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In the late 1990s I was an adjunct instructor at a community college in East Texas. I taught Introductory Computer and Microsoft Office.
A community college is different than a four-year or upper-level school. It is a combination trade school and high school for super seniors (think grades 13 and 14). Students are a mix of high school graduates continuing (or not continuing) their education while living at home, adults trying to restart their education, and workers adding a skill.
Back then about one-third of my class was made up of teens signed up only so they could be carried on their parent’s health insurance as “full-time students.” Tuition was cheaper than buying their own insurance. I was good with that. They would disappear after the first three classes and allowing me to concentrate on those who wanted to learn. In Texas you cannot flunk out of a community college. No matter how many times you fail courses, they have to let you back in the next semester.
Many students, especially the older students, really did want to learn. Having received a degree in the school of hard knocks, they valued what they were learning. I had gained a reputation among the administration, councilors, and students as an instructor to go to if you wanted to learn, but had difficulty with the subject.
Every semester I got a number of older students who were – not problem children, since they did not cause problems. Rather challenges, who needed extra work to master the material. I saw it as my job to see that everyone who wanted to learn about Introductory Computers or Office – and were willing to put in the work – left my class knowing the material. I almost always succeeded, if they did the work required.
One semester my students included a black man in his early 30s. He was a big man, someone I would have pegged as a one-time high school athlete. Muscles, but sort of gone to fat, and with a bad knee. He was a quiet man. He asked few questions in class, but those he asked were to the point and incisive. He never took notes, but was always listening intently.
He was the most industrious student I had that year. He was always in the computer lab when I got there, an hour before class, and would be in there after class. Curious, I checked with my lab assistant. This student was in the lab for about 16 hours a week.
I was impressed with his homework. It was always complete. He did not take shortcuts, either. I could tell it was his work, too. While it was always correct, there were idiosyncratic phrases and punctuation. The chain of thinking indicated individual effort, too.
Then I gave the first test. It was not that hard a test – multiple choice, 40 questions. One hour to do the test. I think the average was an 85.
I expected him to ace it. He scored about 50. The answers to every one of the first quarter of the test were correct. Every one. Then, in the next quarter he got six right. The rest of the test? It was obvious he was just guessing.
I looked at it. He started out strong. As I expected. Then things started going wrong. I knew he knew the material. It was as if he had run out of time. Suddenly the answer hit me.
I needed to test that answer, though. I went to the computer lab early, when I knew he would be there and no one else from the class would. He was there and I sat down next to him.
I said, “I want to talk to you about the test.”
“I didn’t do well, did I?” he responded.
I gave him a sheet with that day’s assignment on it. “Do me a favor. Read this to me. Aloud.”
He did – very slowly. It took two minutes for him to puzzle out and read the first sentence.
I told him, “There is no disgrace in not being able to read well. All of us start out that way. The problem comes if you do not fix it.” At that point I explained the college had a reading laboratory for students who had difficultly reading. It improved their reading. Whatever problem he had could be fixed, because he was plenty smart.
I also told him I had discussed this with the dean. In a community college, students with reading difficulties were categorized as learning disabled and qualified for accommodation. The accommodation I arranged was that next three tests would be read to him (by the lab assistant). He still had to answer the same questions as the rest of the class, and he would still have one hour to do the test.
But I also told him the first test would still count because he had been a dumb [CoC Violation] who had not been up front with me about his problem. If he wanted to make up the points he could do extra-credit homework. And go to the reading lab.
I asked him if I thought this was fair. He said it was. We had him take the next tests separately. (I never told the other students why.) He did the rest of the assigned homework as before, and did a bunch of extra credit work. He finished the class with an A-, and I think he earned it.
I learned the rest of the story from my lab assistant, another older student trying to restart his education. My guess about the man had been right. He had been an athlete – a standout football player through junior high and high school. Earned a football scholarship to a Big 12 university in Texas. Played first string at college four years, and then went pro. Signed a fat contract for big bucks. Was a contender for all-Pro as a defensive back. He had it all: fancy house, trophy wife, money in the bank.
Then he blew out his knee. Within two years he had lost everything: football career, money, house, and wife. (She proved a good housekeeper, though; kept the house and his savings.) Two years later he was back in Texas, dead broke and living in a trailer at his parents’ place. He had a high school diploma and a college education, but both were worthless. He had never gone to class. Substitutes had taken his tests for him.
His coaches and teachers encouraged that all through public school and college. It gave him more time to practice and ensured he would pass all his classes. When you are young, a gifted athlete and everyone, including those you trust most, is telling you to do it that way because you need to concentrate on your gift for football, you go along because it is so easy.
At some point during his time in that trailer he realized he had been had. That those he trusted had been using him to further their careers. He got angry about that, but he also knew he could not do anything about the past. Instead he decided to pay it forward by making sure the next standout athlete did not fall into the same trap as he had. He decided he needed to become a high school football coach. One who would make sure his players understood the need for a good education, and the transitory nature of a sports career.
That meant he needed a degree to be qualified to teach. He surrendered his bachelor’s degree so he could start his education over and do it right this time. He signed up at the only place that would take him – the local community college. One of the classes he signed up for that semester was my Intro to Computers class, because he knew computers were important.
I think after the test in my class they did a disabled student accommodation for him in all the classes he took. I did not know because I was only on campus one night a week. I do know he did go to the reading laboratory that semester, because I checked.
After he finished my class I saw him again only once. It was several years later. I was moving back to the Houston area. I had gone to the public library to return some books – the last books I checked out from there before moving. I saw him sitting in a chair in the library with two little girls on his lap. He was reading a book to them.
He saw me and waved me over. He introduced the girls as his nieces. He took them to the library every Saturday because reading was important.
I asked how he was doing. He told me he was finishing up his degree that December, and was getting his teaching certificate. He thought he had lined up a coaching job at a middle school in East Texas for that fall.
He thanked me for the help I had given him in that computer class. He said it was the last piece he needed to get into coaching. He knew he needed help, but did not know how to get it or what to ask.
I told him the pleasure was all mine.