Notes from The Professor

June 11, 2011

Commencement

Over the past several years, I’ve developed a small ritual during finals week.  I go to the bookstore on Monday, the day the paper avalanche starts in earnest, and pick up my Josten’s packet — black robe, mortarboard with tassel, and Master’s hood — and take it back to my office, where I hang everything on the hooks behind my office door.  When the baskets of portfolios and folders full of research papers and stuffed online dropboxes overwhelm me (which is many times a day), I look at the phantom professor in the corner and remember that the end is near.  Summer begins in a week.  No matter how bad it gets, it will all be worth it soon.

It is sort of a tradition among us professors to whine about having to attend commencement.  Other than teaching a certain number of hours each quarter, it is one of the only duties specifically enumerated in our contract — ostensibly because no one would go if they didn’t have to.  It’s a long evening. There are more than 800 names to read.  We are tired.

Then there’s the fact that it is held in an unairconditioned basketball arena on the second weekend in June. In spite of the enormous fans whose roar fills the air even over the chattering of the crowd, it is sweltering — and we are dressed in black poly-blend and velvet.  With hats.  One of my colleagues has dubbed it “the sweat lodge.”

The black-robed near-graduates fill the tarp-covered arena floor, awaiting their diplomas.  They flap at their already sweaty faces with cardboard paddles emblazoned with the college logo. The atmosphere is somewhere between that of a NASCAR race and a church service.  The crowd is so big that even when Pomp and Circumstance begins to play, no one really quiets down.  People cheer and wave like they would at a sporting event.  Once in a while, an air horn blasts.  It is not a solemn occasion, nor is it stuffy (other than the temperature).

Because I teach entry-level classes and prerequisites, it is unusual for me to see any recent students in the crowd.  Although technically we offer only two-year degrees, few of the students who enroll in English 111 their first quarter finish in two years.  Many can attend only part time.  Many have their two-year plans interrupted — by babies, financial exigencies, illness, or any number of other inconvenient hurdles.  Many of them transfer and will earn their degrees elsewhere.  Many will simply disappear.  Of course it is important for me to be there, but would any of my students know the difference if I weren’t? Do they even remember me by now?

The ceremony is roughly the same every year. The benediction and President’s welcome are followed by the conferring of Professors Emeriti.  (No honorary two-year degrees granted, folks. Sorry.)  Then the keynote speaker addresses the class.  This year it was one of our Senators, who apparently thought he was somewhere else when he joked about the graduates’ parents being glad not to have to pay tuition anymore. I have no idea what the numbers are, but his little quip got not so much as a chuckle.  Probably fewer than 10% of those assembled have someone else to pay their bills.  Everyone looked at him as if he were daft. That he went on to quote Socrates, MLK, and Joseph Campbell in the space of the next three minutes (his theme:  “follow your dreams.” Truly original and inspiring!) made me wonder if he’d just Googled “inspirational quotes” on his Blackberry ten minutes before the ceremony.  And when he ended his speech by congratulating the class of 2001 (that is not a typo) I cringed.

While our keynoters are usually much better prepared and less — well — vapid, the best part of the evening is after the diplomas are handed out.  The college President, a big man with a booming voice, does what I’ve come to regard as his commencement schtick.

“Stand if you are the first member of your family to graduate from college.  Stand if you were ever told that you ‘weren’t college material.’  Stand if you started here more than five years ago.  Remain standing if it’s been more than ten years.  Twenty…” and he goes on until only one or two people are standing, and talks about goals and persistence and perseverance.  The crowd goes wild.  More airhorns.

I have a love/hate relationship with this scene.  Last night, I was sitting next to my department chair, who is constantly being hounded by the administration about our passing rates.  Why aren’t they higher? What can we do to improve retention rates?  Those who worship the almighty “completion rate,” that number we are constantly trying to improve and that dogs our every decision, do not regard this sort of longevity kindly.  At some point, we counted some of these very people among those we had failed to “retain.”

But they came back, and this night is for celebrating. This night is about the ones who have made it, however we count them. Some sail through; some struggle and repeat classes and suffer false starts.  But the 842 graduates here, and the many hundreds more who opt not to sweat it out in the arena, did it.  They did it.

And so did I.  I made it through the piles for one more year. I submitted my grades.  I convinced at least one guy that reading poetry wasn’t for sissies (although he made me promise not to tell anyone he said so) and another that he had something valuable to say.  One student told me my class had changed her life.  Another said I’d made her glad she wasn’t an English major.

And so it goes, as does my love/hate relationship with commencement.  The odd mix of solemnity and rowdiness in the arena embodies all the good and the bad of my job, the successes and the failures of my students, the hopefulness and cynicism that are constantly at war in me.

