Notes from The Professor

February 22, 2012

Tim: the displaced

My little rustbelt city has been hit hard by the recession. When I started teaching community college in the early aughts, very few of my full-time students were over 25. Now, there are displaced workers in every section of every class I teach. Many of them haven’t set foot in a classroom in well over twenty years. They have been set adrift from manufacturing jobs and laid off from shrinking companies. They are down, but not out.

Tim was an electrician in a manufacturing facility for thirty years before he was laid off the day before Thanksgiving 2008, when his company was purchased by a Chinese corporation. Even though his union contract guaranteed him severance, the new owners kept enough people around to fire up one production line every now and then until the contract expired, thus circumventing their obligation to the 120+ workers they had displaced. He was, for the first time in over 30 years, unemployed and without a paycheck.

Undaunted, he filed for unemployment and soon enrolled in school. He showed up in my English class at the end of his first year, having breezed through the first two quarters of our composition sequence in short order. He took the “hard” classes first: Math and English–subjects he hadn’t taken since high school.

He sat at the back of my classroom, a big guy with a shock of graying hair and a goatee. He wore jeans an army jacket just like a good college student should. While he was quiet at first, it wasn’t long before he started to distinguish himself, both in class discussions and in his writing. He had a poet’s ear for phrasing, and was a sensitive and appreciative reader. His papers were a pleasure to read. And although the math classes nearly kicked his butt, he started to see the power of mathematics in engineering. Going back to school, he told me, was harder than any job he’d ever had.

During his second year, he stopped by my office now and then to say hi, or to show me pictures of his new grandchild. To my delight, he said going back to school had kindled a love of writing, and he continued to do so, both for classes and for fun. When he graduated, he was in the top 3% of his class. He had made the most of his second chance at an education; he never missed a class, and the one tiny blotch on his otherwise perfect academic record was a single B in a math class that he just couldn’t quite beat. By all measures, certainly by the college’s metrics, he was the perfect “completer,” the “success” referred to on our marketing materials. Surely, his spanking new Associate’s Degree in Operations Technology had given him the skills and the resume necessary to compete in this job market. Surely the two years he’d spent in school would have been time for the economy to recover.

Tim and his family had managed to make ends meet while he was in school, thanks to a number of programs designed especially for people like him. He had done everything in lockstep: from filing for benefits, to enrolling in school, to completing every class successfully and on time, to graduating with honors. His TAA benefits (the Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits designed to help those who became unemployed due to the impact of international trade) kicked in exactly two weeks before he graduated. The minute he did so, the benefits dried up.

Over the next six months, he sent out literally hundreds of resumes, which resulted in a handful of interviews. Each of those, after seeming to go well, led to weeks of waiting, often for no response at all. With a resume and academic record like his, it’s hard to believe that his age didn’t have something to do with the lack of offers, but of course, no one says that. At first he applied for management jobs, but after a few months, he had to lower the bar.

Finally, in January, Tim was offered a job more than 45 miles from his home. In a manufacturing facility. Doing a job that he was qualified to do the day he was laid off over three years ago.

But it’s a job, and he’s happy to have it. Even with his wife’s income, things had started to get tight, and he needed to work. He was close to taking a job at a Home Depot or the like, just to make ends meet. And there may be an opportunity for advancement from his hourly union job to management. It’s not an easy leap to make, but it’s possible. I have my fingers crossed for him.

Still, it’s hard from where I sit not to wonder if the two years he spent in school did him any good at all. Our students, our state, and our President look to community colleges to retrain the workforce for bigger and better things.

But no one anticipated that the recovery would take as long as it has. In 2008, the idea of taking 2 years to go to school while the economy turned around seemed reasonable. That it’s taken closer to four was harder to predict. In this morning’s paper was an article about the mini manufacturing boom in Ohio, but they are not the high-tech manufacturing jobs Tim trained for. The tremendous optimism and hard work that accompanied his journey into academia must be hard for him to remember at the end of a long day. In fact, when I asked him if he wouldn’t like to tell his own story, he said:

“I will always continue to write, but for the near future I have to pour my heart and soul into this job to establish a foothold and maybe then I can advance. For the foreseeable future I am looking at lots of overtime, night shifts and a 97 mile round trip drive daily. As you can imagine, by the time I get home, I feel like a bird with no song in me.”

