The end of the semester always lands with a crash–a head-snapping bump at the very least–and never moreso than when final exam week is topped off with a root canal. As I sat in the endodontist’s office this past Friday morning, nervously fidgeting in the exam room, one of the office workers decided to come in to keep me company while I waited.
Note to humanity: Sitting down with someone who’s nervous is an act of kindness, of course; however, it’s also possible that the nervous person (who was listening to some soothing voices through her iPod as she waited) wishes she didn’t have to take out her earbuds and drum up the energy to make conversation with a stranger.
Especially when that stranger is, intellectually, a few peas short of a casserole.
So there I sat, the hostess of a spontaneous chit-chat party held on site at a dentist’s chair. One one level, I felt under-dressed and as though I should have a platter of hors d’oeuvres to pass. On another level, I considered tossing a garbage can into the wall and becoming so raucous so that the guy getting his head drilled into over in the next examination room would decide to call the cops to bust up our merriment.
Instead, I decided to let the nice woman be nice, even if it meant keeping my Cranky on a leash. So I asked her about her kids, in the process discovering that Nice Lady says “overhauls” when she means “overalls,” and you know damn straight that the second you notice such a speech quirk, the person subsequently uses the offending word ten times in the two minutes. It was okay, though, because she was talking about her son and what he likes to wear, and so then I got to thinking about Dexy’s Midnight Runners in their cute little overhauls and the music of the 80s, and before you knew it, while I was nodding with great interest and asking follow-up questions, I was also replaying A-ha’s “Take On Me” video in my head. As it turns out, blurring reality with cartoon drawing is an effective form of therapy when one is nervous and waiting for the pain to begin.
Next time I go to a middle school band concert, I plan to transform the entire theater into delightful scribbles in my skull.
In addition to revisiting some of my favorite hits of the ’80s and learning more about a dental receptionist’s son’s Prom plans, I also got to enjoy my companion’s surprised look every five minutes when I’d excuse myself for a quick visit to the restroom. Normally, ideally, my nervous bladder is allowed to relieve itself without an audience, but in this case, we had a witness doing some tallying.
Eventually, we got to talk about me, and I mentioned that I teach at the community college. Leaning in close and adopting the over-confidential tone of voice that sometimes means the word “cancer” is about to be uttered, my new friend said, “Let me ask you something. I know colleges want to make as much money off students as they can, and so they make students take all sorts of classes that they don’t need, but how is it that my older son is going to school for welding, yet he has to take classes in math and writing and all that other junk that has nothing to do with welding?”
We in the business of education call that a Breathtaking Question. We Liberal Artsians sometimes go so far as to weep quietly into our bent elbows upon hearing it. It’s one of those questions where I need to use my increasingly-honed ability to count to ten before replying, lest I start yelling and spluttering about how any and every educational opportunity is a gift and how the notion of “having to take classes that are ‘junk’” is offensive to my very bones because I’m still grateful I had to take the physics class in college that completely flummoxed me and which I very nearly failed, for there were huge lessons in not being comfortable or successful and hearing words and ways of thinking that were outside my purview and how I personally want to make my living with language but would find taking a welding class to be a delightful challenge and how most people change jobs at least seven times during their professional lives–and so how could a thinking person NOT want to be equipped to handle every possible potentiality of the future by having a broad and adaptable education?–and, well, any time I end up doing mental spluttering in all the colors of the rainbow, we know it’s time for
one. two. three. four. five. six. seven. eight. nine. ten. eleven for good measure.
Smiling as widely as my ailing tooth would allow, I asked my new friend, “So, now, the program that he’s in, is it a certificate program or a diploma program? Or is he working towards an A.A. degree?”
Eyes crossing as she tried to parse out my question, New Friend said, “I have no idea.”
Ah. Her lack of knowledge about her son’s course of study told me more than a content-filled answer would have.
It was time to shift from mom-to-mom into teacher-to-learner mode. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but suddenly I found myself talking more smoothly and articulately than I do when I’m in regular-citizen mode. That tends to happen when I’m gettin’ my teacherly on.
