Magical Moments in Community College Classrooms

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Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

Community colleges often fail to receive the recognition they deserve because they lack the ivy-covered buildings and perfectly manicured lawns that most people associate with higher education. However, as a writing instructor who has taught in various community-college classrooms for almost 30 years, I can tell you that magical moments occur in those classrooms more often than one might think. These moments occur because community colleges offer a second chance to so many individuals and because community colleges are more than willing to offer their courses at unconventional times and in unconventional places. Allow me to briefly describe four magical classes I have had the pleasure to teach and observe.

One of my first magical classes was a summer course that was scheduled to meet in the basement of a Methodist church in Round Lake, New York (about a half hour north of Albany). This quaint, Victorian village had once been at the center of a major Christian revival, but by the time I was assigned to teach there in the early 1990’s, the town had settled into a quiet simplicity reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.

As the students and I gathered outside the church at 6:00 p.m., for the first Composition I class, we exchanged small talk and discovered that two of the 15 students lived in the village, and these two eagerly shared the history of their town with classmates from the surrounding communities. Susan, a 19-year-old single mom, and Barbara, a 46-year-old wife and mother of four, were still talking 20 minutes later when we all realized that the church pastor who was supposed to unlock the building for us must have forgotten. (All student names are fictional.) Since his parsonage across the street was locked and empty, I was all set to cancel the first class. “Oh, well, these miscommunications happen,” I said, but before I could continue, Susan, the single mom, stepped in and spoke up.

“I know what we can do; we can hold class on the second floor of the Library. I’m sure it’s empty on a night like this.”

“Yeah, let’s do that,” Barbara, her neighbor and fellow Round Laker, concurred.

I was utterly amazed by this unexpected desire to hold class on a beautiful, summer night when we easily, and justifiably, could have canceled. Thus, I sheepishly followed along as those two ladies walked us the three short blocks to the huge, old home that had been converted into a library, and they arranged for our class to meet there that evening. Within two minutes of our arrival, we all sat at a long, oak table surrounded by books and began our reading and writing adventure.

During the next six weeks, that small group of students became such a tight community of writers that most of the original 15 also signed up for a subsequent Composition II course at the same Round Lake location. Though we never had to meet in the Library again, our church basement classroom echoed continuously with the compliments and constructive criticisms of novice writers who sincerely enjoyed reading and critiquing one’s another’s work. In fact, when the fall semester ended three days before Christmas, the elder of the two Round Lake residents invited all of us to her home just down the street for a Christmas party and a farewell gathering. The entire experience was magical, a revival of sorts for students and teacher alike.

Years later, I was on the main campus of Hudson Valley Community College in Troy for an “intersession” class in public speaking. These 11-day courses between the end of the fall semester and the beginning of the spring semester are pretty intense, meeting for four to six hours each day. The roster of these classes is even more diverse than usual because many local students who attend a faraway four-year school on a full-time basis will take a “short course” while they are home for the holidays. In fact, one student, an Ivy Leaguer attending Cornell in Ithaca, said his advisor told him to take the public speaking course at a community college for a more diverse experience.

Speaking publicly in that environment, however, can be somewhat intimidating because so few students know each other, and they have so little time to get to become acquainted. Yet, one student in this class inspired everyone and allowed them to connect quickly because of three key attributes: his willingness to always speak first, his friendly manner, and his gut-wrenching honesty.

Frank was actually something of a local celebrity. Three years earlier, he had led his high-school football team to the finals of the state championships. Unfortunately, Frank never got to play in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse because he was critically injured in a car accident after the semi-final victory celebration. Undaunted by years of therapy and by the fact that he would never play football again, Frank hobbled into class every day with a cane to steady himself, a chaw of tobacco in his cheek, a styrofoam cup to hold his spit, and a “How ya doin’?” for everyone. His finest moment, though, occurred on the last day of that calendar year.

With the narration speech due on that particular day, most students stayed near the five-minute minimum and talked about ordinary events like failing a driver’s test, experiencing a first job interview, or shopping for Christmas presents in New York City. Frank, however, talked about the day that changed his life.

