Don’t even think of calling her Jules. It’s Ms. Jules, as sociology lecturer Andy Barlow learned the first time he addressed his student, Jules Patrice Means, then age 66, at the start of Deviance and Social Control, a course he taught this past semester.
“Although she is younger than I am,” he said, “she corrected me and said, ‘I want everyone to call me Ms. Jules, in recognition of my role with younger students on this campus.’ I have never called her anything but Ms. Jules since.”
The respect demanded by Means, now 67 and a graduating senior at UC Berkeley, is not only gladly given by those she meets, it’s earned. She’s had a lifetime of challenges — from having a baby in high school to suffering a major stroke at age 60 — that have only made her stronger and better equipped “to do what the Bible tells us: To love your neighbor as much as you love yourself,” she said. “That’s how I live my life.”
Well, there is one hurdle she’s still trying to clear: The loss of this month’s graduation ceremonies, which causes the proud, stylish great-grandmother and sociology major, who received all A’s and one B+ while at Berkeley, to tear up. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she says she’d paid for “quite expensive” graduation announcements and photos of herself in cap and gown. They now sit in stacks, inside plastic sleeves, on her dining room table in Brentwood.
“My invitations say May 16, and they’re so beautiful,” she said. “I thought about placing a sticker on them with a new date and location, but I do not believe it would look professional. I’ll now have to repurchase all those invites when we get a new graduation date.”
But Means is cheered by Chancellor Carol Christ, whose last name Means said she intentionally pronounces like another name for Jesus “because she reminds me of Jesus, … she’s a really good person and is thinking above the bar.” She said Christ was kind enough to survey 2020 graduates about their preference for a virtual commencement or an in-person one at a later date and told them, “If anyone deserves a graduation, it’s you.”
“When my name is called,” said Means, who definitely does not want an online event, “I will walk across the stage with the utmost grace and feeling that I accomplished my goals at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. And I’m not finished yet. I plan on applying for grad school at Cal to earn my Master of Social Welfare degree. It’s never too late to achieve your aspirations in life.”
Jules Means was the one woman from your childhood that you could count on to enrich your life, said Tomie Lenear Jr. at the Student Parent Center.
“Ms. Jules is the mom, grandma, auntie, or that one lady from your childhood that you could always count on to enrich your life in small, but sweet interactions, each time you see her,” said Tomie Lenear Jr., program coordinator at the Student Parent Center.
A teenage mother, writing in pencil
Growing up in San Francisco’s Richmond district, a block from Ocean Beach, Means had a stay-at-home mom, a longshoreman dad who successfully bought, renovated and sold old houses, four sisters and perfect grades. But at school, life wasn’t so ideal.
In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, at Lafayette Elementary in the city’s Outer Richmond neighborhood, “I was called every name in the book: tar baby, big lips, stupid, crazy,” said Means. “I went home and told my mother, ‘I wish I was white. I don’t want to be negro,’ which was a word we used in that time period.
“’Why?’ my mother asked. I told her, ‘I’m not accepted. They mistreat me, hit me and call me terrible names.’ ‘You are a beautiful, beautiful, negro girl,’ said my mother. Her name was Marion Silk, and she had great integrity, and a strong work ethic. ‘I want you to always hold your head up high.’ From that day on, that’s what I did. Mother told me to write my plans in pencil, but give God the eraser.”
Later, in high school, that eraser got busy. First, a girl slipped Means a phone number, telling her it was for Means’ biological father, and it was. At 16, Means moved in with her newfound dad, a concrete mason, eager to know him and his wife and four daughters. But when Means got pregnant at 17, he told her to return to her mother.
Instead, Means packed for her boyfriend’s house. His mother invited her to stay, but if it was to be long-term, she told the teens they must marry; they’d only dated a few months.
“It was a shameful thing, at least for our family, to have a baby out of wedlock,” said Means.
“I concealed the pregnancy really well, wore big clothes, because I didn’t want people to talk bad about me. I felt like I had to get married, so we did, at city hall, before the baby was born, so no one would say anything.”
Means, who’d dreamed of becoming a San Francisco mayor, put away hopes for college, “even though I was a good student, a straight A student,” she said. “I felt my life was going to be terrible, that I’d be on welfare and not able to take care of the baby.”
But Means persevered. She finished high school in 1971, the same year her son was born. Her young husband’s mother died, leaving the couple $4,000 from her life insurance policy, “enough to pay first and last months’ rent at our own apartment and a little old car,” she said.
The marriage didn’t last long, but refusing welfare — “I was able-bodied,” Means explained — she worked two jobs, flipping burgers and caring for an elderly woman. Then, she had a fortuitous chat on a city bus with the daughter of Dr. Leon Kaufman, a then-UCSF physics professor who needed an assistant for his radiological imaging lab experiments.
“Are you afraid of rats and mice?” the woman asked Means. “I said, ‘Oh, my god,’ and my blood pressure went up,” said Means. But the job paid $400 a month, and Means was hired, a stroke of luck that, with her full-time job, allowed the young mother, in a tiny apartment of her own, to pay her bills while raising her son.
Jules Means was intimidated when she first got to Berkeley, but her niece encouraged her.
“When I got (to Berkeley), it was overwhelming, and I was like a deer in headlights. I told (my niece) Elletra, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this.’ I wasn’t used to being on a campus so huge, with all those buildings and people running to classes. And she said, ‘You can do this, Auntie Jules. You’ll be the first person in our family to attend Berkeley, and Berkeley only accepts the best of the best. You did not get in by mistake. Go in there and give it 100%.’” (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)
When another student said, “Ms. Jules, you’re always studying. C’s get degrees at Berkeley, you know,” Means said she didn’t hesitate to say, “Young lady, one day I’m going to be applying for a job against you, and these corporations are asking for transcripts. If I have all A’s and you have C’s, who do you think they’re going to hire? To this day, (that student) remembers me and emails me.”
Even when Barlow offered to grade his students based on the work they did prior to the campus ending in-person classes, Means — who already had an A in his class — insisted on completing her final paper and exam, “and, of course, they were excellent,” Barlow said.
The high academic standards that Means sets for herself, he added, shows that “she deeply understands the power of knowledge for marginalized people. … and her commitment to academic excellence rubbed off on the entire class, and resulted in the class earning the highest grades I have ever given.”
Means said there is much more that Berkeley needs to do to fight racism, including addressing it “right here on campus.” In one course, she said, she had to chide two white classmates who were snickering at slides of sexual cruelty to slaves.
“I’d like to see more professors of my color and classes that relate to African Americans in positive ways,” she said, adding that she’s pleased that campus diversity is one of the chancellor’s top priorities. “We, as a race of people, have a lot to say.”
After getting her master’s degree in social welfare, Means plans to work as a counselor, helping to give voice, and hope, to low-income earners, especially those from minority communities.
“Education is the key to unlocking the doors that prevent people from reaching their goals,” she said. “If I can do it, they can, too.”