When the ceremony is over, we faculty file out the back doors of the arena, peel off our regalia, and drop them into enormous cardboard bins to be returned to the rental company.  Black robes, jewel-toned hoods and mortarboards lie in heaps as though their occupants have melted out of them, which is not too far from the truth. During the ceremony last night a thunderstorm passed over, as one does most nights this time of year. When I pushed open the doors and headed out to the parking lot, the heat of the day had dissipated, and a cool breeze washed over me.  Summer had commenced.

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May 23, 2011

Nathan: the patient

Since we are an open enrollment commuter school, and a “teaching college,” it is part of our responsibility to teach students how to “do” college. Data consistenly show that success rates are heavily correlated to attendance (duh) so if we can keep bodies in seats, we can improve outcomes. To that end, and unlike a lot of four-year institutions, we have a mandatory attendance policy in most of our classes.

I am deeply ambivalent about this. One of the hardest parts of my job is keeping track of excuses. Because their lives are so demanding (nearly all of my students work; many have kids; some commute an hour each way; you name it) there are plenty of good reasons people miss class. With 125 students per quarter, it can be a recordkeeping nightmare to keep up with excused and unexcused absences, tardies, and makeup work. And when students are a) adults, and b) paying tuition, it sort of seems like it should be up to them to decide what they want to get out of the experience. I try not to take it personally when people don’t show up, but I do.

It especially galls me because of students like Nathan, who never missed a class. Ever. He always did the reading, he never missed a deadline, and he (most shockingly of all) frequently read parts of the book that weren’t assigned, just out of curiosity.

When he asked to do his research paper on stem cell research, though, I was disappointed. We spend a lot of time brainstorming topics so the proposals they write end up being something that might actually be useful to them, rather than just busywork for a grade. Surely he could come up with something more original than that.

“Why that topic, Nathan? Surely there’s something more relevant to your life.”

“I’m diabetic,” he told me. “My kidneys have failed. I spend six hours a day on dialysis. Researching a cure for this disease is pretty relevant to my life.”

Gulp.

We chatted for a while about what he hoped to learn, about whether a pancreas transplant would work for him and what advances were being made. He was politically conflicted — a Republican who was very unhappy with then-President Bush’s restrictions on stem cell lines.

Finally, I asked him how he managed to keep up with school (and work, and life in general) when he was hooked up to a machine for one quarter of his life.

“Dialysis has made me the student I am,” he told me. “For six hours a day, I have no choice but to sit still. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t spend it watching t.v. or playing video games or messing around online. When you’re on borrowed time, you don’t waste it.”

He went on to describe the setup he had at home, his bedroom serving as both his office and his clinic. I couldn’t help but try to imagine how much better my other students would do if they would devote six hours a day to school work. But then, I can’t imagine anyone–myself included–having that kind of discipline.

Despite his considerable challenges, Nathan looked perfectly healthy. He was thin–maybe too thin–but his color was good and his energy level completely normal. Had it not been for our conversation, I would never have known he was sick. He managed his diabetes just fine, but it was doing a number on him anyway.

His final term paper was smart, informative, and balanced. He concluded that the most promising therapies for type I diabetes would have to rely on stem cell research, and he cogently addressed the ethical issues surrounding it without getting bogged down in identity politics. It was a great paper.

I don’t know what became of Nathan, or whether he got his transplant–a kidney, a pancreas, or both–or even whether he’s still alive. But I think of him now and then when some kid skips a class or misses a deadline and makes a lame excuse. It’s not exactly fair to say, “Nathan got an A when he was on dialysis for six hours a day, and you could’t make it to class because you had a fight with your boyfriend? Really? You overslept because you were playing World of Warcraft until 4am? Really? You didn’t bother to even make an excuse? Really? Do you know how much harder you could have it?”

But I don’t say any of this. Instead, I try to give my students the benefit of the doubt without being a sucker. I try to make it worth their time to come, with natural consequences if they don’t. I try to make them want to come to class for intrinsic rewards. And I enforce the stupid attendance policy, just in case.

April 28, 2011

Matt: the aimless

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:58 pm
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Lest you think I am a Pollyanna or a liar, I suppose it’s time to admit that there are some students I just don’t care that much about. I picked on the KKKKKs, the pleasant but indistinguishable young girls, a couple of weeks ago, so let me tell you about Matt, the indistinguishable young guy(s).

Matt schlepps into class twenty minutes late every single damned day he bothers to show up, which is a little over half the time. He’s wearing baggy jeans or cargo shorts, depending on the season; a hoodie or logo Tshirt; and some sort of headwear that’s supposed to camouflage his lack of hygiene, usually a stocking or baseball cap. He looks like he has just rolled out of bed, because he has.

Count on Matt to skip days when an assignment is due, only to show up the next class day and act shocked when I won’t accept it.

Matt: “Here’s my paper.”

Me: “Thanks, but it was due last time.”

Matt: “Right, but I wasn’t here last time.”

