a community college instructor gets schooled by his students

One of my students had half her head buzz-cut to a ¼” fuzz. The other half hung in a solid black waterfall nestling just short of a gargoyle tattoo creeping out of her tube-top and across her shoulder. My gaze lingered a moment too long and when I raised my eyes, Cat, the aspiring skin-artist, was staring back. She added a ‘gotcha’ grin to an almost imperceptible nod.

That’s one of the things I like about teaching in community college—the variety of ages and types of students. This classroom has its share. People appreciator that I am, I’d like to know each of them better but between my part-time office hours and their work schedules there’s not much opportunity for one-on-one contact. But I can tell a lot from their papers, their remarks in class. And also from their body language and reactions—their ‘tells’—while I’m lecturing. You learn to do that from years of sales—qualifying customers, we called it.

Speaking of reactions, right now I notice Marcus, an engineering student, close his binder with a snap of finality. He’s one of three others in the room taking required classes for their four-year degrees.  Miranda, a mother of three, working nights in a nursing home, sneaks a peek at her phone. Jason, buff, construction worker with nervous eyes is tapping his pen ready for this shift to end. Carrie, a freshman, still wearing her high school varsity jacket with its prominent letter in soccer, starts buttoning up. I have to swallow my smile every time I read the logo embroidered on the back, LADY RAMS. One of these days, maybe the last day of class, I got to ask her if her team ever played the Lady Bulls.

So, yes, they are wishing I end class early but we still have twenty minutes to go. Time to try something I’ve been keeping for just this situation.  “Yogi Berra used to say, ‘it ain’t over till it’s over.’ So, don’t start reaching for your backpacks yet.” I sense the groan of acceptance as folks settle back in their chairs.  “This is a communication class. Communication…telling things to others, right? So, it would seem. But before you can really connect with someone else, you have to know where you are coming from. You have to know yourself. Like the guy at the psychiatrist’s looking at Rorschach’s.” Catching a couple of blank stares, I add, “Ink blot tests. The shrink holds up a card… ‘what does this remind you of? Sex.’  Another card. ‘Sex.’ Another card. ‘Sex.’ ‘You have a dirty mind,’ the shrink says. The guy says, ‘You’re the one showing me the dirty pictures.’

I get a couple grins. “So, instead of ink-blots, I want to read a case study to you. Perhaps you can see what it says about you. Here goes. There’s a couple in their early forties, two children in college. Darren works in the creative end of an ad agency writing copy for websites and online ads for corporations and general PR campaigns. He is like a hyper child off his Ritalin most of the time and a great water-cooler buddy with snarky quips about the local teams, politics, a quick joke. It would be hard to picture going on a prolonged business trip with him since you would either get overwhelmed by the volume of his chatter or underwhelmed by its content. But he is good at his job. He can really turn it on when he has to. He listens to a customer pour out a confused jumble of needs and objectives for a campaign and then somehow translate all that into a very well-organized media program of brochures and mailings, posters and interviews, grand openings and social media blitzes.

Bliss, his wife, has been an early el teacher for twenty years. She is so organized that she would make out a shopping list to buy a tube of toothpaste. As a teacher, she planned each lesson like Eisenhower for the D-Day invasion. Time slots and pages, worksheets and visual aids all stacked to support grade appropriate objectives every day of every school year. But once she was at home in jeans and sandals, she went muzzy. Darren often had to remind her, “Isn’t it your turn to make supper tonight?”  Or, “We’re due at the Foley’s in 20 minutes. Are you going like that?”

Cat announced, “So, he’s paisley and she’s pinstripes.”

“So?” from edgy Jason.

“So, one night at a cocktail party, Bliss noticed Darren in a prolonged, seemingly intense conversation with an attractive woman about their age. Torn between curiosity and territoriality, Bliss was about to join them when the woman waved to someone else and started to move away. Before she had gone two steps, she stopped, turned back to Darren and remarked, “There’s more to you than meets the eye.”

Bliss was flustered, torn between thinking the woman had just insulted her husband—what did she think he was, a fool? And if so, did that make her a fool as well? And anyhow, what had they had been talking about?

In the car on the way home, she asked Darren what he and the woman had been discussing that would have impressed her so. He shrugged, couldn’t remember. Bliss countered with more urgent demands until finally, Darren said, “Maybe she saw something in me that you haven’t noticed in a long time.”

