Last exit for education

A prodigal son of the community college returns to teach in the classrooms that once gave him his only chance to escape.

Published June 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sitting before me were three single mothers, all under 25; an African soccer player; a French-Haitian woman who spoke four languages; five guys named Mark, 18 to 20, none of whom had ever left the city they grew up in; a straight-edge skate punk who looked like a Marine; a white middle-class real-estate agent; and a female ex-con who stared at me like a gopher looking down the barrel of a hunter's rifle. It was my first day of teaching composition at a community college, the same one where I had been a student, almost 10 years before. As I got up to write my name on the board, a young woman snapped her gum and asked snickeringly if I was the real teacher or just another temp. I assured her I was there to stay, although a month later, with only five people showing up regularly, I find myself wondering about this vow.

But when I look out across the fields of desks and Coke cans, I remember: This is where I came from and this is where I belonged.

One afternoon when I was 18 and attending 12th grade for the second time, the principal asked me to visit him in his office. He told me my attitude was not "conducive to learning" in the public high school. From his vaguely impatient bureaucratic air, I'm certain that if he could have, he would have expelled me on the spot. As an easily unimpressed smartass, I was just the sort of student who gives school administrators headaches. On that day, however, the principal simply set down a piece of paper that needed only my signature. I would be allowed to leave the school and finish my high school credits at the local community college. How could I say no? I imagined hot older women, who -- having escaped the clutches of their illiterate, impotent husbands -- enrolled in classes with no other intention than to drag some young high school dropout into their floral-sheeted beds. I imagined a life where the freedom was as intoxicating as vodka and abundant as air.

I soon found out that this attitude was not conducive to community college learning either. In fact, everyone expected more from me because everyone assumed that I had made a choice to be there. Instead of hot older women preying shamelessly on my 18-year-old body, I discovered serious people with serious lives trying to turn hopeless situations into fertile opportunities.

I soon flunked out.

At 23, I was selling lousy stereo equipment to families who couldn't afford it, and one morning I woke to the sound of my own gasping breath. I wanted to go back to school. And the only place that would take me would be the community college. After begging a disciplinary committee to take me back, they told me that I would have to take every class over that I failed and that it would always be on my permanent record. But if I did well, I could redeem myself and they would do everything they could to help me.

Being treated like an adult when you are still a kid is as disconcerting as it is invigorating. Unlike typical four-year colleges, there are no dorms, no campus parties, no frats, no first time away from home distractions and no low expectations. Rather than expecting that I was to spend all my free time partying, the teachers assumed I was there to push myself. In high school all they wanted was attendance and discipline, and from freshman I knew at four-year schools, teachers there offered freedom without real accountability. I was living in the margin with other losers -- people who had to deal with real responsibility, real freedom and their own fears that this was the last second chance they would ever get.

In the small smoking room located on the first floor, I began to make friends with people who were not really my peers, but were in the same place in their lives. Most were smart but something in their lives had forced them to choose not to pursue four-year college. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning I would meet a guy named Parker for coffee and cigarettes before our philosophy class to go over the homework. Parker was sullen and always wore long sleeves rolled down and buttoned. Gradually, it came out that he had spent most of his high school years in and out of mental institutions after having tried to kill himself when he was 14. One day he showed me his arms; they were covered in scars from wrist to elbow. After dozens of doctors and many more prescriptions, he was able to sit still for more than an hour and he decided to get an education. Community college was his only recourse. He had no high school record at all, and was able to collect government checks while he attended classes.

As it is for a lot of people, the obvious next step for Parker was to transfer to a four-year school. More than 30 percent of all
undergraduates transferred from a two-year college. But as state funding dwindles, some community colleges have begun to emphasize job skills over liberal education. Where once these tandem educational roles seemed to work well together, community colleges are now being pulled in two directions. While most people argue that vocational training helps people get off welfare and escape dead-end jobs, others warn that the community college system is one of the only surviving means by which students from poor, messed-up families can go to a four-year school and really rise in the economic ranks. But if you have a single, out-of-work mother and only enough money to choose either Excel or Milton, you shelve "Paradise Lost" in favor of a paycheck. At most community colleges you can still get an education for about $1,500 a year, but the horizons of the students are narrowing. Almost none of my students are even thinking about transferring. The one student who I thought might actually make it in a four-year school dropped out after his girlfriend announced her pregnancy.

But these horizons were not so clearly drawn for me. With only a semester left before I graduated, I was sitting in the smoking room talking to one of the administrative secretaries. She asked me what I thought I might do next. I told her I planned on finishing up at the local state college. She looked at me bemusedly and said that I could get into any four-year school I wanted. I was stunned. I thought my community college education, for all its merits, was still a lesser education. She told me these last two years were as good as any school -- in fact, maybe better, because universities would know I was dedicated. I applied to three top schools and got into all of them. I ended up attending Brandeis and went on for graduate studies at Harvard. This is the only good thing to come out of my smoking habit.

Now as a teacher, I struggle with trying to remember this lesson -- that even my humble composition class can be the ticket for some sleepy-eyed kid slumped at his desk to do something for his future that he cannot even imagine. I try not to lose faith in Paul, who rarely shows up, and when he does, he comes
hungover. Recently he turned in a descriptive essay about the bar he drinks in. The paper was actually pretty good and it was five pages long. The only problem was the last four pages were all exactly the same as the first. And I try not to lose hope for the serious ones who struggle with external barriers that I can hardly fathom -- like Jessica, who wrote about her husband repeatedly berating her for thinking she could ever be more than a working-class, immigrant housewife.

As I near the end of my first semester as a community college teacher, even among the
five students who show up fairly regularly, there are still a lot of absences, and nobody even bothers with trying to give excuses. There is one young man, though, who has not missed a single class. He's battling attention deficit disorder and a violent temper that has gotten him in trouble in the past. In his journal he writes raw accounts of holding himself in check when someone takes the wrong tone with his mother. Somehow he excels. He does not get pulled down by the things in his life that make studying seem futile, nor does he push them aside. He tells me that this might be his last chance to be something more than a raging inner-city kid who ends up in jail or part of some homicide statistic. Sometimes it seems that the salary isn't worth the heartache, but he is the reason I stay.

By Peter Bebergal

Peter Bebergal is a writer living in Cambridge; he taught at North Shore Community College.

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