Community colleges have been called by one Professor X “colleges of last resort.” I don’t think so. Sure, there are kids here who could’t get in anywhere else, or those who don’t really know what to do with themselves after high school and just sign up for a couple of classes. But for the most part, the people I teach are not here by accident or by default. They are here because they can get in no matter what their grades in high school, because they can afford it without loans or help from their parents, or because they need training in a particular career field. Many of them are extremely goal-oriented, stereotypes about community colleges aside.
But once in a while, I do have a student who makes me wonder, “Just what are you doing here?” Such was the case with Levi, but not for any of the reasons you might guess.
The first day of class, Levi asked me if he could take my course for honors credit. Since it was his first quarter at the college, he didn’t have a track record or a recommendation, so I wasn’t sure how to answer him. When I told him the requirements, he didn’t flinch.
“I don’t think that should be any problem,” he said from behind his thick glasses.
That turned out to be an understatement.
Levi was, by far, one of the brightest students I’ve taught in the last twenty years. When I taught high school in an affluent suburb, I saw plenty of national merit scholars bound for the Ivies. Levi was every bit as bright, well-read, and articulate as any of those kids. He, too, had attended a good high school in a nice neighborhood. But in all the time I knew him (he ended up taking two classes from me over the course of about a year and a half) I never did ask him why he had chosen a community college.
Early on in our acquaintance, he came to my office for help on his memoir essay about the trip to Eastern Europe he had taken with his dad and brother a few years earlier. It was weird and hilariously funny and a little bit sad. During our conference, he told me more about his dad: a Hassidic Jew who lived in Brooklyn; a ridiculously brilliant but only borderline sane guy, and by Levi’s own description, not much of a father. I suspect part of the reason Levi had wound up at my school was due to finances; his mom was single and struggling to raise him and his younger brother, and his dad could not be counted on for support or help with tuition.
That didn’t explain everything, though. Certainly kids with financial challenges go to elite schools, and he could have earned a scholarship with his considerable intellect. Not to mention that fact that AP credit, well within his grasp, exempts most kids like him from taking comp at all. I try not to ask students about their high school careers; I want them to have a fresh start with me. But if I had to guess, I’d say that Levi was one of those kids who was so bored or disinterested in what high school had to offer and so busy reading about whatever was consuming him at the time, he could’t be bothered to worry about grades. Maybe he was just the classic underachiever; as bright as he was, he wasn’t a great student, missing class and deadlines more often than he should have.
A shy kid with a wry and sophisticated sense of humor, he took to stopping by during my office hour to chat. Often, he wanted to discuss his honors paper about the Feminist evolution of Cyberpunk. I knew nothing about the genre, but he had an encyclopedic knowledge of it…and of just about everything else: politics, economics, history, and sociology. It seemed as if there were nothing he hadn’t read. We bonded over our shared dislike of the then president and our love of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Once in awhile, I’d recommend a book. Two days later, he’d come back to my office to talk about it, having devoured it in the meantime.
As much as I enjoyed his visits, sometimes I had to shoo him away. I didn’t always have thirty or forty minutes to engage in conversation for its own sake, when grading, committee work, and other students demanded my time. I think Levi was intellectually famished. It must be lonely to have so little in common with one’s classmates, to think on an entirely different plane. Even with 25 years more reading and a lot more education behind me, I couldn’t keep up. His final paper was twice as long as I had required and his honors presentation inscrutable to ninety percent of his classmates, even though it was articulately and enthusiastically delivered. Both would have held their own in a graduate course.
Levi transferred after completing his general education courses to a university nearby. A few days ago, I got an email asking for a reference; it was automatically generated, not from him personally, and asked me to comment on his suitability to be a teaching assistant. Since I had not heard from him, I was happy to get some indication he was on track and ostensibly doing well. I always felt slightly inadequate for not being able to offer the intellectual stimulation–sometimes companionship–that he needed. But I’m glad, no matter why or how Levi started here, to have been a rung on the ladder to wherever it is he’s headed.