Why I Teach Community College English

People often ask me if it’s worth all the hard work, all the tears, all the patience, and all the persistence. You bet it is.

After my first complete year of teaching in the college classroom came to a close, a mentor of mine from graduate school, an old professor, asked me, “What’s the best part?” The silent, second, hidden element of that question is: “Was it worth it? Is teaching what you thought it would be? Is it as good as you had hoped?”

I also get this question from new educators or from ones who just began graduate school, or from family members who wonder why I’ve chosen this path, and it’s a difficult one. Essentially, these people are asking: Was all the stress worth those painful but necessary F’s you have to heartbreakingly give time and time again, even to the kid who is growing by leaps and bounds despite his terrible home life and his graveyard shift?

It is no secret that teaching is hard and often unrewarding, so these questions should not come as a surprise. After all, statistics show that half of the educators in the United States will leave the field within five years of entering it; perhaps it’s because they do not know how to answer this question. It is a complicated one.

Was graduate school, student loans, and the 24 interviews I’ve been on at nine different campuses throughout my region worth it? Worth the papers I grade late into the evening and cover with usable criticism that never get picked up because the student has dropped my course? How about that 13th rewrite that I, yet again, grade and stress over and evaluate simply to decide that the student needs at least 16 more weeks at this level of composition?

Was it worth the tears I sometimes, embarrassingly, shed on the drive home, not sure if anyone is ever listening or if they will ever improve? Was it worth it? Even more so, what’s the best part? What part makes it good and justifiable and redeeming? What part rationalizes taking time away from my husband and delaying the growth of our family? What part makes that OK? What part helps me stay afloat when I am often drowning? What part gives me comfort when all I can think about is the student who is currently mad at me for telling health services about her cutting habit? And what on earth helps me stay motivated, on time, prepped, and still interested in comma splices and page limits when I am told in my office by a sweet girl who prefers non-fiction that the reason she has returned to her local community college is because she was raped last summer at her old university?

Please don’t get me wrong.

While I love my job, perhaps even too much, it’s a hard question; maybe it is because the failures often feel louder in this career than the wins, or because on hard days, it feels like I’m playing a losing game, particularly when I wake up at 5am to grade for three hours before my first lecture, then lead two classes back to back, and then rush from office hours to a committee meeting to an emergency problem in the writing center, all to then overhear an administrator chuckle over how late professors typically run—the odds are stacked against me.

This year was difficult.

I lost a student too young to the many cruel and uncontrollable things that happen outside my classroom doors. This year, I was also overlooked for a full-time position at the college I have given three years to. This year, I had the highest drop rate I’ve ever experienced. Spring break came and destroyed the will of my students. I had two who struggled with homelessness this semester. I had one who threatened me. Last but not heartbreakingly least, I had a student yell at me in my office in tears because my expectations were, according to her, unfair and too high.

This year, I took 30 students to see my alma mater; days later, three students who I hadn’t seen in over a year strolled in to my office, grown from who they once were, to tell me they had been accepted to UC colleges. One even printed out the e-mail, so I could put it on my wall. This year was my third year in a row being nominated for teacher of the year. This year, I held a student’s hand in my office about his girlfriend’s recent abortion, and we cried together about it and turned to a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks to find the strength and insight and wisdom I didn’t have for him alone.

After far too long of a pause, I finally had an answer for my old mentor, and it is the answer I always give when asked whether or not teaching is good or worth it or “for me” or “for forever.” The best part is that, sometimes, I’m the only one who gets to see their bluebird. That was my answer three years ago, and it is my answer today.

Bukowski has a poem I teach on the last day of every class. It reads, “There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I’m too clever / I only let him out at night.” For me, the poem is about the many forces that lead our students to silencing their voice, sabotaging their own potential, and not accepting the help and the support and sometimes even the love offered to them. Moreover, the poem is about the lingering, untreated wounds that my bluebirds often bring in with them. It is about all the reasons they shut themselves down and shut themselves up.

