A student asks the most difficult question a professor ever had to handle.
This was the most difficult question I have faced in two decades of work as an educator. It came from a man in his mid-twenties who failed one of my classes here at the community college.
I’ll call him Sergio. He’s been working jobs since he was sixteen and, by many measures, is already successful. He owns a house with equity, something to be proud of in our community. Sergio supports two kids and a lover, his high school sweetheart. He’s in good health and, at least from what I can observe, good spirts, although he was usually visibly tired when I saw him.
Sergio lives a life of almost constant physical work. While he has one stable construction gig, he picks up side projects all the time. He has not had a vacation since his high school graduation when he and his girlfriend went down to Texas. They conceived a boy on that trip.
Sergio is quite different from most of the men I teach. He’s in that slim percentage of contemporary adults who are not addicted to their smart phones. Sergio’s a careful listener, and he could talk about things like local politics, building codes, the real estate market, banking regulation, parenting and other topics he’d learned about from experience. Streetwise, he showed surgical perception of people’s motivations.
Sergio is also realistic. He tried college because he wants a job that offers more free time and less stress on his body. “I’m not even 30,” he told me. “But already I got a bad back and hips.” He failed my class because he didn’t do homework. While he came to class punctually, he handed in only about half the assignments, those done hurriedly and demonstrating little progress.
Interestingly, Sergio is self-aware. “I know I don’t understand 100% from what I read. With the kids, I just don’t get time to read, except sometimes on the train,” he said. “I’m not gonna get better at it, right, if I can’t find no time to do it? All the most important classes have books that are like a quarter-foot thick.”
What should I tell a man like Sergio? Have circumstances damned him to a life of constant work and a beaten body? What are the consequences of my answer?
Sergio suffers from a dillemma many men face. If we want to be dedicated partners and fathers, we can find ourselves trapped in a cycle that leaves little time for personal development, even less for a personal life. If we want to be more effective dads—that is, fathers who set their children up for the potential to live lives of greater fulfilment—we need to develop our capacities to earn while we carve out time to be present at home. We don’t really know how expensive parenting is until we get to it. If we haven’t gained marketable skills by the time the kids are born, we need very special circumstances—in short, a ton of social capital, or the dreaded help from others—in order to do it while parenting.
The road of fatherhood presents unexpected costs around every bend. The unfathomable numbers of even local public colleges stun us in our tracks. The daughter cannot take violin lessons and ballet because dad doesn’t earn enough; and if he doesn’t earn enough, what’s the point of him? The son wants for dad to be home so they could play in the yard before sundown, but dad’s out working a second job to cover the boy’s braces.
What’s dad thinking? He’d have more time to play in the yard if he earned more money from one job. In order to make more money, he needs to invest time in either personal development or progress towards an idea. That time could be spent in the yard playing or out on the job earning.
Every dollar a dad spends on himself is money he cannot spend on his family. This includes however little he might spend during time with friends. It also includes money spent on things like tuition, training seminars, networking sessions and business trips. There’s a chance—let’s admit it, a small one—the next business trip will lead to a bigger contract. But it’s absolutely guaranteed to cost money and take time away from the kids.
I’ll speak for myself here: I would rather be called a poor worker or citizen than a bad father. The paradox is infuriating: if quality fatherhood depends on good work and citizenry, a poorly paid worker (and therefore impotent citizen) is categorically a poor father. Can you claim to be well-paid when you cannot afford ballet lessons for your daughter or when you must take a second job to pay a dentist?
This self-effacing psychology exists for a variety of reasons. We put enormous pressure on ourselves to be successful because we tie our identities to our ideal of success. The issue can be black and white: we are either successful or failures.
Noah Brand writes about it in his article The Success Myth:
“’Failure’ as a noun is one of those incredibly potent and damaging concepts, especially for men. American culture in particular has a real habit of equating business success with personal virtue, our ‘anyone can make it if they really try’ mythology. Therefore, the failure of [my business] meant that I, personally, was unworthy as a human being.”
Any perceived failure is accelerated when you feel you’re providing too little for your family. Provision, of course, is a relative construct identical to “success” or “failure”. Sure, your children have enough to eat and the rain does not fall on their heads. But you cannot afford to send them to college. Your body hurts when you come home from work and you do not take any time for yourself. You’re a failure and need to do something about it.
You try a college class and gain no credit because you either didn’t know how to manage the time or were surprised by the amount of time it requires. So now you ask your professor a loaded question: “Should I bother with this?”
I told Sergio I’d be straight up with him if he could answer a question first. “What would happen,” I asked, “if you worked less?”
“I’d have less money.”
“Would it put you in danger? I mean, would you lose your house or something?”
“I don’t save no money at the end of the month, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t waste no money on frills, if that helps you.”
I nodded, “I understand.”
It’s difficult to tell someone in Sergio’s position that failure and success are just constructs, that all we need to do when faced with failure is change our point of view. After all, he failed my class. “You’ve got the brains to do well in college,” I said. “What you need is the time to develop certain skills.”
“Yeah,” he shrugged. “If I had the time to develop some, I wouldn’t need no college degree.” He smiled. “That’s where we’re at. That’s what it’s like. The world’s fuckin weird.”
Photo by MsSaraKelly
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.
Previous True Community articles: