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Local Lit: Diane WIlliams, a voice from the inner city

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Diane Williams is drilling her developmental English class on basic methods for winning an argument: Give a factual reason, refer to an authority, cite a specific example, predict the positive consequences of your argument or the negative consequences of the opposition. The walls at DeVry Institute of Technology are thin; when she pauses to allow students time for written exercises the room fills with the steady beat of chalk pounding on the blackboard in an adjacent classroom and then a gravelly, instructive voice asking which is warmer, 20 degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius.

Williams threads her way among her five students, leaning over first one notebook, then another, offering advice, encouragement, a patient re-explanation of material. "Decide what side you want to be on," she tells a student who is having difficulty, "then address the opposition."

"OK, now let's go through these," she says, once again taking her seat at the front of the class. "And if there's something we don't get, we'll help each other out."

Williams has her own argument to make. But she is not using any of the prescribed textbook methods. There is something in her tone, her style, her refusal to pit one student against another that suggests a personal agenda. You can all do this, she seems to be saying. You can pass this class and the next class and you can make it in the world.

She doesn't verbalize any of this. She collects yesterday's homework, assigns tomorrow's, reminds students to prepare for the quiz on Tuesday, hangs around after class to answer questions.

"Yes," she later reflects, ensconced in a conference room. "I try for a sense of unity and bonding. I want students to connect with each other. But I'm much more subdued in the classroom than I used to be," she adds, explaining that she is still in recovery from her last job, teaching at a west-side adult learning center. There she made the mistake of assuming the students were on her side. She didn't address the opposition.

"I walked in smiling and telling jokes. I was manic," she says.

Manic, however, did not serve her well in inner-city teaching. "They chewed me up," she says. "The school had almost 100 percent black attendance. I thought since I was in the same position as they [black and from a west-side, working-class family] that we could connect and I could help them. But it didn't work out that way.

"I had to always be jumping in and telling them to sit down and shut up and no, you can't wear a beeper, and yes, you have to take off your hat. They acted like it was my fault for trying to teach.

"I took their hostility personally," she says. "Those [on the faculty] who cared the most were hurt the most."

Last March, not long after quitting her full-time job, Williams got a half-time appointment at DeVry. Now, she says, she still cares about her students, but in a different way. "I know now that you have to make people stand on their own and respect themselves. If they don't respect themselves they won't respect others. I still try to do all I can, but the students have to put in some effort too. Now if I've done the best I can, I no longer feel totally responsible if someone fails."

She says she is on her guard at DeVry, but that the discipline problems are much fewer. "The other school was for high school credit or GED preparation and the students were not there by choice. They were there because their parents told them to get a diploma or move out or because they were on probation. That causes hostility. Also the students weren't paying. The center was run on grants. At DeVry most students are working and responsible for their own well-being."

Williams says her own journey to professional success began with her grandmother, whom she calls Mother. "She always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be," Williams says, "and I wanted to be a writer. I figured that if I got a college education I could also teach writing."

Williams did her earliest writing in grade school, where she wrote plays for her classmates. "I figured it was a way to make friends. It worked," she says, smiling shyly, "until the kids got jealous and said 'Your parts are always bigger.'"

Growing up, she had to deal with gangs and make choices, and again she credits her grandmother for helping her make the right ones. "It was not as though I liked going to school," she says. "But I liked reading and writing. I always got an A or B in any subject that involved reading."

Williams's college career got off to a difficult start at the University of Illinois in the mid-1970s. "I got lost there. It was so big and there were few minorities in my discipline. There were black students, but they weren't flocking to English literature classes. I felt isolated in the program."

After four terms Williams returned to Chicago and worked for three years, uncertain about returning to college. Then she saw an ad for Columbia College and applied. With its urban campus and large numbers of minority students, her outlook changed. "I found people who related to me," she says. After graduation she worked as a secretary for a year, then returned to Columbia to get a master's degree so she could teach at the college level.

She taught at Columbia for a while, then got a half-time appointment at Oakton Community College. She felt as uncomfortable there as she later would teaching on the west side, but for a different reason.

"Most of the students were so sheltered. They had never had to deal with people different from themselves. I mean, you'd look out of the classroom window and there were deer running through the woods and ducks swimming in a pond. It was so removed from the reality of others. There were only three black faculty members and only one of those was full-time. I got along well with most of the students, but there was one who disliked me from the first day.

"I prefer inner-city teaching," she says. "I grew up on the west side and I know the value of an education. Some people have all the advantages. I want to show inner-city students that when they get advantages they need to make use of them."

Does it make a difference to her students that she's black?

"I like to think it does," she says.

In 1986 Williams and some friends, who affectionately refer to themselves as the "Large Black People," founded Kaleidoscope: Women at Work, using a grant to publish the first issues. The magazine is devoted to "promotion and preservation" of minority women's writing. Its first five issues have provided a showcase for poetry and prose by African American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic, Jewish, lesbian, and differently abled women, among others. Issue number six is due out in the fall. "Women have told me they wouldn't have written or been published without it," says Williams, KWAW's prose editor and production chief.

Williams has published her own poetry in KWAW as well as in Chicago Outlines and Chiron Review. She has also published a chapbook, The Color of Enlightenment. One of her short stories, "Ella in the Morning," appears in West Side Stories, a new Chicago anthology published by City Stoop Press. It's about a black woman whose father's death brings her back home to the west side from her new life in Lakeview.

Unlike her protagonist, Williams still lives with her family in a west-side neighborhood so dangerous, she likes to joke, that friends refuse to stop their cars when they give her a ride home. "They just sloooooow down and throw me out and the drug dealers walk on top of me while I'm lying on the pavement."

When she picks herself up, Williams goes home to write. These days she's working on a novel.

This Tuesday at 8 Diane Williams will read "Ella in the Morning" at Unabridged Books, 3251 N. Broadway. She'll read along with several other writers whose work appears in West Side Stories. Call 883-9119 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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