, that didn’t stop me from teaching. I taught courses throughout my master’s and doctoral experiences. There were two reasons for that. First, at that point, I really, really needed the money. Second, I really, really enjoyed teaching.
Now, here I am. I’m at another crossroads. I’m about to get my PhD, and I’m competing in the marketplace for a tenured position. My concern now is that I have invested so much time studying and teaching that I really haven’t had the chance to write, conference, or publish any of my own work. So even though I have an educational background with an amazing teaching experience that I can document on my CV, my professional experience beyond that is virtually nil. Why and how did it get to this? Why didn’t I focus on my career in such a way that I could move confidently beyond this debilitating impasse or cul-de-sac? Well, my brief narrative gave you the answer. So far, I’ve lived a life that required overcoming a series of obstacles towards living and learning but not necessarily one that has focused on my career success. I realize that now. I’ve mainly studied and worked to survive!
As I drink my venti caramel macchiato, I realize that the change presently needed is quite different from all the others I undertook before. This time I must enter a place where I need to be me in the world. That is, I have to take charge of getting myself out there in word and deed. Can I do it? Let’s see. I’m not giving up. I can’t. Because what is at stake is me.
“May I have another Afro caramel macchiato, S’il vous plaît!”