Student Body

Community College Essay #1: Narratives

One was sleeping alone under a streetlight
by fourth grade. One slept under the porch
with the dogs to keep warm in winter.
One tried to sleep curled in a ball with her brother
in a pile of empty Pepsi bottles on the floor of the car,
hearing coyotes howl in the dark, waiting for their parents
to open the dealer’s door and come back to them.

One was randomly shot at nine years old,
walking home from the school bus. When he
realized no one was going to pull over
to help him, he got up and kept on walking.

One did the reading assignments holding her book
in the oven for light because her boyfriend wouldn’t
allow the overhead or lamp for anything as stupid
as going back to school. Many were beaten or raped
by uncles or fathers or neighbor boys, one when she
was just ten, bent screaming over a log in the woods,
warned not to tell or her family would die, then called
a whore when her mother found her bloodied underwear.

Most were told to sit down and shut up, or taught
that lesson the hard way, in schools that weren’t
much different from jail, to which they graduated.
A few miraculously found freedom in prison, in some
recovery program or writing class that random luck,
or grace, put in their path. More just found a new level
of pain to endure, or a reason to try opting out.
So very many went to war as the honorable alternative
to being dead-end poor, and ended up just dead—
or alive to things even harder to carry than body armor.

None of them expect help.
None of them ask for it.
None of them feel they deserve
to succeed.

They work so hard it makes my heart seize up.

What on earth do I have to give my students, beyond
teaching academic outcomes that look ridiculously
superficial on the syllabus of real life?

Maybe it’s as simple, and as hard, as listening. Maybe it’s
as unprofessional as refusing to red pen the sacred body
of their work. Maybe it’s as human as shared tears, as powerful
as the surprise of respect, striking their path—and mine—like lightning.

About Barbara Sullivan

Writer, editor, teacher, introvert, contrarian, union thug
This entry was posted in Education, Identity, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Student Body

  1. theotheri says:

    I wish this post did not resonate so much. But I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion and am glad to be reminded — maybe it’s so simple as caring. The encouraging thing is that sometimes the caring of just one person can turn a person’s life completely around. Let’s not give up!

    • “Never give up! Never surrender!” is my favorite quote from Galaxy Quest, which I sometimes show to my research classes. And yes, it doesn’t really take a whole lot to turn a life, which is truly remarkable. It may take a while to forge a new path, but the turn is pretty easy: it comes down to a simple change in belief. I remember vividly the moment when my own life rotated on that hinge, and a whole new world came into view.

  2. Makes one humble just to read, how human beings have persevered through so much and still choose to go on living. Amazing, sobering write, Barbara. Thank you.

    • Thanks for reading, Kate. I do feel the burden of these stories that people keep entrusting to me, and maybe to lighten it, every once in a while I feel the need to open some window and yell, like a version of Peter Finch in Network: LOOK AT THIS! LOOK AT THIS!

  3. Jennifer Perry says:

    Barbara, THIS is why you are one of my most favorite people in the whole world! You were the only one who came to mind a few weeks ago, when I was having a nervous breakdown, which to most was because of a printer issue in building one, but I knew only someone like you could LISTEN to me unleash the plethora of crap that had preceeded the printer debacle, and actually HEAR what I was conveying, without trying to minimize, justify, or trivialize, but actually EMPATHIZE with my situation! I am sure every student of your feels this way. I just am thankful to have had you as a teacher for two terms, and still feel welcome to call, email, or stop by when needed, and know that you would always do what you could. Sadly, this is more than I can say for most people in positions of any kind of power or influence, who are supposed to help you, rarely do. Thank you for being you!
    Jen Perry

    • Awww…how sweet! And how well you articulate what it means to just listen. It’s not all that hard–but you’re right, I know it’s not all the common either. I think that those of us who weren’t listened to as children understand the need in a personal way, and tend to give that to others, just like poor people (there’s research on this!) give more than the rich when it comes to being charitable.

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