Out of Africa

Agnes Essien left Nigeria three decades ago, earned a Ph.D., and ended up minding a market

Students and teachers were mostly nice at first, Agnes recalls. The presence of many enthusiastic, mature high-school kids who were getting a jump-start on a university education helped the 100-pound teenager from Nigeria to feel a little less out of place. Everywhere she went, Agnes carried a tape recorder so she could replay lectures and conversations in her room, and slowly learn the new dialect. She even used books on tape to study her lessons. "I was a special student," she laughs.

Other aspects of life in America were a shock. She had never seen a heavy winter coat, much less knew to get herself one. "They should tell foreign students about them when they come here, so they don't catch pneumonia," Agnes muses. The first time she saw snow falling, she squealed in terror and tried to take cover from the bombardment. People laughed as she cried: "What is it? What is it?"

Other moments were less mirthful in a region that had been in the center of racial clashes during the 1960s civil rights movement. Though people like her were no longer prohibited from lunch counters, a subversive attitude practically barred her from obtaining the medical education she originally sought.

Some of the spices used liberally in Caribbean cuisine originated in Agnes Essien's native Africa
Michael McElroy
Some of the spices used liberally in Caribbean cuisine originated in Agnes Essien's native Africa
Whether keeping books, wiring money for customers, or planning the next step in her life, Agnes Essien is almost always behind her desk
Michael McElroy
Whether keeping books, wiring money for customers, or planning the next step in her life, Agnes Essien is almost always behind her desk

"Think about how Arkansas was [30] years ago. Arkansas was going through a big transformation. I'll be honest with you -- there were professors who would sit in their classroom and make you feel really bad, saying, "Oh, where are you from?' Some of the professors were so brutal publicly, saying in the classroom that "a black person cannot earn an A in my class,' because they just did not believe we could comprehend that much." Professors would grill her when she'd show up to biology class, sure that she was there by accident. She'd try to talk to science and health department instructors, hoping to pursue her dream of med school, but their callousness and curt, fake smiles put her off. The only people who were nice to her, she says, were in the education department. And that's how Agnes, who wanted to surpass her parents' forays in health care, ended up majoring in elementary education. "I wanted to be like the nice people I'd met."

Agnes managed to graduate in two and a half years. "Believe me, I wanted to leave there as quickly as possible," she says, "wanted to dive in and get the heck out." She attended summer school and took larger-than-usual course loads every term. She also decided to pursue further studies that might help her become a better teacher. After earning her undergraduate degree, she attended Central State University in Edmond, Oklahoma, and earned her master's degree in education. Living in Oklahoma was, by far, Agnes's favorite experience in America. "There were more people who shared [my] view, who were foreign-born or newly immigrated. There was integration of faculty, people with new ideas, not 1950s ideas. And it was in the middle of Indian country, so there was a little bit of a different [mindset]. There, they are cool and calm, and when you say something they listen to you. Not like in other places, where they think, "You are already from a lower place, so we don't want to listen to you.'"

After completing her master's degree in 1980, Agnes went to Texas to be with her long-time boyfriend, Joseph Akpanikat, whom she had met in Nigeria as a youngster. The two, who emigrated separately, had been visiting each other at school. Joseph was studying medicine, and Agnes decided to pursue her Ph.D. in education at North Texas State University.

Agnes enrolled in classes on and off for the next several years. In the mid-'80s, she and Joseph returned to Nigeria and she tried to sort through what she wanted out of life. "I played with my sisters, whom I missed terribly. I ate real food from the farm. I got closer to my mom and dad. And I got married." Agnes and Joseph returned to Texas, where she taught in Dallas. "It was really a test of what you want to do in life. I realized that maybe I made a mistake." The foul language of second-graders there -- "Bitches! Motherfucker!"-- upset her Catholic school sensibilities, though when she complained her colleagues laughed and said kids were just that way in America.

Believing there were better job opportunities in Florida, Agnes made her way to Miami in 1988. The volatile community and politics of that city's school system bothered her. So did the attitudes of some African-American parents who didn't cotton to a foreigner teaching their kids. "Some mothers would come with the curlers in their hair, slippers on their feet, in their nightgown, and say, "Who do you think you are, telling me about my child?'" The following year, she applied to the Broward County school system and was hired to teach second grade at North Andrews Garden Elementary, then a predominantly white school in Fort Lauderdale. For the next eight years, Agnes would find much joy in her students, but it wouldn't last.

At first Agnes enjoyed presiding over the classroom. Her heart went out to her kids; once, a boy asked her for new socks, saying his family was too poor to buy them, so she bought an entire package and let the whole class pick out pairs. The children were better behaved than in Dallas and Miami, she says, as were the parents. Agnes did not allow her students to get away with horseplay -- but she made school as fun as play. "It's all about your personality and how you approach them. I think they liked me because I had an accent and was different," Agnes says with delight. "I could jump up and down in the classroom like the kids. I could climb the playground equipment like the kids."

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