Notes from The Professor

July 5, 2012

William: the disappeared

I read the obituaries every day. It’s a habit that started when I was in my early twenties, mostly out of morbid curiosity, and continues to this day for more practical purposes. I scan the names, then the ages, pausing over those who seem familiar or particularly untimely. Today, I came across one that was both.

William was in my class several years ago…really, when I say that it all runs together after a few years, I mean it. I have no idea how long it’s been. Maybe 2, maybe 5. I have thought about writing about him before because he was someone who stayed with me, but I didn’t know much about him.

Judging from the age printed in today’s obituary, he must have been in his late twenties when he was in my class. What I remember most is that he was polite, respectful, and extremely well-spoken. And he had a gentleness about him: a soft voice, a grace of movement. He was eager to please and eager to learn. I liked him right away.

In his introductory writing sample, he confessed to a difficult past. I don’t remember the details, only that he had done time in prison, a fact that seemed utterly at odds with my impression of him. I wondered how such a gentle soul would survive that environment — but then, it may be that he was not so gentle as all that to have wound up there to begin with.

At any rate, he was nervous about school, and I was eager to help him. I saw in him a genuine desire to do better. He showed me pictures of his kids — told me he owed it to them to do better.

His first paper, the dreaded memoir essay, was about his father. Or was it his step father? Again, I don’t remember. But I do recall that he talked about the scar on his back: a triangle seared there by an iron, applied as a means of discipline. He had cigarette burns on his forearms, too. He wrote about being angry as a young man and about learning to let go of the past — about forgiveness and separating the boy from the man. When I handed it back to him, I told him how much he had to be proud of. There were a lot of other things I would have liked to have said, but they hung in the air, too difficult or too personal to say in class. He nodded and thanked me. I hope he understood.

For about the first half of the quarter, William did just fine, but then he started to miss class. At first, he was good about keeping me informed of what was going on: his daughter was sick, he had a meeting with his probation officer, his grandmother needed help, etc.. But then he fell behind, and even the excuses came at longer intervals. I emailed him — told him he could still make up the work if he’d come meet with me. But eventually, he disappeared. This is not unusual, but it made me particularly sad in his case. I believed in him. I wanted him to win.

I’m not sure I would have remembered his name out of context, but because his obituary ran with a picture, I did. It said that he died in his sleep. I have no idea what that means. Did he overdose? (I didn’t remember whether or not he referred to drug use in his past.) Had he been ill? (No mention of this in the obit.) Was it just one of those times when an aneurism ruptures or a heart explodes or the body cruelly betrays an otherwise perfectly healthy person? There is no way to know.

Reading through the obituary, there are no clues. He is survived by his parents (no mention of a step father — maybe I just wished that) and his three children. It says that he attended college, but doesn’t mention whether he graduated. That’s the least of what I’ll never know about William.

June 16, 2012

Vince: the invisible

Early each term, I let my students in on a little secret: some of the writing tasks assigned in college are about as far from any real-world application as can be. Most often in the real world, one person writes for an audience of many — whether it’s a novel, a letter to the editor, or a business plan. But in college, the many write for the few — dozens of papers pile up for an audience of one. And the “one” for whom it’s intended is going to judge it. How terrifying.

I try to mitigate the horrors inherent in this scenario by trying to convince students that their audience is their classmates. I have them peer edit before they submit their work for a grade. I encourage them to rewrite and I reward revision. But ultimately, my little show doesn’t work. The fact that I deliberately eschew red ink does little to ease their anxiety, my purple pen just another little fake-out that they see quickly see right through. They are the students, and I give the grades.

There’s a strange kind of intimacy in teaching composition, particularly the personal narrative. Because the subject of their essays is their experience, (as opposed to, say, WWII or the life cycle of a cell), we comp teachers learn things about our students that most of their teachers in other disciplines will never know.

Online classes add another odd dimension to this intimacy, as students share their work with each other but may never see one another face to face. When I grade their papers, I don’t have a face to put with the name in the online dropbox. Unless I happen to look up their pictures on my electronic roster, which I seldom do, my online students exist for me almost entirely in text.

So, despite the fact that I wouldn’t know him if I passed him in the hallway, I do know a few things about Vince:

In his first paper, he wrote about the day his mom left when he was fifteen. And the day his dad, overwhelmed with his own grief and rage, left, too — three days later. He wrote about getting himself up to go to school every day. About being alone at night. About living on Ramen noodles and peanut butter. About getting a job to pay the rent, and trying to stay in school. About wearing clothes that were too small, because he was still growing and could not afford new ones. About finally dropping out and winding up getting evicted anyway. About making a life for himself since then. About his own family and his devotion to his kids.

By the end of his paper, I was sobbing. It certainly wasn’t the first time a narrative essay had moved me to tears (the ones about putting dogs to sleep get me every time) but this was one of the few that got under my skin. It was completely raw and matter of fact. And it made me angry: at his mother for her faithlessness, and at his father for indulging his own pain at the expense of his son. I thought about it constantly for days after I read it. I think about it, still.

Even though nothing in the personal narrative assignment requires students to write about something serious, it does ask them to write about something significant and meaningful, so certain topics emerge. In our more cynical moments, my colleageus and I refer to these as the “dying-grandparent-and-car-crash papers.” An account of grandpa’s funeral titled “The Worse [sic] Day of My Life” that is riddled with comma splices can cause a beleaguered teacher’s heart to harden rather than empathize. But then there’s a paper like Vince’s that cracks it wide open again.

Some of my colleagues have stopped assigning personal narratives in Comp I. One says she just can’t bear it — it’s just too hard to read these tales of hardship and trevail that inevitably bubble up from students’ psyches. One says he doesn’t see the point. Freshman comp is supposed to prepare students for the rest of college, and it’s not as though they are ever going to be required to use narrative writing again. It’s just not practical, he reasons. I can’t really argue with that.

But at the end of the quarter, when students write about their experiences in the class, they invariably say that the personal narrative was their favorite piece to write. Often, it is also their best. Many say that writing it was therapeutic. Some say it helped them work something out. One student came to my office two years after she’d graduated asking if I still had a paper she’d written about her dad; he had died recently, and she wanted to read from it at his memorial service. I’m not sure how practical the assignment is, or even how well it prepares them for future classes, but somehow, it seems important.

In Vince’s case, writing his story allowed him to sort out what had been taken from him and see what he had made from the ashes of his childhood. It made a record of how he became the husband and father he is today — something he could point to and say, “Look what happened to me. Look what I did anyway. Look at me now.”

I don’t remember what grade Vince got on that paper. I don’t know if he tells people about his childhood, or whether he keeps it to himself. I don’t know what he looks like. In fact, I don’t even remember his real name.

At today’s commencement ceremony, over 1000 names were called. I’m sure there were dozens of my former students in that sea of black robes. After ten years, their names all start to sound alike, and their faces are a blur from where we are seated. But their stories, I remember.

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

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:57 pm
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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