The Student

“The Student”

What I love the most about teaching at a community college, which is what I do, is that the education we offer provides under-prepared students with a new type of focus and motivation. We also provide cheaper credits to students who don’t want to undertake lifetime student-loan-repayment programs. Because we’re accessible and low rent, mos’ def, we teach an amazing cross-section of students in the community college, from returning vets, fresh off the deserts of Iraq, to recovering meth addicts, to former-stay-at-home mothers of five who are finally having their turn, to high school students who are taking advantage of Minnesota’s post-secondary schooling option.

And with 150 or so of such people in my classes every semester, ’tain’t never dull. But even when I get overwhelmed (as I am this week, the last week of classes, when research papers, persuasive essays, portfolios, etc. are flying with great force towards my gradebook), I always have an appreciation for my students’ efforts to get themselves to college. They may not do it well, and they may not do it for the right reasons, but every now and then, the education sneaks up on them–GOTCHA– and reorients their lives.

This was evident in an excerpt from an email sent to me by one of my students a couple of years ago. This particular student, raised in a household of fear by an alcoholic mother, has earned her way through two years of college by working at a variety of jobs, the most lucrative of which is exotic dancing. Her life story is heartrending, littered with abuse, abandonment, rape, and bipolar disorder…yet she is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful students I have ever taught. When I received this email late one night, I thought she was just sending me a copy of her posting to the online discussion about a Barbara Ehrenreich essay we had read (an excerpt from her book Nickled and Dimed). However, this student, then working at Goodwill, was feeling frustrated with the way the online discussion was going (students were adopting a “if you don’t like working at Wal-Mart, just quit and get another job” stance), so she sent me this email to open her history and hammer home to me how transformative a college education can be:

I just wanted to share with you that I bought Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickled and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America. I identified with her experience so much it was a little scary, except of course that my slave-wage jobs were not research for a book and I was working to survive and did not start out with a car or any back up money…It will certainly be fun to leave it on the breakroom table at work. Although Goodwill purports to be one of the largest employers of former welfare recipients, I would actually make more money working for Wal-Mart, but I won’t because my manager at Goodwill is a nice crazy, older lady who is pretty easy to get along with and even though sifting through donations is often dirty and hazardous work, it’s kind of like looking for buried treasure, or at least that’s how I like to be optimistic about it. Goodwill also denies its employees full-time status in order to dodge giving them health benefits. I was disappointed to learn that even though I only make $6 an hour, have no benefits, and only work 20 hrs a week I am now denied almost all healthcare from MNCare because I am single, have no dependents, and my Goowill job puts me at 75% above the poverty line. I found this hard to believe until I read Nickled and Dimed, now I am more motivated than ever to pursue my dream job, and will at least more gratefully suffer through 10 more years of poverty than I previously have. I was really discouraged before, after reading her book I realize I am actually much better off than most people even though I too worked full-time at one point and lived in my car. It’s not a matter of people being lazy anymore so much as it is working ‘til exhaustion and still having nothing, easy to become disillusioned with the American dream, I am fortunate that I have found a way to go to college at all…I’m glad it was one of our assignments to have read part of this book, and I just wish that some of the more fortunate people…could live a month in a low-wage employee’s shoes, their feet would be very sore and their eyes would be more open…

This email humbled me and took me back to a very thoughtful place, in terms of what I do in the classroom. Sure, I get annoyed with students and their hectoring me about grades. Sure, I’m going a bit crazy this week–I never realized when I was in college that my professors weren’t just lolling about in their offices, eating hard candies out of a bag kept in their top drawers, playing Corridor Crash in their rolling chairs but, in fact, were overwhelmed and stressed out and edgy, too, as they ate their hard candies and played their rolling chair games. And sure, I pretty much wish most of my students were more consistently committed to their work.

Then again, if they’re not living in their cars, or are finding post-rape counseling, or have just moved out from an abusive boyfriend, maybe there’s a place in my teaching for an attitude of “Okay, so this week, you missed an assignment, skipped class, lied to my face, and then turned in a crappy paper. Yet I couldn’t be more delighted with you. Because you’re doing what you can. You’re putting one foot in front of the other. You’re bruise-free; you’re talking about the cruelty instead of passing it on; you have a bed. This week, my inconsistent student, you are in college, and if anything’s ever going to make a lasting change for you, this is it. Come on in and give me more of your distracted, stumbling prose. We can work with it.”

And with that, I’m off now to grade my 124th terribly-written paper of the week. Of course, each piece of dreck has

its own story

and, therefore,

its own worth and charm.





