A Walk Through the Long Schoolroom Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Law_School_Rooms_-_Old_1(Written August 1998)

How could it be that during the semester I became a full professor of English at the community college where I’ve taught adult learners for eight years, I also realized that I was disillusioned with my teaching, our school and some of our students? How did it happen? While I was garnering a stellar evaluation—fourteen of fifteen check marks landed under exceeds standards, indicating my job performance could rise no higher, to wit, the Dean joked that my next career step was retirement—I had also returned to therapy to explore why teaching was no longer satisfying, why I wanted to work half-time, why my labor had morphed from creative exploration and student-centered joy to a job with both a stultifying sameness and a neurotic unpredictability about it which I couldn’t shake.

Questions about the journey behind and ahead—to leave or to reinvent teaching. Has my disillusionment with work evolved because I have changed? Has my unease grown because the school system has ossified around me? Have the students themselves become less capable than I thought they were, or should be, and have my expectations of them dropped to nil? Am I dissatisfied because my tenure feels unearned?

Such questions are odd to pose because, first, they’re overstated. Of course the school system and I are one. I am its frontline, the person with whom students interact, who authorizes the curriculum and upholds the policies of the college. Of course institutions run on autopilot, their ontological autonomy separate from—and neglectful of—individual innovation. In addition, it’s illogical to assume that had I volunteered for retraining sooner I might not have lost my desire to teach. Seeing the problem as mine alone ignores the social dimension to burnout. I’ll admit I’m laying too much "blame" for lost enthusiasm (the wd-40 of any good job performance) on "failing" the students. Paralleling personal guilt to the complex analysis of teacher-student dependency is insufficient, and dishonest. Furthermore, creating polarities between the teacher and the system misses the mark because there may be no blame. Motored by restlessness, perhaps I’m ready for something new. Only so many gallons in the tank.

Yet no matter the questions asked and dismissed, the facts remain: I am not the enthusiastic teacher I once was, my school district cannot hold on to—or redirect—thousands who enter and dropout each semester, and of the students who stay, the majority are less literate, more frenzied, less prepared, more hostile than those I taught ten years ago. I wish I could have seen the half of it coming, back then, fresh out of graduate school, my bag brimming over with a younger teacher’s craft and delight.

Two things activated my early success—a vigorous apprenticeship as a TA in two contrasting literature-based writing programs at the University of California, San Diego, and my master’s-degree study of popular, proletarian and ethnic writers in America before World War Two. Besides creative projects and accessible literature, I was blessed with challenging students. Those at UC were sharp, competitive freshmen, the top twelve per cent of their high school classes: literate, persuasive, grade hustlers; serious and driven; clear about who they were, where they were headed. As with most four-year college students in the Reagan-anointed eighties, they were in their seats, books bought, notebooks open, pens uncapped, rarin’ to be taught.

However, the students in the "real" colleges were not UC-caliber, a fact I quickly discovered post-commencement when, my TA contract unrenewed, I landed in the arcade world of part-time freeway-flying community college instruction. Here, I thought, using the biases of popular literature with which to teach writing, I would immediately raise the learning level. Thus, for ideas to essay, we first read race, feminist or working-class writers like James M. Cain, Louise Meriwether, Anzia Yezierska, Langston Hughes, and others. And sure enough, their themes energized the interests of people of color and of nontraditional educational backgrounds who comprised half the student body. Students resonated with the material. And because I felt strongly about teaching popular literature (they’d get the classics once they got to UC or State), they liked my gall for selecting it. I wrote with them, too, using brainstorming and other freewriting methods, to see what we thought individually before we talked as a class.

I was a devout multiculturalist, hoping to kindle the pithiest issues of our time—religion and politics, race matters, ethnic isolation and community. Discussion was key. Experience taught me that the flintier the talk the better the thought, the better the thought the more fiery the writing. Where else could people rage about society’s abuses but in a community college writing class with so many students, at least in new-immigrant Southern California, who were ethnic-rich and class-poor. I remember one interchange which, though caustic, brought forth honest and unforgettable responses.

Here it is, mostly word for word from my journal.

Normally shy and respectful Gwen, a black woman who never speaks up, with glisteny long coal dark curls, glasses and braces, finally one day bursts open. We are discussing the character of Mayella in To Kill a Mockingbird who is beaten by her father and told by him to say in court that Tom, a black field hand, has raped her when, in fact, he did not and she may have seduced him.

"I gotta say something," says Gwen. "I get real mad when I hear that somebody in here says that Mayella was not responsible for what happened to her. I mean I can’t contain it anymore. I ain’t never been in a class where we read so many books and essays on black people. It’s like the black man is the most studied man on earth. White people know more about me than I know about myself, my own past."

I have chosen books which focus on black-white relations, one theme of this writing class. She is right about that.

D’Adrian leaps in to the discussion—round glasses, big barrel chest, very intellectual and ego-filled, the class mouth. Because he speaks up so often as the "voice" of black America, some students doze.