I like to think we did right by him, but there’s a part of me that feels like we’re making false promises to students like Tim when we say their education will lead to a brighter future. Deep down I know education is valuable for its own sake and not just as a means to an end. When asked if he would do it again, Tim said he wouldn’t have traded the second chance at a degree for anything. Discovering a facility with words, the power of mathematics, and having the satisfaction of exceeding one’s own expectations are all benefits that none of our institutional metrics can quantify. For now, that will have to be enough.

January 4, 2012

Stevie: the Marine

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This is an Air Force town, so I have quite a few veterans in my classes: some have just finished their service, some have retired and are retraining for their second careers, and one (that I know of) was forced out of service by DADT. Almost without exception, they are great students. They are punctual, they don’t make excuses, and they don’t like bullshit.

Stevie, a Marine fresh out of the corps, was particularly intolerant of the latter — which is sort of funny given that he was full of it. He looked like a recruiting poster for the USMC: square jaw, high cheekbones, skin that looked like it had been buffed to a high gloss, a flat top you could balance a book on, and a Clint Eastwood squint. He wasn’t particularly big or tall, but he carried himself with a sort of puffed up machismo that made him seem bigger than he was. I always thought the diminutive ending of his name was funny–a bit out of sync with his tough-guy exterior. Not Steven, not Steve, but Stevie.

Not shockingly, he was a rabid conservative. He was in my class during W’s second term; it was primary season for the 2008 election. He was a Fred Thompson guy.

“Fred Thompson, Stevie? Really?” I’d say, and he would fire back with a joke about Hillary’s pantsuits. He would goad me about gun control; I’d counter with a jab about corporate greed. It was good natured ribbing, for the most part.

I appreciated the fact that Stevie (unlike some of his younger, more timid classmates) always knew exactly what he wanted to write about: global warming, the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq, the tax code. And he always knew where he stood: firmly on the right of everything. I’ve written before about the struggle to be objective when grading writing. It is hard enough to put aside my own biases about Cracker Barrel to assign a fair grade on a restaurant review, let alone swallow an argument in favor of the right to carry a concealed weapon.

Fortunately, Stevie was a smart guy and a very good writer. He did his homework. He did not ignore counterarguments; he addressed them with a level head. As full of bluster as he was in person, his papers were measured in tone and fairly well-researched. He didn’t change my mind about anything, and I did a lot of scribbling in the margins pointing out things he’d missed or failed to address or studies to the contrary. Over all, though, it could not be said that he wasn’t thinking critically, supporting his claims, or writing clearly. He did all of those things, and his grades showed it.

Not long after Stevie finished the composition sequence (I think he took all three courses from me) I had a visit at my office from an FBI agent. He was conducting a background check on a former student who was applying for a job with the Department of Homeland Security. I didn’t even have to ask.

“Let me guess. Stevie Smith?”

“Yes, ma’am. Do you have any reason to believe that Mr. Smith is anything but loyal to the United States of America?”

I almost laughed. Stevie loved America, his little boy, and his girlfriend, in that order. That much I’d read in his papers.

“None whatsoever,” I said.

“Does Mr. Smith have any known enemies?”

Again, I wanted to laugh. The only time he’d missed class was for a custody hearing.

“Does his ex-wife count?” I said, jokingly. The guy didn’t crack a smile.

“We are already aware of his marital situation.”

“No. Not that I know of,” I said, pretending to be chastened.

The guy asked a few more routine questions and went on his way. A few weeks later, I got an email from Stevie telling me he’d been offered the job he’d been coveting for months and thanking me for a good class. And he attached a global warming joke, just for old time’s sake.

December 1, 2011

Rhonda: the addict

I didn’t notice Rhonda for the first couple weeks of the quarter. A middle-aged woman who sat in the back of the room and listened carefully, she rarely participated. One evening after class (we met once a week for three hours, which was grueling enough, let alone that class let out at 9:45pm) she asked if she could speak to me.

She was, she told me, suffering from lupus, and lately had been having some pretty unpleasant symptoms. She held up her fingers, the tips of which were wrapped in bandages.