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35 responses to “The Student”

  1. frannie Avatar

    you are a hero.

  2. Jeannie Avatar

    It’s always good when you can see those you would like to bonk on the head as real people who are maybe having a tough time of it. Once we get comfortable it’s easy to forget the struggle or even romantacize about it.

    Too often, the strugglers continue to struggle though. They never get ahead. The combination of circumstances is too much for them to overcome. Even with help, they snap back. What to do?

  3. lime Avatar

    jocelyn, this is really a marvelous and enlightening post. and so very much NEEDED to be said. thank you, deeply.

    and may i suggest, if you have never read it, please go to your nearest library of book store and pick up a copy of Mike Rose’s ‘Lives on the Boundary.’ i believe it will encourage you greatly as you continue to work with your students.

  4. Awesome Mom Avatar
    Awesome Mom

    I keep that book around and reread it when I feel that my life is hard. I have been so lucky that I have had enough advantages that we never had to live pay check to pay check like that. It is great that you get to see transformations like that. Education is a great thing.

  5. AmyTree Avatar

    Jocelyn, that’s awesome! Good for her. Good for YOU!

    I read that book a few years ago and it really opened my eyes. When I was a lot younger I used to think that roughing it would be romantic – I know differently now! Anyone that thinks that poverty and struggle is somehow the fault of the individual has never had to overcome it! Best of luck to her.

  6. oreneta Avatar

    OK, you sound like a great teacher….can I copy that, seriously…..there are a few folks who should see it.

  7. Hammer Avatar

    That’s almost refreshing to hear after seeing all the lackadaisical spoiled college kids out there.

    I had a good job through college but it’s a double edged sword something usually suffers.

    Sounds like your teaching some good down to earth people.

  8. Shari Avatar

    Well, every job has it’s ups and downs and there are people from all walks of life.

    Since I am a student after 20 years in the workforce, I appreciate school more. I suppose you get that a lot.

    I bet when you get an email from a former student like that, it makes you feel like you are making an impression on them. Sure, you get a bad apple once in a while, but you get a lot of good ones, too. 🙂

  9. That Chick Over There Avatar
    That Chick Over There

    You are good people.

    (Love, from the woman was 26, divorced, and had two babies to support, dragged her ass into community college and graduated from a state university four years later with a 3.91 GPA.)

  10. furiousBall Avatar

    wow, that was amazing. have I mentioned you rock lately.

  11. alphawoman Avatar

    Wow, this essay really reached out and touched me. My daughter is living a hand to mouth existence and I am her saftey net from the boogie man. I need to find that book and give it to her, or read it myself. Sometimes you think people choose their existence, this message tells me that I could possible, just possibly, be wrong.

  12. Lone Grey Squirrel Avatar
    Lone Grey Squirrel

    This is a real gem of a post. Thanks for sharing worthwhile wisdom and making us all think. Easily the most meaningful post I have read this year. Thank you very, very much for this and being a caring teacher.

  13. Glamourpuss Avatar

    One of my first teaching jobs was at a college where many of the students were, or had been, in care. I had a lot of time for them, and a lot of patience. If they wanted extra tuition, they got it. They even bought me chocolates to thank me for it.

    My last teaching job was at a private school. Yes, everyone has their problems, but when your problem is that you’ve never had to work for anything in your life and would rather hand me a piece of shit homework that you expect me to spend more time marking it than you have spent writing it, I am not happy, I am not prepared to give you extra tuition and I will tell your parents exactly that when they telephone the school to complain about me. I had a stand up row with one head of department about that issue.

    I stand by my principles.


  14. Karen Avatar

    Your post made me choke up a bit today. We often forget that the people doing the jobs most of us often don’t want to do (or refuse to) are people too, many of the struggling just to get by. And if they’re having a bad day, chances are they have more reason to than the rest of us. I haven’t read Nickel and Dimed yet but it’s been on my Amazon wish list for a while. I’ve added it to my summer reading list and will certainly be thinking a bit more seriously about it as I read it after your post.

    And Frannie is right I think, you’re a bit of hero.

  15. steve Avatar

    Amen, sister. I needed this to realize again how heroic our students really are. Thanks for that. I’m just going to submit all A’s now.

  16. Em Avatar

    I have no doubt you are a marvelous instructor. And teaching at a community college must come with many unique challenges. Son19 attends a local community college…partially for financial reasons and partially because he was/is unsure of a major. And he really enjoys the diversity of people in his classes. He thinks the older folks (meaning anyone older than 20! LOL) bring a much broader perspective to all discussions.