“Well, if he’s in a certificate or diploma program, which I’m guessing is what welding would be, that means he’s mostly focusing on learning the skills of the trade, but his instructors–who have experience in the field and a well-established knowledge of what it takes for success in the profession–will have built the curriculum around not only practical skills but also the more abstract skills that they know are essential. In some cases, that might mean they have planned some courses that deal with concepts that go beyond welding, such as math or writing. If you think about your own life and the work you do behind the counter for a dentist, you probably can see ways where it’s helpful to be number savvy and have accomplished communication skills. For example, you file insurance claims, do billing, schedule appointments, hand-hold nervous patients, oversee office logistics, and so on. If you were simply able to pick up a phone receiver and say ‘Hello,’ you wouldn’t be completely able to meet all your job demands, would you?”
Looking like there was little she’d rather be doing than picking up a phone receiver and saying, “Hello?” at that moment, she simply stared at my moving mouth.
Continuing, I said, “And if your son’s program is, in fact, an A.A. track degree, then he’ll finish it with the label of ‘college graduate‘ and the possibility of transferring to a four-year institution, where he would enroll in higher-level college classes. Thus, the community college not only has to ensure that its graduates can handle the next academic challenge, it also has to ensure that its A.A. graduates fulfill society’s–employers’–expectations of what a ‘college graduate‘ is. College graduates absolutely need a broad base of foundational knowledge. The caché of being a college graduate would lose its weight, if employers hired someone with the expectation that he/she could write a letter or balance the books…but then were told by the new hire, ‘Actually, I don’t exactly know how to put paragraphs together, and I can’t figure out how much this client owes us.’ Were this the case, employers would have the right to think, ‘Why the heck did I hire a college graduate? Did this person not learn any of the basic, important skills?’”
At this point, we took a breather so that the doc could come in and give me the first four of what would eventually be twelve numbing shots. Patting my arm, he left the room and said he’d be back in about twenty minutes.
Having already forgotten that she was getting more than she bargained for, my new friend looked at me expectantly, as though I might suddenly hold up my hands and launch into “This is the church/This is the steeple” so as to amuse her better.
I went on: “Thus, it’s imperative that the college asks its graduates to gain some breadth and not just depth in a single area…”
Re-engaged, perhaps perking up because the word “breadth” sounds like “breast,” my new friend noted, “The thing about my son, and I know him well, is that two days after he finishes these classes he cares nothing about, he won’t remember a thing from them. It’s not like he’s going to remember some biology business or what year some document was signed. The information will be gone from him the second he leaves the classroom.”
With a certain admiration for this defense, I nevertheless had to rebut: “The point isn’t that graduates will remember the details–although it’s surprising what bits do stick. The point is that the ‘junk,’ ‘non-practical’ classes are the ones that teach people how to think…how to become critical thinkers who are able to handle any situation or problem, no matter the job, simply because they have been trained in how to break down the issues, examine the angles, play through all possible outcomes, look for faults in logic, hang in there when things don’t make sense. They’re being taught abstract thinking skills that reach far beyond recalling the parts of a cell or that William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. They’re being taught more than how to take two pieces and apply fire to them; they’re being taught how to be thinking citizens with the ability to consider every life choice.”
If you’re thinking I’m just typing all this up for a blog post, and I didn’t really rattle off so very much rhetoric at this poor woman, then you have no idea how much I can talk when I’m scared. Those poor people on the Titanic would have been hard-pressed to hear the orchestra playing “Nearer My God to Thee” over the noise of my holding forth about how a hypothermic death has inherent merits over death by fire.
Fortunately for my listening audience and the future of higher education, the endodontist and his assistant came back at that point to administer four more shots, unfortunately not of tequila, and to begin the procedure (flash to five minutes in the future, when he began clipping in the dental dam, and I winced; it was at that point the final four shots slid into my cheek). Kindly, my new friend bid me good luck and dashed off to answer the ringing telephone. Was she able to gasp out the requisite “Hello?” We’ll never know.
After the root canal and during its subsequent complications (a separate blog post in itself), I spent a lot of hours online, wrapping up the work of the semester. As I was grading final exams from my Modern Literature class, I was reminded repeatedly that the “junk” courses which feel to so many like a nasty way of milking money from their pocketbooks are, in truth, movingly transformative. Even when skeptics can concede the value in a math or writing class, they are generally unmovable in their opinion that literature classes are worthless. Of course, this attitude hurts me, personally, for it hits me where I live, but even more, it insults something beautiful: the way fine writing can inform our view of the world and the people who inhabit it.
