A 66 year-old man named Don was transferred into my remedial essay writing class a couple days into the spring semester. After class he came up to me and introduced himself. I’m finally getting my education, he said.
This was the one year I taught community college in Aurora. My curriculum consisted of Carol Dweck’s Mindsets and a packet of self-help essays my department chair had given me. I thought selections from both these were valuable for my students, but I also used some of my own stuff. I taught a unit on the Colorado gubernatorial election; I taught a few Junot Diaz stories and I wrote a few of my own model texts so that I could have some examples of clear, organized essays. I taught one class out of a high school in Denver–it was a special “concurrent enrollment” class that would get a college credit from our school–and I convinced them to participate in a unit on In Cold Blood. Late one night in the department office I photocopied all 360 pages of the book, fifteen times.
Don’s attendance was not perfect, but better than most. He did assignments with alacrity, having no struggles with intrinsic academic motivation the way that a lot of my students did. The man simply had something to prove to himself, or he felt that he’d been missing out for the past fifty years. Probably a little of both.
He lived in North Washington, a neighborhood on the far north side of Denver that basically existed underneath the intersection of two interstate highways and another highway that went to Boulder. I had tried to ride my bike through the area a couple times and was always deterred by the lack of safe side roads–it was all underpass and glass-riddled byway. Almost all the people who live in North Washington are Black, just as the two neighborhoods due east of there over the Platte River, Elyria-Swansea and Commerce City, are almost entirely Latino. This region of Denver represents the largest food desert in the metropolitan area. It’s also the site of a couple massive oil and natural gas refineries and the Purina dog food factory, all of which have putrified the air and make it tough to breathe in these neighborhoods.
I remember an essay Don turned in as we neared the end of the semester, titled “Recidivism in African-American males”. It was by reading this essay that I learned of Don’s past incarcerations. The piece was boldly confessional and ambitious in subject matter, even as it demonstrated Don’s need for more practice in crafting expository writing, in sentence structure and organization.
After I’d graded all the essays, I came to class prepared to talk with Don about his work. But that day he was absent, so I held onto the paper. He was absent the next day, too, and the next, and every day thereafter until the end of the term. These kinds of disappearances were common at our community college, but the fact that it had happened to such a determined man unsettled me. I had wanted very badly to see him through remedial English.
Then, on the last day of class, Don showed up. He waited until the session ended, then he came up to me. I got locked up, he told me. The same police officer that arrested me before–he did it again. I wasn’t doing nothing, he just picked me up off the street. He’s got something against me.
I had his graded essay in my hand and as I listened to his story I was aware of the bitter irony. The thesis and rhetorical mode of the paper might have been inconsistent, but the topic had come from a place of personal experience that remained all too urgently relevant.
I need to pass this class, Don said. He knew he’d been absent too much and he’d missed the last couple assignments, but he wanted to know if there was any extra credit he could do, anything at all that could help him move into college English.
I told him I’d see what I could do; in the meantime I told him to complete the assignments he’d missed and put them in my mailbox before grades were due. He shook my hand, visibly overcome with gratitude, and left the classroom.
I had no qualms with passing him but I had to collaboratively evaluate all my students with two other teachers, one of whom was my supervisor. My supervisor rejected the idea of accepting Don’s late work, and dismissing his absences, out of hand. Even if he’s not lying, my supervisor said, we’d just be doing him a disservice by sending him into regular English. The supervisor pointed out his weak grammar skills and the lack of coherence in his writing. Don simply isn’t ready, he maintained.
I wasn’t asked back to the college the following year–my grading standards were too inconsistent. I had moved on to teach high school anyway, but I still wondered about Don. Did he try remedial English again? Now, five years later, does he have a degree?