Ervin Simmons, Oakes College ’82
My mother told me of a “professor” who would come to the Island many years ago to teach children. I started dreaming about this professor at a very early age. By the time I started first grade, I had developed a fixed image of this “professor.” While in the 4th grade around 1967-1968 in Miss Frances E. Jones’ class on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, this guest came to our class. Miss Frances introduced this quest as Professor Blake. I was almost totally disappointed and thought surely this could not be the “professor” I was dreaming about. He was short, dark-skinned, and had very nappy hair. Just when I was about to mentally dismiss him he started telling a story. His voice captured my attention, but it was his story that revolutionized my spirit. He told us of a little black boy going to the fair with his mother. The little black boy saw many balloons flying high in the sky but none were black. The little black boy then asked his mother if a black balloon could fly high in the sky as well. This mother turned to her son and told him that it was not the color of the balloon but that it was what was what was inside the balloon that allowed it to fly high in the sky. Almost instantly I transformed my thinking about “Fessor Blake”. I could not wait to get home to tell Momma about “Fessor Blake” and the balloon story. I told Daddy the story when he came home later. I told all of my grandparents the same identical story. In my young highly color-conscious mind, I started processing this story.
Early in my life, I learned that while colored people had many “hangovers” and “hangups” over color and complexion, they valued education more than anything. Interestingly, even in those days, being an honor student trumped being light skinned. My mother had planted in my mind that I was a “very gifted child” who was going to college. To this very day, I don’t really know if Momma was telling me of a real professor or she was telling a motivational story that she knew would start me dreaming. It really did not matter to me. All I knew I had met a living Fessor Blake and while he didn’t fit the image I had of a “Professor,” he had touched me with the story in a way that had transformed my thinking. Each time I reflect on this story, I now realize that if Fessor Blake had not been a good storyteller, he would not have gotten my real attention. For me, storytelling, sound of voice, and body language are still a great part of how I process things. Over the following years, I reflected on many things around how the mind can be triggered by stories.
I met Frank Smith and John Rickford after meeting “Fessor Blake.” Looking back, it was interesting that thinking of the two “California boys” was so amusing to me. One of the California boys was white with red hair and the other was black with green eyes. I fell in love with the California boys and started dreaming about one day going to California. While in Mr. Pat Conroy’s class we went on a field trip to Washington DC along with these two California boys. Frank and John were fun and easy to relate too. Over a period of time, I met many of the California boys that came under “Fessor Blake.” They were all nice, decent human beings. I now know that “Fessor Blake” had strategically placed people that were making huge deposits in the lives of others. Another one of the California boys I met was Sabra Slaughter. Sabra was dear to us as well. My mother named one of our cousins in Sabra’s honor. It was on the water, making trips to Savannah, Georgia, that I came to appreciate all the unique qualities that Sabra possessed. He was so positive and optimistic about life and its possibilies.
In the winter quarter of 1977,”Fessor Blake” made it possible for me to come to study at UCSC at Oakes College. I was uncertain of what this “new world” had in store for me. I had some assumptions that were far off the mark. I thought all black people ate alike. I still wanted rice daily. That did not happen. Adjustments were tough on many levels. I had never really thought of “Fessor Blake” having a name like Herman before I got to California. Having spent a year at Shaw University in North Carolina, I was not used to students calling professors by their first names. I often tell my children about “living with ‘Fessor Blake’.” I told them that he read too much, he worked too hard, and he traveled too much. They are very familiar with “Fessor Blake” through me. They too love him while not really knowing him. I took a few classes that touched me deeply. When I took Don Rothman’s writing class, I was so afraid to put my thoughts on paper. For a sample of good writing he brought in an essay that I later learned was written by my dearest friend, Carla Shaw (now Mc Michael). The writing was simple and yet powerful because it captured a picture that was easy to visualize. Don was a true blessing!! Professor Dirks was a super fine human being and a master teacher. I took World Religions from him and learned so much under him. Professor Jan Willis was so young and smart. She was too smart. Professor Diane Lewis was simply a great teacher with a quiet spirit and her class was always exciting. Professor Marshall Sylvan was a fine teacher of statistics. I learned how people can easily lie with statistics when you don’t understand statistics. My world had changed in so many ways.
For my 56th birthday on January 21th, my wife and I were on the Washington Mall at the presidential inauguration. While waiting to hear Present Obama’s speech, I reflected on “Fessor Blake.” He taught us that “Birth is not the beginning of life and death is not the end of life” in our service to others.