DeWitt and I got on a southbound B train with his official high school transcript, his immunization records, and the $65 check that my organization had cut to pay for his application fee to Kingsborough Community College.
He’d texted our program director the previous night: This is going to be the start of something new.
DeWitt moved to Brooklyn via the New York City homeless shelter system–after a brief stay in Manhattan he’d found a place to stay with a friend, in East New York. It’s supposed to be the worst neighborhood in Brooklyn, he told me. I told him I’d never been out there. It’s not so bad, he said. You just have to know how to read people, then it’s no big deal.
Before he was in New York, he was in New Jersey. He’d moved there on a whim from Chicago, when a friend proposed to the trip. He had gotten there via Milwaukee, where he grew up. There were color pictures of the Milwaukee downtown on our classroom walls, that DeWitt had taped up for a photography assignment. There were also photos of Chicago, but they had all been taken with the camera tilted diagonally, giving an effect of seasickness.
In Chicago, DeWitt had just been laid off from Sam’s Club and he liquidated his stock shares before they left. When they got to New Jersey he called his father, who was still in Chicago, but who hadn’t seen DeWitt in a while anyway since they had lived on opposite sides of the city. I’m in New Jersey, he told his dad. What are you doing there for? his father said. It’s dangerous out there. Come back to Illinois.
You know, DeWitt said to me on the train, people here say the same thing about Chicago. When I tell people that’s where I’m from, they say, Oh, Chicago’s so dangerous.
One day some guys pointed to the New York City skyline. You know New York is right over there, they said. So DeWitt accompanied them over the bridge. He went to the shelter system, where everyone tried to buy him a ticket back to the Midwest. I’m not going back, he kept saying. I’m staying here. I’m a New Yorker now.
He and his next door neighbor in East New York found our program through our case managers’ recruitment efforts. He landed in my class because he already had his high school diploma. My goal is college, he told me simply, during the first week of class.
We got off at Sheepshead Bay and looked for the B49 bus. I’d never been to Coney Island before and didn’t know where I was going. Excuse me, DeWitt said to a white man moving briskly past us on the sidewalk. Do you know how to get to the B49? The man thrust his head down and walked even faster, crossing the street. When he got to the other side of the street he began to yell angrily at my student.
He scared of me cause I’m black, DeWitt explained.
He tried two more people, both of whom walked right past. Finally a latino woman acknowledged him but didn’t know where we should go. I walked into a bodega and asked the cashier for directions.
We rode the bus to the eastern edge of Coney Island, where the impressive community college campus lay.
You bite your nails a lot? DeWitt asked.
Yeah, I said. When I’m anxious, or when I’m excited about something. It’s a habit I can’t break.
Sometimes when I’m anxious, DeWitt said, my tongue doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, I be stuttering all the time. The words don’t come out right.
For me, it’s not my tongue but my focus. When I have to speak in public, especially to people higher up than me, I have trouble concentrating. My mind goes blank.
I know that feeling too.
We walked to admissions. It was 25 degrees and we climbed over ridges of hard glazed grey snow every time we had to step onto or off of a curb. We looked east to the beach, where a row of trees seemed to give way to a vaporous nothingness. That’s the ocean, I said. The bay. DeWitt and I set our eyes on the mist for a minute. I’d like to spend some time here, I said, sometime when there’s more time.
When there’s more time, DeWitt echoed.
He checked in on a computer screen while women sitting behind long desks watched us. Tell your friend he’s gotta wait in the front, a woman said into the wood of her desk. I gave DeWitt the check and told him to rip out the carbon copy receipt after he signed it. I gave him the sealed envelope with his transcript inside. I told him to ask them to make a copy of the transcript after they opened it, so we wouldn’t have to mail a $3 money order to his high school in Milwaukee and wait two weeks if we ever needed it again.
I found a bench near a window and opened up the novel I was reading. But I couldn’t read any of the words. DeWitt was waiting across the room, behind some glass. They called his name and he went over to the woman’s desk. They asked him if he’d ever been to a college before. Yes, he said. Everest College.
Then we need your official transcript from there, the woman said. She spoke for a while longer. Another woman–the one who had addressed me earlier, indirectly, from her desk–came over to DeWitt and talked to him. When they were done, DeWitt got up and told me what had happened.
I went past the computer screen into the admissions room and ventured over to the second woman’s desk–the one who seemed in charge. I told her I didn’t understand why they needed to consider DeWitt a transfer student, since he’d never finished any classes at Everest, a for-profit technical school that had preyed on DeWitt and students like him for their financial aid money, pressured them into attending classes, then offered them junk education and a meaningless degree. I don’t care what kind of school he went to, the woman said, still staring down at her desk. Either he needs that official transcript, or he can’t enroll here. Your other option is to get him banned from CUNY for the next five years.
Well, I don’t want to get my student banned for five years, I said. She picked her head up and made eye contact for the first time.
That got me tight, DeWitt said when we were back on the bus.
That got me tight too, I said.
We got off and walked up to the subway. Waiting on the warming B train for it to leave the station, two women in the middle of a conversation erupted into laughter. You ever overhear people laughing like that? DeWitt said. When that happens I just want to laugh wit um.
Sometimes I feel like this city is like Sim, he said. You know, the computer game. Where you build the houses and you control all the people. You build a row of houses then you gotta upgrade to better houses. All the people around you going through their lives.
You ever played that game? he asked.
Two Q trains passed. Finally our B started moving. I’m starting to think I got to try something different, he said. He shook his head and looked at me with something in his eyes that I recognized as sour and burning. Nah, he said, as though answering a question he’d posed to himself. I’m thinking I gotta change the whole thing, do it different.
No, I said. We’ll get that transcript and we’ll come back here and you’ll get in. Worst case scenario, you have to wait until the fall.
We each ate half of a granola bar and didn’t talk about it until we got back to the program office. We called up Everest College and a woman told us that the Milwaukee branch had closed. She gave us another phone number to call. Welcome to CCI, an automated voice said. If you are trying to request a transcript from a school that has closed, please go to our website and download the appropriate form and then email it to the address provided. I went to the Corinthian Colleges Incorporated website, printed out the form and went through the hoops. Later we looked up the company on Google, read about its various lawsuits and federal investigations.
DeWitt seemed convinced that we’d never get that transcript. We considered the possibility of DeWitt going back to Kingsborough later this week, before the Direct Admissions deadline passed, and just not mentioning that he’d ever been to another college. They’d never recognize me anyway, DeWitt said. They probably think I look exactly like everybody else that come into the admissions office.
I could just go to Star Career Academy, he kept saying to me, to anyone else who’d listen. They right in Manhattan.
That’s the same kind of school as Everest, I said.
They keep calling me up and everything. They want me there.
They want your money, I said.
They being real proactive. I like that.