I waited to let the story sink in and then asked, “So, what do you think about these folks?”

“Huh!” Miranda huffed. “That wife noticed him, alright. Him the Grasshopper and her the ant working all the time with children. You got to keep things the same and simple with children or they get all messed up. Thank God for ladies like her. Like the Gospel says, there’s Marys and then there’s Marthas.”

“Controlling and tight. That’s what I would call her,” Marcus offered.

“She was just locked in where she had to be,” Cat replied. “She was wall to wall carpeting to his throw rugs.”

“That’s not fair that he doesn’t have to work so hard,” Carrie said.  “I hate it when some people can bang out a term paper the night before and I have to work on it for two weeks…no fair.”

“Life’s not fair, sweetheart,” Pete rumbled in his smoker’s gravel voice. The class turned as one to stare at the truck driver sitting in the very back. He had never spoken out before. He clenched his lips for a moment, then launched into a tensely whispered screed. “That man, he does his job. Leave him be, is what I say. I mean, you have to live until you die. The rest is a big cosmic joke…how hard you work. How fast you work. Nobody’s keeping score. He’s not better. She’s not worse.” Pete stopped abruptly, a surprised look on his face—did I just say all that? He added, almost apologetically, “I get a lot of time to think on long-haul drives.”

“And the guy,” Marcus said, “he doesn’t really need the wife to tell him he’s golden. He knows it already.”

“So, this guy and his wife in your scenario,” Jason began, frowning, “they’re still married right?”

“Let’s say, yes,” I allowed.

“So, they been married twenty years. They’ll work it out.  Hell, that’s what marriage is, right?  Living with…” He pumped clenched fists back and forth. “…push and pull.”

Miranda turned in her seat to give Jason a high five.

That’s why I like teaching—helping people find out about themselves, to voice their values and attitude.

A couple nights later, I visited a friend at a nursing home. On the way out, a voice called, “Mr. Fuller.”

It took me a moment to recognize the African-American woman in a pink uniform as one of my students. “Miranda, Hi! So, this is where you work.”

“Uh-huh. This is it.” She continued to drop lemon slices and ice cubes into a large glass server. “Got to do this every evening. Folks love their lemon water.”

The concoction actually looked pretty good after an hour in the slightly over-heated building, so I helped myself to a glass.

“I saw you come out of Dolores’s room. Is she family, Mr. Fuller?”

“No, actually she was a colleague at the insurance company where I used to work. And you can call me Mitch.”

Distress flashed across her brow. “Teachers are ‘Mister,’ she said.”

“Not outside the classroom,” I replied.

Miranda flicked her hand dismissively. “See, that’s the problem. I’m too old for school. All them kids in our class, they call you Mitch like you was their buddy in a bar or something.”

“I don’t go to bars…road houses, bistros, that’s another story,” I teased.  My joke bombed and Miranda busied herself arranging the glasses on the serving table. “Uhm,” I began a slow backpedal, “you might not realize it, but I very much appreciate your presence in the classroom. You’re an adult. You have responsibilities. You’re solid.”

“I’m dumb,” she muttered.

“Say what?”

Miranda set her towel down, folded her arms across her chest. “How come I can barely get Cs and Ds on my tests and papers? I work hard. I study hard. I make my oldest daughter help me with the assignments. But some of those kids in class, they just breeze on through. Some of them already in college. They just slummin’ it down here and here’s me swimmin’ like mad just to keep from drowning.”

I didn’t know where to begin or how to respond. “You have so much to give them…like the other night when you talked about needing to provide predictability and pattern for children.”

“I never said that.”

“Well, not in those words. But that was the idea.”

Miranda stamped her foot. “Number one, I ain’t putting myself through all the grief and expense of schooling just to help those kids…especially not the ones already going to college and they just looking for cheap tuition.” I took a breath to jump in but she held a hand up. “Lemme finish and then I’ll shut up.” She took a deep breath. “Anyway, if I said what you said I said, how come I couldn’t say it the way you just did? Huh?”

“That’s one of things people hope to get from higher education—good vocabulary, polished diction.” I faced a defiant, hurt expression. “You just started farther back than the rest of the class through no fault of your own. You’ve got the ideas, the wisdom, Miranda. The language skills can be learned.” She turned her head away, thinking, trying to decide, I gathered, if she should believe me, trust me. Finally, she faced me, raised her chin in a reverse nod. I set my glass down. “Take good care of my friend Dolores. Okay?”

