Death of a Student, Chapter 2
“Good prose is like a windowpane,” George Orwell warned the wordy in Why I Write. In the face of a confounding situation, squirt the Windex, wipe the glass, shut up and write. This is one of those times.
In May, I wrote here about Cedirick Steele, a student in my College Writing I class at Bunker Hill Community College. Cedirick smiled all the time, went out of his way to help his classmates, read The New York Times most days, and on March 14, he was murdered. Shot six times. The killing was not an accident. Boston police have made no arrests. Those who know what happened need no incentive to remain silent.
Fall classes began two weeks ago. I have two sections of College Writing I, one at 7 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. I began each section this fall putting the chairs in a circle, handing out the column about Cedirick, and letting the students read. “Why did I hand this out?” They get it. I explain that the course is about using writing to shape their lives. Yes, we’ll cover a college essay and MLA footnotes, but that’s short-term stuff. I want them to be able to write a great job letter and a successful love letter or a credible threat to a landlord who’s keeping the heat low.
“I knew Cedirick,” one young woman in the 7 a.m. section said. “He was always in a good mood, helping his friends.” This fall, Bunker Hill Community College has 50 sections of College Writing I, all with at least twenty-five students. The 1,250 students have not heard of me. Besides, I’m an adjunct, assigned to a section at the last minute. What were the odds of this coincidence?
The students are from Boston and Medford, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Russia. Writing is a tool of citizenship for them all, I said.
We put the column aside. I circled to my usual opening topic and handed out the Bill of Rights. In the 7 a.m. section at this point, a young woman asked if she could be excused for a few moments. Sure. Each student read an amendment. We read through the 10 amendments 2.8 times.
Why here in College Writing I? “Someone wrote it,” said a student. We stop at the often-overlooked back end of the First Amendment, the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” We worked through the vocabulary and uncovered that “to petition” also means “to write.”
“What does this clause in the amendment have to do with you, right here this morning?” We wander to the fact that even a deputy under-assistant East Coast disposable adjunc
t professor at a community college is an agent of the government, of the state. So what? The class is not with me. “That means that if I screw up and waste your time, you can write the president of Bunker Hill Community College and demand that she fire my ass.” Made it – the first laughter of the semester.
“Now, your assignment is to write a letter to me,” I said, “Spell out what you need from me this semester for you to succeed. Be specific. Expository writing is about finding and using evidence. Think of teachers who did not work for you, some of whom were probably nice people. What didn’t work? Give me examples. Think of teachers who were great for you? What worked? Examples.” That ended the first 7 a.m. class.
I was cleaning the whiteboard when the young woman who’d asked to be excused came up. “I had to leave because I was all emotional. Cedirick was my best friend. I think about him all the time. I don’t know why I did this today, but look what I wore.” She had a memorial t-shirt with Cedirick’s photograph, faded with washings. Lanita Ford.
Lanita read her letter aloud in the next class. Here’s what she wrote, reprinted with her permission.
English writing 111
What do u expect of me/from me to succeed?
What I Lanita Ford expect from you at the end of the semester is an A. I believe that I can get A’s in both of my classes. I bet you’re wondering, “How’s that?’’ Well, first it starts with the help from you. I need you to make me want to learn. I feel as though I didn’t get the education I needed to get while I was in high school, so I decided to go to college. That’s why I am in your class. I realized while I was in high school I didn’t have any teacher-to-student relationships. I had this one teacher named Mr. Johnson, who would spend most of his time with one student in stead of teaching us as a class. I remind you, I had him for two years and not once did he ever come over to me and ask me did I understand any thing that was going on in his class. So, I felt like my teachers didn’t believe in me.
So, I would understand why Cedirick Steele, as you wrote in the story you gave us, asked you not to disrespect him. Cedirick and I were in most of the same classes together in high school. We were best friends, so I know why he said what he said to you. He felt like no one was going to give him a chance out here in this world, so he decided to take it upon himself and attend college. Even though he was goofy he matured very quickly.
Ever since 9th grade he would always ask me, “L if I ever die would you come to my funeral? Because when I die, I don’t want any fake people crying over me. Fake people stay out of my circle.” Those were his words. He asked me that all the way until we reached the 12th grade. So, now Cedirick is gone, but his memory lives on. You have me in your circle. So now we both are in the circle, and we both must only keep real people in our circle. One circle I think is real is the circle you made with these desks in your classroom. Since Cedirick couldn’t receive his A in your class, I will receive it for him and myself. That is what I am expecting from you. and what I want you to expect from me is a student that wants to learn. I don’t change for the better or the worst, I am just me.
What next? Lanita and this class have already left me in the dust. I think we’ll start the next class with John Milton and a bit of Paradise Lost and see where that leads.
invoke thy aid to my advent’rous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattemped yet in Prose or Rhyme.
We owe Cedirick nothing less.
Wick Sloane’s column, The Devil’s Workshop, appears as needed. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media to write about community college finance and equity issues.