One of the things I really like about teaching at a community college, and specifically at the community college where I am employed, is that it’s a place where people who might otherwise not have the chance to get a college education can get one at a reasonable price and can also reasonably expect that their teachers will be committed to helping them succeed, despite the obstacles–financial and otherwise–they might be facing. Usually, in terms of the student’s classwork, that help involves relatively simple things like spending extra time outside of class, and in addition to your scheduled office hours, to offer the student additional instructional support, extensions on assignments and other such things. Sometimes, though, you also end up doing a kind of counseling triage, trying to help the student see her or his situation in perspective, referring them to counseling and other services they might need, convincing them that sometimes, when life gets in the way of their education, they need to take care of their lives first, that to do so is not the same thing as failing at school and that the opportunity to continue their education will–all else being equal–still be there in the future. Sometimes, you can find yourself getting involved at a level where someone’s life might truly be on the line.
I value this aspect of my job as deeply as the purely educational aspect of the work that I do because the students who come to me with the kinds of problems I am talking about really do care about why they are in school–and I am not talking here about the grades they earn; grades are an entirely different issue–are struggling as honestly and as fully as they can to figure out how to use the education they’ve come to college to get to understand themselves, both in the grand liberal arts sense of self-awareness and in the more practical sense of how am I going to use what I have learned to get a job, have a career and build a life for myself? These students in crisis are often the ones for whom these two ways of understanding education are often the most inseparable, because they desperately need both of them, and the trust they place in me when they share their crises is at least as precious as the commitment to good grades, intellectualism, scholarship and so on that the honors students I will be teaching next semester in my Myth and Folklore class bring into the classroom. (Not that honors students don’t also have crises, of course.)
Still, for some reason, this semester the amount of drama students have brought with them into my classes–by which I mean into their relationship with me as the person who holds them accountable for the work that they do and the grade that they earn–is really getting to me. I don’t want to give too many details, for obvious reasons, but here is a partial list. Each of these people is paying for school out of his or her own pocket:
- A man whose wife kicked him out of the house and did not allow him back in for at least some weeks. He did not, therefore, have access to his laptop, his textbook or anything else connected to my class. I have no idea who is in the right, and on one level I really don’t care, but when he tells me in the middle of class that he has to leave because there is no babysitter and he needs to be home to take care of his daughter, what am I supposed to say? (I don’t know, and I am not going to ask, if “being home” means that his wife let him back in, or if his daughter is now living with him.)
- A 20-something woman whose parents are desperate to marry her off and the pressure they are putting on her is getting so intense that she really cannot concentrate on school; and she is scared to go live on her own–which she can afford to do–because she worries that they will either disown her completely or scheme to get her to return to her country–<i>Grandma is dying</i> or some such ruse–where they will be able take her passport, trapping here there; and she’ll end up with no choice but to marry the man they choose for her. I don’t want to say more, but I know she is not being melodramatic about this.
- Another 20-something woman whose boyfriend has kicked her out of the apartment where they were living together; so I guess he’s really an ex-boyfriend. She has, though, no place else to live that will also allow her to continue to go to school. (She has some family, but they live too far away.) So she ended up, I guess, convincing the boyfriend to let her stay in the apartment until she can get her own place. (She has a full time job, so she can pay rent; she just needs the time.) Except the ex-boyfriend yells at her all the time and has told her that she is not allowed to be in the apartment when he is there.
- A man who, by his own admission, got involved with the wrong crowd and ended up getting arrested. His sentencing was this semester and he was very concerned that he would have to drop out of school in order to serve his time.
- A woman who is failing, with whom I spoke and who said she really wanted to try to do better. She got into a car accident, did not go to the hospital, which she really needed to do, and yesterday–the day after the accident–showed up in my class, in tears, barely holding it together, because she felt it was more important to prove to me that she meant what she said when she told me she was going to start taking her work seriously than it was to get medical attention.
The interaction that moved me to write this post, however, was drama of a different sort. In my technical writing class is a man–I am guessing he is in his forties at least–who has decided that he really doesn’t need to take seriously any of the instructions I have given the class. He is a good writer; he got an A on his first assignment; and he has taken the class before, at another college, but for some reason he needs to take it again. Anyway, he came last class and handed me an assignment that was completely wrong; I don’t mean badly done. I mean completely wrong; he had written the wrong assignment. I will spare you the details of the conversation we had in which he didn’t believe me, but when he finally had no choice but to accept that he had done the wrong assignment, he asked me if one of the members of his group has turned in the proper assignment. (The groups do research and planning together, but each member writes his or her own paper and gets an individual grade; I don’t give group grades; and this is all spelled out in detail on the assignment sheet.) When I said yes, that the other person had done the assignment properly, this guy asked me if I would just count that paper twice, once for him and once for the guy who wrote it.
I was, as you can imagine, furious. The details of what I said to him are unimportant, though I felt really awkward talking to a grown man that way, but I just left that class thinking about the difference between the students I told you about above, who are struggling against some pretty serious obstacles to get their work done, and not always successfully, and this guy, who is very clearly just trying to get over. The result was this post.