“Always do,” she replied.

As I headed for the exit, she called after me, “See you in class, Mr. Mitch.”

After the next class, Pete Connor waited for me at the door, his rumpled face salted with a three-day beard. “Wanna get a beer?” I don’t make a habit, or at least, haven’t yet made a habit, of socially engaging with my students but Pete intrigued me. I wouldn’t expect that I’d like to go on a week-long vacation with him, but he struck me as a mindful, reflective man with something to say. I was intrigued by his comment last class that life is a cosmic joke. Did he listen to philosophical books on his cross-country hauls? So, we ended up at the Corner Bar where the waitress bumped her hip on Pete’s shoulder and asked, “The usual, hon?”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “You want something to eat, too?” he asked me.

I shook my head. “Just a beer. You serve Oberon?” I asked.

“And Two-Hearted and Amber Ale,” the waitress added.

“Oberon would be fine.”

I waited, unwilling to hi-jack Pete’s agenda by gabbling about this or that, while he went through a practiced ritual of thumping a Camel out of the pack, tapping one end on his thumb nail, propping it in the corner of his mouth but not lighting up. To my enquiring look, he said, “Old habits die hard.” Looking off, soft focused, he added. “I like what you did the other night, reading that scenario. Got everybody talking, including me. Never had that happen before.”

“You’ve been in other classes?”

“Oh, yeah. Lots. I like school. It’s an easy way to learn about different things.”

“What are you working toward—your major?”

Pete shrugged. The waitress appeared with two beers. He took a long draft, followed by a deep sigh and mouth swipe with the back of his hand. He spoke to his half-full shell, “I don’t want…don’t need a degree. I just like school. My job is lonely. This way I get to be with a bunch of different people…like being in a club, maybe. And the professors, they tell me things that I don’t have to read about…like seeing the movie instead of reading the book.”

“Ha! Professor as screen adapter. Never thought of myself that way.” I washed that idea down with a swig of beer followed by, “How many classes have you taken?”

“Over the last twenty years? Let’s see.” I watch him calculate while the waitress plops a burger basket and onion rings in front of him. “Maybe thirty or forty. Who’s counting?”

“I didn’t know the Community College had that many courses.”

“Oh, I sat in on some at the University, too—audit them.”

“But aren’t you on the road a lot…how do you manage?”

“I got my own rig and can pick and choose my runs and if I miss a class it’s not like I care about a grade.”

I suddenly felt like I was facing a live version of a professor-evaluation website. This professional student probably has me ranked in his all-time instructor’s chart. But then, don’t they all? I took the offensive. “So, what do think of my class?”

“You’re different. You don’t just talk. You get us to talk.” He grinned around a mouthful of onion rings. “It’s like your dog…instead of barking, wants you to bark.”

I smile despite myself. “Son of a bitch.”

Pete swallows fast and breaks into a loud guffaw. I must have hit his funny bone.

“So, you’re a writer too…using metaphors,” I observe.

He nodded to himself, apparently reviewing his random resume, before snapping a bite of onion ring. “Yeah…creative writing. Lit classes…history, anthropology. But you’re the first one to get me talking.”

“Did it hurt?”

He cut me a glance, smothered a smile. “Nah, felt okay. Like maybe I had something to say, for once.”

“I’m glad you did. Maybe you didn’t notice, but some of the kids were pretty impressed. I would like to hear more from you.”

The waitress paused on her way by. “Everything okay, guys?”

“All set, Corrine,” Pete said, flicking a hand at her butt as she moved on.

Again, I decided to be still and let Pete pick the conversational path. He doodled a French fry in a puddle of ketchup on his plate. “I like that you think the students have something to say…not just the teacher.”

“That’s the secret to good teaching if you’re not teaching welding or chemistry…getting student buy-in.”

Pete held me in a fixed gaze. “And confidence in themselves…in their thoughts. The Socratic method.” He chugged the last of his beer and thumped the glass on the table.

“Ever thought of teaching?” I asked.

Pete couldn’t hide his surprise, which slid into a wary, then a pleased frown of concentration. “Corrine,” he shouted, swinging his finger in a circle for another round.

“Not for me,” I demurred. “Got supper waiting at home. Thanks for the beer.”