"Ah . . . what she’s saying is that we’ve been in bondage, we’ve led a double life, that you people will never know. Do you understand what ah’m sayin?" This is his favorite expression. "We are a unique people. You may talk about your Japanese and your Hispanic but they are still white. Do you understand? We as a people are absolutely unique. You see, it was like I was sayin the other day, you can have one black person in a class of a hundred whites and that black person can hold his own, but you put one white in a room with a hundred blacks and he’s all the time sittin back and actin cool and sayin hey, man, I’m with it, I ain’t got no prejudice. Do you understand what ah’m sayin?"

Daina, cheeks of rose and wearing a beret with a dozen sleeping Navajo babies printed upon it, says, "Gwen, we want you to speak up and get mad. That’s the only way we can learn and get all this out in the open."

Gwen says, "I just get real mad and then I try to hold it in because if it gets to me I just start to ramble and not make any sense. But I’m real mad that someone in this class would say they was trying to help this po’ girl in the story that she was this victim because her father abused her and beat her and because of that she wasn’t responsible for doing what she was doing to Tom."

"Gwen," another student, Hispanic, interrupts, "we been trying to get out of that place where Mayella is all guilty. We have consciences about all people, like Atticus Finch says, ‘I just try to love everybody.’"

Gwen says, "It’s not that I want you to not love people. I want it to be known what black people have suffered. All the time we’re reading this book, and we spend all of two minutes on Tom Robinson, this black man, who is found guilty and is then shot in the back. And someone in this class says that maybe Mayella’s not to blame."

"What she’s sayin," D’Adrian continues, "is that the day before Martin died he was in a picket line walking next to a garbage collector who just like Martin held up a sign that read I Am A Man. Do you understand, you people, do you understand what ah’m saying?"

Someone else says, "But Gwen, Mayella was beaten by her father. She had to lie else her father’d beat her again."

"Ain’t nobody have to lie," Gwen says.

"Sure you do."

"Oh yeah, says who?"

"Says people who got only two choices. Live or die."

"Well, I tell you," Gwen says. "I tell you what I think about it," Gwen says. "I got no choice. I’m black. And you will never know that. You will never know what it’s like being disliked because of the color of your skin. Never!"

Daina says, "How should we feel then if we can’t know that?"

"How should you feel? Damned lucky," Gwen says. "Damned grateful. Now don’t get me wrong. I ain’t apologizing for being who I am. I don’t want to be white. But you wanna know what’s really always got to me? How could anyone dislike another, dislike me because of my color. My skin," and here she pulls on the skin of her arm to show how permanently stuck onto her it is. "I could be the greatest or the worst person who ever lived but I would still be judged by my skin. This," and she pulls on her arm again, "for this! You got skin, too. Feel yours. Imagine you’re judged by what is part of your body and you can’t do anything about. Imagine it. But you can’t. You can’t. And that’s why."

"That’s why what? honey," says D’Adrian.

"That’s why Mayella’s no victim. I don’t care if her Daddy’s got a gun to her head and to the nigger’s head, and he’s caught them in the sack, he’s still gonna shoot Tom Robinson, not his own daughter, I don’t care what she’s done. That’s no victim. I’m sorry you all’re looking at me like I’m crazy. I guess I am crazy. But you people ought to think about it."


The writing I got after such blustery discussion, naked, inspired, searching, also had a testimonial honesty to it—This Is What I Believe—based on no "pity-pot" opinions but evidenced by Harper Lee’s novel and personal experience. True, much of it swarmed with the liberal bias of the class. But the occasional "out" conservative student dissented freely at a time when right-wing tendencies were still in the closet. Most students wrote papers far different from the polished academese of the UC freshmen. The beauty was, these community college essays were rawer, far more energizing to read.

If not literary prompts, I would use articles from the local paper to crack such contemporary nuts as gangs, gun control, media hypocrisy. The political climate of the era did much of the work for me. I’d add my own two cents, too, which didn’t put me above them but modeled a more scholarly perspective. And yet I think I was still young enough to sound like them. Usually they’d respond or else I’d call out cold. "Mai, what do you think? Hey, Rodrigo, don’t be shy." The majority wrote in their evaluations that they felt safe, socializing and writing in the class, and for a long time this mix of teacher-student trust felt special. Classes were like the eye of the storm in which we made sense of the wind-and-rain around us.

I loved the community college—student writing mirrored the velvet rebellion I wanted to ignite in the classroom. Once I was hired full-time in 1990, I got down to proposing new courses with missionary zeal. Luckily, there was ample opportunity. From the encouragement and dedication of an Honors coordinator and her stipend-funded program, I taught Honors classes in "Autobiography," "Multicultural Literature" and "Writing the Personal Essay." The enrollment in these courses averaged a dozen students, and the seminarlike intensity was gratifying. In the World Cultures program, I was a team teacher: one day I’d sit-in and contribute to a class, next day I’d teach it. My colleague lectured on China in the Confucian era, and I would follow with Chinese poetry or the Analects. She did the Dark Ages, and I did Beowulf. Reviving the moribund Creative Writing courses were next on my list. In A and B sections, these courses routinely averaged 25 and have become as popular to take as to instruct. With a colleague and a student, we began a literary magazine which, grubstaked by the college, grew quickly to a $2,000 annual budget and the ongoing activities of submissions, juried selections, cash awards, campus readings, and sales.

