College and Class, Part 2

Some months ago, I wrote about the differences between my college experience as an upper middle class kid at an Ivy League college and the  more challenging experience of my commuter university students, who often juggle college, job, and family responsibilities.

It’s not that attending a residential college protected us undergrads from problems. One of my roommates, the product of wealthy but emotionally distant parents, suffered from kleptomania and an eating disorder. I was also pretty much a mess. In the wake of not getting a promotion he was in line for, my dad had a breakdown and threatened to divorce my stepmom, whom he now declared must have married him for his money. It was awful.

So yes, we were hardly insulated from “real life.” Yet, there was a kind of distance afforded by being closeted in the cocoon of a residential college. We weren’t trying to take care of daily family emergencies while we were going to school, let alone hold outside jobs.

I was starkly reminded of this a couple of years ago. I’d made a big deal with my students of the importance of showing up for “peer feedback day” when they’d share their work with one another. When I asked my students who hadn’t shown up to explain their absences in a writing prompt, I expected answers like, “I worked too late the night before and fell asleep” or “I was embarrassed because I didn’t get my draft finished.”

Instead, what I got were stories of students trying to take care of their parents. One explained that her mother was disabled and she had to go home to help her because no one else was available. Another told me that she had to be in court after her drug-using mother attacked her and her 85 year old grandmother the night before. She’d had to call the police and was trying to get temporary custody of her little brother.

My current students have similar challenges, and yet, they persevere. I so admire their determination, even as I bemoan the days when getting to class simply can’t compete with other priorities in their complicated lives.

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