This is the day. Ira can feel it. She’s waited for months to hear back on her scholarship and university admissions applications, and nothing. Not a thing, all through the process of Case getting licensing to become a foster parent. Not a word while they’ve helped Kiki settle in. Just silence. It’s been hard to wait, but Case reminds her that bureaucracy takes time, and that doesn’t mean it’s not working, it’s just working slowly.
Too slow for Ira. But today’s the day. She is sure of it.
And it is. But it’s not the day she’d hoped for. She gets not an acceptance letter, not two award letters for scholarships, but rejection. Dismissal. Turned away. Doors shut. Worse than waiting, the worst news. Not knowing was better than this.
How could she have been so foolish, to let herself dream? To believe that she, Ira Mahajan, could become the first generation in her family to attend college, and not just community college, but university, and not just any university, but a prestigious honors arts program? She was a fool to think it.
She’d been swept away by being around so many inspiring people–Case and Tina Tinker, who could do anything they set out to do, as if they’d never heard the word “obstacle,” as if just wishing it made you good enough, and so she believed that she was good enough, too, for she wished it, and she thought, for these few months of waiting, that she could be something other than a paparazzi who quit, someone who stayed at home and did, well, nothing. But she should have listened to her family and followed their lead. No one in their family amounted to anything, and why should she be any different? It hurt worse to try and fail than never try at all–that was the secret that her family knew all too well, and she was a fool to think anything different.
I am a community college instructor. I’ve been teaching writing, English comp, and literature at the community college for the past 25 years. It’s my passion. Many of us, including Jill Biden, teach in the community college because of women like Ira: first-generation college students, returning to their education after an interlude. Many of these students feel that they’re at a disadvantage–and they can experience tremendous cultural dissonance as they navigate the regimented scope of bureaucracy and intellectual norms that circumscribe the community college environment–and at the same time, they bring with them a wealth of experience, ideas, and latent enthusiasm that is unmatched.
There is a moment that often happens for these students in the writing and English comp class where their reading mind turns on, their critical thinking becomes engaged, and they find their voice. Suddenly, their passion is ignited–and it’s a passion that stems from a lifetime of living, of being unheard, and often unseen–or at least, not seen for who they truly are–and now, they are finding that their words take light on the paper or computer screen, and others take notice–but what’s even more important, they are hearing themselves. They have something to say, and their words resonate.
I know, for these students, that making it onto the path that leads to this moment can involve a few missteps. Maybe they had to drop out for a semester or two, due to the birth of a child, a husband getting laid off, a sick kid, a death in the family. Maybe they failed this very same class a few times, or had to take an incomplete. But they stick with it. They find, at last, a welcoming class, an approach that clicks with them. The kids are well. The money for rent, or gas, or food, is coming in. Nobody dies that semester. And they make it.
So I’m not concerned about Ira having a setback along the way.
Case isn’t, either.
“That sucks,” he says, when she tells him the news.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Ira replies.
“You were thinking you’d go to college,” Case says. “You don’t need to, you know. You’re exactly perfect just as you are. You’re the most intelligent person I know, and you don’t need to prove anything. At the same time, college is cool. It feels good to use your mind in that way. And research is the most fun. But just ’cause you didn’t get in this time, that doesn’t mean you won’t ever get in.”
“Yeah, right,” Ira says. “What university would want a loser like me?”
“You’re not a loser,” Case says. “You’re my winner. You make everything possible here.”
She snorts. He explains how he’d never have tried for his foster parent license if it hadn’t been for her. If she hadn’t been there, all these years, to encourage him and listen to him and help keep him on his path, he probably would’ve left this job and this town years ago.
He tells her about a colleague, one of the directors at the NGO, actually, who has a Ph.D. but who got rejected from university five times before getting accepted.
“It’s just… it’s like a game,” Case says. “You gotta know the rules. The right words to write. The right references, the right stuff to put on your application. You’ve got most of it already, and the skills you still need to develop, you’ve got time to work on. We’ve got a few months before the next round of applications are due. And I’ll help this time! We’ll get that application squared away so you get accepted right off the bat!”
“You think so?”
“Sure! Piece of cake!”
Of course she doesn’t have to go to college. She’s amazing as she is. But she wants her moment. She wants to find, for herself, that she can speak and be heard. That she can read those academic journals, like Case reads, and make sense of them. That she can see how where they are now, in time, and history, and culture, and dialogue, and collapse, and rebirth, and rise, and decay–how it all fits into the big scheme. She wants to feel her moment in this grand intellectual life.
And Case says she can do it. And she thinks, maybe she can.