A Semester of Midnights

Foiled. At 1:45 a.m. By a pop-up window on our classroom SMART Board. “The system will shut down for routine maintenance in 180 seconds.”

I had to hurry to save our work. For my final Bunker Hill Community College Fall 2009 English 111 midnight class, I’d forgotten to ask my IT friends about system status. There went my pedagico/journalistico coup de grace -- my students were going to write this column. We were going to file, photos and all, from class.

The class, 9 over the finish line out of 14 starters, was happy to leave the work to me. Forty-eight large pizzas and 32 large meatball grinders, and who knows how much coffee, since September, and we made it. The idea no one believed in -- midnight classes -- had worked, my English section and the Tuesday night class, Psych 101.

Colleagues had taught me to bring food to off-hours courses. You just don’t know when a community college student has eaten. One night, I went in early -- 10 p.m. The food vanished. Who might be hungrier than midnight students? The overnight cleaning crew. I just went back to Harvard House of Pizza, our family local, for another order. Nasser Khan, the owner, told me that his son, now at Northeastern, had started college at BHCC.

Since the students will read this, I’d better respect what I said anyone writing anything must use -- Aristotle and the rhetorical triangle. Hitting the three points, I am the author. You are the audience.

The subject? A report on teaching English 111 for a semester, Thursdays from 11:45 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. Friday morning.

Context? An Inside Higher Ed column.

Purpose? To record all the fine work of the semester, without letting this column slop into a feel-good tale of holiday heroism.

This story remains a national nightmare. Why, in the wealthiest nation in the world, are students, any students, going to school at midnight? Because those students have lousy shifts at work is not the answer. Sure, I’m proud to be on a team at a community college that reaches out until we, the people, find a better idea. I admit I’m angrier than I was in September. I am not the story. The students are.

Who shows up for a midnight class? Kwesi George, who took the Tuesday midnight psychology class and the Thursday writing class, walked each night from Somerville to BHCC, roughly three miles, because the buses and trains stop running about midnight. (Yes, we found rides for him when we discovered this.)

“I signed up for midnight because school is important and I didn’t want to delay my education. Also, if I didn’t go to school this semester, my mother said she’d kick me out,” Kwesi, 19, wrote for our crashed column. “I work at Toys R Us. I am going to take another midnight class next semester.”

“I’m 57. I hadn’t been to school in 40 years. I want to become a nurse,” said Winston Chin. His best work was an essay about returning to China with his parents and finding a brother he’d never met. The brother came to live in Boston. “I work the 3-11 p.m. shift as a sterile processing tech, sterilizing surgical instruments at Children’s Hospital. I walked into the shift change at work one day, and found 25 people clapping and cheering. I had no idea what was going on. Someone said, ‘Your face is on the front page of The New York Times.’ ”

Midnight classes have 1,000 Web hits, and counting. The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The New York Times (Page One!), the Associated Press -- more than 50 U.S. papers and also all over the world, The International Herald Tribune, The Washington Times, WBUR-FM, "The Story with Dick Gordon" on American Public Radio. The television crews ended up in Pysch 101, with my colleague, Kathleen O’Neill, who proposed midnight classes in the first place. So far, Fox News, local Boston television news. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation visited some of the students at work. CNN is still trying to find a date.

Everyone is asking. Who are these students? They just are community college students. In my 7 a.m. section, students are arriving from Logan Airport, where they have spent the night gassing jet planes. At a 2 p.m. class, the students may have been at work until midnight. Kathleen O’Neill and I keep explaining that our midnight classes are just classes, examples of community college classes, not exceptions. Perhaps our two classes have just given the world a window into what’s really happening at community colleges. Perhaps with all this coverage the nation is realizing how many motivated students there are.

What do we have to do to keep the students’ attention after midnight? Nothing special, we say. Community college students know the value of education and want to learn. Well, maybe a little nudge for the midnight students. “Dear Students of Psychology 101 T2 & English 111 H4,” U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), wrote the students back in September.

Excerpts from Kerry’s letter:

“Higher education is never easy – especially at that hour of the night! I applaud your commitment – really, just enrolling is a big step forward. I know that if you work hard and focus on your goals, there is no limit on what you can accomplish. … I know that you are in good hands with Professor Sloane and Professor O’Neill. They will do everything in their power to see you succeed. Listen to them, ask questions, drinks lots of coffee, and this will turn out to be one of the best experiences of your life.”

“That letter motivated me to stay in the class,” Terrance Gallo, 18, told us during our final class. “I felt like if the Senator noticed me, this class must be important. We wrote him back. I learned how to write a letter to a U.S. Senator.”

“When you wrote a letter giving us courage, I felt so grateful because I didn’t think I could do it, but for sure I did it,” Theresa Nixon, who declared her age “not applicable,” wrote in her letter to Kerry.

“The time works for me because I have a son, Isaiah, who is six. I work 40-50 hours a week at Beth Israel Hospital in the Emergency Room. Isaiah is my life. I want him to know he can do anything if he has the faith and the drive. Just like you Senator Kerry, you pursued and won the battle. I wanted to take the time to thank you for this opportunity and for listening to us because we do matter too.”

Time to file this one. So what? What does it all mean? Maybe, just maybe, the national discussion is moving on from the hero-teacher stories to a new chapter. Jaime Escalante from "Stand and Deliver," Erin Gruwell from "Freedom Writers," and Jonathan Kozol have demonstrated that education can reach the poor and the marginalized. Maybe, just maybe, a few more people realize that the six million students at 1,177 community colleges are more than a line on a fact sheet.

Wick Sloane
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