They tell me, shoulders sloped, eyes glued to their desk, unsure of why they’re even there, “My last English teacher said I’m a bad writer.” Ashamed without good reason, they say, “I’m here because I blew my placement test.”You didn’t blow it. You weren’t given the skills, my friend, but we will learn them now, I say, knowing that I can take them to a new level of comprehension and literacy if they just trust me, if they will open themselves up to me.

But it doesn’t matter how I often I say this, and it doesn’t matter how many times I congratulate their innate ability to describe a situation, capture me with narrative, blend their native tongue with their learned one, or poignantly read a passage of baffling simplicity or excruciating complexity; all they can hear are the echoes of their past antagonists.

These are the voices of the spirit crusher, the big bad boogeyman, the evil, bullying authorities they have met before me. This is the cacophonous, unsympathetic voice of people who underestimated the intense responsibility of the classroom, the impact of language, and the weight of a grade, people who mistook seemingly untroubled waters as an assurance that they could move forward, not checking for comprehension, not pulling a student aside, not taking the extra five minutes to help the student digest, learn, process, and grow.

When students say self-deprecating things, I hear all kinds of monsters.

Sometimes, it’s the voice of a controlling, emotionally insecure girlfriend who wants to hold them back and hold them close. Sometimes, it’s their own parents, a sound that is nothing short of stomach turning. Other times, it’s clear that the monster has established themselves directly between the students’ ears, and that no one has shown them a hate deeper than they have shown themselves.

More often than I’d like to admit, it is their English teacher who has left them bruised, limping, and I can tell immediately, the moment I meet these small birds, that someone has hurt them, and that they are so very angry about it. They walk into my room late, sit far away from my desk, deep in the back. Slumped down low, they seldom raise their hand. The tick that stands out to me is how the way they turn in each assignment, face down, sandwiched between the work of their friends. They’re doing everything they can to mask their broken wing. Indefinite and painfully doubtful, they wait nervously for me to show “the real me,” the admonishing, checked-out teacher they are more familiar with.

But I leave my red pen at home, I have my husband quiz me on the role sheet so I can learn them and their quirks and their stories as soon as humanly possible, I share my own creative work vulnerably in the room, I bring cupcakes in, I come up with new ways to compliment their strengths, and I work hard—sometimes much harder than I ever thought I would. Never knowing how long the healing process will last or how much it will take, I wait it out, I follow their lead, I listen closely, and I try to be what they need rather than who I want to be, and it takes weeks. Weeks and weeks to earn their trust, but eventually, I chip away at the scar tissue, and my own eagerness to see their bluebird fuels me.

Soon, they will bring a poem into my office that only I can read and that we can workshop together. This semester, Daniel brought me an acrostic he wrote for me about being “rad.” Last semester, Travis brought me a sonnet he crafted when his father left him, his sister, and his mother. Just a few weeks ago, Emily emailed me late at night just to say she was still thinking about the novel from class although we had finished it an entire unit ago.

Twelve semesters in, I know that sometimes I’ll never have the bluebird moment, and in many semesters, I’ll only get to watch it from afar, but it still counts. Maybe they will try out for our soccer team, they will apply to transfer, they will go to the small independent theatre a few freeway exits away and think about art they never considered before. Maybe they will seek extra help or bring me a cup of coffee and ask to sit with me at the writing center—they’re not even sure why they want to, but they’re there, and that’s when I know I’ve found their bluebird.

Not every semester but often enough, a few weeks after I turn in grades, one of them will write me a simple but beautiful email saying, “Thank You,” and she won’t know it, but she will have made the whole thing worth it. She will help me understand that my four years in the classroom perhaps did not get me the full-time employment I sought, but that it mattered to her and her peers, and, thanks to them, I will remember that that’s all that matters.

That’s what makes it worth it.

A Huntington Beach native, Erica Brenes studied Creative Writing and English at UCLA and then again at Cal State Long Beach. Although her poetry can be found in The Rip Rap, Cadence Collective, and Sap, she is beginning to focus more primarily on non-fiction essays. 

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