6:55 a.m. Wednesday, the final class of the semester last fall for my English 111, expository writing class, at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. The classroom, B (for Basement) 133, was dark. Shauntae was not, as she usually is, already there, with her head down on a desk, asleep after her one-hour commute to class..
All I know is that no more than half the 22 students from the term’s first day will still be in class that day. About a third of the students have vanished. With jobs and other papers, about half show up. Jobs, family illnesses, car breakdowns all conspire against the 8,900 students at Bunker Hill. The same goes for their 11 million counterparts in the other 1,195 community colleges in the nation. Going to school part time is the biggest risk indicator for failing to complete college. I call and e-mail my students who don’t show up. Usually, no reply. None of the original 22, I know from an assignment I gave, has less than an hour commute to this 7 a.m. class.
Community college is voluntary. Community college students showing up at 7 a.m. weekdays or 8 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays need no urging to educate themselves for a better job and a better life. Just today, a student e-mailed me his homework at 12:17 a.m., with a note apologizing that he was just home from work, sick, and unable to be in class six hours and forty-three minutes later.
Raymond is the first to arrive that morning at 7:10 a.m. (Students gave me permission to tell their stories.) He’s from Boston. “When do I find out that I’ve flunked?” he asked. We’ve been though this. He’s not close to failing. The week before, we’d used his essay, “What I Still Don’t Know About Writing,” to illustrate a first-rate essay. Halfway through the semester, Bunker Hill has a deadline for when students can drop a course without penalizing their GPA. “All of you right now write well enough to pass. Attendance and doing the homework are the issues,” I had told the class.
“What do you care? You’ll get paid whether we pass or not,” Raymond had said then. His question had no edge. I fumbled some answer about wanting them all to learn to write for their jobs and their lives.
“So, you really do care,” Raymond said. “I’ll have to think about that.” That evening, I called my friend Lyn Marino, who has taught math for decades at Capital Community College in Hartford, Conn. “Wick, you have to understand, most of these students may never have heard a kind word in their lives,” she said.
I won a fellowship, from the Hechinger Institute of Teachers College at Columbia, to write about equity and finances at community colleges. I have embedded myself at Bunker Hill. I filed my first report here two weeks ago and many of you made generous comments. One reader even called me “a hero.” Hardly. What's unique about these stories and what I do is only that I am there to tell the story. Besides, a real community college teacher has five or even six courses every semester, usually with at least 30 students per class. Multiply my day by five. My colleagues, and community college faculty I have met around the country, have been facing what I face, doing what I do here, for decades.
A student from China’s Shenzen Province arrived next, after Raymond. She plans to be a dentist. “What’s my grade?” she asked. I explained that we didn’t need to discuss this in public. She insisted. “B,” I said.
“Why not A? I come to every class. I hand in every assignment,” and she burst into tears, not crocodile tears, but heaving sobs from the soul. She demanded the reasons for a B, not an A.
One day a year or so ago, before my own first class at Bunker Hill, I asked students in the hallways and lounges what advice they had for a new professor. Be on time; end on time; hand papers back quickly; help us outside of class. One young woman looked back into my eyes. “Tell us the truth,” she said. “Don’t tell us we are good if we are not. Sometimes, teachers feel sorry for us or don’t want us to feel bad. Don’t do that. Tell us the truth.”
I explained to China the course was College Writing. An A would mean no grammatical or English-language errors. An A would mean that she could write at the same level as a freshman at any college. An A would mean she knew English well enough to go to a U.S. dental school now. She’s not there. The deep, heaving sobs resumed.
Rob and two others came in and sat down. Rob is a computer wizard. His mother left home when he was in 9th grade. His father had long hours at work. Rob spent high school caring for his two siblings in elementary school -- making their lunches, doing the laundry, helping them with their homework. Rob paid with low high-school grades, and he was at community college for a fresh start.
I pulled out China’s essay that I’d just graded. I gathered the students in a circle and asked them all to show China how to revise her paper. Everyone pitched in to help with subject-verb agreement and complete sentences. China had a fine essay behind the ESL veil.
Pierre, an immigrant from Haiti, arrived half an hour late. He often works two shifts handling baggage at Logan Airport and gets to class as soon as he can. He’s at least 40 with two children. He has a college degree from Haiti. He’s seen too many layoffs at Logan and wants to retrain to be a nurse. The prerequisites could take him years. Then, nursing schools can have wait lists years long. Still, in an essay, Pierre wrote, “Haiti was moving toward political chaos…. I feel blessed to be in America today.”
