By Andrea McCaffree-Wallace
It happens to all of us: students bring up an interesting topic or current event and hope we just forget class is happening at all– they hope we abandon the lesson plan and take them on a grand digression. Generally, in my English classes, I can follow the digression with them for a few moments, but, eventually, I have to segue back to the material, regardless of the passions and the questions in the room.
I began teaching Conquering College a few years ago, and there are many things I love about the class: I grade fewer papers, I don’t have such a long list of vital skills to teach on my own, and my general job is just to help students “do” college. This semester, I have a particularly unique group of students; every single student in my Conquering College course is a woman. Having such a homogenous class has its pitfalls, but the class is diverse in ethnicity and life experiences. And today our homogeneity worked as we took a significant digression together.
I was waiting on students to arrive and launched in with my usual question of the day as class began: “How are classes going? Where are we struggling this week? Where are we succeeding?” We went around the room, and I found myself showing a student who is struggling in math how to use Khan Academy and helping another student locate an assignment on Canvas. We made it around to the last student, and she said, “I am struggling in public speaking this week. I really procrastinated my persuasive speech.” I ask her the topic. She responds: “I want to write about sex trafficking and how we shouldn’t blame the victim, ya know? It’s not about the clothes you wear or anything like that. No one is ever asking for that to happen to them.”
I begin to dialogue with her about the topic and was beginning to suggest search terms to try on the databases, when, all of a sudden, a conversation begins to bubble up: “You should talk about what happened to Kenneka Jenkins.” “Yea. Why aren’t the cops looking into that better?” “I saw this footage on Youtube…”
And suddenly, the class is off. I have not heard of this event; I don’t know the most basic facts about what happened to Kenneka Jenkins. At this point, I have a few options: I can ignore the digression and instead discuss the article that was assigned for today, I can follow the digression and then stop it when I feel we really need to start class, or I can follow the digression until the students are done with it.
As a teacher, I tend to stick to the second option here by nature; I am willing to indulge the digression as long as we still have time to do the class work. But this seems to be something bigger than most digressions in class: my students seem uniquely concerned about this topic.
So I ask them, “Who is Kenneka Jenkins? What happened to her?” From the chorus rising from these women, I can tell I am the only person in the dark about this event. Kenneka Jenkins was a 19-year-old African American woman from Chicago who looked like a lot of the females sitting in class with me: young, bubbly, and hopeful. But she was found dead in a hotel freezer this past September, and the authorities have been able to shed little light on what happened to her and why.
My students are off and running by this point, so I indulge them. One of them claims to have seen a Youtube video where a man analyzes the security footage at the hotel and argues it has been doctored. I pull up the video and we watch it: the man examines minutes of a surveillance tape, showing an intoxicated young woman stumbling around the hotel, barely able to hold herself up. He zooms in and attempts to prove that the footage has been doctored. There was a person holding Kenneka up, he claims, and the video has been doctored to cut this person out.
My students watch the video in silence; they are more attentive than they have been all semester.
After the Youtube video, we discuss police and police investigations. We talk about what police investigations look like in the case of the rape of a young woman and what victims face. As we go around the room, five of the seven women share stories about other women they know who have been raped. Three of my students relay stories of friends or family members who have told them about a sexual assault in the past few weeks. One has a friend who told her just last week that she was sexually assaulted. Another has a cousin who told the family she had been date raped about a year ago. No one believed the cousin and she killed herself just two weeks ago. (At this point, I feel myself holding back tears. I know this student well and she didn’t tell me what she was going through that week, but I knew she was having a hard time, and now I know why.)
After this, I share. I tell them that I did my Master’s thesis on rape law reform and that I probably know a little too much about rape investigations and cases. I tell them that, being a bit older than they are, I have had many female friends tell me they were raped. We discuss how to handle it. Almost all of them know a victim of rape that no one believed; sometimes, my students didn’t believe the victim. We talk about how to handle victims of sexual assault, even if you don’t believe them: “Just listen. Don’t judge. Even if you don’t believe them, do your best to show them that you are on their side. You might be the only one on that side with them, ladies.”
The girl whose friend shared with her the week before pipes up: “She said it was her roommate’s sister’s boyfriend. She said she tried to kick him away, but she was afraid he would beat her up, so she stopped.” “I don’t know, man. If a boy was on me like that, I would die fighting before I let him do that.” “Yea.” “Yea.”
And I remind them that you don’t know what you will do in that situation unless you are unfortunate enough to have it happen to you. “Again, just remember to support and not judge. And if you are judging them deep down, don’t let it come out. The best thing you can do is be there for them and not question them. Because if you don’t question them, you will probably be the only person in their life who doesn’t question them.”
And I hear mutters of agreement come up from the audience. I say, “I know it is easy to talk about when this happens to other people, guys. But chances are, more than one woman in this room has been raped, and that is not an easy thing to share. It is a lot easier to say, ‘I know someone this happened to’ than it is to say ‘this happened to me.’ Because people do judge and question you constantly, especially if they know the person you are accusing.”
By this point, we have discussed and shared for more than an hour of our ninety-minute class, so I decide to stick with the digression and take it to its most productive point: “Sexual assault victims are not to blame for what happens to them, but there are ways we can protect ourselves. As college women, there is always pressure to drink, and sometimes we want to just cut loose and have a good time, but remember moderation.” Then I tell them the science: “Physiologically, a woman does not handle alcohol the same way a man does. If you are out with a man and matching him drink for drink, you will be drunk far before he is. Women can only consume about half the alcohol men can before they are intoxicated.”
And then we talk about making sure to go out in groups and letting people know where we are. I add myself into the situation too; I recount a few bad situations I was put into as a college woman where I felt unsafe. Fortunately, I managed to get myself out of those situations, or I had someone there to help me, but I was lucky. I told them that just this summer I was in a scary situation in a hotel elevator with a drunk man who didn’t want to let me get out and was insisting I come with him. He tried to grab my arm, but the doors opened and I stepped out of the elevator just in time.
“That happened to you, Ms. A?!”
“Yes. It can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have, or how old you are, or how smart you are. It can happen to anyone.” And they are all silent because they know it is true.
By this time, class is over, but they are still sitting there, not watching the clock for once. I have to tell them that it is five minutes past the end of class, and they should get going so they aren’t late to the next one. I can’t help but apologize: “Sorry we didn’t discuss the article today, guys. We’ll get to it next time.”
As the last student, the only student who barely spoke during the class, leaves, she says, “I think it’s okay that we didn’t talk about the article today. I think what we discussed is one of the most important things we could have talked about today, especially considering we are all women.” And even though I know the article we didn’t discuss today was interesting, and our discussion today set us behind on the schedule, I agree with her.
Sometimes we get a chance to discuss something deeper than our content with our students, and I am thankful my students gave me that opportunity today as we took a significant digression, together.