And then there were individual students with whom I became close. One among dozens. Herb Waldrop, at fifty, a gardener and one-time steelworker, took my creative writing class four times, twice for credit, twice auditing for fun. With gusto and grace, he read his work aloud, entertained the class and challenged himself; he always commented supportively on others’ work. Best of all, each week Herb brought new material to read me during office hours. His six-two Marlboro-man frame spilled out into my closet-sized office. He declaimed his farm-wise, Alabama-memory stories with dramatic wit, each tale as hilarious as it was tragic. Upon completion, he would laugh hard, then grin with self-mocking embarrassment, "What d’you think? ’Sit worth keeping?" Of course it was, and I let him know it. But, more than mere performance, his work animated the critic in me. His pieces let me underscore (I was ever the teacher with Herb, which is what I assumed he wanted) the necessity of point of view in fiction or the clamor of truth-telling in autobiography. So complementary a pair were Herb and I that on occasion the work itself (he preferred writing a new piece to revising a difficult one) was secondary to the patter of memories, the swoop of an epiphany, which we shared. His stories triggered other stories, and he told them. I listened, delighted, seduced. Herb used me like I use my journal. To explore, to essay, to see what I think.

Herb’s gift reminds me also that the unexpected is always, potentially, there in the classroom. Once I was discussing how a vivid image can deepen, even make, a story. How? a student asked. Take the hands, I said, and held up mine. What if you had a minister who in a moment of anger strikes his wife and feels so much remorse that he tries to pray the bad feeling away, but he can’t because his praying hands are defiled, on fire from their use as weapons. His hands then feel awkward when he uses them to comfort a young mother who’s lost a child. The hands’ image is immediate, unarguable, spread throughout the story and, best of all, contradictory, I said. Readers pay attention to such an image, as long as you emphasize it. The student who asked "How?" returned a year later and asked if I remembered the "hands" image I described in class. I said yes, but barely recalled it. Reminding me, he said he borrowed the image for a story of his own which won third prize plus cash in a literary contest.

Often, in English review classes, I’d ask students to write about their proudest achievements and on occasion I’d receive whimsical creations like this.

My proudest achievement was waiting to get pregnant. The reason for this is because, while growing up everyone said that I was gonna be the first one to have a baby. It bothered me for a long time because my mom had me when she was 14 years old. My mom was very open with me about everything and I was the same with her, so therefor sneaking around wasn’t exciting to me. To move on with the subject. I reached the age of "14" and didn’t get pregnant but my cousin did. Reached the age of "16" didn’t get pregnant but a couple of friends did. Reached my "senior" year in high school and almost everyone in my class either had a child or was pregnant. I survived. I was proud of myself. I mean I actually made it through high school and didn’t get pregnant. I didn’t hang around nerds, I hung around the homies, the in crowd. But I survived. I lasted until I was 21, and then I got pregnant.


Early on, developing content-driven classes as well as close relationships with a few students, I was convinced that every pupil could not only love language as I had but also that language (read accessible literature and multiculturally focused essays) could help reticent pupils commit themselves to study. If not, they’d be smitten in my classes by the novels and essays we read. The more energy I poured into making out-loud, sassy and savvy course work, the more the students would hop aboard, dust off their dormant literacy skills and off we’d go, barnstorming through Emerson and James Baldwin. I believed that everyone in America could read, study, apply themselves. College was a water pump: Once the handle primed the well, all that good, clear thinking roared up from below.

But one day I was reminded where I was. Grouping them often in pairs or fours for discussion, I started seeing and hearing the differences in my students’ identity: Filipino, Vietnamese, Eritrean, Mexican national, divorced mother from Poland, an Ibo from Nigeria, his cheeks ritually scarified, a white kid from Chicago, a black kid from Chicago. They weren’t all native folk, bred in America on one language. With this new influx of immigrant students whose first tongue was not English plus the fact that we took anyone, high-school grad or not, our Southern Californian college was unique. "We are a community college," someone said in a meeting. The emphasis surprised me. I understood that community did not mean university, the four-year estate. You would think that university would be an all-embracing term. But no. It corrals the elite, the specialized, the clannish. The university in America was losing (some say had abandoned) its democratic outreach, and the diversity of higher education was devolving to the two-year school.

Pedagogically, the difference between uni- and communi- lies between upper and lower division. Having upper division allows the university both the lower, read formative, and upper, read major, to engage faculty and students. With upper division courses, naturally there are more students dedicated to their pursuits than at the lower level. Put another way, the climate of a four-year school with its eventuality of majors fertilizes the ground for students to self-direct, find what they ache to study. Not so at a two-year school. We have lower division and a rung below that—college prep, ESL, personal growth—a treadmill on which many are stuck. We are a bridge from high school to college-level learning. With poor overall success. Students are lead from their unskilled or returning status to a books-or-bust dedication. But only a small portion can truly dedicate themselves and go full time. At graduation recently, the college president asked those receiving their two-year Associate Degrees to stand if they held a full-time while taking classes. Seventy percent stood up and they, along with moms and dads, brothers and sisters, and the students’ own growing or grown children, applauded.

