Last Thursday evening was the 47th annual commencement of North Shore Community College. It’s not a venerable old school, nor storied, nor bricked and ivied, but it is scrappy. North Shore is a school for underdogs, hard luck cases, and tenacious workers. I will not distort reality and ennoble all the students there, or view them through a soft focus lens of sentimentality. After all, Christina is a North Shore student. In my short time teaching there, I have had plenty of abject failures. Some dropped out under some personal duress they wouldn’t talk to me about; some just weren’t really committed; some weren’t ready for college; some faced too steep a language barrier. I think about many of those students and wonder where they went, and what happened to them. They are my phantoms, slipping away. Thursday night though, I saw instead the successes. It was the best commencement I’ve ever attended. Fancy prep school, my beloved land grant university, Ivy League law school, prestigious New England institutions of every stripe–none of them could match the spectacle of a North Shore graduation.
By some accident of profound disorganization, I found myself, an adjunct instructor with a mere two years’ experience, nearly at the head of the processional, and thus, seated in the front row. My department chair, my dean, and countless gray-headed senior faculty were arrayed somewhere behind me. This was less awkward than absurd, but seemed genuinely in keeping with the spirit of the school; we do not stand on ceremony, and we are democratic in the deepest sense. The graduates, stepping forward to be announced, evinced a wide spectrum of interpretations of the evening’s gravitas. An unsmiling African immigrant gazed steadily out at the crowd and gave a small bow as his name was read. A few minutes later, a woman did not quite drop it low, but dropped it to at least a moderate level before gliding across the stage. A nattily dressed black man tipped his chin high and straightened his bow tie. A somewhat embarrassed looking young white woman faced the room in a Batman costume and cape sewn to her open graduation gown. Students moonwalked, karate chopped and spun their way across the stage. They fist pumped or shuffled or stared fixedly ahead in a fit of nerves.
This is what I’ve learned, teaching at community college where we take all comers: I don’t know anything about anybody until I know him. I have seen every prejudice I didn’t know I had dismantled these past two years. What are people with autism like? What are single mothers like? Black people? Asian immigrants? What are veterans like? What are people who’ve been beaten, neglected, or trafficked as children like? My assumptions had not been negative overall, and that was part of the problem. Assume all veterans will be hard-working in school and you’ll be wrong (though they do tend to be rather more respectful than the average student.) Assume all autistic students will be stellar in their academic pursuits and you’ll be wrong again.
This is what I love about community college. At the beginning of the semester, I have no idea at all what sort of assemblage of humanity I will meet with that first day. They won’t all be talented, or smart, or hard-working, but if I’m lucky, many have at least one out of three. And it’s the hard workers crossing that commencement stage that brought tears unbidden to my eyes. Thursday night was the first time since the day I graduated veterinary school that I wore my velvet trimmed gown and my doctoral hood, and though the air was stifling in that arena, the weight of the hood at my neck was more welcome than the day it was first placed on me. Because this time, I wore it not in recognition of my own achievement, but in tribute to theirs.
As our band of gaudily streamered, sweaty faculty made our way out again, stopping to shake hands or hug students along the way, I thought it impossible that I could feel so proud of anything else I might do with my life than this.