“Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom…”
James 3:13, KJV
“…My children living in Africa-Africa-learning different languages, with fresh air and plenty of exercise!”
Miss Celie, The Color Purple, 1985
Did your grandma or grandpa ever warn you that, “A hard head makes a soft ass,”? Mine did, countless times, but I gotta tell you, my backside is about as soft as that good Charmin toilet paper (the BLUE kind) sold in your local supermarket. I have always been the one who opts to take the road less traveled. When I was younger, adults commonly mistook my desire for challenge as plain, old insolence. They assumed because I chose to do certain things against the norm, that I was purposely being unruly. I just honestly preferred to try an approach other than the same one everybody else tried. If my work, done my way, gave me positive results, could that be considered originality? I thought so.
It should come as no surprise that when my Mama suggested I go to Langston University after high school in 1996, I vehemently scoffed at her idea. It never dawned on me that my attendance at Langston University would be the fulfillment of my destiny. As I’ve stated before, I do not believe in coincidence. I know that EVERYTHING happens for a reason. You see, it didn’t matter if I chose Langston or not, because it had already chosen me at the age of 12, when I attended Sixth Grade Day with my principal (who was my Daddy) and my classmates; furthermore, I had been attending LU sponsored Upward Bound meetings for nearly 2 years prior to my senior year! Nevertheless, I did what I typically do and softened my backside for a few years before finally making my way to Oklahoma’s only Historically Black College/University in the spring of 2001.
At the recommendation of my dear old Dad, I majored in Broadcast Journalism, which listed one Willard C. Pitts as Chairman of the department. His reputation preceded him, to say the least. I heard he would embarrass students in class, slam doors in their faces and even make them change their major if they couldn’t pass his course!
None of those rumors bothered me as I took my seat in Newswriting I during the fall of 2003. I had full confidence that I would be outstanding in this class.
I was not ready.
Mr. Pitts required us to turn in 2 news stories by the beginning of class on Fridays, every week. The best articles got published in the school newspaper, The Gazette. I thought of myself as a decent writer until Mr. Pitts handed me 2 “F”‘s for that first week’s assignment, then 2 more the following week! I remember calling my Dad in tears and telling him that we may have made a mistake. Maybe journalism wasn’t the right fit for me. Pops told me to pull it together and go talk to Mr. Pitts, who informed me that I earned 4 failing grades because I had not turned in news articles at all! Instead, I had given him, “critical essays.” He then explained to me that although I did possess good writing skills, I needed to learn how to write the news. “Nobody cares what you think or how you feel about an incident, Shaunna Cooper! They just want to know the facts.”
The next week both my stories made the paper. One of them even made the front page!
I spent the rest of the semester soaking up Mr. Pitts knowledge and wisdom like a dehydrated plant. He used to tell me, “Winners win and losers lose and they each find a way to do what they do, and Shaunna, right now you are losing!” He slammed the door in my face and called me out in front of my friends, but it didn’t matter, I kept coming back for more. I found out people rarely made an “A” in the class, so I made it my mission to earn one and I did it. I wanted to shine brighter than my class mates, so Mr. Pitts would notice me, which resulted in the ultimate of rewards–lunch and conversation with my new hero. I did practically anything he said, because I wanted to make him proud. He was much more than just a professor to me, so I started calling him, “Papa Pitts.”
Although he broke me down time after time, Papa never let me quit. He believed in me and made me believe in myself. He taught me the true meaning behind Frederick Douglass’ words, “Without struggle, there is no progress. ”
Because of Papa Pitts, my whole life changed within a year. First, I became an actual, real-life journalist. Before even finishing all my coursework in my major, I landed a freelance gig with a local newspaper, getting paid to write stories! Then, in the summer of 2004, I traveled to Africa with a group of students as part of an LU study abroad program that Papa chaperoned with another professor. When we came back home, he retired from teaching and I emerged as the first student editor of The Gazette in over 20 years. Even in his absence, Papa’s influence continued to bless me and still does to this very day.
I talked to Papa one more time last month. I told him that the Holy Spirit revealed a plan for my life, but before I could proceed, I had to tell him how much he meant to me and how grateful I was for his guidance in my life. I explained to him that I wanted to give him his flowers
before he passed. He told me that we, his students, were his flowers and he was so very proud of the meadow he produced.
May His peace be with you until we meet again, Papa. Farewell…