Some Folks Got Further to Go

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Note: This post contains naughty words. I didn’t make them up, they’re merely reporting. Just so you know.

Take One: last summer’s movie Bad Moms, about the difficulties of modern expectations for perfect mommy-ness, has a scene in a restaurant where the three moms are talking about the ways in which their children disappoint them, but that they love their kids anyway. One mom, speaking of her thirteen-year-old son, says, “My son still watches Sesame Street, and he doesn’t get it… every time I think about that big dumb motherfucker goin’ off to college, I wanna cry like a baby.”

Take Two: I spent yesterday working at our town’s transfer station, giving our regular guy a day off. The transfer station is the great leveler of our town, with everyone from the theater owner to the real estate mogul to the half-employed logger coming in to drop off their trash.

Anyway, this fellow comes in, along with his middle-school-aged son. Dad’s missing most of his teeth, and without prompting, begins to tell me about his car… well, really, it’s his wife’s car…

Yeah, it’s a fuckin’ tank, weighs five thousand pounds. I can take that fuckin’ thing anywhere. A few days ago, we was out shootin’ at shit, I got myself a little tipsy, and drove up over a pile’a rocks. And one rock, I came over it, and felt it just go whump! An’ I thought, that ain’t good. But I just put it in fuckin’ four-wheel-drive, fuckin’ climbed right over it. Got it for my old lady… My car’s a fuckin’ Camaro, heh heh…”

Meanwhile, his son’s standing beside him, silent. And my heart went out to this kid. What must that be like, growing up with this specific father? How does he understand his place in the world?

So, friends, if you teach at Duke or at Stanford, if you teach at the University of Michigan or at the University of North Carolina, you’ll never encounter these two young men, or any of a million others like them. You’ll be teaching kids who grew up with books and magazines around the house, kids whose parents’ own college experience has given them some confidence and some vocabulary for what they’re encountering.

But if you teach at a community college, or a smaller state college, kids like these two are your core constituency. Kids who, through absolutely no fault of their own, start from a place well behind the pack. Kids whose parents’ primary life lessons are that Coors Light comes in thirty-packs so that you can drink twenty and use them as targets while you finish the other ten; and that no matter what kind of trouble you find yourself in, you can bull your way over it (until you break your wife’s car and have to leave it rotting in the weeds behind the shed).

I honestly do believe that (almost) all kids are capable of catching intellectual fire. But some of them come to us already aflame; some of them come dried out but ready for the first spark they encounter; and some of them come to us very, very wet, having been pissed on their whole lives. We may not be able to light them ourselves. But maybe we can at least help them dry a little, by not adding our own dampening. Maybe we can help them dry enough that some spark two or three years down the road will be able to catch.

We may all know where we want to be, but some folks got further to go to get there.

It takes a unique kind of teacher to be able to have both the intellectual curiosity and drive to get a PhD, and then to spend his or her career at a fourth-tier school, without making themselves bitter and their students miserable. Without, on the other hand, cynically marching them all from week 1 to week 15, just getting the product through the system and out the door.

Being a college faculty member means very different things at the University of Chicago and at Chicago State University and at one of Chicago’s seven community colleges. And since teaching is not meaningfully discussed in most doctoral programs, newly crafted PhDs have yet another thing to discover completely on their own.