Coretta Scott King left a legacy of good will and served as a role model of servant leadership for everyone. Although she is no longer here in a physical sense, her work highlights an era of civil rights as well as the life of a great mother, matriarch, and servant leader.
A noted radio show host once reminded listeners of one of Coretta's comments that will stay with me forever. She said, I married a preacher and thought that I was to become a preacher's wife. However, I did not know that I was marrying the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and that I, too, would become the mother of civil rights. Powerful words, I often think, as I replay them over and over again on many occasions. I should be doing more.
Although I have often contemplated just what I should be doing to effect change in the world and in the academy, it was at that moment after the comment from the radio host that I saw the immediacy in rescripting my place in the academy. I reflected on my own place and space. When I accepted my position in the academy, I knew that I was to become a part of and contribute to its philosophy. I was to live by the triumvirate of research, teaching, and service. What I did not know was the role that I would or should play in effecting social change, though I did know that I would have to take small steps.
It became clearer on the morning of Mrs. King's death. I could better effect change through research, service, and teaching that focus on critical, public, and social change. I know that tenure, or this phenomenon called tenure, is important at least to some (I am rethinking the entire notion). However, to continue to effect change, I needed to rethink the things that I would include in my tenure dossier.
I knew that I had to begin by doing more for my constituency, my students, our students. As I listened to the radio that morning with all due intensity, I began to think about my own service to students, what I have done, and what I should be doingcertainly more. While I know that Coretta Scott was a great servant leader and role model, I thought back to my own experiences in graduate school and considered those people who changed the way we view higher education, and about what role I should play.
I immediately thought of my dissertation co-chair and the fact that I am often asked what it was like to work with one of the pioneers in academic research. My typical answer was unconventional, idiosyncratic, and now I realize, intentional. I cannot help but recall the many hours that I often poured into a paper before turning it in only to have it purpled with her favorite pen (she did not use red ink most of the time). I can also recall the many trips to my chair's home for the best egg salad sandwiches, squash soufflé, and raspberry tarts (many folks do not know that she is a fantastic cook, a master quilter, and a sharp shooter). I recall often sitting in her little temple-like library within her very comfortable home. She typically invited students for dinner or lunch, and we also dropped in unannounced at times. She and her husband, another nationally known scholar, chatted with us for hours in her garden, while he kept a watchful eye on any basketball game. We soaked up conversations and spun new ideas. Unbeknownst to us at the time, she not only taught us the specifics of conducting research but also modeled great lessons in service to students. She taught us how to write and present academic sorts of things and also taught how to thoughtfully transgress and how to intentionally serve our students, thereby comprising the best lessons I believe one can learn both in and out of the classroom.
While I reflected on my days in graduate school, I also thought about ways in which I currently serve and can serve better and ways to serve as a role model for others, or specifically my students. In doing so, I thought back to an event that occurred during fall 2005 final exams. I noticed that one of my own students was visibly overwhelmed by the less-than-one-year-old perched on her neck. I told her to pack his bag, as he was coming home with me to give her more time to study.
That evening, I attended an event and brought along the graduate student's child. Because the child was so young, and I had never appeared at this particular venue with children other than my own, folks were somewhat shocked. Several people asked me from whence the little one came. When I explained that one of my graduate students was studying for finals, they were utterly surprised. I was immediately canonized as a saint.
I cannot say that I did not wallow in self-glory for at least a minute before someone remarked, I know of Professor John D. from the same institution, and I can say without a doubt that he never babysat, nor did he volunteer to do so. My sainthood suddenly dropped from the high post on which it sat. My service, or how I chose to define service, was invalidated. My critic scoffed, Is that part of the tenure process? There were several giggles. My service plummeted from saintly to shameful in a matter of minutes. Since I was used to transgressing in a tactful manner, or at least I liked to think I was quite good at it, I knew that I had to school those around me who seemed so full of indecorous giggles.
Before the schooling, however, I thought about other matriarchs with whom I had come in contact throughout the years and decided to offer the gigglers a free lesson on service. I explained that I was working toward tenure, and I believed that babysitting was a part of it. I regarded sitting as mentoring, outreach, and service, and, in fact, I had learned of it from other academic matriarchs. In fact, while in graduate school, three senior scholars often came to my assistance in times of need to help with childcare, diaper changing, and just sitting. All are senior scholars now and leaders at their academic institutions. My current dean of the School of Education volunteered to sit for my children when I first moved to Indianapolis, because she saw the overwhelmed look on my face and realized that I knew hardly a sole in Indiana. I can also recall another great female scholar who holds a prestigious chair in a nationally ranked program and who sat for children while she worked toward tenure. I recall that an associate dean changed my daughter's diapers several times while I was in graduate school. She was tenured, a dean, a dirty-diaper changer, and a servant leader. In other words, I was just doing what had been modeled for me in graduate school, and I certainly intend to mirror those same practices in the future for my students.
In other words, one can call it babysitting, but I call it service to a student who desperately needed to study. Will it count in my tenure dossier? I do not know, although, I doubt it. I do know, however, that it counts toward becoming a servant leader. I also know that this type of service is one step out a great many that I must take while an academician. While it certainly pales when compared to the marches on Washington or to my dream of coming close to anything Cora-like, I hope that it is a tiny step toward becoming a model servant leader.