“F” is the grade I give myself for the courses I taught in the 2009-10 academic year at Bunker Hill Community College. Why “F”? Because I have no idea how I should have done, given the students who took my courses. Single mothers. Wounded veterans. Plane de-icers at Logan Airport. Pretty much every student has family members depending on the students’ paychecks. Classes began again last week. I’ve spent the summer wondering what to change, what to ditch, what to fix. Everyone I know teaching in community colleges shares my worry. Asking around, I’m not sure anyone can say what my potential success was.
This question has no theoretical dimensions whatsoever. U.S. higher education has no bigger issue than low (so-called) completion rates – far fewer than half who enter, no matter how you count -- at community colleges. Six million students, about half the undergraduates in the U.S., are in community colleges. This is, therefore, An Important National Question. With a shaky economy where utility line workers and firefighters need sophisticated mathematics skills and where MRI operators in health care need anatomy and physiology knowledge equal to that of a first-year medical student, why don’t I know how I did in College Writing I?
Three years ago, I embedded myself at Bunker Hill Community College because I realized the policy debates lacked details about these students, beyond race, age, and the general knowledge that economic crises derail even the most motivated community college students. I know more than I did but still not enough. I seem able bring more than half over the finish line.
To test myself, I make frequent use of the essay questions from the AP exam in English Language and Composition. I explain that this is the national standard for freshman writing. I start and end the semester with the one about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, evaluate the rhetorical strategies Lincoln uses to achieve his purpose. Of course I’m glad when students tell me at the end that they see how much they learned. Last semester, we watched Bill Moyers' interview dancer Bill T. Jones about Jones’ dance about Lincoln’s speech, "Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray." 
Along the way, I teach every class assuming I’ll never see the students again. I’m just as glad to see students returning week after week as I am with any progress in writing a persuasive essay.
I’ve learned that the Devil stands at the classroom door with a tempting contract for teachers of students who are – pick your euphemism – disadvantaged, societally sub-resourced, short-strawed macroeconomically. Sign the deal, and we always have an excuse and we always have enough inspiring tales to sleep at night and fight another day. I don’t know any who have signed the deal. I know that heroin can’t possibly have a high even close to that for a teacher midwifing a student through unimaginable challenges. These highs can carry me through the most discouraging days. Every day, though, the Devil is there. “Ride the highs and quit worrying about the big problems,” the Devil is whispering to me.
The Devil offers the same deal to policy makers. Hero teachers and a modest quota of heartwarming stories make up today’s narrative on educating the poor– that with the economy, war, health care, global warming and an asteroid headed this way, the nation is doing its best for these students. I don’t buy it. How much longer will we, the people, delude ourselves that a few dozen feel-good stories are helping six million students?
Since last spring, I’ve been asking teaching colleagues, “How do we know if we did our job for these students?” (I hope readers with better answers will chime in with comments.) I started with my friend and community college inspiration, Lyn Marino, who has been teaching math at Capital Community College, in Hartford, Conn. She’s the one who tells me often: “Wick, you just don’t understand. These students may never had anyone be kind to them before.” And, “If the students are not breaking your heart every day, you are not doing your job.”
Her reply in June.
“I just entered my final final grades. Yes, you understand that correctly -- my final final grades. I'm retiring, in large measure because I cannot face another semester with these rates of student withdrawals and no shows that make me blush, cry and cringe all at the same time. It is the aspect of poverty that is so grinding and demoralizing & I am beaten. They can't get to class because of work or family or health issues or car issues or housing or stuff I can't even imagine. Seriously, how much studying can we expect a person to do while waiting in an emergency room to hear the outcome of a shooting? And there is so little beauty in these lives: no math, no poetry, no humor, perhaps there is prayer and music, but education for most consists of just one onerous task after another. (& I don't do prayer, and music = math as far as I know.)
“It's been 30 years and, of course, one expects change over that span of time. And, I don't forget that I asked for it too. I wanted to know the reason we don't have more women and minorities in engineering. What's going on with the math courses, the language engineers use? What an education it has been for me, if not my students. But, now, I am just so worried about the lack of abstract thinking and how society will fare if folks don't have this ability.
“So, it's time for me to go -- I have no idea where that might be, but this ain't working -- so yeah, we're doing our jobs, but I'm convinced that we have to do something else.”
Lyn apologized for retiring. Well, in this mess, I’m a relief pitcher walking in at the bottom of the eighth inning. Lyn walked off the mound to a standing ovation. Full time community college professors, like Lyn, are teaching five courses and more each semester, a workload an article in The New York Times  recently referred to as “mind-pulping.” That would be for the professors and the students. Remember, this is six million students – what percentage of tomorrow’s work force?
I kept asking. Writing professors. Other subjects, too, at Bunker Hill Community College and beyond.
“The sections of students come in. You connect with as many as you can.”
“Everyone has a story. Until they have told that story, until they see others listening to their story, nothing else is going to happen in their education. Your job in your class is to make sure that by the end of the semester, they have told their story.”
“By the end of the semester, how many believe that they can do it? That they can write what they need to in their lives? So many are so scared at the start. Our job is to make them believe they can write what they need to in their lives.”
I looked beyond community colleges. A friend at Harvard Business School said that each semester, he identifies the six students at the bottom of his courses and makes sure they succeed. “The ones at the top are ok,” he said.
I wish the metaphors were not so medical. Community colleges are the emergency room of the economy. How many can we send to self-sustaining lives of dignity? Looking for measures, I think I have more in common with physicians than professors. Triage is part of my job. Around the middle of the semester, students can drop a course and receive a “W” for “Withdraw.” This goes on their transcript but does not affect their grade point average.
My first semester teaching, here’s what my friend Tom Mahoney told me: “Until the drop period, you help everyone you can as much as you can. After the drop date, you save the ones you can save. You save the ones you can save.”
The we, the people, national question is whether to make any more investment in these six million students. Before we can evaluate investments, we need to know what these students need. The cost? The benefit? I can put some boundaries on the discussion.
1.) I am certain that the completion rate is low in relation to the intellect, the curiosity and the motivation of the students who showed up for my classes at 7 a.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week or at midnight last year. As a start, what I know is that the students don’t have is much time for the studying that will develop their skills. All six million students? Beats me. Fine if the beginning focus is on, say, two million.
2.) Fiddling with the aggregate amount of Pell Grants, the largest federal grant for the euphemism students, or with student loans, total federal and per student, is delusional. Grants and scholarships for tuition only keeps the doors shut tight. These students lose income going to school -- the hours commuting, the time in class, the time studying. They may need child care, or someone else in the family may need to give up work hours to care for an elderly relative.
As a start? What would it take to create six more hours of quiet study time, with a working printer, for these students? Secretary Duncan -- can we talk?
The students understand the picture here, big and small. The book last week fell open to “A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes. I read the poem to the class.
With the uneasiness of the second class of a semester, no one was talking. “Well, do any of you have dreams?” I asked. Nods. “Did any of you dream of being in a basement classroom of a community college with me standing up here?” None had. The first smiles of the semester.
As classes began again last week, my measures again are: showing up and making progress on the AP question on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. I don’t know how I ought to do this semester, but I have a success measure to add: Dreams back on track.
"A Dream Deferred"
by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore --
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over --
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?