 

The next class I decided to use another ‘case study’ since the first had worked so well. “Okay class,” I began. “Time for another verbal ink-blot. Martha, would you please read it to us?” The twenty-ish woman still wearing her McDonald’s uniform, hesitated, then shrugged and made her way to the front of the room.

She cleared her throat and began, “Paul, 52…”

“Louder…please!” Pete called from the back. He was really finding his voice in the class.

Martha blushed and began again, “Paul, 52, is a cross-country truck driver…”

“Hey!” Pete called out. “I resemble that.”

The class chuckled.

“He had just picked up a college student with a gas can in hand, next to a rusted beater with a raised hood. ‘Thanks’ the student said after he belted in.

“‘Next gas station is…’ Paul checked his phone, ‘fifteen miles ahead. Ya got a bad fuel gauge?’

“The student shook his head. ‘Skinny wallet.’

“Paul spit out the window. ‘We got twenty minutes. What’s your story? Oh, and what’s your name?’

“‘Derek. I’m a sophomore at Eastern. Engineering. Automotive. And I’m on my way to a summer internship.’

“Paul let that sink in for a half-mile before asking, ‘Where’s your internship?’

“‘Auburn. Spicer Clutch.’

“‘Well, hell that’s a good 120 miles from here and you’re already out of gas and money?’

“Derek studied his hands. ‘I was hoping I could make it there. Stay at my buddy’s house.’

“‘Think they’ll hire you there after you graduate? At Spicer? By the way that’s what I got on this rig, the 39B16.’

“‘I guess they might give me a job. I’d have to move to Indiana and all.’

“‘Damn. Guy. Don’t you learn nothin’ in college. You’re not going to get any job walking around with your finger up your ass like that. Do you want a job there or not? Make up your mind.’

“Derek looked out the window, lips clenched. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, he thought. Or a free ride. Everybody had advice on how to handle his life.”

“Paul continued, ‘Have you read up on their product line…consumer reports…I can tell you mine if you want. And anyhow, make up your mind that you belong at this plant. Make sure they can’t get on without you. Geez, kid.’

“That’s when they pulled into the gas station. Derek reached over to shake Paul’s hand. ‘Thanks for the ride man…and the advice. But let me ask. If you’re so smart why are you driving a truck and not designing them?’”

The class sat in stunned silence while Martha returned to her seat. Well, I thought, let’s see what ripples this rock raises on the placid pond. Cat was the first to pipe up.

“Blue collar versus white collar. Classic confrontation.”

“Yeah,” Marcus followed up. “But this isn’t some sociology class dealing with class struggle.”

A murmur of assent flowed through the room like the wave at a baseball stadium. Picking up on the group support behind him, Marcus added, “And, besides, what do you got against engineering students? It’s bad enough trying get through college not to mention getting a job without rubbing our noses in it.”

Nods and ‘amen’ from a few until Carrie spoke up. “You guys, this is a communication class and he’s just tryin’ to get us to communicate, huh?”

“I read better stories in Reader’s Digest,” Pete growled.

Now I was getting literary reviews on top of teaching critique. Apparently, my customers weren’t buying what I was selling.

“Well, it’s true,” Jason threw in, “some guys don’t know how to work with their hands. They think they can just think their way to making a living. Fuckin’ milleniums.”

“The word is ‘millenials’, Jason.”

“I’ll say it the way I want,” Jason remonstrated.

“Listen to the man,” Miranda called out. “The teacher trying to teach you the right words, the power words. That’s what we’re here for…at least some of us are.” Surveying the rapt attention she was getting from her fellow students, Miranda rolled on. “We trying to learn business words. You want a job, you got to talk the right way. That’s what I tell my baby-girl. She can call a banana ‘bunoonana’ and that’s cute and I know what it means. But don’t nobody else. And if she try to use it anywhere else, she gonna go hungry.” I spotted nods and smiles around the room. I was going to say thanks to her. But she didn’t need my approbation. She kept going. “Some of you studyin’ Spanish or French but all of us studyin’ how to talk television English.” She gave a sharp nod for emphasis. “So, listen to the man, how he talks and when he tells you how to talk.”

Miranda upstaged me and brought the case study experiment to a crashing halt. One thing I learned from sales is when to quit. While I shuffled my papers and filled my briefcase for an early departure, Carrie raised her hand. “Maybe, you shouldn’t use examples of people sitting right in front of you. I mean…for good communicating.”

Yep.

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