PITTSBURGH — Students come to Prof. Johnie Scott for remedial reading and writing. Bonehead English, some people call it.
Most of them graduated with C averages from high schools in Pacoima, San Fernando and the inner city--schools where officials estimate that as many as one of every two students drops out. Most are black or Chicano.
They are admitted to California State University, Northridge, only under the auspices of the Educational Opportunity Program for minority students deemed "disadvantaged." They have scored so poorly on college entrance exams that they cannot enroll in freshman English.
"I do not deny for a minute that these young people come in here with poor skills. But poor skills should not be equated with mental deficiency.
'Nobody Blames You'
"I tell them, 'Sure, your high schools were atrocious. But nobody blames you for that. You made it here. You are the achievers. Now let's get to work.'
"These kids do not lack for motivation. And these kids do not lack for intellectual depth and substance."
Scott and his students think they have proved it, too. They have published "The Voices of Opportunity," a collection of critical essays by the students that has been printed by the university's Educational Opportunity Program.
"The Voices of Opportunity" contains 26 essays on the black cultural writings of Alice Walker ("The Color Purple") and Richard Wright ("Uncle Tom's Children," "Black Boy" and "Native Son"). The essays were originally written as term papers for Scott's first- and second-semester remedial classes, and they read like college term papers.
Although the anthology may not be a literary landmark, the faculty members who put the book together believe it does show that "disadvantaged" or "marginal" students, given the chance at a university, can be as accomplished as those in higher-level English classes.
The book says, "This is what we're doing with our students. What are you doing with yours?' " Scott said, laughing.
"I didn't even like to read or write," said Loretta Davis, a 19-year-old sophomore from Los Angeles. "Prof. Scott showed me. He got me to read. He told us to write what we feel. I don't always say what I feel. Writing is a way to get my feelings across.
"I enjoy writing now. I'm thinking about majoring in journalism."
Tamantha Simmons, also 19, of Pacoima, said, "I would never have thought that I could write well. He helps you understand you can write. He tells you to use your own tone, something from your heart. You can tell that he cares."
Scott, a 39-year-old Stanford alumnus, came to CSUN's Pan African Studies Department two years ago after 13 years in public relations. Last year Scott, who lives with his wife and three daughters in San Fernando, took over the department's writing program.
His method of teaching is simple. He relentlessly drills students on grammar, vocabulary and organization. Daily reading is emphasized: Newspaper and magazine articles relate English to current events; black literature supplies creative and cultural education.
There is no hiding in the back row, no sliding through the semester. Papers are read in front of the class. Scott frequently breaks from his lecture to question students on the spot. Everyone's grades--As and Fs--are read aloud.
"It's nuts and bolts, with a little consciousness-raising," he said.
Danita Nelson, 19, of Pacoima recalled that two essays were due the first week of class.
"Two essays? I thought, 'This man's crazy!' "
Nelson's grades started low, then improved. By the end of the semester she was one of Scott's top students and she was published.
"That was a good feeling, a proud feeling," she said. "I write better now. He helps people; he really does."
Davis recalled: "He sat down and said, 'I care about you. I want you to write. I know you can write.' If we got bad grades, he'd come into class all upset and say, 'I'm disappointed in you.' And we'd feel bad."
The professor is known to stay long after class or to arrive at school as early as 6 a.m. to meet individually with students. He urges them to sign up for university-provided tutoring, then checks to make sure that they do.
"Teachers have a responsibility to be motivated and bring something to the classroom," he said. "You have to take the extra step. You have to be cheerleader, psychiatrist and you have to be a friend."
Scott must be some or all of those to more than 400 students in the pan-African writing program, for which he is coordinator. Eighty percent of the students are members of minority groups.
The idea for the anthology was not a new one, at least not to Scott. He was involved with the 1966 publication of "From the Ashes: Voices of Watts," which featured works of the Watts Writers Workshop.