Thus the very community-ness of the urban two-year college selects those who, in order to make it, must balance life, work, family, and study. This had been my educational road. A college dropout at twenty, I had gone back at twenty-seven when my twin sons were born. Ten years later, during which time I worked thirty hours a week, raised children, accrued a debt of fifteen thou, I had my master’s and a ticket to teach. Because I knew it firsthand, this plate-spinning performance of the community college pupil attracted me. Such a breathless act, however, did not come without its eventual falls. I began observing in my courses a new presumption about academics. One education writer at the time put it well: "Students [in high school and college] know it is important to get a diploma; [however,] they do not think grades or learning matter much."

In 1993 I taught an Introduction to Literature class, poetry, fiction, and drama. Fifteen students quickly dwindled to eight and of those I couldn’t always tell whether they’d read the assignments. The non-teacher may have no idea what it’s like to lecture on Whitman’s "Song of Myself" and, ten minutes in, twitch with the suspicion that you’re addressing the People of the Side-Glancing Eyes. That day (I got them to admit) all but one hadn’t read the poem’s opening sections. Their busy schedules gave them no time. I never asked if the reason they didn’t read Whitman was boredom. I took their neglect personally; I wondered if it was my job (like Big Bird) to enliven the reading, make it entertaining. Then, deja vu in a World Cultures class. Huge attrition. Few bothered to read. The stressed dropped. (One colleague gave weekly quizzes on the reading. I was far too liberated to "quiz." His class went down to two.) To salvage my classes (and to avoid getting mad), I read excerpts from the assignments aloud. Students responded and good discussions ensued. But why did so many refuse to work?

Most took Intro to Lit because they had to. Which meant plugging in their pre-owned recalcitrance. The old high-school habit: If most of us avoid the reading, then the teacher will explain it and, thus, we’ll know precisely what we’ll be tested on. True, come to class and learn was my teaching pattern before, and I’m sure they picked up on it. But I wanted to motivate them to read. Forget the love of books, the skill of reading was more vital now than ever. So I’d relate the following: In 1955, a car mechanic needed only an eighth-grade education to understand the factory service manual. By 1993, the same mechanic needed two years of college to repair a digitized carburetor. "You guys don’t want to end up ‘losers,’ earning minimum wage for life, do you?" Grim silence. Next I passed a graph around the class. A person with a college degree expects to earn a million dollars more than those with only a high school degree. A third of our students didn’t even possess high-school diplomas. Nevertheless, my threats failed. The pupils wouldn’t study, not because they couldn’t, but because they had no connection to reading literature or writing paragraphs. Most had never read a book cover-to-cover in their lives.

The community college student’s alienation from learning was the opposite of the UC student’s ability to learn. No amount of college prep could catch my students up: There was no hitching post for the catching up to tie itself to. Once in a red tide an honest student might admit that she remembered nothing of her grade school grammar: Either the school she attended was miserable, her attendance sporadic, her home life non-stop TV noise and parental storms. Plus, she realized, it was up to her to accept this and start over from square one. Bravo, I’d say. You know what you don’t know! But the majority of my lowest level students were out of touch with what they needed. Instead, they trusted us, their college teachers, to provide it. In class. The majority believed that they were victimized—misguided grade-school teachers, absent fathers, stressed-out mothers, scornful siblings. A conspiracy of abuse kept them from learning. They were too often embroiled in processing their anger at missing the education bus and so, cognitively, they couldn’t accept the long wait and board another. We educators were claiming that a student who works hard can succeed in college while most of the kids said the reverse, "I’m no good at school."

Back talk from angry returning students started to irritate me. Things got strained early in the semester, so I’d announce, "Hey, you guys, this is college." It’s a bristly admonition to unwanted behavior. It says class clowns have no place here. It says you can’t skid by, doing next to nothing as you did in high school where a D- is a passing grade (here you have to get a C) and your teachers had to pass more than fewer of you to make way for the next wave. "This is college" says you have to unlearn your old study patterns (like reading while watching TV), find quiet for concentration, plug the gaps in English and Math, make reflection a daily ritual, and taken together these changes will ensure academic success.