Me: “I know. But that’s when it was due.”

Matt: “But I was absent that day.”

You see where I’m going with this? Or not going, as the case may be.

Matt’s generically attractive face looks utterly blank when he’s called on. He does not have his book, or if he does, he has not read the assignment. When given class time to work on something, he will instead check his Facebook page and scroll through pictures of his pals back at the U doing beer bongs. (I know this because I can see all the computer screens in the classroom from the instructor’s terminal. Technically I can block certain sites, but they are chronologically adults, and I’m not a micromanager. Besides, sometimes the pictures are entertaining.) When I circulate around the room, he comes up with some earnest question to distract my attention from the fact that he isn’t farther along in his work. He is always very polite, despite his apparent disinterest in just about everything, with the possible exception of the girl who sits in front of him, and only if she’s a KKKKK.

Maybe Matt is here because he drank so much beer at the State University he could’t be bothered to go to class. His parents have yanked him out of school and sentenced him to a couple of quarters at community college–possibly to rehabilitate his GPA, or perhaps just to save the many thousands of dollars they were wasting on tuition, room and board only to have Matt fritter it away. Or, he might be here because he prefers playing Xbox in his parents’ basement to any future he might be working toward, and Mom and Dad have made school a condition for his continued mooching their continued support. Or perhaps Matt has decided that being a line cook at crApplebees isn’t the best terminal career goal. There may be many, many reasons why Matt has landed here, but one thing is consistent: he has very little idea of where he might be headed.

At the end of the quarter, Matt will be very disappointed in his grade. He won’t understand why, despite turning in some reasonably well-written papers, he did not earn at least a B. He seems to have completely forgotten that every paper was late, every draft incomplete, every in-class assignment done haphazardly, and that he was late or absent more than half the time. When he is reminded of this, he seems nonplussed that I am actually holding him to the standards that are clearly spelled out on the syllabus. By the end of the quarter, I’ll have trouble being polite to him.

Of course it is unfair to generalize about young male students this way. Fortunately, there are only a couple of these guys in each class, and there are many other young men who do not fit this stereotype, along with some girls who do. But I am curious and a little bit alarmed by the difference between young men and young women. Anecdotally, it seems that guys suffer from a sort of malaise and lack of direction that does not afflict their female counterparts nearly as badly. Recent research has shown that college attendance and completion rates are significantly higher for women than for men. What is happening–or not happening–to these guys that makes them so, well, Matt-like?

April 18, 2011

Levi: the brain

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 7:29 pm
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Community colleges have been called by one Professor X “colleges of last resort.” I don’t think so. Sure, there are kids here who could’t get in anywhere else, or those who don’t really know what to do with themselves after high school and just sign up for a couple of classes. But for the most part, the people I teach are not here by accident or by default. They are here because they can get in no matter what their grades in high school, because they can afford it without loans or help from their parents, or because they need training in a particular career field. Many of them are extremely goal-oriented, stereotypes about community colleges aside.

But once in a while, I do have a student who makes me wonder, “Just what are you doing here?” Such was the case with Levi, but not for any of the reasons you might guess.

The first day of class, Levi asked me if he could take my course for honors credit. Since it was his first quarter at the college, he didn’t have a track record or a recommendation, so I wasn’t sure how to answer him. When I told him the requirements, he didn’t flinch.

“I don’t think that should be any problem,” he said from behind his thick glasses.

That turned out to be an understatement.

Levi was, by far, one of the brightest students I’ve taught in the last twenty years. When I taught high school in an affluent suburb, I saw plenty of national merit scholars bound for the Ivies. Levi was every bit as bright, well-read, and articulate as any of those kids. He, too, had attended a good high school in a nice neighborhood. But in all the time I knew him (he ended up taking two classes from me over the course of about a year and a half) I never did ask him why he had chosen a community college.

Early on in our acquaintance, he came to my office for help on his memoir essay about the trip to Eastern Europe he had taken with his dad and brother a few years earlier. It was weird and hilariously funny and a little bit sad. During our conference, he told me more about his dad: a Hassidic Jew who lived in Brooklyn; a ridiculously brilliant but only borderline sane guy, and by Levi’s own description, not much of a father. I suspect part of the reason Levi had wound up at my school was due to finances; his mom was single and struggling to raise him and his younger brother, and his dad could not be counted on for support or help with tuition.

That didn’t explain everything, though. Certainly kids with financial challenges go to elite schools, and he could have earned a scholarship with his considerable intellect. Not to mention that fact that AP credit, well within his grasp, exempts most kids like him from taking comp at all. I try not to ask students about their high school careers; I want them to have a fresh start with me. But if I had to guess, I’d say that Levi was one of those kids who was so bored or disinterested in what high school had to offer and so busy reading about whatever was consuming him at the time, he could’t be bothered to worry about grades. Maybe he was just the classic underachiever; as bright as he was, he wasn’t a great student, missing class and deadlines more often than he should have.

