The Problem 'Too Big to Be Seen'

Wick Sloane discusses some of the heartrending stories he encounters embedded in the community college landscape.


April 4, 2008

The problem “too big to be seen” is what I signed on for here. I won a fellowship to write a series about equity for half the 20 million students in college in the U.S. today. My half is the 11.5 million at the 1,195 two-year campuses called community colleges. At the last meeting for my fellowship, Henry Braun of ETS and Boston College, an author of America’s Perfect Storm -- Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future, explained how continued failure to deal with divergent skill distributions, the changing economy, and demographic trends may destroy the whole nation. Braun called the problem, for which community colleges stand alone on the front lines, “too big to be seen.” It’s time to write.

Since October 2006, 19 months ago, I have been embedded at Bunker Hill Community College, an 8,900-student campus in Boston. I teach expository writing, I tutor, I write for college publications. I don’t understand why so many journalists rush to Iraq and Afghanistan, when so many are dying right here in the U.S. In March 2007, one of my students, Cedirick Steele, 19, was shot. Six times, we thought at the time. It turned out to be seven shots. Boston police stuck with the case and have made two arrests. The suspects have said they just wanted to shoot someone; Cedirick happened to be the one. Cedirick’s was a physical death. What 1,195 community colleges struggle to prevent are the deaths called poverty.

Those are the living deaths, perpetrated by the economy, of the millions of bright and motivated human beings who don’t survive the obstacle course, the minefield, the live-fire field that we, the people, tolerate today as an education system for the poor. Community colleges, I’ve found, are the emergency rooms for those struggling for the basic critical thinking and problem solving and reading and writing and calculating skills that I have taken for granted since my time at Yale and at Williams College and even before that, at Phillips Exeter Academy, where the dining halls have dessert bars and half a floor of the library for 1,000 students dwarfs all that’s available to the 8,900 at Bunker Hill Community College. The federal subsidies via tax policy alone of each student at the schools I attended are at least $25,000. Cedirick Steele, because he lived with his grandparents who had jobs, not his mother, could only afford to go to school part-time. Remember, the maximum federal Pell Grant, the major federal aid for low-income students, is barely $4,000. Before he was shot, Cedirick was trying to qualify for more aid.

Beside me now are thousands of words and pages and pages of my own rage and stupefaction at the inequities and struggles I see each day faced by students and staff and faculty at Bunker Hill. It’s the same at any community college I’ve visited. These pages keep spinning out in rage and gibberish. I can’t circle longer, looking for the perfect storyline on this problem “too big to be seen.” I can see the slides.

Slide One: 6:15 a.m. last Monday, I was the third car into the Bunker Hill parking lot. A student, nearer 30 than 20 years old, was standing beside his car, brushing his teeth. He looked embarrassed to be seen. Ted Koppel might have rushed over with the camera for the story. I turned and left him to the privacy he had. I do know the story of the student who fled the war in Sudan, who was on time for my 7 a.m. expository writing class that day. He comes to class from Logan Airport, where he is a security guard seven days a week.

Slide Two: 3:30 p.m. on a miserable, grey, wet Boston winter Saturday. I’ve just finished a three-hour College Writing 1 class where 22 students showed up. A colleague needed to go to his grandfather’s funeral, and I filled in. My section of the same course meets for two 90-minute classes, at 7 a.m. Monday and Wednesday. Who showed on winter Saturday? Alexey, Russian, valet parking, working 35 hours a week. Kristina, Russian and fluent in German, a barista, 35 hours per week. Sondo, Polish, a nanny, 50 hours per week. Tatiek, Indonesian, home with children. Hayat, Morocco/Arabic, hotel front-desk manager, 50 hours a week. Lucia, Brazil/Portuguese interpreter, 55 hours a week. Vilma, Costa Rica, mother 24/7 and unit coordinator, 40 hours a week.

Slide Three: I gave away my last copy of the Axelrod & Cooper college-writing textbook. A student asked if he could wait two weeks, until his next payday, to buy the book. That week, he had to pay for his health insurance. That student was fortunate. When U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry Jr. (D-Mass.) visited a Bunker Hill class last year, he asked, “How many of you have health insurance?” No hands went up. That class included two single mothers. One, who wrote poetry, spent weekends locked in her home with her daughter, worried that her ex-husband would break out of prison again. The week before, that single mother told a Haitian student, “Your story sounds like Edwidge Danticat.”

Slide Four: Senator Kerry asked a young mother from Haiti about her two jobs, earning barely $600 per week, and he asked the cost of rent and of day care, which added up to about the same. “That’s cutting it pretty close. Is anyone from home sending you money?” Kerry asked. The student replied that she sent money back to Haiti.

Slide Five: A Thursday last spring. A textbook publisher has brought lunch for two students whose essays she wants to buy for a new book. On Tuesday, one student had e-mailed his lunch order. Thursday morning, he canceled. He had to quit school. No explanation.

Slide Six: The final paragraph of his essay.

“My stomach begins to churn as I start the last phase of my pilgrimage. The last phase consists of walking out of the train station, down the walkway and into BHCC. I compare this walk to the walk death row inmates take before they are executed. As I take this walk I begin to ask myself, “What the fuck am I doing here?” Within seconds my sensible half answers, “You’re here so that you don’t have to live like the rest of your family. The rest of your friends are in school, and lord knows half of them aren’t half as smart as you. Lastly, we already paid for this shit so get it done, lil’ nigga.” With BHCC right in front me, I take a deep breath and end this pilgrimage by entering the Mecca that will start me on the path of reaching my pinnacle.”

Slide Seven: My friend, Lyn Marino, an engineer weary of the defense industry who has taught math for 25 years at Capital Community College in Hartford, Conn.: “If they’re not breaking your heart every day, Wick, you’re just not doing your job.”

In the weeks ahead, I'll try to wrestle the rage into constructive declaratory sentences and keep filing here. This weekend in Philadelphia is the annual convention of the able and tireless American Association of Community Colleges. Nothing I can write is new to the people at that convention. They have ideas and answers, if anyone will listen. I worry that I can't type fast enough to beat that Perfect Storm.


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 first of his reports from that work.


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