I messed up in high school. Many kids do, for a variety of reasons. My reasons were among the most common. Things weren’t good at home. Though my parents worked very hard, neither of them had completed high school, their educations truncated by war in my dad’s case, and by pregnancy in my mom’s case. Both of them spent their lives working low-paying jobs from which they were often laid off, going without pay for months before they were called back to work. Every time they started getting caught up on bills, another layoff at the plant would send them back into debt. The constant shortage of money created tension in the house, and that tension made it hard to study, or to stay focused on school.
But I’d also entered that stage of adolescent rebellion so many kids go through, a time of self-conscious defiance of authority and a blanket rejection of grown-up rules and expectations. The culture exploited this attitude, in movies and in music, so it seemed to be loosely sanctioned. For young guys like me, it wasn’t cool to be the kid with his hand up in class or the one anxious to turn in his homework on time. It’s called peer pressure, it’s powerful, and it’s still stunting growth for countless young people each year.
I graduated in the bottom third of my high school class. I also failed to acquire that lengthy résumé of clubs and activities enumerated in the high school yearbook alongside the smiling pictures of the “popular” kids, nearly all of whom, not so coincidentally, came from the more prosperous homes in my small Midwestern town.
Though I wasn’t much interested in school during those years, I was keenly interested in learning. A couple of very influential teachers looked past my surly posturings, saw in me things not measured by tests or deference to the rules. One teacher, in particular, encouraged my love of reading, recommended books, and gave me the understanding that teachers weren’t all hall monitors and second-rate cops anxious to bust kids whose parents didn’t matter much in that town’s social hierarchy.
Much about those high school years left me embittered, and I lost no time in heading for the coast within a few months of my unspectacular graduation.
It didn’t take long for life in the real world of Los Angeles to convince me that going to college was likely to be my only escape route from the hardscrabble lives my parents had lived. But because of my dismal high school performance, there was little chance I’d ever be admitted to a four-year college.
Luckily for me, the community college system offered an opportunity to change my trajectory. I was admitted, on probation, to one of California’s two-year schools, offered a second chance, an opportunity to undo the damage done to the man I had the potential to become, those setbacks created by a skinny, confused, and rather frightened 17-year-old high school boy. I wasn’t much beyond that kid’s age, or weight, when I found myself laden with adult responsibilities. I had a wife and a child; I was working full-time and going to classes four nights a week. Fridays and Saturdays were reserved for homework. It was grueling, but I gradually overcame that C- identity I’d acquired in high school, got my grade point average high enough to transfer to a four-year college, and ultimately managed to gain a master’s degree, a community college teaching credential, and a life that would have been impossible without the second chance offered by the California community colleges.
I later taught full-time at three of those two-year schools, a career that included a stint at Reedley College, which opened in 1926, one of the very first of what would become 112 such colleges throughout the state.
I’m now retired after nearly 40 years of teaching, and like so many people my age, I sometimes take inventory of how my life was spent. I come away from such assessments with the certainty that teaching kids who came from backgrounds and experiences much like my own was a pretty good use of talents that would have been squandered but for the second chance made available to me, and then to them.
Not every student I taught made good use of that second chance. Some threw it away for the temporary access to financial aid. Others just lacked the discipline to take advantage of what was before them. Still others had aspirations dashed by encounters with bad teachers or unfortunate and ill-timed personal setbacks. But dozens of my former students went from two-year schools on through grad school, and countless others found skills needed to get them jobs that would have been out of their reach without the additional education they received in classes like mine. I knew hundreds of women who returned to school after rearing their kids, women looking for personal renewal and transformed identities. And finding both.
John F. Kennedy was shot to death during my first semester of college, but he left behind the idea of service, of making a contribution, of being of use to others. That notion seems faded and quaint these days when all the role models project the idea that the highest attainment in life is amassing wealth and living large. Teaching never promised those rewards, but the rewards it did offer were rich in both challenge and satisfaction. I made a difference in some people’s lives, boosted a few toward the potential that was theirs to be realized, helped some to escape the bleaker futures awaiting those who try to compete without diplomas or degrees. And though the difference I made might have been small in the scheme of things, it was not nothing. Help offered to students was help that mattered.
The United States is based on the idea of starting over. We reinvented ourselves as a nation freed of colonial status, making something new and something better, mostly fashioned out of ideas and ideals.
The California Community College system offered me a second chance, and I, in turn, helped extend that second chance to others. Because of the underlying philosophy that sustains the community college system, millions of people, young and old, have been given an opportunity to erase past mistakes and redream their futures. That’s a pretty good government social program, and a pretty good way to have spent a life.