Some students defy the odds. Their common denominator is natural curiosity.
This is final exam week here at the community college. The faculty and guests will attend a commencement ceremony in the courtyard later on. It’s always a rambunctious affair; for many students it’s the happiest time. For some it will be the bittersweet highlight of their college years.
It’s quite common for the emcee to announce a name of a student and for two-dozen people to erupt from a corner of the courtyard. One family cheers their graduate with sustained shrieks and another feels provoked to top them. Last year some guy brought an air horn. Another time a family hauled in an arsenal of New Years Eve noisemakers.
The student who always strikes me at commencement is the one who attends alone. No entourage of friends, no family members, no lover or spouse. No one to take pictures. Even if the kid had a photo, he’d probably only ever look at it himself.
Every commencement ceremony features a handful of these students. Perhaps it’s the fiction writer or the introvert in me that has me scanning for them. Maybe I identify with them because I did not receive a great deal of support myself while attending college.
I find these students are much more often men than they are women; maybe the ratio is three to one. I have known many of them personally, and some of them were among the best students I have ever taught.
Theirs are particular success stories. To see a kid walk across the stage in dead silence, sandwiched between two students whose families scream and howl, is to witness the annihilation of odds. It’s almost unfathomable to think that an underclass kid without any family at all, or with a family who perceives his ambitions as betrayals, just set his head down and came away with an associates degree.
Because English faculty read student essays, we tend to learn more about their personal lives. We also function, as I’ve written before, as untrained campus shrinks.
I’m always shocked by people who tell me men are doing worse in college because something is categorically wrong with them. Whether or not they’re actually doing worse is something we could argue about, but I’m not going there today. Yes, I’ve taught a lot of men who suffer from immaturity and wayward aimlessness. But they don’t make it to commencement. Neither do immature and aimless women.
Students who do graduate (or transfer) usually have three things.
- Social capital. That’s people who support them emotionally, intellectually and help to manage time.
- Financial support. I mean free money, either from the government or family.
- Curiosity. People think this can’t be taught. They’re part of the problem.
Eliminate just one of these and the risk increases dramatically. I have known students who paid for college themselves while working full time and took their associates degree after five or six years. I have also witnessed and personally taught young students who pushed themselves to graduate by riding raw curiosity.
People don’t think of curiosity as a form of ambition. But it’s at once an aspiration and motivation. How does this plant grow? Why is it green? In our culture, we damn the most obvious questions—who am I and where did the world come from—and we consider philosophical inquiry elitist or impractical. It’s like we fear curiosity.
Our school systems often work to actively kill it. Fill out the worksheet by the end of the hour and then fill in these bubbles with a #2 pencil. Johnny, take these pills. Books? People died for the right to compose and distribute them. Without spilling a drop of blood, we’ve removed them from schools, replacing them with “learning” software.
The majority of students who fail out of our community college come out of such a system. Interestingly, they tend to have some amount of social capital, and the vast majority of students will qualify for grants. However, very few of them are curious or accept that they can be.
Standing in strong contrast to them is a young man I’ll call Emilio. The only tangible social capital he had was an aunt who died of a heart attack while waiting for a bus. His parents brought him to the United States as a toddler; he was undocumented and did not qualify for any financial aid. The parents, who had several other children here in Chicago, expected him to work. His decision to go to college led to jealousy and strife, and he ended up essentially on his own.
The kid was brilliant. I let him write essays like, “Drop Out of High School Before It’s Too Late,” whose argument was that it’s better to get a GED and attend community college night classes than to put up with the immaturity in the local high school.
He came to commencement in a wrinkled gown. It covered his Blackhawks t-shirt and jeans; with no one to impress, he wore beaten basketball shoes that stuck out in the crowd. Emilio listened attentively to a windbag state politician’s commencement speech of education clichés, then the valedictorian’s campy rant about “leadership”. The litany of students’ names soon began and not a single person clapped when Emilio’s name was announced.
I did not have a chance to talk to him that evening. While caught in a conversation, I noticed Emilio walking with his cap on his head—knowing him, I guessed he had returned the gown but managed to steal the cap. He headed to the welcome sign at the front of the cul-de-sac before our theater. There he snapped a selfie with his phone. He secured the cap onto his bike with bungee cords. Then he got on and rode off campus, his red taillight winking to the world.
Photo by John Walker
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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