Living with Death on my Shoulder

Jean and I
*Jean and me

First off, this is not the post I intended to write this week. After all, the title itself sounds so morbid—and not like me at all. However, as often happens, during the course of a week when I begin with an idea for a blog post, another idea provokes its way into my mind, demanding that it be penned. And so I have decided to obey, because I’ve come to believe that these are not chance ideas; they are spirit promptings.

Late last year, we were having dinner with one of our friends. As a medical doctor, he has worked at large hospitals and in private practice, but has now settled into hospice care. To the surprise of almost everyone at our dinner table, he reported that he was really enjoying hospice care. Crazy, right? How could anyone find enjoyment in this kind of work? When prompted to explain why, after what seemed like more than a few seconds of deep thought, he responded, “Because often when people realize they are dying, that is when they really start to live.”

I have been thinking about the paradox of life in death. As I told one of my classes recently, in a sense we all have a terminal illness. We know how this story of our life will end. And though the thought of it might seem a bit gloomy, at the same time, I think a healthy acceptance of this reality should allow us to place the right value on our life, our time, this moment, this second.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not in favor of over scheduling every iota of our time engaged in lofty meditative pursuits of the meaning of life, or even aggressively attacking our proverbial “bucket list” until we have had the pleasure of striking through each item with a loud: “Ta-dah. Done it!” That I think would be a mistake. We should leave room in our lives for the spontaneous. These are the serendipitous elements that add “flavor to life”. It is like the last minute extra dash, pinch, or swish of an ingredient I add to a tried and true recipe without a rhyme or reason other than, because on that particular day and time it just felt like that was what would give it that extra “oomph” (This, of course, makes it impossible for my friends to replicate my recipe no matter how they try. Oh, but I digress. Back to the subject at hand). In a similar way, the acceptance of life in death should inspire us to live so close to God, and to the spirit promptings that we heed His whispers and follow along paths of His choosing rather than our own. For, I would suggest that these promptings, journeys and sometimes even hardships often lead to moments of unanticipated joys—the extra “oomph in life.”

Case in point, I have had both the pleasure and hardship of walking alongside a few loved ones facing terminal illnesses. Indeed, it was a hard thing to do, and yet it was a pleasure because they are all remarkable people. These journeys have birthed in me this understanding of living with the twin companions of life on one shoulder and death on the other. I will not be disingenuous and suggest that it was all nirvana. Many days, we cried, and prayed, and questioned our way through it all. And yet behind the tears and through the pain, we loved each other with a tenacity that had eluded us before the illness–we said words that would have remained unspoken, shared gifts that would not have been given; we hugged each other deeply, shed tears uncontrollably, laughed belly achingly, and prayed unceasingly. Through these experiences I was in awe of their love for life, an appreciation that often escapes many of us with a more distant end date. In fact, one of my dear friends said to be recently, “I don’t understand it, but in a strange way I’m happier as a result of my walking through this incredible journey with cancer.”

Perhaps, this is the outcome the Psalmist had in mind when he prayed: “Lord, teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom”. When I think of this, I know that like Thoreau, I want “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” and “not when I [come] to die, discover that I had not lived.” I want to be guilty of saying too much to those I love rather than too little, to hug people more, to laugh more, to declutter, revamp, reorganize my schedule so that I can place people and relationships at the top. I want to choose to be irreverently happy in this one precious life that God has given me.

PS: Oh yes, and to savor with reckless abandon each delectable morsel of apple pie eaten with vanilla ice-cream (My favorite dessert!)

Note: For more about living with a terminal illness, check out Livingly Dying

* Jean lost her battle with cancer on June 26, 2009. I dedicate this post in honor of her memory.

Why I Still Teach


I have often said that if there is one reason why I would leave teaching, I mean actually pack up my bags and say “Adios!” “Hey, It’s been real.” “Hasta, la vista, baby!” is the day I have finally had enough of student apathy —a growing disaffection with learning among students. As someone who had to work to earn every penny to pay my way through undergrad and graduate school, I have a deep appreciation for the privilege of education. In fact, I still get excited by the idea of learning something new. Hence, one of the hardest parts of my job is to walk into a classroom and feel the weight of a monstrous cloud of apathy that has settled over the room. Many days, I push against this Cloud Giant to make it to the front of the room even as the monster grips me by the throat and tries to choke out my enthusiasm. Yet, I still sputter the words out, scanning the faces in search of that one or those two students who are there for more than a letter grade, for more than a university stamp of approval, or this particular class to earn them that additional bump in their salary. And though I remain fiercely committed to the learning of every student in my classroom, it is those students who inspire me to continue teaching. But there are also other reasons.