A shy kid with a wry and sophisticated sense of humor, he took to stopping by during my office hour to chat. Often, he wanted to discuss his honors paper about the Feminist evolution of Cyberpunk. I knew nothing about the genre, but he had an encyclopedic knowledge of it…and of just about everything else: politics, economics, history, and sociology. It seemed as if there were nothing he hadn’t read. We bonded over our shared dislike of the then president and our love of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Once in awhile, I’d recommend a book. Two days later, he’d come back to my office to talk about it, having devoured it in the meantime.

As much as I enjoyed his visits, sometimes I had to shoo him away. I didn’t always have thirty or forty minutes to engage in conversation for its own sake, when grading, committee work, and other students demanded my time. I think Levi was intellectually famished. It must be lonely to have so little in common with one’s classmates, to think on an entirely different plane. Even with 25 years more reading and a lot more education behind me, I couldn’t keep up. His final paper was twice as long as I had required and his honors presentation inscrutable to ninety percent of his classmates, even though it was articulately and enthusiastically delivered. Both would have held their own in a graduate course.

Levi transferred after completing his general education courses to a university nearby. A few days ago, I got an email asking for a reference; it was automatically generated, not from him personally, and asked me to comment on his suitability to be a teaching assistant. Since I had not heard from him, I was happy to get some indication he was on track and ostensibly doing well. I always felt slightly inadequate for not being able to offer the intellectual stimulation–sometimes companionship–that he needed. But I’m glad, no matter why or how Levi started here, to have been a rung on the ladder to wherever it is he’s headed.

April 3, 2011

Kayla Kelsey Kaitlyn Kendra Kailey: the girls

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 6:31 pm
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I have been asked how I can possibly remember all of my students. Some of them are unforgettable, and some of them stay in touch, but the truth is, I forget plenty of them once they leave my class. In a typical quarter, I teach five sections of composition. Classes used to be capped at 25, but now, with enrollment booming and class space at a premium, it’s more common to have 28 or 29 students in a section. A handful of these will drop, fail, or simply disappear, but at quarter’s end, I’ll still be looking at well over 120 faces.

The faces, I remember. The names are a little harder, but I make a point to learn them by the second or third week of the quarter. Unusual names or people are easy, but I struggle with the Kayla Kelsey Kaitlin Kendra Kaileys.

KKKKK is a young girl between the ages of 17 and 20. She can usually be identified by her hoodie, jeans, Ugg boots (or flip flops, depending on the weather), a ponytail, a stretchy headband, and a tan (regardless of the weather). She comes to class regularly, turns everything in on time, and almost always gets good grades. When it’s time to write a memoir, she writes about her grandpa’s funeral or her prom. When it’s time to write a review, she chooses a top 40 album or a chain restaurant. Her journal entries are written in fat, bubbly print (almost no one under the age of 30 writes in anything resembling cursive), and she compiles her portfolio in a polka dot folder. She writes research papers about preventing animal cruelty, the evils of beauty pageants, or the perils of texting while driving. I realize, with some horror, that I am old enough to be her mom, and that she probably sees me in that light. In other words, she is the typical American teenaged girl.

Typically, the KKKKKs come from big suburban high schools; some have not yet graduated, but are exercising the option to take college classes for high school credit. It may be my imagination, but I’m guessing that enrollment stats would bear me out: there are a lot more KKKKKs at my school now than there were ten years ago. Some of them write about how their family circumstances have changed in the past couple of years: their parents have split up, one or both have been laid off, someone’s health has failed. In other words, they hadn’t planned to go to community college, but they are making the best of it. Most of them will transfer to a university after taking their general education courses here.

I think I would die of boredom if I taught at a school where all of my students were 19, well-prepared, entitled, and hungover. I tend to gravitate toward lost causes or less traditional students who usually ask for and need more help, or write about issues that are more mature or memorable. They stay after class to chat now and then. But I like these girls, too. Twenty five years ago, I was one of them.

It takes me weeks to learn which K is which. By quarter’s end, I know that it was Kelsey whose dad died when she was twelve. It was Kayla who had to cut back her hours at the Cheesecake Factory when her grades started to slip. It was Kaitlyn who missed a week because of the flu. But they’ll all make it. They’ll get A’s and B’s, and they’ll smile and wave when they see me on campus the next quarter or the next year. I won’t forget them exactly, but I might not remember them, either. At least not their names.

March 19, 2011

Jeanine: the bereft

When I started teaching college twelve years ago, I had very few avenues through which to communicate with my students outside of class. As an adjunct instructor, I had no office or campus phone number. I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t even have my own email address, and since most of my students did not have an internet connection at home, it wouldn’t have done me much good if I had. So, I had to do the unthinkable: I gave out my home phone number.

