It’s three weeks into the semester at the mostly commuter university where I teach part-time. I see one of my most enthusiastic students struggling to keep his eyes open. Finally, he lays his head down on his desk.
“You okay, Sam?”
“Yeah. Sorry—just really tired.”
“Did you work last night?”
This is the reality for the majority of my students—struggling to juggle work school, and family responsibilities as they pursue what’s left of the American dream, a college degree and hopefully a good job afterward. Many are the first in their families to attend college. They are bright, determined. But they are tired.
They also frequently have some catching up to do in terms of college readiness. Many grew up in homes where books were far and few between and graduated from high schools where little was expected of them beyond attending class.
I think about my own growing up and educational experience and realize in retrospect how privileged I was. Of course, at the time, I didn’t think of myself as especially fortunate. In sixth grade, my father moved us into a modest apartment in Greenwich, Connecticut, where I attended public school. In contrast, most of my friends lived in enormous homes. Attending the local public high school was practically considered “slumming it.” Waves of kids, including some of my closest friends, departed for private schools at the beginning of junior high and then the beginning of high school.
But in reality, as an upper middle class kid, I was hardly deprived. For one thing, my parents were college educated. I grew up in a household where books were everywhere. The public high school had plenty of advanced classes where I was pushed and challenged. I not only got to go to a really good college, but I didn’t have to work at an outside job during the school year. I was free to focus on my studies, and the intellectual stimulation I soaked in was intoxicating.
In retrospect, my family’s socioeconomic class afforded me incredible privileges when it came to education. In college, I spent long uninterrupted hours reading, thinking, and writing. I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to pay the bills or find the time to do the reading for my class the next day.
When it comes to life, including our college experiences, the playing field simply isn’t level. I was one of the lucky ones, and I can’t help but wish that many of my students could enjoy the advantages I took for granted.
And yet, they persevere. My students inspire me.