Some young people of the underclasses are so courageous that they don’t even know it.
Because we English teachers assign essays, sometimes asking introspective questions, we often end up playing the role of default campus shrink. I don’t necessarily like this role. While it keeps the job interesting and brings me closer to my students, the role can tug at emotions.
At my community college, students who’ve suffered traumas will often share them off the cuff. I’ve read about violence, sexual assault, strained domestic situations and abandonment. Some of the stories are about errors that would send most of us mad. I immediately recall the story of a student’s mother who took her one-year-old son out in sub-zero cold when he was suffering from pneumonia. Apparently, she had really needed something from the store. The boy died.
In a creative nonfiction class I taught a few semesters ago, one young woman shared a story about the time she and her mother were tied to each other with extension cords and stuffed in a closet while her father dealt with a brutal beating from rival drug dealers. The women could hear the whole thing from inside the closet.
This student’s harrowing ordeal was shared with a group of nine students, all of whom read it without much shock. That class featured an MMA fighter, a veteran of Afghanistan, two unrelated sons of addicts, and a guy who pretended to be a hipster but had actually moved to Chicago to escape Los Angeles gang life.
All of those students had stories to tell. Of course, as I repeat to students constantly, all of us have stories to tell. It’s not what we observe or experience that makes for a story. It’s how we observe and deliver.
If community college students have something to teach people getting their MFA degrees in fancy colleges—as I did so many years ago—it’s a type of fearlessness that more affluent students simply don’t know. Streetwise stories are stories of vulnerability. They are stories of rejection and renewal. The act of telling them is an act of courage, often internalized so deeply that the students don’t know they’re being courageous.
I’m going to call this guy Julio. He shared his story with me after I made him aware that he was at risk of failing English 102 (where I give very strict assessments several weeks before the midterm). This is him sitting in my office and speaking to me.
I’m not going to pretend. I know I’m failing your class. I’m scared to do the homework because I know what it’s gonna show. You’re gonna see I don’t know what I’m doing.
For the first time ever in my life, I’m starting to see something that I didn’t want to face. It’s that people just passed me along my whole life. They didn’t want to deal with the mess so they just moved me to somebody else. And that person moved me to somebody else. Like since fourth grade, probably. That ain’t no reward. That’s a way to fuck someone.
How come I’m in your class? I’ll be straight with you. I didn’t deserve no C in my English 101. But I got passed. So now I’m here and, like you said, I can barely even say something good in a paper. I barely even know how to figure it out.
The thing is, that book I picked from the list you gave, Why Boys Fail, I see a lot of myself in there. It hurt to read that book, though I couldn’t stop reading. That’s the first book I read all the way to the end in maybe five years. In lots of ways, it was like that book was written all about me.
In other ways, it was strange to read. I can tell that writer really cares about us guys. I can tell he cares about our future even though our future is gonna be fucked up. That book’s not just some bullshit he wrote for the money. He’s got like a message that’s hard but real. A guy like me, I can’t relate to it all the way. That’s because I don’t got nobody in my life that cares about my future. They just care about right now. For themselves but not for me.
My mom don’t want me going here to take no classes. She says I’m wasting my time. She says a real man gets to work. Because I’m already 18. Like, she don’t see how it’s gonna help anybody if I take classes for two years or more than that. I need to help around the house with bills. Right now. That’s what she needs me for.
My dad’s also like that, only a little different. For him it’s really jealousy. He pretends it ain’t, but I know it is. He don’t want his kid doing better than him. Like he works in a damn Jiffy Lube, and his girlfriend owns a dive bar where he hangs out all the time. He thinks I should do something like that. He said I won’t make nothing good from myself in no classes even though he never looked at my homework not even one time in my whole life.
I guess I’m saying if you give me a chance to catch up, maybe you can help me get the hang of a couple things. Truth is I’m failing because I’m scared I’ll fail, so it’s better to get it over with. But that’s bad strategy. I know it.
Julio started attending tutoring that week. He came to office hours another time to work on a thesis statement. He passed the next assignment with a solid score, essentially by trying to show his full capacity for the first time in years. I didn’t teach him a thing. The only thing I did was hold him to a standard. He did the rest himself.
Photo by Keoni Cabral.
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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