My class met in the evenings, so when my phone rang as I was getting an early dinner on the table and shoveling squash into the baby’s mouth and trying to keep my clothes clean until class time, I could count on it being a student with a last minute question or excuse. (Once, my phone rang at 11:45pm. It was a woman who’d been absent for three weeks wondering when might be a good time for her to turn in the paper that had been due earlier that evening. I told her “never” and went back to sleep, but that’s another story.)

One day I got a call at about 8:30 in the morning from Jeanine, a perfectionist who attended every class, met every deadline, and seldom got less than 95% on any assignment.

“I’m not going to be able to turn my paper in tonight, but I’ll have a friend bring it.” She sounded flustered but businesslike.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“My husband died,” she said, as matter-of-factly as if she’d been telling me that her car had broken down.

“Oh, Jeanine. I’m so sorry. When?”

“Just now. I’m waiting for the coroner.”

“What?”

“I’m waiting for the coroner. I just found him about five minutes ago. I don’t think I’m going to make it to class.”

I stammered my condolences, told her not to worry about a thing, that I didn’t need her paper that very day under the circumstances and she could just call me when she was ready to come back to class, but I could tell she wasn’t listening.

“Ok. I’ve got to go. I have to tell my family.”

I hung up the phone, trying to imagine the state of shock someone would have to be in to make such a call. It was as though she had immediately started running a checklist in her head, one that she was making up as she went: Take care of business. Make the easy calls first: 1) call coroner; 2) call English teacher.

Jeanine had told me about her husband one evening while we were on a break during the three-hour class meeting. She had been married for twenty years, since she was nineteen. She was studying to be a nurse; after all, she had been a caregiver for half her life.

The accident happened two weeks after her wedding. Her husband had been gravely injured. Shortly after she moved into the house they had bought together, she had moved a hospital bed into what would have been the dining room. In twenty years, she had never slept for more than four hours at a stretch, because she had to get up to check on him. I don’t remember the details of his condition. He was not on life support, but apparently there were things that could go wrong, things that Jeanine had to monitor, medications she had to administer. He was responsive, though. He could smile at her, respond to her touch. She read to him and sang to him. He was, she told me, her Honey Bunny.

I don’t remember exactly how he died. When I spoke to her a few weeks afterwards, Jeanine told me she had been up until the wee hours working on her research paper and had checked on him before turning in, but when she got up the next morning, he was dead. She wondered aloud if she had been so distracted and overtired from working on her term paper that she had done something wrong, forgotten something. And I (irrationally, I know) wondered if that meant I was somehow to blame, or (more rationally) if she blamed me. Everything is such a delicate chain of cause and effect: if the deadline had been different, if I’d given her more time in class, if I had not made the paper seem like too big a deal, maybe he wouldn’t have died. But of course, that train of what-ifs is infinite. I don’t know what the autopsy showed. It could have been an infection. He could have aspirated. It didn’t matter. He was dead just the same.

Jeanine came back to class about two weeks later. The quarter was almost over, and there was a lot of work to make up. I offered to give her an incomplete.

“Why not take your time? I’ll work with you on what you missed. We’ll get you caught up. There’s no need for you to do this right now.”

“What else would I do?” she asked. Her eyes welled up. It was the only time I ever saw her cry. “I have no idea what to do with myself. I have so much time, so much freedom.”

I waited while she dabbed at her eyes.

“You know,” she said quietly, “I mourned my husband twenty years ago. The man I married died in a car accident when he was twenty years old. But I loved this man, too. People always told me how brave I was for staying with him. Now they talk about how I can finally move on. But I need to grieve him again. He was my baby. I took care of him. I don’t know who I am without him.”

When gravely disabled or ill people die, it’s easy to say that it was a “blessing.” We hear platitudes about their suffering being eased or about their caregivers being released from obligation or about their being at peace. It’s all true on the surface, I suppose, but there’s something about those phrases that disregards the relationships that are born from loss or tragedy or illness or injury. It’s an especially complicated sort of grief.

When Jeanine started school, it had been something to do for herself. She knew that she would never be able to take a job as long as her husband needed her care, but since she was already an experienced caregiver, she thought that perhaps she could learn how to do her job better, and to prepare herself–as family and friends had urged her–for a time when he no longer needed her. She never imagined that time would come so soon.

Jeanine finished the quarter on time. She got an A. I never saw her again. I imagine she finished her nursing degree, probably with honors. She grieved her husband’s death for a second time. By now, she has probably made a whole new life for herself. I think of her now and then. I hope she is happy.

*An edited version of this post was featured on The Story with Dick Gordon, an American Public Media production that airs on NPR stations nationwide. Please listen here. The episode starts off with an interview with one of my students.

