Maybe it was having lunch with a former colleague. Or maybe it was the “white privilege” comment hurled at me after a recent post when I dared express concern about a daughter’s iffy wedding plans. Whatever the cause, I’ve been thinking about my years of teaching English in the North Carolina community college system.
Don’t be misled by the dates on the retirement clock above. I worked full-time at Nash Community College for twenty years, but I also taught part-time for several years prior to finally obtaining a full-time position.
Part-time teaching meant part-time pay that covered only the time spent in class. No compensation for the hours involved in grading essays and preparing lessons. Oh, and part-time meant no health insurance and no time or money accrued towards retirement.
Hardly a “white privilege” situation. But I enjoyed my job for the most part, even when it was only part-time, and seeing my former colleague, I remembered all the wonderful people I once worked with.
And although a few of them drove me crazy, I enjoyed most of the students I taught. I still bump into many of them around town. I’ve been retired now almost seven years, but not a month goes by that I don’t have someone in the line at the grocery store or in an office somewhere ask me, “Didn’t you teach at Nash Community College?”
You may have heard this advice to authors: Write what you know. Since I was once a community college instructor, it was easy for me to give my protagonist in my debut novel Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder the same occupation. Here’s a scene from the book that could’ve been lifted from my life:
“That night after Heather had gone to sleep and while Joe was watching an old episode of Dragnet, I read the eighteen writing samples I’d gathered from Jermaine’s class. Some were from recent 1979 high school graduates who were enrolled in the college-transfer program. At the technical college, they could finish their first two years of general college courses while living at home. This saved them a lot of money, along with the tech’s tuition being considerably less than it was at a four-year school.
Several middle-aged students had written about how they’d lost their jobs when the fertilizer plant outside of town had closed. I felt sorry for these displaced workers in their forties or fifties who’d labored there for twenty-five or more years but had no retirement benefits and now needed to retrain.
Two Vietnam veterans wrote about coming to school using their GI benefits to advance in their jobs. Neither wrote anything about his war experience, but both stated they’d served in “Nam” back in the late sixties. I remembered Veronica telling me about her Vietnam vet husband when I got my first curly perm at the Kut and Kurl and wondered if these students knew him.
In the middle of the stack, I found Jermaine’s paper. He began by saying that he was eighteen years old and lived with his parents. He hoped to be the first in his family to graduate from college, setting a good example for his two younger sisters. His father was a guard on the night shift at the correctional center out on the bypass, and his mother worked in the cafeteria at Narrow Creek High School. Jermaine wrote that he hoped to be a science teacher one day at that same school.
And then there was this: ….”
I’m leaving you with a cliff-hanger. You’ll just have to read Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder to find out what “this” is.
Although I saw only an occasional Vietnam vet near the end of my career, the displaced workers and the first generation college students were constants. I like to think that over my thirty-plus years of part-time and full-time teaching at four community colleges in eastern North Carolina, I helped people achieve their educational and occupational goals.
To be sure, teaching English in the community college was not a life of white privilege. It was a life of service.