8:15 a.m. Class ended. Raymond wanted to talk about extra work to pass the course. China asked why she couldn’t have an A. I asked Pierre if he found the nursing adviser. The professor for the next class was already in the room. Raymond, I told to come to my office later. I asked Pierre and China to come up with me to the lobby. I sat China at a table. I took Pierre to the nursing office. Closed until 9 a.m. I wrote a note for Pierre to give to the adviser I’d already telephoned for him, and he promised he would.
Back to China. If she would rewrite her essay and work in the language lab with a tutor over vacation and until the new semester opened January 22, working on subjects and verbs and complete sentences and articles, I’d give her a B+, I told her. My goal is for her to learn English. A colleague whom China knows sat down with us. “You are not there for an A in English. You are doing fine. Wick is offering you a very fair deal,” the colleague said. More heaving sobs. I took China to the language lab, waited until the tutor arrived at 9 a.m., and signed her up.
On the way back to my office, I found Ross, who should have been in class. “I’m sorry I didn’t make it,” he said. He wanted to do an extra-credit paper about how the Boston Celtics inspire him to persist in life. Two weeks of connecting him with librarians who were ready to help had not worked. “Let’s go,” I said, and we headed to the library, two long corridors away. Did he have a library card? Yes, for Boston Public Library, not for BHCC. I explained that his student ID was his library card, as long as he asked for the library bar-code sticker. “For these books from the library here, do I have to pay to check them out?” he asked. We climbed the stairs, and I left Ross with a librarian.
On the way back down the corridors I listened to a voice mail from another student who had just missed class. She apologized. She’s from Sierra Leone. She and her friends dodged bullets on the way to school at home and rebels often shot up her school. Back at my office, China was waiting. Why not an A? I explained again. I made sure I wasn’t forcing her out of her paying job at a hotel. How about A-? No.
I wrote an article for the faculty and staff newsletter. For the holidays, Bunker Hill criminal justice students had donated a ping-pong table and food baskets to a center at the state Department of Youth Services. Other student groups had raised, by my count, at least $3,000 for other charities. One class redeemed 5,500 bottles and cans to make a donation to Toys for Tots. ("Toys for Tots," Mike the mason said. "They were the only Christmas my Mom could ever get for me.") Another class collected 100 pairs of shoes for children in Darfur. That class, too, raised $1,298 for Mercy Corps to buy medical supplies and cookstoves for Darfur. Women who have to forage for wood in Darfur, I learned, are often victims of sexual violence while out gathering the wood. the cookstoves eliminate the need to gather wood.
I can’t see any windows from my office. Without the sun, I lose track of time. I looked up. China was back. She explained that she works at an adult literacy center and that the director would help in any way possible. With ESL students, writing things down helps. I pulled up Word and wrote a note to the director. “China has an A+ intellect and reasoning ability. We have coaches and ESL working. Anything you can do to help is great – newspapers, conversation. Her pronunciation needs work as does her understanding of spoken English. We are going to work hard on this over the vacation. Call me if you need to. We want China to succeed.”
China read the note, swallowed more tears and left. I went to find lunch. Vicki was waiting when I returned with my sandwich. Last summer, she was one of the four Bunker Hill students at the five-week Exploring Transfer Program at Vassar College. About 40 community college students from around the country attend, free, for two courses and coaching on making their way to a four-year college. Vicki’s voice was quivering. She announced she was going to apply to four-year colleges.
Mike was waiting, and behind him, John Around Him. Mike is a mason. His construction bosses last summer gave a promotion to someone with a degree. Mike quit to return to college. On his own, Mike has read hundreds of books, at least as many as his literary twin, Jude the Obscure. Mike’s mason friends are giving him a hard time for being in college. Mike was handing in an extra-credit paper.
John, an Oglala Sioux from South Dakota who drove a tank in Iraq, was at last finishing an independent study that was part of his internship with U.S. Senator John F. Kerry Jr. His paper was a memo to Senator Kerry, describing the dismal state of Bureau of Indian Affairs schools and making suggestions for reform. His memo needed a summary at the start. “What’s a summary look like? I’ve never done one before,” he said. We wrote one. That paper became John’s essay for four-year colleges. Two weeks ago, Dartmouth accepted John. Mike didn’t return this semester. I’ve e-mailed him and left a dozen voice mails. I don’t know what happened.
I took a walk to the water fountain. When I came back, China was waiting. She wanted to talk in my office. I explained that another student was working in there. She insisted. “I just want to thank you,” she said. What? “I just want to thank you. You are telling me what I know and where I am and what I need to learn. You are helping me,” she said. I stood waiting for the pitch for the A. “Thank you,” she said again, and she gave me a hug and left. And for the next five weeks, she spent almost every day at the language lab.
Wick Sloane, who writes The Devil’s Workshop, won a fellowship to write about community colleges from the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. This is the second of his reports from that work.