“My fingertips have split,” she said. “I’m not sleeping very well because of the pain, so if I seem out of it, it’s not you.”

Somehow I resisted screaming “Omigod your FINGERS HAVE SPLIT??? OUCH!!”

Instead, I offered a sympathetic and professional “Thanks for letting me know, Rhonda. If there’s anything you need or if you have to miss class for any reason, just let me know.”

“I will, Ms. Professor,” she said, her voice a little ragged and her huge brown eyes sunken slightly in her face. I wondered how I could have neglected to notice she was ill.

Sure enough, she was gone the next week. And the next. This was about ten years ago, before students communicated with me via email. She never called, and I had no way to reach her. Each time I saw her empty seat, I privately worried that something terrible had happened to her.

When she returned to class, she was like a different person. As tiny and waif-like as she had been, now her stocking cap and thick wool coat nearly swallowed her whole. She shuffled into the classroom, sat in back (as usual) and struggled to stay awake while I spoke. After setting the class to work on a group assignment, I went over to her.

“I’m glad you’re back, Rhonda. I was worried about you.”

She looked at me, her huge eyes glassy, her formerly clear brown skin mottled with gray. When she spoke, her speech was slurred.

“The pain got so bad I finally had to go to the emergency room. The medicine they gave me helped, though. It’s called OxyContin. They use it for cancer patients,” she chuckled, “it’s that strong. But at least now I can sleep at night. I can take care of my babies.”

Her “babies,” I knew, from her introductory paper, were nearly grown men: big, strapping boys of 16 and 18 who played football and adored their Mama. I hoped they were taking care of her.

At the time, I had barely heard of OxyContin. Just a few months earlier, another student had written a paper about this relatively newly available drug and its terribly addictive properties. He worried that it was being used indiscriminately when its original intent had been to treat intractable pain in patients too ill to function anyway, not unlike morphine. He wrote about a black market, about junkies crushing the pills and snorting them, about addicts hooked after a single use, about physicians prescribing it in emergency rooms.

The next week, Rhonda was even more out of it. She approached my desk on a break, and with eyelids at less than half mast, asked me to explain what I had just gone over.

“I’m not sure I understand the assignment,” she murmured, barely intelligible.

I did my best to clarify the details for her, but I could tell she wasn’t getting much. She barely stayed conscious the rest of the evening, then shuffled out the minute class was over.

I stayed behind to answer a few stragglers’ questions and pack up my bag, and just as I was leaving, Rhonda reappeared in the doorway.

“I can’t remember where I parked my car,” she slurred. “Can you help me?”

“You drove here yourself?” I tried not to sound as horrified as I was. I wanted to tell her she was nuts, that she had no business driving, that she was being overmedicated, that she needed help. But instead, I just said, “Why don’t you call one of your sons to come get you?”

“I have the car. They don’t have any way to get here.”

Had this happened now that I’ve been at the same school for 11 years, had it been at a time of day when not every single campus office was closed, had I not had a babysitter at home who had to be home by 10:30, had I been more willing to venture well outside the comfort of my usual boundaries, I would have called her sons or found out where she lived and taken her home myself. Instead, I just said, “Let me walk with you. I’ll help you find your car.”

I knew that there would be a security guard in the parking garage, and sure enough, one of the friendly regulars was there, bundled up to his eyeballs in the frigid February night.

“Sir, this lady needs help finding her car and getting home. Perhaps you can find a campus police officer to help her?” I looked at Rhonda, wondering if she’d be embarrassed, but she was too far gone to care. Then I patted her awkwardly on the arm, told her to be safe, thanked the security guard for his help, and hurried off to my car.

Rhonda never came back to class, but I thought about her all the time. I took to skimming the obits in the local paper, wondering if I’d see her name, and what the cause of death would be: Rhonda Simpkins, age 42, of complications from lupus.

Six months later, I was in the college library with a research class when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Rhonda. I was so happy to see her I almost grabbed her and squeezed her. She looked great. Healthy. Alert.

“It is so good to see you, Rhonda. I was worried about you.”

