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Thank you, Rhondda Robinson Thomas

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

I plan to spend 2022 thanking the people who have influenced my life. One of the biggest reasons some kids end up in jail, and others somehow avoid that path, is because of the mentors they had access to during their lifetime. Some people I want to acknowledge have died, but many are still alive - and I hope to recognize how profound their interaction in my life affected me.

My first year in college was a transformative time in my life.

I went from a sheltered K-12 Adventist Academy to college in the scary metropolis of Washington, DC. Within the first few weeks of adulthood, my world blew up to new experiences, people, and worldviews.

One person who influenced me during that first year was English professor Rhondda Robinson. She was young, edgy, and black. Her “blackness” was apparent through her hair, clothing, and pride. Growing up in Ohio, I had only one black teacher, Mrs. Bynum, who goes down in history as the best 5th-grade teacher ever.

Blacks and whites rarely socialized in our small town, outside of work and school. There seemed to be an unwritten rule to co-exist. As a brown person, I easily hopped from the Black and White communities, being privy to the suspicion, and bigotry that simmered under the surface. The racial disparity was noticeable but never spoken about; at least, I perceived it as a child.

During the first month of school, Rhondda assigned the class to see the film Sarafina in the local theater and write a report. I waited until all the students cleared out of the classroom. With great conviction, I explained that I didn’t believe in going to movie theaters. It was against my conscience, and I couldn’t do it.

Rhonda was gracious and suggested that I watch another movie on VHS or do a book report on a similar subject. A few days later, I was walking around City Place Mall, when I bumped into one of my theology professors. He said he had just finished seeing a movie and was now heading out to dinner. I was aghast by his admission of going to the cinema.

A few days later, I decided to watch Sarafina, a film that changed my life. Here I was, vehemently opposed to seeing a movie in the theater, but unaware of the real atrocities that were occurring in South Africa. The film, along with the more time I spent with, and around Rhondda opened my eyes to the deliberate and unconscious bias that exists in our own communities.

Not long after, Rhondda asked me to stay after class to discuss the creative writing assignment; I received an “F”. “What are you trying to do here?” I can still remember her perplexed expression. She was harsh and expected much more from me. I worked hard that semester to show her and others my abilities and made the Dean’s List. Rhondda saw in me things that I was incapable of knowing about myself. Her quiet mannerisms drew out confidence in me to do better because I was better.

There are many lessons that I learned from her. First, she taught me that adults/professors could be referred to by their first names, and still retain respect and position. Second, she modeled to me that black and brown people matter and deserve representation in every area.

Those were some wild days back in 1992. There were student protests, walkouts (during Chapel), late-night poetry slams (in the basement of Wilkinson Hall), and silent sit-ins (Wilkinson Hall 3rd floor). As I think about those days, Rhonda was barely thirty years old (I am guessing), but she was a brilliant mind and a generous human being. Her teaching reached farther than the rudimentary elements of grammar and syntax but helped me to develop my worldview.

Click here to read about the Award of Excellence she recently received.

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