I recognized the student standing at the entrance of the Center for Learning and Academic Support Services at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson. His hands smoothed down the collared shirt he was wearing and glided into the pockets of his jeans. His ball cap was rakishly canted to one side. He is a first-generation college student from a low-income family. He is from the barrio.
The previous semester, I’d been his tutor, and the two of us spent many sessions at a table in the learning center as we remedied run-on sentences, corrected comma splices and rooted out redundancies. Frustration showed on his face at times. At times it showed on mine. I said everyone’s entitled to mistakes now and again. Don’t get discouraged. It’s too easy to fall by the wayside.
I fell by the wayside. It took 10 years to get back on track.
The student watched as I approached. He didn’t have an appointment, he said, extending his hand. “I just want to say thanks.”
“My grade’s up to a B.”
I shared his joy. When he first came to see me, he was getting a D in English.
I avoided college for 10 years, because I thought it was no place for a guy who got his high school degree from adult school, a vato from the barrio.
My mother encouraged me to enroll at a community college. I joined the U.S. Army instead. I had the opportunity to take college courses at Fort Polk, La., but I never took the first step because, in my heart, I believed an associate or bachelor’s degree was out of my league.
The obstacles presented to first-generation college students from low-income households are too numerous to count. In the inner city, it’s too easy to run with a gang, to get high, to get thrown in the slammer, to see your dreams go up in flames. The rent is due next month. The light and gas are about to be cut. There are mouths to feed. To those who face these pressures and come and see me for tutoring, I say what my platoon daddy, Staff Sgt. Alexander, used to say to me: Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.
My grandfather quit school in the 1920s to work the fields with his father in Michoacán, Mexico, but he had a teacher who walked several kilometers to my grandfather’s house after school to tutor him. I imagine grandpa sitting down with this man to learn about literature, math, history and science. My great-grandmother gave the teacher eggs in lieu of pay. Why’d the instructor walk all that way? I think he thought he’d make a difference.
Like my grandfather, my students are in need of a positive influence from someone who wants to make a difference. There was a time when I would’ve laughed in your face to hear sentiments like that. I was too cynical. Not anymore.
What eventually got me back to school – after a job as delivery route driver, a DUI and temporary jobs – was seeing my brother Adam, who had also hit a rough patch in his life, find a profession that gave him a sense of fulfillment.
He had earned a degree in industrial engineering from Berkeley but was stacking books at Borders. Eventually, he decided to earn a teaching credential, and he became a math teacher at Fleming Middle School in Lomita. To this day, his former students thank him for a job well done when they spot him in a local restaurant, mall or movie theater.
In the fall of 2006, six years after leaving the Army and floundering about, I cashed in what remained of my G.I. Bill chips and enrolled at Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington. I was 30 years old. After earning an associate degree in 2009, I transferred to California State University, Dominguez Hills, where I majored in English. Many wonderful instructors and acquaintances gave me the boost of confidence I needed. Now it’s my turn to do the same for others. It has been an honor to serve the students who attend my workshops. It warms my heart to see a room full of eager faces wanting to learn.
This fall, for various reasons, I have not been tutoring. But I miss those smiling faces and look forward to seeing them soon again. I already know what I’m going to say to my students next year: Keep on moving. Despite the setbacks and the drama, keep on moving. You can graduate. And not by the skin of your teeth, either. Cum laude? Why not summa cum laude?
Jose Luis Gonzalez lives and writes in California. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square ( www.zocalopublicsquare.org).