Most college kids send an email attachment or download a file with the ease of sharpening a pencil, but sometimes the biggest challenge for “non-traditional” (read: middle-aged or older) students is not the course work itself, but the platform they are required to use: the online portal where their syllabi are posted and assignment drop boxes reside. At sixtyish, Ella fell into the latter category.
For the first few weeks of the quarter in my 111 class, she scowled and frowned at her computer monitor, lifting her chin to get a better view of the screen through her reading glasses. The young man who sat next to her often had to show her where to click and on what. After a couple of days, she confided to me that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to handle school. It was her first quarter, and she felt overwhelmed.
I encouraged her to be patient, told her where she could find some help outside of class, and offered to let her hand in her assignments the old fashioned way when possible. She thanked me and nodded, but did not seem all that reassured.
Ella had an almost regal bearing. She was not more than five feet tall, and had a prodigious, shelf-like bosom that made her seem much bigger than she was. Her skin was the color of milk chocolate, and she always smelled powdered and perfumed, though not overly so. Every day, her hair was neatly coiffed; it was clear that she was particular about her appearance, and about her classwork too. I can still remember her handwriting: the elegant slant, the slight flourish. Penmanship is a lost art; legibility is part of the reason I require that most students submit their work electronically. But this was never an issue for Ella. I loved seeing her words in her hand.
When the time came to write a memoir essay, Ella approached me and expressed some concern.
“I’m sorry, Miss Professor,” she said (although I had asked her to call me by my first name, she could not break herself of the habit of adding the “Miss” to it), “I just can’t think of anything to write about.”
“Sure you can, Ella. You have kids, right? A family and a past. There has to be something. Think small. It doesn’t have to be an ‘event,’ just something memorable.”
“Ok, Miss Professor,” she said. “I guess I’ll think of something.”
She wound up writing about putting on her Air Force uniform: the rituals of pinning and tucking and polishing and smoothing until everything was just so. Underlying the piece was her pride in having served many years before. She wrote about a son, but I never asked why a partner or other children might have been so conspicuously absent. While she had a raucous laugh and took a grandmotherly interest in her classmates, she was quite private about herself.
It wasn’t until weeks later while grading her portfolio that I learned, in a letter she submitted with her finished papers, why topic choice had been so difficult for her. “Every time I recalled a ‘significant’ event, something I had learned from, it was something sad,” she wrote. “I just could not bear to sit with those memories for any length of time, let alone write about them. But I’m still proud of putting on that uniform.”
As I read this I thought about a few things Ella had let slip during the quarter. The one time she had missed class was because she could not afford to have her car repaired. Her argument paper was about health insurance reform, and mentioned that she, a veteran, had no coverage. In bits and pieces, I glimpsed a very rough outline of a life of hardship and disappointment; of hard work and little reward. And yet the face that I knew was kind and serene, wise and humble. Neither in her eyes nor in her words had I ever detected the slightest hint of bitterness.
When she came by my office to pick up her portfolio on the last day of the quarter, Ella was visibly nervous. I handed it to her with a smile, knowing she’d be pleased with her grade, a well-deserved A. She thanked me and left without opening the folder or looking at the grade. Seconds later, though, I heard a whoop from the hallway outside my door, followed by a robust “Thank you, Jesus!” She burst back in, clutching the yellow folder to her generous bosom with one hand and fanning her face with the other. She was bouncing up and down like a game show contestant, tears streaming down her face. I wasn’t sure if she was laughing or crying, but maybe it was both.
“Thank you, Miss Professor. Thank you so much,” she said breathlessly. “Do you mind if I give you a hug?”
“Of course not, Ella,” I laughed, letting her wrap me up in her squishy embrace. “But I can’t believe you’re surprised.”
“I had no idea. I worked so hard, and I hoped for the best, but you just never know.”
I’m not sure what events in Ella’s life taught her that effort did not always pay, to expect disappointment, that fairness is never guaranteed, but I was glad that being back in school was teaching her otherwise.