February 20, 2011

Irene: the grandma

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:25 pm
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Every so often, a teacher just gets one of those classes: a weird mix of people, an imbalance of genders, an odd time of day or a not-quite-right classroom. One spring quarter 6 or 7 years ago, I had a class that met all of those criteria. It was small for my school, which is to say there were fewer than twenty students who showed up regularly. (These days, with enrollment skyrocketing, it’s more typical to have 28-29 students enrolled in a section. But that’s a rant for another time.) Anyway, it was not looking good.

Of those twenty or so students, nearly all of them were young males–teenaged and young twentysomething guys who looked as though their parents had sentenced them to community college. They schlepped into class five, ten minutes late, looking like they had just rolled out of bed, even at two o’clock in the afternoon.

Thank God for Irene. She was not messing around, and was not going to have her time wasted by those little punks. She’d glare at them when they came in late like the disapproving grandmother she was old enough to be. She had retired from a long career as an autoworker, and thought it was about time to get her college degree. For her second act, she wanted to be a cop. You might think that goal was pretty unrealistic, but then you’ve never met her. She was no little old lady.

Irene was tall and broad shouldered, and had a deep, sandpapery voice earned by at least a pack a day (until, as she proudly told me, she had quit smoking after retirement). Her skin was tanned and as wrinkled as crumpled paper, but she moved like a much younger woman. She spoke up in class often, asked smart questions, and took notes furiously.

The day of the first draft workshop, she was in a group with three of the aforementioned young men. As I circulated around the room eavesdropping on their progress and checking drafts, I heard her say to one of them, “Why’d you only write two pages? It’s supposed to be at least three.”

The kid she’d addressed gaped at her like a fish and mumbled something about it just being a rough draft and not counting for a grade.

“But the professor said three pages.” She stared at him over the top of her reading glasses and waited for an answer.

From then on, a mutual grudging respect formed between her and the kids in the class. She became the ad hoc grandma of the teenaged boy crowd. Irene was not a great writer. She had plenty to say, but sentence boundaries eluded her. Fortunately, Caleb was in her group: a lanky, heavily tattooed, copiously pierced, Doc Marten wearing artist and a fabulous writer. She kicked his ass when he was late or absent, and he proofread for her. It was a perfect symbiosis.

When Irene turned in her first paper, she remarked that it had taken her longer to type it than it had to write it in the first place. And when she said “type,” she meant “type.”

“I’m thinking about getting a computer, but I don’t really know how to use one.”

I told her I thought it would be a good investment, but that she could get by without. Two weeks later, when her next paper was due, she handed in a perfectly-formatted computer-generated document.

“I bought that computer on Friday,” she told me. “Took me all weekend to figure out how to use it, but I think I’ve got it down.”

Her essays improved steadily as the quarter went on. One was about the night she went on a ride-along for her criminal justice class. I kept wondering why a woman her age would want to subject herself to such brutal hours and dangerous conditions, but she loved every minute of it. “I worked in a factory for thirty years. I’ve raised my kids. I could use a little excitement,” she told me. I could hardly argue with that.

By the end of twelve weeks, my ragtag bunch had become my favorite class. I was sorry to see them go. Irene said her goodbyes to her boys and to me, promising to keep in touch. I didn’t see much of her after that, but a couple years later, at commencement, I saw her name in the program. She was profiled, along with three or four other “nontraditional” students, in an article about student success. I watched for her as the 1200 or so students filed past the college president to receive their diplomas, and sure enough, when she was handed hers, a cheer went up from the other graduates in her major. She pumped her fist in the air as she went back to her seat, a grandmother, a retiree, and a graduate. Commencement, indeed.

*An edited version of this post was featured on The Story with Dick Gordon, an American Public Media production that airs on NPR stations nationwide. Please listen here.

January 29, 2011

Hassan: the other

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:15 pm
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Hassan sat in the back of the classroom each day, always in a freshly pressed dress shirt and sharply creased trousers. His short beard was neatly trimmed and shot through with silver, like his hair. He struck me immediately as the consummate gentleman.

Over the course of eleven weeks, he proved to be exactly that. His accent was lilting, the r’s rolling and consonants originating in his throat or tripping down his palate. His voice was gentle, as was his demeanor. Often, he would stay after class to ask for clarification about an assignment. Although his English was quite good, I am *ahem* a bit of a fast talker, and verbal instructions sometimes got past him.

Hassan was, in every way, the model student. He worked hard, asked questions, and met deadlines. And although he struggled a bit with English grammar and idiom, so different from his native Arabic, his writing had a poetic quality that I admired. His use of metaphor, even when writing expository essays, was lovely. I would guess that the rhythms of his native language found their way into his work.

As the quarter went on, I also learned that he was warm and thoughtful. Once he learned that I had children, he inquired after them almost every time I saw him.