She told me she had been through rehab and had been clean for a few months. That she had been so badly addicted to OxyContin she’d almost died. That she didn’t remember very well the last time she’d seen me or what happened that night, but she was sorry I’d had to see her that way. That she was reenrolled and starting classes anew. That her boys had been wonderful, and her lupus was under control. I was so relieved I wanted to cry. Then I gave her a hug and she went on her way. I haven’t seen her since.

I never found out what happened that last night she was in my class. I don’t know if her sons came to get her, if campus police took her to the hospital, or if she somehow drove home herself, God forbid. All I know is that I passed her off, and that things turned out okay either in spite of or because of that. That’s good enough for me.

October 3, 2011

Quincy: the gentleman

I’ve said many times that my classes are composed of unlikely combinations of people. Currently, my oldest student is well into his 60’s, my youngest not yet 18. Even as a veteran teacher, it is somewhat daunting for me to presume to teach anything at all to someone twenty years my senior. I know I have something to offer them, but I also know that they have an awful lot on me in terms of wisdom and life experience.

And yet, it is these older students — sometimes those with the least skin in the game — who are the best learners. Sometimes, they’re the best teachers.

Quincy was one such student. But it wasn’t his age that impressed me when I first met him; it was that he was the consummate gentleman. He wore a tie to class every day, and a Fedora. He would doff his hat as he sat down at his desk, perching it neatly on top of his books–a simple act that might have seemed foppish or calculated from someone younger or less elegant than he. He insisted on calling me ma’am, which I found somewhat disconcerting from someone old enough to be my father.

During discussions, Quincy took copious notes on a yellow legal pad in neatly slanted longhand. He listened intently to everything I said–to everything anyone said, and he nodded and sometimes even muttered a “yesss!” or an “uh-huh!” in agreement, as though he were in church. He asked plenty of questions, and I did my best to answer them, even though they were often prefaced by comments so tangential and rambling as to be unintelligible. I’d try to wait politely for him to get to his point, resisting the urge to make a “wind it up” gesture. His classmates sometimes rolled their eyes and glanced impatiently at each other telegraphing “here he goes again” to one another and squirming in their seats.

It’s always a challenge when there’s one student who dominates discussions or gets off topic or compulsively argues. I usually don’t have any trouble steering those people back on course. But for some reason, I found it nearly impossible to do this with Quincy. Moreover, I didn’t want to. He was so eager, so earnest, so genuinely seeking to understand and persuade, I just could’t bring myself to shut him down. Sometimes, he’d turn to his classmates, shake a slender finger, and preach right to them: about commitment, about racism, about hard work and sacrifice. I was not surprised when I found out he had been a minister.

His writing was as discursive and strangely poetic as his speech. When I worked with him on drafts, he’d listen intently and nod. I could tell, even as I spoke, that he often wasn’t following me when I talked about organization and unity and transitions between ideas. His vocabulary was good, and there were these lovely nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout his papers. But punctuation was a mystery to him. Trying to get him to write in any way other than stream-of-consciousness proved nearly impossible. I hated putting grades on his papers. I could’t justify anything higher than a C for most of them, so riddled were they with comma splices and nonsequiturs. I cringed inwardly every time I handed one back.

“There are so many wise insights in your papers, Quincy. You always say something I haven’t thought of or make me see something in a new light. But you understand, I have to take writing conventions into account when I grade…” I’d apologize as I showed him his paper, riddled with corrections and question marks and marginal notes in my handwriting.

He’d listen and nod, telling me he understood and not to worry–that he was enjoying the course and learning plenty, and that he wasn’t worried about the grade. Then he’d smile and pat my hand, put his Fedora back on, and tell me to “have a blessed day, Professor.”

I’m not sure Quincy’s classmates always appreciated him. I’m sure many of them thought of him as an eccentric old man, but I hope they listened to him, too. If they had been more patient, they might have noticed that there was another, wiser teacher in the room.

August 27, 2011

Pete: the kid

It will make me sound like a fossil to say this, but I can’t always tell how old my students are. Everyone under 25 looks like a high school kid. What I did not know when I first started teaching community college is that some of them actually are. In high school, that is.

