Friday, December 13, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
Chances are there’s a community college not far from where you live. Perhaps you’re plenty familiar with it, and have attended classes there (or maybe some of you reading this have taught at one). I must admit having been largely oblivious to them for most of my life.
In Austin, Texas (where I grew up), Austin Community College was firmly entrenched in the fabric of the city, but I never really paid any attention; I was fortunate enough to attend the University of Texas, and so, while I never really “looked down” on the community college’s campus or its students, I suppose I did kind of feel like it was beneath me. Even understanding that it served a significant purpose for thousands of Austinites.
When we moved to small-town North Carolina a couple of years ago, my wife (who’s been in the midst of retraining for a career change) signed up for a class at Alamance Community College, the closest collegiate-level institution to our house. It’s about 10 minutes away, compared to 30 or 40 minutes to UNC or Duke. It’s also about a zillion times cheaper than UNC or Duke. And I expect most of the kids at UNC and Duke think schools like Alamance Community College are beneath them.
Following my wife’s lead, this spring I enrolled in a class at ACC as well. Mostly I just wanted to see if I had the wherewithal to consider re-entering the slipstream of education more than two decades after I got my history degree. My hunch was that I wouldn’t cotton to it — that it would somehow feel like a step backward to be in class again, or that the community college experience would just feel less significant than my university days did.
While it has certainly been different, what I’ve found is that it’s by no means whatsoever less significant. I did, perhaps, benefit from a stroke of good fortune in that the teacher of the Statistics I class I’m taking is terrific: He’s sharp, funny, engaging, able to explain potentially difficult or mind-numbing concepts in a way that makes them seem not really foreign at all, even to a math-deficient brain such as my own. I suppose I didn’t expect a community college teacher to be this good; I don’t know why I thought that. Probably (and my wife’s experiences bear this out) not ALL of them are equally good; but it’s been really heartening and encouraging to discover firsthand how good they CAN be.
Beyond the firm quality of the education I’m receiving, it also has been fascinating to walk once again amidst people who are in the throes of learning and discovery. Which is not to say every student on campus is a beacon of enlightenment; some of them, no doubt, are just going through the motions of whatever seemed to come next after high school. But my sense is that the vast majority of kids at ACC are pretty motivated.
Further, they’re not all kids; the nature of the school — and, perhaps more revealingly, the nature of this economy — is such that quite a few folks I pass by in the halls are at or near my age. It’s a pretty broad range; in my class of 20 alone, we have fresh faces just out of high school, young parents in their mid-20s who are looking to start a career, folks in their 30s who probably had a career that dried up (there are many castaways from closed textile mills in our area), and a couple of fortysomethings like me, just trying to divine a new direction for themselves.
All of them have their own stories, and very distinct personalities. While I’ve not gotten to know any of them well enough to consider them good friends, I find that one of the things I’ve appreciated most about the semester is simply witnessing people who are trying to learn, trying to accomplish something, trying to make more of themselves through whichever path of study they may have chosen. They have inspired me, and they have my gratitude and my respect.
Beyond the students, I’ve also become aware of just how much a community college can mean to its community. (Guess I should’ve figured that out from the name, huh?) It was at the college that I learned about placement-testing for Census Bureau jobs; I went to ACC one night a couple months ago to take the test, and a few weeks later got a call offering me a job. It’s only temporary, but in this economy, it’s a job to be plenty thankful for (especially given that the unemployment rate in our county is well over 10%).
There’s more. Once every couple of weeks, the ACC culinary school students serve up fancy lunch meals at bargain prices. Occasionally the school will have some sort of culture day with entertainment including live music. Next week, my wife is getting an opportunity to tour a renowned local biotech firm as part of a campus field trip.
Earlier this week, we visited the horticulture students’ annual plant sale and came away with a whopping assortment of garden flowers and vegetables for about half what they would’ve cost us at the local Lowe’s. (They even had instructional talks for amateur black-thumbs such as myself; I actually think I now know how to put in a No-Till Garden, which sounds a whole lot better than ripping up the earth with a pitchfork or rented tiller.) Next week, we’re taking one of our broken deck chairs into the school’s welding class for repair; they inisted that they’re not allowed to take any payment from fellow ACC students. THAT price sure is right.
The past year or so has been a tough haul, having not only a dream die, but watching a presumably lifelong occupational discipline turn to dust before my very eyes. There’s still a ways to go to figure out just what will come next. The local community college may or may not end up playing a primary role in that new direction. But in these past few months, it has given me something to look forward to each week. And that, in and of itself, has been invaluable.
Peter Blackstock was co-founder and co-editor of No Depression magazine from 1995-2008, worked many years as a copy editor for daily newspapers in Seattle and Austin, and served as archivist for the SXSW music festival from 1989-1997. He blogs occasionally at That Magnificent Ghost.
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