I teach a community college class for 16-20 year old students who have dropped out of high school. This quarter my students comprised of:
A 17 year old recovering heroin addict.
A 19 year old who checked themself into the psych hospital for three days mid-quarter for suicidal thoughts that they hadn’t had since they were young and their dad hanged himself.
A 16 year old celebrating the year of life anniversary after recovering from an Oxy overdose in a suicide attempt.
A married girl who’s pregnant with her first child.
A few homeless students.
A student who was drugged and date raped at a party midquarter.
A student who narrowly escaped a juvy-life (until they are 21…so 4 years from now) sentence for a crime.
The list goes on, and on, and on. Each student with their own story. Their own life. Their own path to success and happiness.
And I got to witness it all.
In this line of work I come across people who have the mistaken impression that I am somehow saintly for doing “that kind of work,” with “those kind of students.” I’m no saint, believe me. And I think they have it wrong. Because, I don’t really teach these students. My goal, as an educator, is to provide a safe place where community and authenticity can happen. The students teach themselves. They inspire each other. They say, on our final presentation day, things like “before this I didn’t talk to peers, because highschool drama was just so intense, but you guys…you guys have become my family.”
Every quarter there are students who say they wish I could teach their classes forever. And I say that I don’t get funnier or better looking the next 10 weeks, and that they will be glad to move on. And I will be glad, in the first few weeks of the next quarter, to have them visit my class to let me know how they’re doing. They will fly on their own wings toward their own definition of success.
So what does this have to do with Hillary Swank? Or, if we want to go even more old-school, Michelle Pfieffer? These movies were ones I watched in school and thought, “I’m glad there are people who do that kind of work, but what are uppitty white women doing going into that kind of environment thinking they’re going to save the world?” I had ambitions to be an AP English teacher at a high school level. Graduate to the community college level. Then on to a prestigious university, perhaps, immersed in academia.
Maybe I left my pearl necklace at home on the first day of class JUST BECAUSE of watching Freedom Writers in college. Or maybe, somewhere along the way I got in touch with myself and that’s what my students can see. Maybe they notice the confused teenager longing for connection and understanding and a path toward success that lived inside me and informs my everyday actions with them. Maybe they notice that I don’t have to have it all figured out.
I have so far to go. But today one of my students, in her shoutout slide in her final presentation, said “Monk-Monk, I just want to let you know…I think you’re just like Khloe Kardashian.”
She meant it as a high compliment. And in reference to me saying that as an introvert I often come home and drink a glass of wine and watch The Kardashians on TV. I am their teacher, and Khloe Kardashian would play me in a movie. I kinda dig it.
I wish you could all meet my students. Maybe someday you will. When they reach their goals of tattoo artist, trauma nurse, civil rights lawyer, software engineer, animal trainer, makeup artist. Their future shines so bright I’m gonna need shades to watch them soar into the sun.