Emerging Voices from the College on the Canyon

On clear days, of which there are many on the Peninsula, Stanford is visible from Cañada college.  From 280 exit Farm Hill Blvd—a farm on a hill.  Stanford was also a farm. Agriculture was foundational to the original grant.  

But Stanford is just a landmark. Cañada is the destination. It’s where I spent nearly two decades making myself at home.

Sightseeing on the Peninsula

Selma and I drove past it each time we went to San Francisco. I pointed it out to her as I did the Junípero Serra Statue, and the Flintstone House on the right and Crystal Springs reservoir on the left. Sights worth seeing.

Cañada sits on that hill looking down on the canyons below. 

My first day at Cañada College 

The first time I entered the campus to teach was at night. I was an emergency hire. I’d been teaching English at DeAnza College, in Cupertino, south of where I lived. I taught one section each semester and wanted to take on more. With two degrees in English and certification to teach English as a Second Language, I could spread my wings in the teaching world.

The opportunity to teach another class gives me a load closer to the full-time job I so desperately want. The more experience, the greater likelihood that I’d get that job. So I am excited. I am doing what I planned: teach English and English as a Second Language. The two departments do not overlap, but I will make that happen.

The emergency was that too many students had registered for one section of an advanced grammar class. This class would be divided into two sections.  I would meet the students and the professor in their designated class and then take my twenty students to the new classroom.

Accepting Accents

At 6:00 pm that Monday night, clutching my book bag, I walk to the front of the classroom toward the professor. I am in my early thirties. He is much older. Today, I realize he must have been in his mid fifties. But he fit the role of a professor, glasses, a pullover, a bit frazzled. This is our first meeting. We shake hands, and I introduce myself.

Why, and then after a long pause, are you not speaking like this? He says in a strong fake South Asian accent.

I am embarrassed, not for myself, but for him.  I look directly at him and not at the students. 

Does he mimic our accents? They must think.

I explain why my “t” doesn’t sound like a “d” and my “r” is not as pronounced as his, why my “a” in “nasty” doesn’t stretch out as long as his. I tell him about my British mother who moved to Pakistan in the early 60s. I tell him more than I need to. But I tell him this to overcome the embarrassing moment.

Microaggressions in the classroom

And then I turn around and address the students. I introduce myself and ask those designated to my section to follow me to our new classroom.

I know I am not alone in experiencing this kind of microaggression, but we didn’t have a word for it back then. And I was the outsider who needed to learn how things are done.

Long-term professional relationship

Two years later as a tenure-track professor, I make this place my home. And the people I meet make me part of a family. My relationships with my colleagues have lasted longer than some marriages. I’ve been lucky that way.

I get tenure, a doctorate, and a decade passes.

In 2011, Pope John Paul is beatified and Osama Bin Laden is assassinated. 

A miracle!  announces Jon Stewart on the Daily Show as if the two are  related.

Orwell and Elephants

There’s a political edginess to the world around us. The community we serve has not yet recovered from the 2008 financial fiasco. Enrollments are dropping and because of the budget, classes are cut.

I’m teaching an advanced composition class. We’re just past midterms.

We’re discussing one of my favorites, Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell. Most other essays I choose are contemporary, but this one’s unique. Many of  my students are interested in the politics of colonialism. They’ve grown up in countries that have suffered some level of outside oppression and they engage with the content and are inspired to write. That’s my goal, get them to want to write.

Orwell, a young British officer stationed in Burma, now Myanmar, is against imperialism. He feels forced to kill a must مست အရက်မူး elephant. The situation itself is horrifying but the brilliant turnaround of the opening line is unique :

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. 

So self-aware. But I know that already. Orwell is a reluctant recruit of the BBC propaganda efforts of WWII. Indian soldiers are needed to support the allies. Z. A Bokhari, head of BBC India and brother of the famous Patras Bokhari, wants Orwell to join the war efforts. 

Before joining BBC, in 1936, he writes Shooting an Elephant, which takes us through a grotesque killing of a majestic animal. Orwell is jeered by the onlookers. He thinks they are goading him to kill the now harmless elephant.

In class, we discuss his fears and how he feels compelled to act violently.

"Elephant in Dust" by Namibnat is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Elephant in Dust” by Namibnat is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Power, Fear, Racism

Fernando, who grew up in Argentina, speaks up:

I hate the British, he says. I’m surprised by this comment by an otherwise mild-mannered student. When I was young, I thought I would kill any British man I met. The Falkland war made me think that way…the society around me made me think that way. 

Others in the class join in. Post-revolution China comes up, followed by Movimiento Estudiantil, the 1968 student revolution in Mexico to oust the longstanding PRI regime. 

These thoughts, these experiences, the knowledge, the interactions, they enrich me. The euphoria of intellectual discussions electrifies the class. This is when writing is at its best, when the mind is overflowing with ideas. I remind my students that their ideas need to be documented. They need to write them down. They need to organize them, and make them clear for others to understand. Power, fear, racism, how do these all connect in that five-paragraph essay?

We transition to some quiet time. They write down their thoughts, some begin researching on computers at their desk. I walk around to see if anyone needs help. I look over shoulders and have quiet conversations with those who have been struggling this semester. 

I walk past Sai. He’s from Myanmar. He looks up and asks with indignation: Who are the “sneering yellow faces” in the essay? 

He knows the answer but he needs to ask the question. To say it out loud, to confront it. That is why, I remind him, we have to write.

Cañada College
Cañada College by Peter Tam

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art

6 Comments »

  1. Hi Anniqua,
    This is really beautiful. You have such an elegant and powerful voice. I am going to share this with our colleagues. I miss you so much!
    Denise

  2. Ma’am
    the writer i most quoted for my exams were either Jerome k Jerome or George Orwell
    I thought he was the victim for being surrounded by the local crowd
    but reading your work made me realize that unfortunately racism and capitalism were the winners

    • I agree – hence the need to listen carefully to everyone in any situation, not just the most vocal and/or eloquent.

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