What bothered me most was the student’s lack of literacy skills—being at home in a book where narrative design or critical reasoning felt somewhat familiar. I’d say two-thirds of the people I’ve taught in the past ten years are semi-literate or, more commonly, aliterate—can read but are unwilling to. Consequently, their writing is stalled at the eighth-grade level. Rare indeed is the person who cherishes language learning. Everyone knows how unimportant reading has become with the everything knowable, it seems, on video. The skills of informed judgment which reading induces are passé. Ten years ago students knew the difference between a liberal and a conservative, a radical and a centrist; today, before articulating "positions," we have to establish what positions are and why people take them, which consumes two classes. Ten years ago many students might recognize the denotative meaning of "Armageddon" or the connotative meaning of "Gringo"; today, they know such words only as movie titles and grok the meaning in a boy-gets-girl, boy-saves-human-race formula. A majority of students today speak and write solely in sports metaphors—"pull a punch," "go for the gold," "fall between the lines." Of those online, a majority think the Internet is the only reference source they’ll ever need. A majority believe statistics, television commercials, political mailers, book jacket flap copy, and Oliver Stone films present "true," that is, reliable information.

Yes, many do come to class, to talk, to argue, to act-sound-be brilliant. But do the work with critical thinking skills? No—not consistently, not deeply. Forget an apology by Plato or a satire by Swift. Forget assigning a reading and expecting pupils to annotate. Hope they at least read it and maybe answer the response questions.

Once a smart-ass me said to the seven of thirteen persevering students who laid finished homework on the desk, "No Titanic for you guys this weekend, eh?" But I dislike my bent—clutching at our culture’s notion to fault individuals rather than systems. I get merciless with assigning blame. I try to remember that community college students are victims of America’s maniacal scapegoating of the poor, the immigrant, the misfit beyond what’s deserved. Indeed, urban community college students are non-traditional. They are among the poorest, most underprepared, most overextended, down-on-their-luck people in America. In significant ways their lackluster effort I detail is not about learning—many want to learn—but about the failure of communities, schools and parents to legitimize the lifework of literacy. Moreover, in the face of movie and sport stars’ guaranteed contracts, the endless commodification of television, the non-academic opportunities in computers and business ventures, many believe that long-term schooling may pay well but does not guarantee an urge to succeed. Our life’s calling arises from luck, talent, rebellion or Lotto Fever. Not from a master’s degree.

No matter how hard our society beats the drum about "staying in school," I remain the one—the "teach"—upon whom students dump their frustrations, promise they’ll do the work and don’t. I am the Wiz, who’s deemed All Powerful to fix them, yes, by the culture at large, but more so by the students themselves, when they’re in crisis. They cleverly assume I will not use their "victimization" with learning to punish them. Here’s a fairly typical crisis-ridden and forgive-me-laced phone message.

This is Taneesha and I’m in your Monday-Wednesday-Friday class from ten to eleven. My sister had passed away last week and I have her baby and I was wondering is like a lot of different things are going on right now and I just don’t have the money to put her baby in the child care right now for me to go to school. But I had made, came so far this semester, you know, and I just want to know if I come in and do my tests and do whatever it is so that I won’t get dropped from the class and so that I won’t receive a ‘F.’ So could you please give me a call back and let know there’s some kind of arrangement that we can work out so I can still take my tests and so that I can still get, you know, the grade or whatever. My telephone number is . . . . Thank you.


I am still astonished by the honesty and ignorance of Taneesha’s words—honesty that life’s emergencies are crucial to communicate to me as well as more important than coming to class, and ignorance that I or any instructor can excuse her multiple absences and negotiate her learning. (I find it troubling but revealing that students expect teachers to go easy when they know, firsthand, that bosses, parents and they themselves seldom abide excuses.) At no time in our subsequent discussions did Taneesha say to me—I had to say it to her—that her life had interrupted her learning and she had missed too many lessons to continue. So I dropped her.

Setting boundaries for students always incurs a flap. Lloyd has been absent by mid-semester a dozen times; I’ve told him on the phone that he may not pass. I tell him one more absence and he’s gone; next class he doesn’t show. The class after that he does come with an aggrieved look on his face which mirrors what he knows I have to say. I take Lloyd outside and tell him he’s dropped. He leaves in a huff, which says it’s my fault. Because I gave him too many chances and because I drew the line. Did I agree with him? Some days yes, some days, no. Consistency is the hobgoblin of the nurturer’s mind as well.

For several years I pitched back and forth between faulting the students and faulting myself. To relieve the tossing, I decided in the mid-90s to morph from generalist to specialist, writing a couple of articles that called for college-sponsored work programs. For my department, I developed a course entitled "Workplace English." In it, students would flag down a career in, say, nursing, then write their papers from reportorial visits to hospitals, interviews with nurses, research in home health care. That course, along with a half-dozen others by like-minded colleagues from other disciplines, was snubbed by the administration—"we applaud the idea but have no discretionary monies to fund it"—and led me to carve another notch on the futility barrel.

Many changes, though, did occur. My emphasis on multiculturalism, personal writing, teaching literature went to the back burner. To the front came "Basics," at every level, because I and others realized we were seeing a tsunami of students unprepared for college learning. Thus, we redefined our standards by lowering our levels in order to build a basic community of learners. With lowered levels, more students flocked in. The new dictum, we’ll admit you, no questions asked. Which was a way of condoning the lack of skills in the pupils’ past. But then it was also a way to get more bodies in seats and, thus, more cash in our coffers to fund—what else—more tutorial and remedial opportunities for the rising number of students on campus.

