A cab driver presents a rhetorical question and warns us about the dangers of higher education for men.
I heard a moving story from a taxi driver this week. When a public bus failed to arrive this past Monday afternoon, I was forced to take a cab here to the community college where I teach English. I live only a few miles away.
The cabbie knew the college well, was a former student who had graduated in 2003 with an associates in liberal arts. I didn’t have to ask him why a graduate of our college was driving a cab. He started the story all on his own, almost as if he had been waiting many years to meet someone from the college to vent.
I have no reason to think any of his story was embellished. These narratives are pretty common where I work.
The guy was named Juan and spoke with an eloquent Mexican accent. After completing the program at our college, he had transferred to a public university in Chicago. He had earned all but a few credits toward a teaching certificate and a math degree.
All sorts of problems had interfered with his ambitions, including college bureaucracy, clerical errors, misleading information and killed transfer credits. His mother, living in Mexico, also fell ill and toiled through an ordeal before her eventual death. The illness had Juan delay school to care for his parents, as his father was also sickly, usually cared for by the mother.
The stay in Mexico was difficult on Juan. His family perceived him as the wealthy one from Chicago, and various relatives came to him with demands or requests, accusing him of arrogance, selfishness or greed when he couldn’t meet them.
During his mother’s final year of life, he learned his wife, who had remained in Chicago, had been cheating on him and was now pregnant. Juan had known her new lover, who sold tires in a local shop, for many years, and he suspected his wife had been cheating on him for a long time.
Now mourning his dead mother, Juan returned home to deal with a divorce that put additional stress on him and interfered with his attempts to get back into school and finish.
Once he got into the swing, he hit a wall: a course he simply couldn’t pass. I didn’t gather the details, but the class was required for the teaching certificate, and it was “owned” by a single professor who worked as a gatekeeper between this public university and the job market. As far as Juan could tell, she seemed to be evaluating him as a human being and not his set of skills.
This kind of college instructor is far more common than is good for colleges or students. Most of them pass students out of pity; at the opposite end of that methodological spectrum, however, is the instructor with a strong sense of (completely arbitrary) ethics, values that must be present in the student before he is “released into the world”.
For some reason, Juan just couldn’t satisfy this lady even though he felt he had gathered all the skills the course taught. He had paid cash for the class three times. It was enough to drive him furious.
In the meantime, he had picked up a variety of jobs and now owned his own taxi. He also painted homes part time in the warmer months and did other manual labor.
Although he always had work and a comfortable place to live, he said he felt poor. He couldn’t get things right. Juan longed for peace of mind, respect and the kind of security he said college professors like me had. “It keeps slipping away,” he said. “It’s right there in my fingers. Then, slip, it’s gone.” He rubbed his hands together and looked at his calloused palms. “As soon as you earn something, somebody asks you to give it to them. Or somebody awards you something, but you bring it to the next person and hear it’s not good enough.”
While telling his story, he marked it with the refrain, When’s a guy good enough? The question was rhetorical. He believed I understood the answer: never.
He wished someone would respect him, but he knew no one would until he was truly wealthy and stable. “That’s what a guy’s good for. A man is a source, but he’s never good enough, and he’s never got enough, or whatever he has is the wrong thing.”
A guy who sells tires today, Juan said, is more stable and wealthier than a guy who might be a teacher in the future. “That’s the danger of education for a guy,” said Juan. “People need you to give them something right now. They don’t care if you say, ‘I’ll get it to you when I’m done with my degree.’ That degree might never come. You’re stupid if you think it takes four years. They plug the thing up with hoops, or they steal classes from you, make you take the same thing twice.”
After a pause that lasted a few blocks, he said, “I have a girlfriend again. She finally moved in with me.” Juan shrugged, then he sighed gently out his nose, his shoulders softening. His eyes floated into the rear view mirror and struck mine so that I could sense his decade of exhaustion. “When’s a guy good enough?” he asked. “I’ll tell you, she’s been living with me a couple of months. One moment she says we need more money. We need this and that. The next moment, I find out I’m working too much. I’m not home enough. So you figure it out, professor. There’s a math problem for you.”
I said, smiling, “I’m an English professor.”
“How about this one?” We were now approaching the college. “If you get married they think you’re finished and if you are without a woman they think you’re incomplete. You know who that is, right?”
“Ha! It’s Charles Bukowski. You don’t know Charles Bukowski?”
“Not by heart, no.”
“Well, he writes a lot of truth.” Juan pulled up to the front of the college, right before the entrance to the theater. He said, “You can’t wish for it to go both ways. If you want everything your way, you end up lonely. And if you don’t want to be lonely, you must give up your way. No matter what, something’s got to suck. That’s just the way it is, I guess.”
Photo by Anthony Mayfield.
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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