A couple of programs in our state allow kids to get a start on their college degrees and earn high school credits at the same time. It’s a great option for students who, for whatever reason, are not thriving in a traditional environment. Most of the kids who exercise this option are not the overachievers you might be imagining. They are not always super-bright kids whose academic needs are not being met by secondary education. Sometimes — maybe usually — they are kids who are just “done” with high school. They may be bored, at risk for dropping out, or balking against authority. Some are just kids who do better with more autonomy and a less rigid schedule.

Pete was one of these kids, but I wasn’t aware of it until I’d known him for a month or two. He was ridiculously tall and thin, well over six feet but probably 140 pounds sopping wet. He had nearly white skin and orange hair — not I’m-a-rebellious-youth dyed hair, but naturally bright orange. He was the reddest redhead I’d ever seen.

And he was a terrific writer. Funny. Insightful. Mature.

I learned just how young he was the day we were discussing topics for argument essays. There are many subjects I prohibit, some because I know I can’t be objective grading them, and some because I would rather gouge my eyeballs out with my own red pen than grade another paper about them. Two topics that fall into the latter category are favorites of the under-21 boy crowd: lowering the drinking age and legalization of marijuana. No matter how much they beg, I will not budge on this.

So Pete took another tack.

“Ok, how about this,” he said during our conference. “How about I write a letter to my mom persuading her to let me smoke pot?”

“Come again?”

“My mom is all over me about smoking weed. I want to make a deal with her to get her off my back. As long as I keep my job, keep my grades up, and stay out of trouble, it shouldn’t be any of her business if I get high.”

“Um, Pete?”

“What?”

“It’s illegal.”

He rolled his eyes. “I know! But you won’t let me write about how stupid that is. Man. I thought you’d be cool about this, but you sound just like her.”

I laughed. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“How old is your mom?”

“Too old to be cool about this.”

“How old is too old?”

“Pffft. Forty.”

At the time, I was forty, too. If this similarity occurred to him (or if it was a deliberate jab) he didn’t let on. Just as I thought everyone under 25 looked young, he probably deemed everyone over 30 ancient. I sighed.

We talked through the various pitfalls of the paper, how he’d make his claims, how he’d address her concerns and counterarguments. Even though it felt strange giving a teenager a platform to convince his mother to let him break the law (no matter how pointless and ineffectual) and endanger his own health, I let him write it.

And of course, it was funny, charming, superbly written, and quite convincing. I gave him an A.

“You know what?” I said to him when I handed it back to him. “If I were your mom, I wouldn’t be convinced. And you don’t get to use your grade as ammo.”

He laughed. “No worries. I’m never going to win this one, but it was fun to write.”

It was fun to read, too. I doubt he ever made any headway with his mom, but since he went on to take two more classes from me and transfer to a university with a 4.0, I think he’s probably doing just fine.

June 29, 2011

Olivia: the basket case

“Ok, I have all my sources for the research paper. Now, what’s due next time?”

Olivia had stayed behind to ask this question despite the fact that I had spent the last twenty minutes of class explaining that very thing.

“The research proposal is due next time, Olivia. You shouldn’t be gathering sources until your proposal has been approved.”

“What’s the research proposal?” She looked at me blankly.

“The short paper I just assigned. Just now.”

“So we’re not supposed to be conducting research for a research paper?” she said accusingly, looking at me through narrowed eyes and brushing aside the lock of hair that perpetually hung over one of them.

“Of course you are–just not yet.”

An exchange like this one happened nearly every time Olivia came to my twice-a-week class. She made it most days, but almost never without being 15 or 20 minutes late. She made a lot of racket coming in, and noisily settled herself at her computer. If I was speaking when she came in, she would go straight to her seat, but if the class happened to be working on something, she’d come up to the front of the room where I was seated at the instructor’s podium and start in on an elaborate explanation — always in full voice and peppered with way too much personal information. She spoke entirely in run ons and nonsequiturs.