“How are your little girls, Miss?” he’d ask, the initial “h” throaty and the richly rolled “r” in “girls” giving the word an extra syllable: “geh-rrruhls.” One day I asked him if he had any children, and his face darkened and lit up in the same instant.

“Yes, I have one daughter. Her name is Habibah. She lives with her mother.”

I didn’t ask for details; it was clear that the subject was difficult for him. But over the course of the quarter, things leaked out in his writing. One of his papers made an argument that Islam was not the violent religion that most Westerners believe it to be. In it, he cited passages from the Koran to show how extremists had perverted an otherwise peaceful religion. Another paper was an argument against the state, alleging that he had been treated unfairly by the court system in the custody battle for his daughter.

The latter paper was painful to read; the longing for Habiba was palpable in his words. But perhaps worse than the ache of missing his daughter was that his ex wife was using his nationality and his religion as ammunition against him in a custody battle, even though she shared both. She had shed her hijab for the hearing. She had denounced her religion openly, even though Hassan knew that she was still observant. When asked in court if she had any reason to suspect that her ex husband was involved in any anti-American activity, she said she didn’t know, but that it was certainly possible. This in spite of the fact that they had together faced discrimination following 9/11. Most of the attackers were, after all, Egyptian, like them. That Hassan’s attorney allowed such questions to be asked, let alone answered, left him feeling utterly powerless, and utterly alone.

Despite this, he never seemed angry. Grief-stricken, perhaps. Demoralized. But not angry. Not violent. In fact, he seemed grateful. Humble. Appreciative of the opportunities that were in front of him–opportunities that he’d left Egypt to pursue.

I have been thinking of Hassan a lot this week, as the news of rioting, internet blocking, and revolution have dominated everything from network TV to Twitter. Hassan’s country is trying to shake off the mantle of 30 years of authoritarian rule. His homeland is in turmoil, its future uncertain.

Certainly, one might think he could have a better life here. His daughter could be free of fear and oppression. His wife could be free of systemic misogyny. He could be free of the radical elements of his faith that had hijacked both the airliners and his religion.

And yet here, where we believe in fair trials and justice and freedom, we have branded him a threat. His own wife has already learned to exploit the ingrained prejudices of people who should know better: attorneys, magistrates and judges, to keep him from his own child. Here too, his home is in turmoil, his future uncertain.

It’s quite a trade.

December 30, 2010

Gina: the mother

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 7:40 pm
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“I’m freaking out,” Gina said as she flung herself into the chair in my office. “I’m sorry. I’m just freaking out…”

“Relax, girl. It’s just a paper.”

The quarter was almost over. Portfolios were due in a week. My office hour was crammed with back-to-back conferences with panicked students. It is hard right before finals week not to take on some of their stress. “It’s just a class. Just do the work,” I want to tell them. Sometimes that helps.

But not Gina.

“No, no. No, it’s not that,” she was starting to cry.

I handed her a tissue.

“I’m pregnant again,” she blubbered. “I’m sorry I’m sorry. You don’t need to know this…”

But she went on, the words spraying out like water from a ruptured pipe. She was a fast talker to begin with; it was all I could do to keep up.

Gina had frustrated me all quarter. She was loud. Constantly late. In the habit of interrupting class to ask a question that I had answered just minutes before. But I liked her. She laughed easily, and there was a ferocity to her that lurked just beneath the surface.

In her first paper, I learned that she had been incarcerated for two years prior to coming to school. She wrote about her meth addiction. It had begun as a way to cope with sleep deprivation and weight gain following the birth of her child, and had landed her in jail after she moved in with a loser who was cooking it in his basement. The baby went to foster care. The boyfriend was in for five years.

But now she was out, she was clean, she had her now-three-year-old back, and she was determined to do right by him. College was the first step, and she was not, in her words “going to fuck it up this time.”

So this discovery, coming at the end of her first quarter of college when things were looking so good for her, was an earthquake.

“I can’t have a baby,” she sobbed. “I can barely take care of the one I have. I can barely take care of myself.”

Her honesty was raw and brutal; her fierceness had deserted her. I didn’t quite know what to say. I could not presume to suggest options, but I didn’t have to.

“I can’t have an abortion,” she said preemptively. “I’m adopted. Somebody gave me a chance. I can’t…”

She had written about her middle-class upbringing. Her struggles with ADD. The parents who did everything right, but still raised a troublemaker and an addict. She seemed vaguely apologetic for not having been the daughter they deserved, but also grateful to them for not giving up on her. She never once blamed them; it was as though her troubles had been predetermined in her genes.

“Well, what about that, Gina?” I offered. “Couldn’t you do the same? Give this baby a chance by putting it up for adoption?”