You don’t get that from a welding class, Butch.
Before I give you evidence of how the Modern World Lit class affected a few of my students (not because of me, necessarily; because of what they read), here’s a quick update from the student I wrote about in my previous post. She did get her paper posted–one minute before the deadline–and it wasn’t terrific, but she did it. Here was her submission message with the final draft of her essay (I always ask students before using their words, incidentally):
“Well, here it is. It’s obviously not the work I would have liked to do, but I am just trying to get through the last week. Having a baby is crazy! I knew it’d be tough, but wowza, even finding time to shower is a huge time zapper in the day. I really enjoyed the class up until now, and I’m sorry my effort was so poor. I did the best I could to finish all my classes. Thank you for making me laugh through all your posts.”
So, despite adjusting to her new reality, she managed to soldier through (I feel like “mother through” would be a more apt phrase here) and finish the thing out. She is one of the many happy endings who came out the other side of “junk” classes, having learned something–mostly about herself.
And look at a few of the things students gained from taking a literature class–ideas and information that will change the way they function in the world forever. The paragraphs below are excerpted from the final question on their final exam. I asked students to consider all the many readings from the semester and to highlight what they had learned, culturally–to provide a few cultural tidbits they had gleaned and that would stick with them.
One student wrote:
“One of the biggest things I took from this class was from the various readings coming out of South Africa, particularly ‘The Lemon Orchard’ and ‘The Return.’ I never knew things had been that bad in South Africa, in most of our History Classes here in the states it seems like anyplace that isn’t the U.S or Western Europe gets passed over, especially Africa. It’s rather shocking to know that a system so similar to our Jim Crow Laws was still in existence in South Africa, a place with a heavy Western influence.”
Apartheid. Violence and injustice in Africa. Introduced to a young man through literature.
Another student wrote:
“There are a view stories where I had those ‘learning moments’ or times where I put a few things together and realized, ‘Hey, this is actually real! These are real people, this is a real thing that is happening somewhere around the world!’ I feel that too often when we’re ‘learning’ about a culture or a group of people that we forget that these people are humans too, and not just facts in a text book. Therefore, I was extremely grateful to be able to read literature written by these people around the world. There’s emotion, conflict, feeling, and meaning in literature, something that I couldn’t get from a history book. However, with the knowledge of history, I got to learn what happened and how it happened, and together with this class I learned how people FELT when it happened.”
Empathy. Connection. Compassion. Introduced to a young woman through literature.
Yet another student wrote:
“‘Kicking the Habit’ stuck with me the most, as I really have never considered speaking a second language could be so troublesome, as there are many people at the college from different cultures that speak English as a second or even third language. In the poem, the frustration of the narrator is uncovered in the first eleven lines (‘Late last night, I decided to/stop using English/I had been using it all day–/talking all day/listening all day/ thinking all day/reading all day/ remembering all day/ feeling all day/ and even driving all day/ in English–‘). This poem illustrates a person who is forced into a specific outline which makes them a person who they are not, someone synthetic, temporarily robbed of their identity. He explains that he is so accustomed to English ways that he grew an addiction that masked who he was (‘So you might say I’m actually addicted to it; yes, I’m an Angloholic, and I can’t get along without the stuff: It controls my life. Until last night, that is. Yes, I had had it with the habit’, line 36-44 on page 141), so he quit to regain who he “was”. At the end of the reading, I felt a sorrow for people of different cultures that are forced into speaking a second language that plagues everyday they have to use it, I was totally oblivious to the psychological effect and toll on the mind. I will forever remember the meaning of this poem and will exercise extra care and understanding when speaking to someone who does not speak English as their primary language.”
Dawning understanding that language is power. Immigration is traumatic. The psychology and dynamics of personal identity. Introduced through literature.
Ultimately, my new friend in the endodontist’s office sweetly tried to distract me from my nerves. She didn’t succeed.
She did succeed in driving me to distraction.
And while I was in that distracted state, monologuing as if to save my life, I was reminded that there is power in my everyday work. The pain of a root canal will fade over time; certainty that lives are being transformed through education…well…the joy of that will be with me forever.
Put another way:
“Junk” classes? My ass.