As You Like It: RebirthBy Joan Florek Schottenfeld
The last week of the school year. Time to find inspiration, energy, new ideas — time for a field trip. When we received a flyer from Roxbury Community College advertising its “College for a Day,” it was the perfect opportunity for us. I had never visited RCC, and I very much wanted to see the place that we had been recommending to our students all year. We handed out flyers, talked about the day as if it were God’s gift to GED students, and arranged to meet at the school at 10 a.m. I hoped that at least one person would show up.
I happily counted ten students waiting for us in front of the building. I must have sounded like a slightly demented cheerleader, laughing and greeting everyone, running from student to student, exhorting them to sign up, grab their stuff, and find their seats in the auditorium. I was just so happy to see our students there that I couldn’t stop bubbling. Eventually I settled down, and we waited for the program to begin.
When the dean of student affairs, Charles Diggs, asked the various schools to shout out if they were there, we all yelled, “Yes!” when he called out the Blackstone. Surprisingly, our group sounded really excited. We listened to the day’s agenda, welcoming remarks from the head of the Community Coalition and then waited to hear three RCC students tell us their stories.
One woman had waited until her seven children were grown before becoming a student herself. She got her GED, then decided to try college. Despite her fears and uncertainties, her many supporters convinced her that she could do it. She told us how every day she would finish class, and every day she would declare that there was no way that she was going back. And yet every day she did. Before she knew it she had finished her first year. “And I’m coming back next year!” she told us triumphantly as we applauded her. “If I can do it, so can you!”
The next gentleman told us about emigrating to the U.S. from the Cayman Islands. He learned English in an ESOL program, then moved on to a GED school. Once he got his GED, he attended RCC, finished its two-year program and then transferred to UMass Boston. He had just graduated a few days before. “If I could do it, so can you!” he told the crowd.
The third gentleman was a Navy vet who, after many detours, decided to attend college when he retired. He regaled us with his life’s story, ending with his schooling at RCC. And once again we were told, “If I could do it, so can you!”
Now, you have to understand that all year long we have been talking, cajoling, and even shouting at our students that that they could get their GED if they only worked, but their responses were dispiriting. Yet as they listened to their peers, all around me I could see heads nodding in agreement and secret smiles. I knew they were telling themselves, “If they can do it, then maybe I can too!” Hope reborn.
Afterwards we each chose a class to visit: theater arts, the humanities, even chemistry. I decided to go to “Poetry and Morality.” Nine of us followed the teacher, Ted Thomas, trooping off to his class. The room was small and airless, and for the first few moments I had misgivings. Professor Thomas handed out a syllabus and told us that he would be treating us as if we were attending our first class of the semester. I felt warm, stifled and bored and wanted very much to leave. This was a mistake. What was I doing here?
Then suddenly our teacher caught fire as he began preaching poetry. He paced back and forth, asking us questions with his hands, pleading for poetry, drawing us into a passionate conversation. I moved to the edge of my seat, trained my eyes on him and smiled. I had forgotten this — the excitement of a great teacher stirring thoughts in my brain that had lain dormant for too long. It felt like church with all of us yearning to yell out, “Amen!” to his assertions about poetry and life. And then he asked us to write a poem.
A poem? Was he kidding? I couldn’t remember the last time I had written a poem. He saw our frightened faces and said that it was not so very dreadful a task that he was asking. Just a poem. I sat there, feeling rebellious, angry, scared, and then suddenly, my hand began to write as quickly as it used to so many years ago. Within five minutes there was a poem on my page. How had that happened? Wonderingly, I held up my sheet of paper and showed it to him and he smiled.
“May I read it?” he asked gently. My hand shook a bit as I gave it to him. I watched as he read it, wondering that I had handed it to him at all. When he turned around and told me that he liked it and asked if I would send it to him, I suddenly realized that I had been holding my breath. My prayer felt answered.
Oh yes, I would send it — and quickly, before I had second thoughts, before I could lose my nerve. Who was I to question a rebirth?
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