by Marcus Koontz
WHITMAN COLLEGE PIONEER
“If you don’t do this, I’m going to beat your *expletive-deleted*. Get it done, I know you can do it, one of us has to make it.” That’s what my younger cousin Michael, a high school dropout, said to me the week before I came to Walla Walla for college. In his coarse words is hidden a hope that I carry. His isn’t the only one; the hope of my family, my friends, kids from my old neighborhood, and ultimately my race is carried sloppily on my back.
None of my immediate family, my grandparents or ancestors has attended college. I am the first in my line. In some ways I’m a poor selection for the job of moving us forward. I’ve never been particularly good at ‘school.’ But the lot of my family and the hope of others has fallen on my back because I have made it this far.
I was at the town hall meeting Sunday night and I heard many people asking about the ‘minority’ perspective. They wanted to know ‘how it felt’ or ‘what it is like’ to be a student of color at Whitman. I wanted to share one of those perspectives and I do so now.
My life has been rather different than many others that attend Whitman. It hasn’t been all smiles, sunshine and noodle salad. But instead of complaining or whining about how I’ve had it so bad, I wanted to use my life as example of a different perspective. Take this as a way to peer into the life of another so that you can expand your understanding of experiences of others. I don’t want sympathy or pity or otherwise, this is just a semi-academic way to let you step out of your comfortable life and glimpse the world in someone else’s shoes.
I was born in the early ’80s to two unwed parents. I am the quintessential bastard. One young white mother and an older black father were my lot at birth. I was only able to keep my mother, however, because a few short years later my father, still unmarried to my mother, died of cancer.
I have one older brother, who is also black and white, who was also born out of wedlock and whose father was never in the picture. Left with two little children, my mother had to fend for her and us with little in the way of education or resources.
The feelings of my mother’s family balanced between those that accepted us because we were family but disliked people of color in general, those who disliked all people of color, and finally some that thought race didn’t really matter. As we got older, feelings toward race started to soften, but there were still a few notable standouts.
One of my mother’s older sisters lived most of her life on welfare because she had three children out of wedlock and no skills to support them, and no will to work. My mom, however, had a tremendous will to work so that she could support my brother and me. This made her a scarce commodity around our house because she worked 60 hours a week as a graveyard janitor. But she made barely enough to keep us from eating top ramen everyday (though some weeks that is exactly what we ate, with a carrot or onion thrown in).
There were even times that we had to go to the food bank to have food to eat. I can remember feeling happy when we went to food bank because they would often give us the expired donuts from the supermarket bakery. I thought that they were amazing, especially in those weeks when we didn’t have enough to eat.
I can remember that I often said, “I’m hungry, Mom,” and my mom would reply, “No you’re not, you’re Marcus!” She tried to make light of an unpleasant situation and only now looking back do I realize the poise it must have taken.
I can remember my family not having a car for a period of six years. We walked everywhere. We took the bus to the grocery store and took the bus back home. Sometimes when we didn’t have money for food and bus fare, we would carry grocery bags all the way home. Picture my mom and two young children walking two and a half miles, each of us carrying two or three grocery bags. Sometimes we didn’t have enough money to pay the electricity bill or the water bill or some other various bills and those services were shut off. I can remember one particularly cold winter when we went for a month without any heat in the house.
We shopped mostly at thrift stores out of necessity. I remember one winter, when I didn’t have a decent winter coat, I layered four or five shirts and a sweatshirt and went out around my neighborhood with a snow shovel earning money. I earned 50 dollars after a few days and bought a new big, fluffy and warm coat.
During school (early elementary on) my mom didn’t have any opportunity to sit down with us to help us with our homework. She didn’t have time to help us form good habits or to keep us doing the things that were important to success in school. We ran the streets during the day and didn’t come home until evening when we would have to cook for ourselves and put ourselves to bed. My mom worked from the time we got home from school until early in the morning, and then slept until we were already off to school.
So of course the more I got older and the more responsibility that I had to take on, the less I knew what to do. I didn’t have a father, and my mom was always working, trying to keep us fed. My school career has been an absurdity; I’ve moved back and forth between honors or ‘gifted’ classes and classes for ‘problem children.’ Inconstant is the word that best describes my school career.
By the time I got to high school I felt more and more alienated from this system that seemed to understand me less and less. Sophomore year I got depressed and stayed home from classes most days. Later, I decided that I wasn’t going back to school. They didn’t seem to have a place for someone like myself and they didn’t want to take the time to learn what I needed so that I could learn.
I went and took the GED test a few months later and scored in the 90th percentile. After that I started to work. The time between then and now has gone like a blur, but during that time I started learning on my own. I read a lot. I got books on the subjects that I never got to take in high school. Learning was a way to journey outside my dismal surroundings.
Then, two summers ago, as I lifted up the shovel I was holding to plunge it back into the earth for the 500th time that day, I thought “Eureka!” and thought, “I should go back to school.” I researched all the schools in the area and unceremoniously said I wanted to go to Whitman. A few months later I moved to Walla Walla and started going to the community college.
I had to make a sacrifice or two. For example, I had to live in the basement of an office building downtown the whole time I went to the community college. A friend of my family offered to let me stay there rent-free, and I had very little money. It didn’t have a shower, bath or kitchen, but it was the best option I had to go back to school.
I did really well at the community college and after much coaxing and a little praying, I transferred to Whitman.
This is the general story of my perspective. It is made up of my educational, class, racial and family experiences. I don’t expect that these experiences are all unique to me. I’m sure some of you have had similar experiences, be you male, female, White, Black, Latino or other. The things that happen at Whitman are seen by me through my experiences. This is the aggregate of my experiences and they are the prism that I see the world through. What does your prism look like? How could that affect our interactions?