Last December 10, NOLA.com published an alarming article with the headline, “Saying goodbye to the University of New Orleans.” It described the lamentable course of events that have befallen the university in the last years — from extreme budget cuts to, now, firings and the elimination of complete programs and degrees, including the geography department, and an MA and PhD in political science. The university is part of the University of Louisiana system. Its relatively low tuition — about $7,400 a year for 12 credits — make it an affordable choice for people in the area who want a college education. About 9,000 students attend UNO.
Others can, have, and will write about the numbers and stats and demographics that relate to this sad state of affairs at the University of New Orleans. What I want to write about here is the experience of teaching some of the kids. I want to give you an idea of who exactly is being affected by the cutbacks at this university.
What do you think of when you hear “University of New Orleans student?” The reality is that these students have to fight for their education. In the four years I’ve been teaching at UNO as an Assistant Professor of Nonfiction Writing, 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.
So here is a group of students who are taking my undergraduate nonfiction writing class. They are male and female, some in their teens, some in their 20s, some in their 30s; they are white and black. Some are married. Some have children. Some have tattoos of considerable breadth and creativity. They are education majors, chemistry majors, business majors. 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 them have never written anything before — especially anything creative. In this introduction to creative nonfiction writing, they will do just that. They’re reluctant and even afraid. And who can blame them? What’s more intimidating than writing? Especially if, as I do, I tell them to write about themselves. Gradually, they do write. They find that vein of passion, then they’re off and running. Because it’s a workshop, they expose what they’ve written to others. That is not easy for them, but they do.
So here is a big strong quiet young man, married, who speaks in a slow heavy drawl. He is an Army veteran who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has never written any kind of memoir or personal reflection before. He writes about his time in harm’s way with a directness and honesty that have all of us in awe and near tears. He is surprised at our intensity and praise. This is a moment that cannot be described unless you witness it. A man learns that his words on paper have deeply moved others. He’s told that he writes with great unaffected strength. I still think of the words he wrote nearly a year later.
Then there is the mocha-skinned young woman who writes a piece about coming from California to Louisiana as a girl and realizing that, according to a black girl she meets on the playground, she doesn’t act or sound black enough. There, on that playground, she thinks about race for the first time. We experience the shock of this initiation with her through the carefully chosen words she puts on paper. You can feel her artistic power as it emanates through the room. She lights up at praise of her piece. She’s a writer in the making. Here, at UNO, is where her talent can emerge, where she can hone her craft, come into her own.
Then there is the young woman, Cajun, from the country, married with two young children, who wants more than anything to be a writer. Will she be? Why not? If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a career as a writer, it’s that determination is what you need to make it. She’s very funny as a writer, and I’m always optimistic when I encounter someone who can be funny on the page; that is rare indeed. She’s got a fervid dream. She deserves to pursue that dream as much as anyone. Will she make it? Who can tell? Does she deserve her chance? Of course.
Some of these students arrive not knowing what a metaphor or a simile is, and yet they’ve created some of the most startling and original metaphors. I’m looking at this room of students, tired — mothers, fathers — some with distracting problems, and yet. And yet — look at what they create. Here are some examples, quoted with permission.
A young woman writes about a visit to her aunt’s farm and the world she finds in the back yard. She’s tentative about writing about this. “Nothing happens,” she says, yet she’s drawn toward it as a subject. She writes: “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.” 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 a paper about going to an Army base and learning how to shoot a rifle. At this point in his paper, 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, one hundred, two hundred, 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 one 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 I and my colleagues encounter at University of New Orleans. Without 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.
Every semester I begin with a class of what looks like a bedraggled, weary-looking group. Then, inevitably, I am amazed and astonished by the freshness and beauty of the writing these students produce. I came here from New York City, where I’d taught writing for 30 years with a trunkful of prejudices about the kind of writing I’d find, and the students at UNO have been emptying that trunk humbly ever since.
The University of New Orleans, in many different ways and with many wonderful, skilled and dedicated teachers, gives them that opportunity. That’s why it matters 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.