Registration days are ritualistic and curious ways to start a semester, much less that professor-student relationship that begins. And at a community college there’s often a working-class flare to the event. Students build their notions about college around what they have experienced, and often that experience has not been college-like.
One group of students — those who have been out of high school and working for a few years — often come in with a dream of college as a sort of second job (or in many cases a third job). “Sign me up, chief. Compared to the heavy lifting i do stacking pallets at the Home Depot, this will be a snap.”
The college-as-second-job folk want to fit the class time around their work hours and available daycare and sometimes Oprah or Monday night football. This makes perfect sense until I realize that this is the only time they plan to give to college. We, like every other college, say that students should allow two hours of out-of-class coursework time for every hour they spend in class, but students expect this kind of advice to be lies. Most have heard this sort of thing in high school and it has proven to hardly ever be true. Deadlines are always flexible, extra credit is always available, make-ups and do-overs are as plentiful as tedium in the halls of Paragraph City High School, and maybe in your neighborhood, too. So when high school teachers say that something must (yawn) be done, it’s never true.
The lesson that has been taught is that teachers like to sound tough but they are mostly bluster and falsehood. Why should professors be any different?
So the college-as-second-job is one ritual. “Fifteen hours, is that all? I could squeeze in another course after dinner on Tuesdays and Fridays. Got anything that starts after the evening news?”
Another ritual walks in the door with students who are not registering for classes so much as they are accepting a 15 week sentence of mental incarceration. Like the second-job ritualists, the student-as-prisoner people see immediately through my lies:
“Look, you have three required courses here, how about fitting in a course on something that interests you?”
“Well, something you want to learn more about. What do you like?
“For instance, are you interested in the Civil War? Drawing? Computer hardware? Plants and animals? Science Fiction?”
The shrug tells me that I can’t sugar coat the fact that, in their minds, they are headed back to the same sort of prison that high school was for them. The good news is this: if they just attend class and endure the semester they will eventually be released with a diploma. Their look says, really, asking them to learn anything is just being naïve.
I enjoy other rituals much more. Registering students who are excited to be back in school after years of unsatisfying work is great. We open the course offerings and look at vibrant courses and a shining horizon. And I like advising students who are relieved to be shrugging off the constraints of high school, glad to be making choices for themselves and finally free of the judgments they’ve carried from a wild party four years ago, or the raucous, family-branding reputation of their older sisters and brothers.
But this Saturday, after two days of advisement and before classes begin on Monday, I remember most the prisoners and second-jobbers. They have as much potential for success as anyone in my classes, but they have to free themselves of those “mind-forged manacles” (William Blake,“London”).
Hamlet, who usually sits on my desk, fingering a letter opener as I advise, speaks of his Denmark as a prison, because he believes it to be one. “For there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” And then, “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.” Where I am, I think, this is one pretty good nutshell.
But on Monday as classes begin, I want to remember that dreams, like blood, pump through us and give us life, and that many of those on my roster have bad dreams.