Dodging the pity party

18th April 2014 at 01:00

"What do I do? I teach at a college way out in Brooklyn."

My fellow party-goer opens her eyes wide. She's a neighbour and a professor at the prestigious university in Manhattan where my wife works. She nods and rolls with it. "That's good."

"It is good. It's always interesting. It's always hard."

She considers this a moment. "I have a sister who used to teach at a community college in Virginia - when she was in graduate school."

I nod. What I don't say is: I used to be prejudiced about community colleges, too. I used to think, "Who would want to go to one and who would want to teach at one?"

But then I began teaching at a community college when my wife and I moved to New York from California. I never knew how much I'd love being in a classroom full of people who aren't like me.

My students and I have one thing in common - most of us haven't grown up in New York. Most of them haven't even grown up in the US; and a lot of them didn't know any English until they moved here in the past decade.

I don't tell my neighbour that, because we're at a party after all, and it would be like confiding to someone you don't really know that you're in love and should be envied.

Instead, I ask her what she's teaching this semester.

She has a "Great Books" seminar with (she sighs) sophomores. "Most of them are not ready for rigorous thinking," she says. Then she remembers where I teach and says, "But they're smart and they catch on." She also has administrative duties. Oh, the duties!

Now I'm wincing and thinking, "One class!"

She asks my speciality.

"Whatever I can get them to read," I respond. That sounds flippant. So I laugh to show her.what?

Am I bragging or embarrassed that whatever I wrote about in graduate school doesn't matter any more? It's bragging if I mean to say that I have to pay really close attention in my three classes - that my classes work only if I carefully consider what my students can do and are responding to. It's embarrassment if I mean to say that, whereas she has students who excelled in high school and whose families understand what attending a prestigious college represents, most of my students are raw, unaccustomed to classrooms or English, and are balancing jobs and families.

I don't explain that "specialities" don't go very far in our classrooms at the community college. I don't explain that almost everything I teach is new to the students. So from that point of view, I can teach anything: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Junot Daz. It's all new.

Sheepish, I say, "What my students have in common is that they haven't read five books in English. So my speciality now is whatever works. Sappho. Langston Hughes. Oliver Sacks. They're all good."

She nods. I think she gets it and doesn't quite pity me any more.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English at Kingsborough Community College, New York City

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