  17. Diana Avatar

    I can think of about 147 people that I know off hand that should read that. (It’d be more but I work in a small town.)

    On a similar bent are all those in my neck of the woods who scream about all ‘those illegal aliens’ who come and take our jobs and wellfare. Yeah. The ones I know are working 3 jobs at minimum (or lower) wage, without insurance, while trying to raise their kids to have a better life than they’d have back in their poorer-than-dirt pueblo south of the border.

    Where’s their book so I can hurl it at those who need a good smack across the noggin.

    Sorry. I usually don’t rant on other people’s blogs.

  18. BeachMama Avatar

    Thank you for sharing this story. I have never read the book, and although I feel very blessed with our lives, think it would be a good read to be reminded.


  19. Voyager Avatar

    You are so insightful, and sound like a great teacher.
    My son has just decided a big university and 4 years in it is not for him, so he plans to enroll in a community college in Sept. Your post makes me more hopeful it is a good decision for him.

  20. choochoo Avatar

    Just be glad that you’re not teaching at -my- community college, cause you might end up dealing with… well, me:D

  21. Theresa Avatar

    That was an incredible post. My husband is a college professor over here in Spain, and most of the students only really care about what’s going to be on the exam. At least the girl in your post really wants to be there, and is doing her best to get an education, while these spoiled kids sit around whining that they don’t have time to study.

  22. jen Avatar

    oh. lovely. that was an incredible book, wasn’t it?

    the 30 days series did an episode on poverty / minimum wage. it was outrageous. perhaps your kids would like seeing that, too. you good teacher, you.

  23. urban-urchin Avatar

    I would have loved to have an English professor like you in college. I had either horribly boring or nasty bitter English professors- in fact I was more stimilated to learn by my high school English teachers.

    That book is amazing and a real eye opener for when I feel like I work my butt off.

    PS-I would love to have your job.

  24. Deepak Gopi Avatar
    Deepak Gopi

    Really interesting.
    Happy mothers day.
    Enjoy a nice week end

  25. cathy Avatar

    Thank goodness there are still teachers who aren’t sticking to a formulae and letting the rest fall by the wayside!

  26. Jill Avatar

    Wow. I am really glad that there are teachers like you in the world. Ans students like her too.

  27. Top cat Avatar
    Top cat

    jocelyn, this is a wonderful post.
    Full of hope and inspiration.
    Thank you for posting the student’s email.

  28. actonbell Avatar

    I don’t know what to say, except that that was riveting. Good luck to all those struggling to achieve a better life and brave enough to keep on going, day after day–and to you, Jocelyn, for keeping your motivation in the face of all the hard work you do.

    btw, I have that book, but haven’t gotten to it, yet. Thanks for the reminder.

  29. Mother of Invention Avatar
    Mother of Invention

    This brings it all home doesn’t it? Your students are lucky to have you as a teacher and for you to relate so well to them as people and not just a mark in your gradebook or student number.
    My sister was a dean of an alternative high school and she saw much of the same thing…they even had a lockdown when a student was said to have a gun and they called the SWAT team..turned out to be a really good fake gun. She took early retirement the next year, I vowed I’d never complain about my little Gr. 3’s again!

  30. CS Avatar

    My favorite college students to teach are the older ones – they are more motivated, mor respectful of the learning process, adn have more of value to add. And that’s a great book to be using – everyone should read it.

  31. yerdoingitwrong Avatar

    Good for her and GOOD for you is right!!! xoxo.

  32. Lainey-Paney Avatar



  33. Infinitesimal Avatar

    you could start telling those vets that the newly reinstated GI bill now allows full tuition stipends to the state colleges up to PhD level or beyond.

    and thanks for posting the email.

    great post.

    excellent attitude on your part.

    Mr. Lama would be proud!

  34. heartinsanfrancisco Avatar

    You, lady, are a gem.

    When I have taken courses as an adult, I have done much better than I did when I was in college and of typical college-age. Older students are usually far more motivated.

    I started a GED program in the domestic violence shelter I managed so that women with no education at all could prepare themselves for jobs that might at least partially support them and their children.

    Education at any level seriously changes lives.

  35. Princess Pointful Avatar
    Princess Pointful

    As a small town girl looking to save some cash, I did my first two years of undergrad at a community college. I’m glad I did… I was exposed to a much wider range of populations than the upper-class, often entitled university kids I came to know. I was 18 and was genuinely friends with people so outside my demographic… I learned a lot.

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