At the same time our curriculum was notching itself downward, along with many new enrollees came scores of the mentally disturbed and emotionally distraught. Our bridge to the underclass meant that we were open to those who had no other institution to enter. On drugs, on alcohol, in recovery, suffering consciously or not from psychopathic and sociopathic illnesses, manic-depressive, depressed, lonely—these students were dropping themselves not in the counselor’s lap but in the teacher’s.

On occasion I would ask students to write about their personal difficulties, unrelated to something larger like a novel or a social issue. I discovered that not only did the writing possess errors of grammar and logic but the writer’s emotional problems seemed disabling. Consider this.


"My Life"


by Rosalie

In the upcoming weeks there will be too two significant changes in my life. The first will be is that I will be entering my early twenties and the second is that I will become a partnent parent. As these changes are fast approaching, I look back on my life, and I do not see much accomplishments or see things that I’ve done to be proud of.

Growing up as a child, I was selfish, uncaring, just plain difficult. I did as I pleased. Punishing me was only a waist waste of my mothers time. She spent the best years of her life trying to please someone that did not care about deserve it.

May of 1992 would have to be the turning point of my life. After weeks of our usual arguing, she told me in a tone of voice that I’ve never heard before, that she was as if the tone itself was telling me that she was giving up, washing her hands with the situation. In her words, "I don’t care what you do anymore. I’ve had enough of you and your bullsh__, next year when you graduate or turn 18, which ever comes first, you out of here!"

At first I thought that she was kidding. I told myself that she was just blowing off steam, she really didn’t mean it. I’ll make it up to her, I thought to myself. Since mothers day is around the corner, I’ll take her out to dinner and buy her that bottle of red cologne she wanted and I’m, tell you how much I love her and that how I would try to improve my behavior and grades in school. I never got to tell her because she died the day before mothers day. All I remember telling her was that everything was going to be all right and that I was sorry.

The last three years have been very difficult for me. I never knew how much I need her until she was gone.


Rosalie dropped the course soon after she turned this essay in. Did she quit because she had interpreted the "C" I gave the paper as a judgment of her character, which the story revealed? Did she quit because I mentioned that counselors were available on campus and she perceived coldness in such a comment? I stewed over my response to such solemn papers: How could I guide my charges to counseling and not lose them academically? Some days I felt personal writing was out of place—requiring students to divulge their neuroses, then referring their cry for help. Some days I wanted a safe distance from their hardship. I was still learning where I was: Our students were like patients because this was both college and County Mental Health. To calm down, I asked for smaller doses of self-exploration. Now, when I assigned something personal, I talked for thirty minutes on what not to write—no recent breakups with boyfriends or girlfriends, no recent divorces, no sexual or emotional abuse, no satanic worship, no recovered memory. Eventually, I found it easier to require the academic rigor I had required at UCSD. But too many possessed no such rigor whatsoever.

Perhaps this is the place to briefly examine one of the strangest ironies of community college teaching. Despite my odyssey from trusting to wary instructor, I’ve had little or no contact with the many disoriented learners who like Rosalie are far more numerous than the good student and the occasional bad apple. Forty students on day one of the semester in ten weeks become fourteen. A 65% loss. How can I begin to square my turmoil with those six of ten people who walk through the portal of education and walk right back out? Our efforts, spent on teaching the basics, have meant stricter class discipline and enforced prerequisites, but it seems to have helped only a select group. We teachers and our administrators have been unable to serve those who ping-pong in and out of school, even though we keep trying to adapt to them as if they can find direction in our classes.

None of us has decoded these lost adult learners. They have no voting or economic power and become pariahs once they fail, even after several tries, to make the best of the institution’s guidance. During the culture wars of the nineties, we have demanded inclusion for the diverse ethnic, racial and gender groups on American campuses, but we have done next to nothing to include in the curriculum the learning diversity and disability of our adult students. Only a small percentage of people learn in the lecture setting (that 35% in my classes), so why do we keep forcing all students to adapt? Why can’t we understand that only the professions draw a prescribed number of acolytes to scholarship? Why can’t we incorporate academic-business cooperative programs with on-the-job training, hire facilitators, and not academics, as instructors? The reason we cannot reinvent the adult educational system is that too many good-hearted souls believe that a broad-based liberal arts "training" is best. Under that flag, the burden for change shifts from the system to its participants, the student who’s too "screwed-up" to study and the teacher who’s too "unwilling" to adapt. It’s their fault. This aggressive simplification that the adult student and the over-nurturing teacher are at fault is merely the latest whitewash for principles of mass education rooted in university-driven curricula that are lost on today’s learner.

Thus I don’t know that even a reinvented classroom will reinvent this woman, whose freely written paragraph below, despite its looseness, says a great deal about the plight of the refugee learner. I don’t believe she or her instructors are to blame for her dislocation, or if college can have any impact on her self-esteem (although college did have a negative impact because she dropped out after writing this). I do believe that this short self-assessment of her learning experience expresses how much her college education has contributed to creating—and making irrelevant—the person she thinks she should be in light of the person she knows she is.

