Nate Maertens thinks there’s a problem with the way we often teach literacy narratives. We try to be diverse. We use Malcolm X, Amy Tan, Rodriguez, Rose, and on and on, and do our best to give students the incredible words written by people who resemble them, people who reflect on the way language and learning altered the course of their human life. But in our collation of literacy narratives, we haven’t quite found that one text that actually looks like all our students: a literacy narrative written by a community college student.
I was a community college student. I attended Las Positas. And I think it changed life. My motive for going to the school, which was as present to me then as it is now, was that I believed community college was an exit strategy. It was an escape from the inevitable life that lay out before me.
I didn’t come from money. If you’ve read my previous posts, you would know my family had, for a few years of my childhood, lived in a school bus in the woods, homeless. I never envisioned myself as having a new car, or owning a home, or having children dressed in their own new clothes and playing happily in the family album photographs – I only have three or four such Polaroids myself. As early as middle school I remember assuming that I would live an anxious life. I would toil, struggle, and play precarious games with debt. I thought that the American dream was someone else’s dream. And no guidance counselor could have convinced me otherwise with talk of scholarships, or grants, or low-interest loans. I always believed these things were meant for other people, even though they had been designed precisely for someone like me.
My grades were mediocre to bad. Mostly because I always had a ruthless impatience for anything that seemed like a waste of time; if I couldn’t afford a university, then it didn’t seem worthwhile to apply myself as much as my peers had in English, and history, and math (I failed geometry twice and had to be signed out of it by my mom just to take trig my senior year).
When I finally did appear in a community college classroom, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The professor had given us E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” and asked us to write an imitation of the premise, to recall a location from childhood and reflect on the experience of returning later in life. I fancied myself an amateur writer and was so taken by the idea of a professorial audience that I ignored the prompt entirely and instead submitted the first chapter of a memoir I was writing at the time about my own delusional adolescent romances, titled, “How to get a girl (only it didn’t work for me).” The teacher wasn’t pleased. So I got back my first college essay with scathing marginal notes and a grade of “Inc. 0/100”. It wasn’t even an F.
If we ever do this reflective writing challenge again, I might pick up from there and write all seven posts as a literacy narrative on my own journey as a community college student, tracing in my memories the ways an outsider became an insider. I could say it was all grit, but I think it had as much (or more) to do with the teachers who believed I was smarter than I thought I was.