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If the dog ate your homework, read this

Op-Ed

A community college English teacher tries to impart a life lesson to students who can, but don't, try hard enough.

May 22, 2011|By Jaime O'Neill

Dear Students,

I taught my first freshman composition class more than 40 years ago. Your class is my last.

We began the semester with 36 students. I predicted on the first day that I would probably wind up giving grades to half that many. Had I been more strict about dropping people whose attendance was erratic and whose assignments weren't coming in, I would have been right. But I let lots of students slide. I didn't drop people who weren't showing up, nor did I drop the people who weren't doing the work. That was no favor because now I'm forced to give grades that will narrow future options for people who might have gone further, had they only tried. If you were one of the students who missed more than five or six classes, or who failed to turn in most of the assignments, you need to ask yourself if you're making good use of your time. There are always excuses for not showing up, or not turning work in. I've heard them all. But lives built on excuses generally don't turn out well.

There were a handful of people in this class who made it here every day, always with the assigned writing completed. If I were an employer, these are the people I would want as employees.

But I have never liked to think of myself as working to provide a screening process for your future bosses. I like to think I'm working for you, and helping build your futures as more fully realized human beings. In that light, some of you have failed this semester. You've failed yourselves. As a result, some of you learned very little and showed no discernible improvement in your writing, wasting your time and mine.

I never find it pleasant or productive to guilt-trip students. But if just one of you reads these words and decides to take your education a bit more seriously, it was worth writing them.

Few people care whether you succeed or fail. You are not showing up to class for your teachers or even your parents. You're not doing these assignments for anyone but yourselves. If you cut classes because your teachers bore you, then you should be dropping those classes, not piddling away your GPA.

I went to a community college too. I screwed up in high school, graduating in the bottom third of my class. But I married and became a father not long thereafter. Those responsibilities made me quite serious about the second chance offered by the community college system. It's difficult to maintain a slacker attitude when you're up nightly with 2 o'clock feedings of an infant daughter whose vulnerability and dependence on you are impossible to overlook. Had I not shown up regularly and done the work conscientiously, I would have blown that second chance. I would have had a much different life, a much poorer one, not only materially but intellectually and even spiritually. And my children would have had poorer lives too, because what I learned in college was shared with them in ways too numerous to count. I've never regretted the portion of my youth that I devoted to study.

And I've never regretted spending so much of my adult life teaching in community colleges. I'm glad I was able to help some of my students get their own second chances. Most of the people who attend community colleges have very little handed to them. We are not favored by wealth or connections. Unlike the Donald Trumps of the world, those born to the mansion, the way is not made easy for us. So it is something of a crime against our very selves when we squander the second chance when it is offered.

Some of you did just that this semester, throwing away time and opportunity. If next semester provides another opportunity, I hope you will seize it. Life has a way of getting serious with us well before some of us decide to get serious with it. By that time, it may be too late to build the life you might have wanted.

And if you don't know just what it is you do want, drop out of school until you figure it out. If you misuse your time here, you will erode the chance you have for a more hopeful future. In the papers you wrote, I occasionally pointed out cliches in your prose. In this note to you, however, I have turned myself into a living cliche, an old teacher scolding the young for lack of seriousness. But ignore the hectoring of an old man who has traveled the road that lies ahead of you and you could become your own living cliche — the loser who squandered opportunity. My hope is that you do not.

Jaime O'Neill is a writer in Northern California.

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