“My son woke up this morning with welts all over his legs we’re pretty sure it’s bedbugs so we’re going to have to move out while the exterminator fumigates the place but my mom just got evicted so we can’t go to her house and my boyfriend isn’t exactly on speaking terms with his family so I have no idea where we’re going to be living over the next week or so so I’m not sure what I’m going to do about getting my school work done and my car is in the shop and my boyfriend can’t drive because his license is suspended so I may have to bring my son to school with me next week if I can even get a ride because we can’t really afford daycare and we can’t be in the house with the bedbugs so it’s going to be sort of a weird week.”

I waited for her to take a breath, nodding sympathetically and trying divine one single piece of information that was at all relevant to her performance in my class.

“Sorry you’re having such a tough week. How can I help you?”

It is not unusual for my students to need a break now and then, when their families, jobs, transportation issues and health interfere with their schoolwork, but Olivia needed one every single week. More frustrating, though, was that she never, and I mean never, paid attention in class. She was always hard at work, her keyboard clacking loudly, but she was always doing the wrong assignment, the next assignment, or the assignment that was due the day before.

“Olivia,” I said one day, exasperated, “you have got to start paying attention to what’s going on in class. If you will just stay with us, you’ll be fine. Reading ahead to figure out where we’re going isn’t helping you. If you get too far ahead, you’re going to have to redo a bunch of your work. It doesn’t make sense to do research before you have hammered out your question. Trust the process.”

Or, that’s what I wanted to say. In the course of my plea, she interrupted me at least three times. “But I don’t have a computer at home. But I already know my topic. But I already know how to do that.” You get the picture.

I’m not a my-way-or-the-highway kind of teacher, and if I had thought Olivia were equipped to go it alone, I probably could have tolerated her refusal to conform to my schedule. But she wasn’t. She was obviously bright and curious, but her writing was a mess — often tumbling out in the same haphazard stream of consciousness her speech did. I found it nearly impossible to communicate with her.

Other students started to notice her, too. They were annoyed by her tardiness and by the fact that I would frequently have to interrupt class to ask her to stop typing when I or one of her classmates was speaking. When she did participate in discussions, her contributions were often overly personal reactions to the material that derailed the conversation. In short, she was exhausting.

The day she insisted she was going to write her term paper her own way, I finally had enough:

“Olivia. Stop,” I said. “Stop talking. Listen to me. I am the one who is grading your paper. I am the one who designed the assignment. If your paper does not meet the course objectives, you won’t get a passing grade. Do you understand that?”

This pulled her up short. She looked at me, again with narrowed eyes, her thin face pinched. Finally, she sighed.

“Well, okay,” she said, and turned on her heel.

Apparently, something had finally sunk in. She managed to get through with a C. Her final paper was really quite well-researched and informative, if a bit disorganized. Still, I was somewhat relieved to see her go.

And then she turned up in my lit class not two weeks later. It was not a course required for many majors, so I was surprised to see her there. And I wondered why, when she had been so disdainful of all my pesky requirements, she’d take another class from me.

The first day, she approached me when class was over.

“Are we really going to need the book?”

“Well, it’s a lit class and the book is an anthology. I don’t see how you can get by without it,” I said as good naturedly as I was able.

“Well, I’m on financial aid and I can’t really afford it.”

“Oh, well, you can probably get away without it for a week or so, but as soon as you get your money you’re going to need to buy it. In the meantime, I might be able to get you a loaner.

“Oh, no. That’s not the problem. I got my financial aid check. I just can’t afford to spend it on books. My boyfriend just lost his job and it turns out it wasn’t bedbugs but fleas and my son is allergic and scratched so much he got an infection so we had to get an antibiotic and we don’t have health insurance and we have to get rid of our dog…”

I didn’t have the energy to explain that using financial aid funds for personal living expenses was fraudulent. I knew she wouldn’t listen. And as it turned out, the point was moot. She didn’t make it very long this time. She showed up to class with her visibly ill toddler one day. Once her boyfriend actually stuck his head in the door of the classroom and said he needed to see her “right now.” By the end of the third week of the quarter, she had disappeared.

Olivia seemed to live in a constant state of crisis and upheaval that probably just overwhelmed her. And while I was relieved to get her through one class, I was sorry when she disappeared entirely from the second one. I had hoped she might persevere — that one class at a time, one crisis at a time, she might get herself out of whatever mess she was in. But sometimes, chaos wins.

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 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.

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