• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Things You Hear When You’re Invisible

How the world looks when you are 17

October 4, 2017

I’ve mentioned before the weird gift of invisibility that comes with middle age.  t came in handy again this week.

I was walking across campus to a meeting. It was a little before 9:00, the weather was beautiful, and there weren’t many other people outside. (It was during a class period.) Behind me I could hear two younger male students talking. It quickly became clear that at least one of them was a high school student who was taking some dual enrollment classes.

The high school student was marvelling at his newfound freedom. As nearly as I can reconstruct it:

HS student: My school is &%)#&^. They don’t have anything for us to do, but we can’t go off-campus for lunch!

Other Guy: Hmm.

HS: This place is great! I have a few hours between my morning class and my afternoon class, and they let me leave campus. I can go to McDonald’s for lunch!

OG: (laughs)

HS: I can go to McDonald’s anytime I want!  I mean, do I feel bad about burning the gas?  Yes, but it’s worth it. I could stay there for an hour!

Sometimes I forget was seventeen was like. Yes, we allow students to go off-campus for lunch. Most high schools in the area don’t.  To a high school student taking classes here, that may feel almost intoxicatingly decadent.  Here, it’s par for the course. We even have enough parking that they aren’t necessarily consigning themselves to the provinces when they come back in the afternoon.

(As it happens, the unofficial poet laureate of the Jersey Shore has built a career on the musical observation that the car represents freedom. Maybe it’s something in the water…)

Someone else mentioned today that one of the better arguments for dual enrollment programs for high school seniors on a community college campus is that it lets them phase their new freedom in, rather than jumping in with both feet. For a student who goes from a traditional high school to living full-time in a dorm, the change can be an abrupt shock; I remember seeing some of that in college myself. Using senior year at a community college as a way station can allow a student to shake off some of the more infantilizing aspects of K-12 before actually moving out, so when they get to the dorms, they may be less likely to lose their bearings altogether.  

A few years ago somebody tweeted that at 17, we expect students to get a hall pass to go to the bathroom, and at 18 we expect them to make adult life decisions. It rang true, and stuck with me. Here, we don’t require hall passes. Students can learn to regulate their time, but still go home at night. It sounds like a small thing -- the sort of thing a middle-aged man might have forgotten -- but it matters. The tone of that young man’s voice was urgent and earnest in the way that young men’s voices can be.  He was genuinely thrilled at his newfound freedom of movement, even if his notion of what to use it for was a bit crimped.

I didn’t get a good look at him, so I can’t find him and thank him.  But I owe him some thanks for reminding me, if inadvertently, how the world looks at that age. Enjoy lunch...


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