She sits in my office, and I hand her a second tissue, and then a third. She’s crying because she’s behind in my class, because her child’s been sick for two weeks, because she’s just exhausted. She’s 22 with a 4 year-old. She’s not married. She’s a lucky one because she has parents who live 3 hours away will help if she needs it, and I ask her what her first priority is. “School,” she says and begins to cry even more.
“No,” I say, “your first priority must be yourself, and when did you have more than 3 hours sleep in a night?”
She grimaces. “Two weeks ago because my baby’s been sick.”
“Right,” I tell her, “and how can you get your work done if you are exhausted?”
“Your first priority has to be you,” I say, “then your daughter, then school.”
She looks at me oddly because I’m the teacher, and I’m telling her that school comes third on her list, but I,too, am a mother, and I, too, have gone to school with children. I know when things get to be too much.
“But, I am going to fail your class,” she says.
“No, you aren’t. You’ve done a lot of the work. I can give you an incomplete, if it comes to that, but I want you to take your daughter and go home to your parents for a week and do nothing but sleep. Then we’ll worry about getting your work done’
I hand her another tissue. She stands up and I hug her.
A week later she is back. Her cheeks are pink again. She’s caught up on the reading, and we’ve worked out a schedule for her late work. She’ll finish the class with an A.
Versions of this scene happen over and over. This young woman is one of the lucky ones because she has some back up, but for so many of my students there is no back up. There are no parents to go to. There is no respite from sick children or the demands of a job. At the beginning of this current semester, one of my students came to me on the first day of classes, to tell me that her boyfriend and her babies’ father, had kicked her and the two year old twins out of his house. His job was making it possible for her to go to school. He was paying her tuition, and suddenly, without warning, he told her to leave. She had no where to and no money. Our financial aid office helped her. She found a place to live. But classes were going on, relentlessly while she was trying to hold her life together. She’s missed about half the classes so far. She’ll pass, but just barely.
My nineteen-year-old niece, who is still living at home, tells me she just wants to go off and do goofy college-student things, like get too drunk or something. I want to tell her that the “goofy college student” is a thing of myth and story, It’s Hollywood’s Animal House or something, but that the reality is much harsher. It’s a rare community college student who has time to “do goofy college-student things.” Almost all my students have jobs, many work 40 hours a week, and still take 16 credits of college work. At least half my students are parents.
We need to dispel the myth. As a culture, we need to recognize the community college reality. There are times when I wish my students were more politically involved, when I wish they would be more involved in the community or in cultural events. The reality is that they can’t be.
I think of another student who works part-time, goes to school full-time, takes care of her disabled grandmother for 3 hours a day and has two children. This woman is also an Iraq vet. The fact that she is determined to get a degree so that she can create a more stable life for her children is testament to her strength. But would it be fair for me to ask her to go to an evening lecture at the college? Would be fair for me to suggest that she take on an extra internship? Sometimes it felt like too much to even ask her to revise a paper, although she revised everyone of her English papers for me. She sent me introductory paragraphs and rough drafts by e-mail. She asked for help on every piece of work. Like the young woman at the beginning of this piece, she wants to do better than well; she wants to succeed.
I despair that we are now living in a country that doesn’t see the value of these women and what they are trying to do. The Republican rhetoric on the campaign trail makes it clear that the societal supports that help these women with health care, with college tuition, and with student loans that often mean the difference between being able to buy her needed books or not are not recognized as important. The politicians who would want to make birth control illegal and who say that public education is “brain washing” are dooming these young women and millions like them to lives of poverty with no chance of creating better lives for themselves and their children.