I’m 37 years old, still searching for what I’m comfortable with in life. Now that I’m no longer the ugly duckling who is and probably always will be immature in areas of my life from lack of motherly bonding and nurturing, gone through doing the best I can for children 19, 18, 15, & 8, all that I could to give love, hope, faith, moral values, independence, and the highest of each individuals esteem. Feeling raped. Raped of something I can’t describe. Something that seems to be affecting my life on a personal basis and as a student. I’ve been on this search of what I’m going to be when I grow up yet I’m really amounting to several depressing issues that I’ve made important that really aren’t. I have 120 credits in college and by God not using them at all. All of a sudden I’m in school to earn 12 more. Only to transfer to a four-year college to which I hope by then I know what I want to be when I grow up. Everything seems to be all gobbledy gooped up with such needed organization that blends in with everyday life that I’m not sure which is what, what is why, and why is there a who. I don’t know what to think. My creative visualization keeps telling me that this is the dark before the dawn. Is there a sealant for the crack in my head where the holes is? I am depressed. I’m losing my touch. I’ve fought off suicide because of my moral values. My religious beliefs. And for some funky reason I keep telling myself to be strong even though when I tell myself, it comes out weak. All my life I’ve been strong and there for everyone else, a counselor, helper, supporter, sharing, caring, neutralizing difficulties, loving and making love to. I feel so drained. No one is giving back. I want the basic human needs too, and the most important are feeling needed, belonging, love, etc. I know maybe I need to do better for myself. I’m open for critique since that’s all I’ve ever received at best.


Back in my day-to-day classroom, the turmoil of teaching worsened. In a literature course a man named Bryan argued with me constantly. He said during class that I acted as if I knew everything there was to know about women, slavery and Native Americans. He said I had stifled his viewpoint but allowed Rodolfo (the other "A" student in the class), to say whatever he wanted and then agreed with him because "he’s an ethnic person and I’m not." He said I should only talk about things I have direct experience with like men’s issues or the European race in America. To help judge the situation, I brought in a professor to observe Bryan’s behavior which, despite my colleague’s presence, was unchanged, to which he offered his analysis: "Bryan’s thirty-three years old, frustrated about being stuck at a community college where he’s obviously smarter than everyone else. We get one like that every year. Get used to it." What do I do? I asked. "Talk to the class about respect. Teacher for student and vice versa." So I did. At the end of my polished speech, Bryan said, "Goddamn, will I be glad to get out of here with my ‘A’ and leave you wretched multiculturalists behind." Perfect attendance—at least he did all the reading—and next-to-perfect essay exams got him what he wanted: A one-way ticket out of community college.

After Bryan there seemed to be an explosion of people revealing their disturbances in class. My anxiety increased when more students began to read violent, depraved, feminist-retribution or suicidally self-absorbed stories, challenging our sense of what is and is not presentable in the free-speech fairway of a classroom discussion. All teachers in San Diego checked in to Hotel Paranoia when a twenty-something shared his murder story with his Creative Writing class at another college. According to the news’ account, it was about "a heavily armed man entering a public place and methodically and sadistically gunning down men, women and children," and it featured gorily effusive "original" language. Two weeks later the man went out and committed the deed in real life—blew away four people at a Family Fitness Center, (except for his estranged girlfriend, he did not know the others), and then turned the gun on himself.

Many students with psychological disabilities do fine in classes as long as they’re supervised or "on their meds." Of course we have people who self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, show up dizzy or dropout when the deadlines roll in. But there are a handful of students who refuse medical help or psychological counseling and yet are quite savvy about their educational rights.

Her name was Fran. Because I have no hard medical evidence to name the mental illness Fran suffered, I can say she was very disturbed. She lived on the street, smelled of urine, always wore jerseys and sweats with the red-and-black logo of San Diego State University’s aztecs, carried a hand whittled staff, and said God had called her to my creative writing course. She sat in the corner, turned her desk rakishly to the wall, muttered obscenities. The students would have nothing to do with her. Fran spoke always at me, and the students eyed me with sympathy. First few weeks she launched several keen responses to our readings and student assignments. I listened, thanked her; she was doing the work. She began to fawn on me because, I suspect, I acknowledged her moments of lucidity. Niceness backfired. She began to obsess. First, I got daily phone messages which multiplied to a half dozen on the weekends. Next, she’d be waiting for me when I emerged from a room or meeting, glimpsing me and turning away, but not leaving. She came to office hour not to talk but to stand near my door. I called her in once and received a plastic grocery-bag-wrapped drawing of a buffalo head with flying pterodactyls overhead. Rattled, I sought the Dean of Students’ advice. He said as long as she wasn’t threatening me or other students, no action could be taken. When the phone messages wailed on for thirty minutes—grandiose paranoid statements about aliens and a District Attorney by name out to get her—I demanded the police remove her from my surroundings. "But Mr. Larson, this is a public campus and anyone has a right—" "OK, how about this," I shouted. "She’s lying on the ground outside my office door, weeping and hollering that if I don’t come out and hold her she will kill herself and how will I like living the rest of my life knowing that!" Within ten minutes they’d hauled her away.

