The first male in his family to attempt college will often find himself pestered about his masculinity.
I want to tell a story about an intriguing young man I’ll name Christopher. My experience with him helps to illuminate some of the struggles young men of the underclasses have when they choose to pursue higher education.
I got to know him very well here at the community college where I teach. He was one of these extremely rare students who put himself through four of my classes: Film, Intro to Literature, and he repeated a writing course he had failed with me, passing it the second time around. While I’m going to manage his identity with care, it’s important to reveal some things about his background.
His mother and father were divorced, and for stretches of time he lived with one parent or the other. The extended family was an interesting medley of various Latin-Americans that included inter-marriages between Mexico and Ecuador and Honduras and Cuba. Legally, our government looked at the sides of Chris’ family in completely different ways. His relatives from Cuba could become residents, if they found a way to manage the swim and dry their feet, simply by showing up. In contrast, his Mexican relatives had all sorts of complications; some of them were undocumented, and various family members and friends had been deported.
Quite naturally, Chris looked at laws and social agreements as arbitrary and absurd. He was very concerned with fairness, social justice and equality. But like most young people in our lower-middle class community, he was painfully under-educated, particularly in subjects like history and geography, so he lacked the background necessary to make certain points.
Interestingly, he knew this about himself and wanted to right the situation. While he slogged through college, he benefited from a kind of inhibition to ask whatever question ended up on his mind.
In my classes, he’d sit in the first row, usually right in front of me, but he’d stare at me in apparent bewilderment while I lectured. During discussion or small group exercises, he’d sit quietly, observing people and listening, and his refrain was, “I don’t think that’s fair.”
He came to my office regularly, but almost never during actual office hours. If he saw me in the halls, he’d often ask a non sequitur. I once passed him as he was looking over a display of stuffed birds near our biology labs. He stopped me and asked, entirely serious, “Professor, I’m wondering if you think mental health actually exists.”
Christopher came to my office one time while I was busy grading final exams. This was the day before commencement and the college was virtually empty. Chris was walking by and stopped to talk simply because he noticed I was there; I had not seen him for over a semester. Typically, he did not offer any greeting but stared for a moment with his signature bewilderment. He said, “I don’t have anything to say regarding class or homework. But maybe I can ask a personal question.”
“You can ask me whatever you want, Chris.”
He sat down. “I want to know, when did you figure out a guy should go to college?”
The question made me pause. “You mean…when did I feel it was acceptable for a man to do it?”
“Yeah. And to feel pride.”
I pondered my response for what seemed an uncomfortable amount of time. I feared sounding condescending and wondered if I should bend the truth. But I had no shiny lie available. “I wanted to go to college since I was little,” I said. “I can’t remember not wanting it. Both of my grandfathers went to college. They were engineers.”
“So, it was okay for everyone besides them? I don’t mean people in your family—I’m talking about the other guys in the neighborhood. None of the guys you knew in high school or grammar school put you down?”
“Well, I was kind of a nerd, so I was made fun of, sure. Most of the guys I grew up with didn’t finish high school. Two of them ended up in jail. One guy’s a recovering addict. Another dropped out.”
Chris gripped his chin. “Obviously, it didn’t matter to you what they thought.”
I had learned to hasten him to the point: “What’s bothering you, Chris? You realize men have always gone to college, right? For a long time, colleges kept women out.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Oh, for most of our history, actually.”
This seemed to unsettle him. He fidgeted in his chair. “When did they invent the first college?”
Damn. How should I answer that? Did I even know the answer?
“It was a long process,” I said. “In my opinion, it started with the Greeks, a long time ago, around 380 BCE. Earlier, actually. They were the first ones to come up with the kind of stuff we like to think about as educated. But they didn’t really give degrees like we do. That happened later.”
“And it was all guys back then?”
He nodded slowly, almost skeptically. “So when did all of that change?”
“You mean, when did men start getting made fun of for going to school?”
“Yeah. Because it’s impossible to prove yourself with studies, not until you can make some money. My brother, he’s older. He got this factory job. It’s just on the other side of the highway from here. He gets money every two weeks, so he thinks he can prove anything he wants. He goes with his friends to Sox games. He says it’s proof he doesn’t need any school. He can drop a c-note anytime he feels like it. It makes him really proud. He also does drywall on the weekends for my dad. He and my dad always want to know, Hey, Chris, are your hands dirty? Did you get your hands dirty in your classes? Do you need lotion like mom?”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I mean, I still have my busboy job. But only part time. I know all the factories are going to be shipped to Asia pretty soon. But I can’t talk about that kind of stuff with them. In the future, I think more people are going to need to learn Spanish, so I think I want to be a Spanish teacher. I can see myself doing it. But I can’t read any homework around the house if I’m staying with my dad and brother. They immediately start talking shit. My mom moved to Rockford, like a 90 minute drive. So I stay with my dad and do my homework in the Dunkin Donuts. That’s why my homework’s late all the time.”
“Chris, the semester is over. Have you had trouble in some of your classes?”
“No. I’m going to graduate, I think. I mean, I didn’t see my grades yet. But I’m worried about next semester. I’m going to transfer. You said there’s going to be a lot more homework in a big college. Like tons and tons of it.”
Now he stared at me in bewilderment again, his stone eyes stuck somewhere between panic and enlightenment. “My dad said if I want to be a teacher, I should move to Cuba to be poor with all my mom’s relatives.”
“You’re worried about a teacher’s salary?”
He shrugged. “I don’t think it’s fair, if you can make the same money or more doing drywall. That’s why more guys don’t want to be teachers.”
“Among other reasons, yes.”
Now Chris stood up very suddenly to go. This was also quite typical of him. He backed into the doorway and stared at some point directly behind me. “My mom can’t get off work tomorrow,” he said. “For the graduation ceremony.”
“I gotta think it over. Is it worth it for me to go just for myself, or should I skip it? It’s probably just for show, right? Lots of speeches? I remember sitting in my high school graduation thinking, God dammit, this is so boring. It’s just like going to church.” He laughed rather sincerely and shook his head. “Anyway, professor. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I checked later on to see if Chris had graduated. He had. I looked for him at commencement, but he didn’t show up.
Photo by Ben Strain.
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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