“He won’t let me. He has already said he won’t sign the papers.” She went on to tell me, as my blood pressure rose, about her poorly chosen mate, his financial issues, his debt to two other women and their children. It would not have done any good to shout what I wanted to ask: What the hell were you thinking, sleeping with this loser after all you’ve been through? Have you ever heard of birth control?!? But I didn’t have to. She said it for me.

When the storm had subsided, she sat for a few minutes while I handed her Kleenex. I encouraged her to talk to the baby’s father again. Talk to her counselor and her sponsor. She had some time to make a decision. It was too soon to give up.

“I have to go to my Psych exam,” she finally said. “I’m sorry I dumped on you. I’ll figure it out.”

When I saw her next, she was preternaturally cheerful.

“Hey, you look better,” I said.

“I am. I’m good, I’m good,” she told me. “He’s agreed to adoption. It’ll be fine.” She delivered this in her typical rapid-fire style, her jittery energy back in evidence. “I’m going to do this, you know.”

“I know,” I told her.

But I didn’t know. I still don’t.

I saw her again only once, about six months later. We were in a crosswalk on campus, rushing in opposite directions. By the time I recognized her and started to speak, she was gone. I couldn’t tell whether she was pregnant; by my calculation, she should have been close to delivery by then. But even shrouded in a heavy coat, she didn’t appear to be carrying a child.

Maybe it had been a false alarm, or she had miscarried, or had an abortion after all. Maybe I had calculated wrong, and she had already delivered the baby. I didn’t have a chance to ask.

Today, as I was writing this post, I got my daily email from The Rumpus. The editor, Stephen Elliot (author of The Adderall Diaries) said this: “You pull yourself up by the bootstraps. You get, in life, what you deserve. It’s patently false. You don’t get what you deserve, for better and worse. Bootstraps only work with safety nets, something to catch you when they snap.”

Here’s hoping hers didn’t snap, or if they did, that the safety net held.

December 16, 2010

Franny: the little person

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 11:17 am
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On the first day of class each quarter, I have my students write an informal introductory letter. In it, they can tell me about their fears and hopes for the class, their kids, their pet pythons, or anything else they think they’d like to share. Some of the letters are stilted and dull (the ones who try to impress me the first day often bore me to tears), some over share, and some are just fun to read. But I can’t say I’ve ever before or since read a sentence like this one:

“I’m Franny, and I’m 27 inches tall…”

It’s not as though I hadn’t noticed this tiny woman in class, but when I was reading the letters the next afternoon, seeing the number was sort of jarring. “…in case you’re wondering,” she went on as if she were reading my mind. I would guess she’d been asked “exactly how tall are you?” by enough boors to just preemptively get it out there.

“I’m also 27 years old, an inch for each year. I live with my boyfriend. He is six feet tall. And yes, people stare.”

Once in a while, Franny would arrive at the classroom in an umbrella stroller pushed by a classmate. Sometimes she put her backpack in it and pushed it herself; her book bag was, after all, almost as big as she was.

“I can’t walk very far,” she told me once when I announced that we’d be meeting in the library (a pretty good hike across campus) next session. “…it’s my arthritis. But if I know ahead of time, I can get someone to help me.”

I was sort of awed by Franny’s frankness. She wasn’t the slightest bit shy about asking someone to give her a push to her next class or boost her up to her chair or get a book from a shelf. And why should she have been? Her stature was not an infirmity, it was a physical fact that she dealt with matter-of-factly.

Until the research project, that is.

For their term papers, I encourage students to research something that has some sort of personal relevance. If you have a kid with autism, learn more about it. If you lie awake at night worrying about global warming, read up on it. If you want to legalize marijuana, shut up already, I’ve heard it all. Franny, not surprisingly, decided to write about dwarfism. It was a little shocking to me that she had never done any research about it, but in retrospect, I suppose it makes sense. She did not think of her stature as a medical condition any more than I think of my eye color as being one.

About two weeks into the research project, she approached me after class.

“I’m not sure I can do this topic,” she said quietly.

“What do you mean, Franny? There has to be plenty of information out there. Maybe you’re not looking in the right places.”

“Oh, it’s not that. I’m finding plenty of articles. I’m just having a hard time reading them.”

“Oh, right. Those scholarly journal articles can be pretty dense. Have you tried some other sources?”

She was quiet for a second. Then she explained to me than that it wasn’t the jargon she was struggling with; it was that most of what she was finding in the medical literature regarding dwarfism was about how to fix it. How to correct deformities. How to conduct gene therapies that would eliminate the “risk” of this “defect.” How to ensure that people like her would never be born.

I didn’t quite know what to say to that.

Franny wound up writing a very different paper than she had planned. She used what she had found to show the biases of the medical community. She researched technologies that little people could use to adapt to their challenges. She wrote about intolerance and acceptance.

In the end, her paper was about the beautiful variety and infinite adaptability of human beings. I’m not sure she would have summed it up that way, but it seemed crystal clear to me.

 

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