Yesterday was a pretty busy day at work. We are nearing the end of Winter Quarter and a lot of people are applying and registering to start school in the Spring. I know I advised almost thirty students in the 6 hours that I worked, and that’s not including those I helped with course registration. During the lulls I checked email, input some notes into our advising software system, and checked-in on Twitter to see what everyone else was doing. As I worked away at the computer (y’all know that’s a lie, right?) a male student entered the office.
Me: Hi, how are you today?
Him: I’m good.
Me: Could you sign-in please? (He signs in and I continue talking to him, even though I am across the room.) Are you a new student?
Him: Yes ma’am.
Me: Ok. Just have a seat and I will be right with you.
He never sits down, not even when I started filling out his advisement sheet. His standing didn’t bother me because I am used to working with students who actually work better when they are allowed to move around. But I knew there was something more to his story. I asked him to come and have a seat next to me so that we could discuss his (very, very high) test scores and the program of study he chose (Automotive). Although he is pursuing the Diploma, I told him he should consider pursuing the Associates Degree because he performed so well on the skills tests. (NOTE: The whole time I that I talked with him, he was moving around, seemingly nervously. Again, it didn’t bother me but I knew there was something to it.)
After I explained the courses that were available and the times, we moved to a computer so that I could show him how to register for his classes. We’re searching the system and when he notices the class times, he tells me:
Him: I may not be able to do this one because I am taking another class at that time.
Me: Oh! When does your class end?
Him: Whenever they say I am finished.
Me: (A little confused) Oh not the time, the date? The Spring Quarter doesn’t start until April 2nd.
Him: No see, I am in like a half-way house type of program. I have to take drug counseling classes. I can talk to my counselor and see if she will let me change my schedule around.
Me: Ok. We can still register you today, then you can take her a copy of your schedule so she can see it. If you aren’t able to work around it just come back and we will find you some classes in the evening.
As we continued the registration process, we engaged in more not-so-small talk. I asked him where he graduated from high school because he told me he once taught in the G.E.D. program. He told me that he dropped-out of high school and received his G.E.D. from a different technical college. So this whole time we’re chatting, I’m thinking: This kid (younger than 20) doesn’t even know me, yet he felt compelled to tell me all of his business. Hmmm. Now I wonder what it is about him that made him feel he needed to share all of that? I wonder what it is about me that made him feel had to tell me all of that?
I asked myself these same questions last week when another male student came in for advisement. This particular young man made sure I knew he was a convicted felon. Not sure why, but he did. I guess since he doesn’t really know me, he doesn’t know that I taught my students ‘Labels don’t matter.’ Upon leaving prison, do they tell inmates: ‘From now on, when you introduce yourselves to people, make sure you tell them you are a convicted felon?’ By no means am I saying that anyone should be embarrased by or ashamed of their past, but it is called a ‘past’ for a reason. In other words: DO NOT bring it into your future unless it is absolutely necessary. Perhaps I should start grabbing those young men, both Black and White, and saying to them:
‘You walked in that door because you have a hunger for something. Once you cross the threshold, nothing else matters to me. It certainly should not matter to you or anyone else. You <fill-in-the-blank> but that is something you did, not who you are. The system had you in a stifling classroom, then a jail cell. Don’t let them put you in (another) box now that you are on the outside.’
Or, the easier thing would be to tell them about all the illegal s*&% my family members have done (mostly before I was born). They probably wouldn’t believe me. Hell, I still giggle when I think about it. But I always made sure my students knew that I was human, and therefore, susceptible to some of the same familial dysfunction, temptation, etc. as themselves. I think that’s where many of us (parents, teachers, etc.) fall short: We forget that we are human and have made mistakes instead of using our mistakes to help and guide those who are lost.
I know one thing for sure: I am learning more from these students than they are learning from me. But they probably wouldn’t believe that either.