Over the years, because of my interest in social and academic outcomes for Black males, I have been particularly sensitive to the needs of the few Black male students whom I have encountered in my classrooms, and they have been few, indeed. In fact, at my current university, it is not uncommon for me to have a class without any Black male students. However, having taught at the tertiary level in Trinidad, in the British Virgin Islands and here in the US, I recognize that this is not just a US issue; it is an international issue. And I could wax on and on in scholarly speak about what the research has revealed about factors behind the growing gender gap in pursuit of higher education in the Black community. However, I have done so elsewhere.(1) This blog is personal. You see, though I am the mother of two girls, I feel that in the course of my several years of teaching, I have birthed many sons—or I have tried to mother them as a Black matriarch.

walter and me 2
Me and one of my former students, Walter Barrett, who is now the Chaplain and Rehabilitation Coordinator at Her Majesty’s Prison, Tortola. BVI.

Within the Black community, the role of Black women within the family structure is salient. In the US, given the harsh realities of inequitable incarceration of Black men and other socio demographic realities, Black mothers, aunts, and grandmothers have been single handedly raising boys even as they wage war against systems and structures designed to marginalize, essentialize, and even disenfranchise them. In Caribbean societies as well, women play critical roles in the socialization of males. And the ways that Black women effectively parent run counter-cultural to dominant views of effective parenting styles. For example, Diana Baumrind’s typology of parenting styles (2) suggests that the authoritative parenting style was deemed more effective than authoritarian parenting styles (3) among a group of mostly European middle class pre-school children. However, other research has shown that higher parent control, like in the authoritarian parenting style, has been linked to better grades for African American children (4) and greater emotional maturity for inner city kids . (5) This is often the way that Black women parent–with an iron fist. In fact, one of my Black male students said to me recently after class: “Wow! You are the first professor in the program who intimidates me!” Then with a broad grin on his face, he continued, “That’s a good thing. I’m EXCITED!”

One of my former students, Kendoy Penn, BVI Crown Counsel, who passed away on September 22, 2005 . Rest in peace, my son.

There is a way of being and interacting with Black males in an academic setting that I get intuitively as a Black woman that is inextricably linked to my cultural ethnic identity. Yet, in the department where I teach, I am one of two such women. Moreover,  my research agenda and my intimate understanding of the ways gender and cultural ethnicity intersect in academic settings to hinder or facilitate Black male success emboldens me to act.  If I step away from the chalkboard, how many of us will be left to mentor Desmond, and Kevin, and Marlon, and Kendoy, and Walter, and Brice, and Philip? (6) Who will say to them: “You better recognize!” “I have my eyes on you!” I am gonna be on you like white on rice!”? Who will say to them, “You’ve got this!” I believe in you.” Who will hug them hard and look them right in their eyes and say: “I am so proud of you, my son!”


1. See for example, Hernandez, K. C. & Davis, J. E. (2008). The Other Side of Gender: Understanding Black masculinity in teaching and learning. In R. Milner & E.W. Ross (Eds.), Diversity and Education: Teachers, Teaching, and Teacher Education (pp.17-30). Westport, CT: Greenwood/Praeger; and Hernandez, K. C. (2006). Under the Afro Tree: Perceptions of the School Related Experiences of British Virgin Islands high School Students. In K. Mutua & C. Sunal (Eds.), Crosscurrents and Crosscutting Themes: Research on Education in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, Volume III. Greenwich CT: Info Age Press.

2. See Baumrind D. (1991). Effective parenting during early adolescent transitions. In P.A. Cowan & M. Hetherington (Eds.). Family transitions (pp. 111-165). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

3. Diana Baumrind’s typology of parenting styles suggests that the authoritative parenting style which is defined by less strict punishment and more guidance was viewed more effective than the authoritarian parenting styles– a strict parenting style where children are expected to be mature and do what the parent says.

4. Glasgow, K. L., Dornbusch, S. M., Troyer, L. Steinberg, L.. Ritter, P. L. (1997). Parenting styles, adolescents attributions, and educational outcomes in nine heterogeneous high schools. Child Development, 68, 507-523

5. See Garner, P. W., & Spears, F. M. (2000). Emotion regulation in low-income preschool children. Social Development, 9, 246-264.

6. These are the names of a few of the Black men I have had the privilege of teaching over the years. Kendoy Penn passed away tragically on September 22, 2005.