When Imani LaMarr showed up at her health science professor’s office on that January day in 2020, the Lincoln University student was hoping for a reprieve. What she got was so much better.
LaMarr, who is a single parent, explained to her professor, Aqeel R. Dix, that she had an infant son, Christopher, and that her mom usually cared for him when LaMarr attended class. Her mom, though, was now in the hospital, and LaMarr had been unable to find anyone to care for the baby the following day, when Dix had scheduled a quiz and lecture for LaMarr and her classmates.
So she had a request: Could she take the quiz another day and skip the next day’s lesson so she could stay home with Christopher?
She was startled by Dix’s answer.
“He told me, ‘No. That’s not an excuse,’” LaMarr recalled. “I said, ‘What do you want me to do? Bring him to class?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’”
LaMarr wasn’t sure she was hearing right.
“I said, ‘You want me to bring my 6-month-old baby to class with me?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. That’s fine. Bring him in. I’ll watch him for you.’”
LaMarr, just 21 at the time, could barely believe her ears. But the next day, she showed up at Dix’s office with Christopher. And all three of them — student, professor, and baby — went to class.
Not only did LaMarr get to take the quiz with her fellow students, but Dix kept Christopher with him through the entire class so that LaMarr could focus on the lecture that followed.
“He taught the whole class, holding Christopher,” she said, still sounding a bit amazed. “Christopher was quiet as a church mouse. He didn’t cry. He didn’t make a peep. He just watched all the students.”
“We had an amazing class,” Dix recalled.
Since then, the professor and student have forged a mentor/mentee relationship that has helped LaMarr push through times when she felt overwhelmed by both the demands of young motherhood and the rigor of her studies. In truth, some days she wanted to quit school altogether.
Each time, Dix was there with the encouragement she needed to stay the course.
“He’s not my official adviser at school, but he’s like my personal adviser,” said LaMarr, a graduate of Upper Darby High School. “Any problems I’m having in my life, or if I need to talk to somebody, he’s really open and into listening. He doesn’t always give me the advice I want to hear, but he gives me the advice I need to hear.”
Dix said that day with Christopher was his first time teaching a class with a baby in arms. But for him, student class attendance is crucial, and finding ways to help his students succeed is a key part of who he is as an educator.
“I’m big on helping my students,” said Dix, 37, who is childless but comes from a large family with lots of nieces, nephews, and godchildren. “I tell them all the time: I want you to be great. Your success is my success. When you’re great, I’m greater. We all help each other.”
An assistant professor in Lincoln’s health science department, Dix has had his share of academic success. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in public health from West Chester University and went on to get his doctorate in education at Wilmington University.
But growing up in Chester with five sisters, Dix witnessed the struggles of his own mother, a single parent.
“So I get it,” said Dix. “I understand the plight of single parents and what they go through. Being a parent is difficult, but being a parent and a student is 10 times more difficult. So if I can relieve some of the burden off any of them, especially somebody who is trying, I’ll do so.”
Recent years had brought LaMarr some burdens she could not foresee. Getting a college degree had long been one of her goals, and she had always hoped to attend a historically Black college or university (HBCU). But not long before she graduated from high school, her father died unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism. She didn’t want to go to school too far from her mother and her four siblings.
“Everyone was going through a tough time when my dad died,” she said.
So she was glad to get into Lincoln University, which has a proud heritage as the nation’s first degree-granting HBCU and is relatively close to her family’s home. Lincoln’s distinguished alumni include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the poet Langston Hughes.
In the fall of 2018, her junior year at Lincoln, LaMarr became unexpectedly pregnant but stuck with school throughout her pregnancy. She was due in the summer of 2019, but Christopher wound up being born in May — three months early — by emergency C-section at the end of the spring semester.
“After I got discharged, I was up at the hospital all day, every day, and sometimes all night. Sometimes I would stay there,” she said.
Christopher wasn’t discharged until July. He required a breathing monitor, medication, and frequent medical appointments. LaMarr skipped the fall 2019 semester at Lincoln to take care of him and wanted to take off the 2020 spring semester, too, but her mother insisted she return to school.
That January was when she and Dix had their fateful meeting.
Actually, they had first encountered each other in her sophomore year, when she enrolled in one of his courses. She’d heard rumors that he was a very exacting teacher, and by the end of the semester, she believed that was true. But she also came to believe that he truly cared about his students.
Now she sees how close that first impression was to the truth.
Dix keeps an open-door policy at his office, even with COVID-19, and he said students enter often.
“They need a lot of support,” he said. “The pandemic has really shifted their lives upside down. Many of them dealt with a lot of loss during that time, and they took on a lot of burdens when they went home.”
Some students have had to take on jobs because their parents have lost their own.
“It wasn’t just Imani,” he said of the help he lent LaMarr that day and the moral support he has provided her since. “I would do it for any of my students, especially those who try.”
LaMarr said Dix’s support has been “critical.”
While her family’s support has been wonderful, she said — “They’re supposed to be in my corner” — having somebody “outside my family really, truly believe in me and who wants me to finish and pushes me no matter what personal problems I’ve having in life — it means the world. He led me to where I am today.”
“I did the work,” she added, “but there were times I was ready to quit, and he just wouldn’t let me. I think there should be more professors like him, more teachers like him, more people like him in the world.”
Dix never had to teach another class with Christopher in his arms. But a few weeks ago, the professor babysat LaMarr’s now 2-year-old son while she attended a class. The guys watched Sesame Street and had cookies in Dix’s office.
“Christopher loves him,” said LaMarr, who plans to continue her education, after Lincoln, to become a midwife. But first, oh, how she’s looking forward to her graduation next May.
So is Dr. Dix. It’s the day when students who have struggled through any number of obstacles finally reach their goal, triumphant.
“That,” he said, “is the highlight of my year.”