- English 101
When I first saw Mr. Rogel, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He was a Mr. Rogers clone with glasses.
He wore a gray sweater, a white shirt, and a green tie. His pants didn’t quite make it down his feet,
so I could see a pair of yellow dotted socks and a slightly polished pair of loafers. I thought,
“They sure don’t dress like that in Brooklyn!” I wanted to laugh, but caught a hold of myself as
I looked around the classroom. I noticed that other students staring at me, just as I was observing Mr. Rogel.
I looked around again and realized that out of approximately twenty students, I was the only person
in the class who wasn’t white. I had been mentally preparing myself for that challenge, so I wasn’t
bothered too much. Even so, I remember that moment well.
The man in the gray sweater began his diatribe. “This is English 101. If you are not signed up
for this class, you are obviously in the wrong room! My name is Mr. Rogel- R-O-G-E-L.” He said
it as if he were trying to prove a point.
“Please take a look at your course outline.”
I looked around and saw twenty white faces suddenly look down at three white pages. My brown face did the same.
“Look at my grading system on the first page,” he said.
His next sentences sent shivers down my spine.
“I am a very tough teacher and you, as students, should learn to use English well. There will be no excuses in my class.”
I didn’t know how the other twenty students felt, but I was becoming pretty intimidated.
“You will write five themes this quarter and each of you is allowed only five mechanical errors per five hundred words.”
I didn’t know what in the world he was talking about. He continued, “Our first them will be written on Monday.
Bring at least three theme books. Any questions?”
I was nervous, but I put up my hand and was acknowledged. Mr. Rogel, what’s a them?”
I asked in my Brooklyn accent. No on laughed, thank God, Mr. Rogel’s neck became blood-red
as he responded, “See me after class!” He continued with the rest of the lecture that hour,
and when class was over and the other students had left the room, I just sat there.
Mr. Rogel came over and asked, “Where did you go to high school?”
I responded proudly, “Brooklyn, New York.”
He asked, “Did you take English in high school?”
That statement offended me because up to that moment, I though I was a pretty good student.
He then asked, “What were your classes like?”
I began to realize what he was getting at and replied, “They were good I was a B student!”
Then for some reason I thought that I would try to impress him because I felt that he
was trying to demean both my educational background and me.
“A verb is an action word, like ‘run’!”
I moved my hands to mime running. He looked at me with both eyebrows raised. I went on,
“A noun is a person, place, or thing- like a house.”
I tried to show him how really smart I was. “An adjective is…” He interrupted
me angrily as he asked, “What’s a theme?”
Since I didn’t know what the word really meant, I spelled it out T-H-E-M-E.
“No!” he said. “Not the letters. The process!”
I was stumped. I didn’t know what to do or say. I walked toward the exit
and said, “Thank you for the advice. I’ll see you on Monday.”
On Monday, I went to the campus bookstore and brought three blue theme books.
They cost about ten cents apiece. Each book contained about ten lined pages.
I still had no idea what theme was or how to write one.
I walked to class and sat in the first row.
Mr. Rogel arrived and said, “On the blackboard, please notice the topics that
can be chosen for your five hundred word themes. Pick one topic and good luck!”
I looked at the board and saw the topics: Oedipus Rex, Moby Dick, The Iliad, The Catcher
in the Rye, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had heard of The Catcher in the Rye while in high
school but was totally lost with the others. As I sat there while other students began
writing, I started to get really angry. It was clear to me that this was a different
culture, based on an educational system that was denied to me in Brooklyn. The rules
were different, and, most alarmingly- I didn’t know how to write a theme! I knew how
to answer multiple –choice questions about verbs, nouns, and adjectives, but I had no
idea how to arrange them in a theme to express my ideas. I had to choke back tears.
Mr. Rogel saw that I was not writing and came over to assist. I told him that
I hadn’t studied any of the topics on the board.
He then said, “Write a theme on being a freshman.”
Relieved, I said “Sure!” and began writing. It was hard, but I thought I did a fair job.
I handed my paper in and left the room.
On Wednesday I went to class early to get the results of the test. I expected at least
a C, and if lucky, a B minus. The papers were on Mr. Rogels’s desk. I sifted through
them and found mine. It was covered with red corrections!
Mr. Rogel came over and whispered, “You have more mechanical errors than allowed
in the entire quarter in this course. You’d better drop out the class.”
“No,” I thought, “I can do this. I’ll stay in class and do my best.” I didn’t understand
that I had already failed the class on the first theme. I flunked, just as
Mr. Rogel had predicted, and I felt like an idiot.
I learned from that firsthand experience that public education systems are not equal.
On that day and in that classroom, I made a personal decision to help change that
policy in my lifetime.