He began with an apology. He said he couldn’t speak without pacing, and he said the tobacco helped to keep his mouth moist. Then, he described his nervousness before the semi-final game, the difficulty of winning that game, and the exhilaration he and his teammates felt with the victory, an exhilaration he explained he would probably never feel again. His entire presentation was well over 30 minutes, and he added exact details about the accident, the subsequent hospital stay, and the lengthy rehabilitation. Through all 30-plus minutes, his classmates sat transfixed, amazed by his sincerity and overwhelmed by his optimism and positive attitude. Again, the moment was magical.

My next magical class also occurred on the main HVCC campus, but the day and the time were unconventional. When my department chairperson first offered me the opportunity to teach a Saturday morning Composition II class, I doubted that enough students would sign up to participate. Fortunately, they did, and the experience proved to be exhilarating.

Usually with my Composition II classes, I ask my students to write a five-page research paper on a controversial issue that interests them. In preparation for that final assignment, I also have them write various one-page essays on that same topic using different rhetorical approaches such as description, narration, examples, compare and contrast, etc. Typically, the students choose long-debated issues such as abortion, capital punishment, and the legalization of marijuana, but one student in this particular class chose an issue that at the time was both new interesting for most of the class.

Daniel was almost 30, and he had the audacity to write that the computer file-sharing of music was wrong and that it threatened the livelihoods of songwriters and musicians. Just about everyone else in the class either grew up with the idea that the file-sharing of music was okay, or they enjoyed it so much that they were unwilling to even consider another opinion.

Fortunately, Daniel didn’t criticize those who downloaded music off the internet, and he didn’t treat his readers harshly by attacking their integrity. Instead, each week, he methodically used a different rhetorical strategy to demonstrate that the work of songwriters and musicians was being taken from them without their permission and without compensation. This reasoned and somewhat objective approach gradually won over his classmates, and we could all see the conversion taking place.

During the early weeks of the semester, his fellow writers were questioning his argument more than they were his writing technique. By the end of the semester, though, they were gradually acquiescing to his argument and even offering suggestions on how he could persuade even more readers.

A year later, after the courts had ruled in favor of the musicians, I thought of Daniel and his classmates. Daniel probably felt vindicated by the decision, and his classmates probably felt that we had all been part of a magical journey that had debated and, ultimately, agreed with the decision about the future of intellectual and creative property in this country.

Finally, my most recent magical adventure has taken me off the HVCC campus once again. The nearby Albany Medical Center (AMC) offers a special education program for its employees called “Project Learn.” Rather than constantly trying to recruit nurses for this massive facility, the AMC program tries to “grow its own” by offering incentives for current employees to study nursing at HVCC. Instead of sending these employees to the HVCC campus, however, AMC and HVCC have agreed to send the instructors to AMC. Thus, every Monday night for almost a decade, I taught a Composition course for AMC employees in a training classroom at the Medical Center. The result has been invigorating and given me a new appreciation for all the employees who work in medical facilities.

The classes have been made up of a wide variety of employees from office workers to emergency room (ER) technicians and from janitors to blood testing specialists. Their ages, races, nationalities, and family situations vary tremendously, but all the students have a strong and serious desire to progress in their educational objectives and in their careers. In fact, one night, I felt like they didn’t need me at all.

This particular magical moment occurred about four weeks into the spring semester of Composition II. Most of the students in the class had completed the Composition I class in the fall, but one older woman — Paula, an ER technician — had completed that course years earlier and was a newcomer to the group. As we discussed her descriptive essay on the topic of appendectomy, she apologized because she felt the essay was too dry and too technical. Before I could offer encouragement, though, her classmates all jumped in to compliment her. “Paula, your language is perfect,” said one; “medically accurate but easy to understand.” Another commented on the writer’s point of view: “I felt like I was right there in the ER with you and that you know exactly what you’re talking about.” The comments from her peers lifted Paula’s spirits immediately, and she was extremely receptive to the minor suggestions that her classmates offered to improve the piece further.

The interaction reassured me, as well, because I realized that the students had, indeed, been listening to what I had been saying and were now sharing that knowledge with others. Again, the evening was magical, and it actually inspired me to sit down and write this article.

Community colleges, by their very nature, are stepping stones for some students and final educational destinations for others and will never be viewed as equal to their four-year counterparts. Fortunately, these two-year schools also provide learning opportunities and magical experiences that transform lives and reverberate through subsequent generations.

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Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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