Counseling, Fran; she refused. Commit yourself to treatment, Fran; she refused. It’s not right to stalk me; I’m afraid of you; I can’t help you, I told her. Her reply, she didn’t need help. "Just be yourself, Mr. Larson. That’s all I want." After the cops threw her off campus a second time, a package addressed to me showed up in the mail room one day, littered with her tell-tale signature and nonsense ramblings. Because of its severely wrinkled, brown-paper grocery-bag wrap, they thought it a bomb. The building was evacuated. Sent for inspection to an airport baggage scanner, the package was a harmless pile of her cryptic musings weighted with rocks. After this incident, stalking me for love turned to phone-message fantasies of my hot-oil death which were directed at and recorded on the machines of two other college teachers whose shoulders her gnarled finger had also tapped. Enough. I got the police and the deans involved and, after a silly show "trial" in which she was allowed to present her "case"—by now, wigged out, a dollish grin, she droned on about the coming of White Buffalo—Fran was barred from all district campuses for three years.

This woman was very sick, and got sicker trying to force me to care for her. To the school brass she was sick, yes, but also a "free individual." We could do nothing for her. Worse, we were pretending we could by preserving her rights to enroll without being screened. Freedom (read fear of lawsuit) overrules mental incompetence. To let her disturbing behavior hold our college hostage was administrative lunacy every bit as ridiculous as her stalking me in the name of self-treatment. Our zip-drive society was downloading the deinstitutionalized into two-year college classrooms just to get them off the dole. And the poor teachers: How welcoming we all are the first week of class, setting up a safe home for the term’s duration. How easy a target, how alone we sometimes are. I felt battered by Fran’s madness. After she was expelled, a fear of violence has haunted every class I have taught.

Something caring in me died. I lost interest in students’ problems. I felt my role in their eyes had swung from classroom facilitator and noble advisor to good cop/bad cop, truant officer, enforcer, twelve-step host-leader. My door during office hours, once open, now was closed. Pepper spray sat within easy reach of the knob. I wanted to plaster bumper stickers onto the door’s wire-mesh window (which otherwise remained covered)—"Insured by Smith & Wesson" or "Quit Yer Bitchen." It spilled over to my teaching. New classes heard the Moses/Heston commandment in my voice: Thou Shalt Not Seek Resolution in English 101 from Previous Emotional Trauma. Undeterred, they still came, some with a hollow-eyed lassitude that shook my soul. They were refugees from a drug-, crime-, abuse-ridden society. They couldn’t help but set their dysfunctional stew on the classroom table. To save myself, my academic standards rose like Kansas sunflowers, pushing out of my courses all but the willing and able. On occasion, I heard grumbling in the hallways. "Man, that Larson’s a bear." "No, man, he’s a bastard." Comments that once would have coiled my self-esteem now felt like a golden band.

I hear you say, surely most students in your courses perform well enough, weigh their neuroses against the rules of the class. True. I meet very few in Fran’s likeness, although many resemble the inconsolable Rosalie or the distraught 37-year-old woman. Of those who stay, I suppose there are far more I help instead of suspect. But, like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s lovely poem, which despairs of how love sours "in so many little ways," I couldn’t just get over a student who stalked me, who, in part, rent my trust so raggedly that it has not stitched itself together and healed stronger in the ripped place. She was the crack in this teacher’s back. And since her intrusion three years ago, I made a vow to myself. I bring only a measured enthusiasm to classes in which I feel the direct or indirect threat of violence. Which is to say every class. My enthusiasm grows only in concert with my ability—this has to be done or else neither I nor my students will feel safe—to weed out the obvious and not-so-obvious danger.

Today, with eight years in the profession, risen to full professor, here I’ve fallen. An Alice down the hole. A bungee jumper boinging at his tether-end. So, how did I end up with a stellar evaluation? Did I fool them into thinking I could exceed standards? I merely set and followed my own rules. That semester, when students and colleagues evaluated me, my strict attendance, lateness and participation policies had removed (or referred to disabled student services) the ambivalent, the (outwardly) disturbed, the unwilling and, usually you have to, the unable, lugging D’s or below past midterm or drop-date. The few left—those who work and study and raise their kids and who, as a result, earn their college pins—either feared me, loved me, or were glad to have an instructor who seemed no different from their other everyday teachers, although my pupils probably knew none of the effort it has taken me to become routine.

Could it be that the remaining ones saw themselves in me and rewarded me for mirroring them? They were college types already—blessed with patience, skilled with writing, compliant and self-starting, auditory learners for whom a lecture makes sense the first time they hear it. I once thought that the reason those who stayed on did so because of my charge as a teacher. What is far more likely is that they had been bred in the bone for academia long before I had any influence.