I have had homeless students before. In fact, when the recession began to rear its ugly head the number of students in our high school in shelters grew and grew and grew. The students guarded this information closely, though. Sometimes they would quietly tell you after class or while hanging around your classroom. Other times you heard it from your assistant principal or from the guidance counselor, when they needed you to cut this student a little slack for tardiness or sleepiness. Whenever I found out that a student was homeless, so many elements suddenly fit together—the fatigue, the sudden weight loss, the increasingly dirtiness of their clothing or unkempt elements of their personal self. “Oh…..” I would think, “That’s what’s going on.”
As much as my homeless high school students hung heavy in my heart, I experienced a new type of heartache when I found out that one of my college students was homeless. Why? Because he was 19 years old and alone—ALONE—on the streets. No family, just him in this concrete jungle of New York City, from 8 pm to 8 am (when our college is closed), on the streets, waiting for our school to reopen. This is what it means to teach college. The students are legally adults even though, at 18-ish, they seem so so young.
Listening to his story was both a punch in the gut and a revelation.
Our fall curriculum in our Freshman Seminar course is called From Transaction to Trash: Consumption, Waste, & Sustainability in New York City. During the first six-weeks of the fall curriculum, students kept a consumption diary in their Quantitative Reasoning class; they collected data, read their data, created a table/graph/chart to explain their data, and then wrote about their individual consumption practices from their Quantitative Reasoning class in my Reading & Writing class for an essay entitled “Who am I as a Consumer?” They were to use our class text, No Impact Man by Colin Beavan, as a point of comparison or contrast to their own consumption practices, reinforcing their thesis with their data.
My student–we will call him Glen–wrote a first draft that was confusing. It talked enigmatically about the Staten Island Ferry and then about a life of being repeatedly homeless with his mother and brother. As I read the essay, I found myself both drawn into his story but also confused because this was not the assignment. I wrote him a note telling him that this personal narrative was sad, powerful, and needed to be told one day, but that he needed to follow the assignment. I sealed the note with a “See me after class.”
He waited patiently for everyone to filter out of our classroom that night. We have a chatty group, therefore it was a wait. And then we walked down the hall towards the faculty floor and we talked.
He told me that he was homeless. I knew this, vaguely. Our community college is experimenting with a new model that provides our freshman with immense academic and social-emotional support in an attempt to increase retention and hopefully graduation rates. The faculty sit in clusters of cubicles divided by our learning communities, therefore we overhear things. I had heard the Student Success Advocate for our house talk about finding Glen resources, therefore Glen’s news wasn’t new news to me. But I didn’t know how bad it was.
“I don’t know how to write this,” he told me, “because I don’t consume much.” Explaining that he gets a free Metrocard from the college, he told me he takes the subway back to the Staten Island Ferry after walking around Times Square and people watching when our Information Commons (library) closes at 8pm. He then rides the Ferry all night long. He explained that he eats a dollar slice of pizza and a quarter bag of chips each day. He sometimes gets a dollar tea. He doesn’t buy much because he has no money. He didn’t know how to do the essay, or compare or contrast himself to Colin Beavan, an upperclass man who lived in the West Village and experimented with reducing his consumption practices for a one-year experiment of living sustainably.
I stood there, taking in his story, and I started to tear up. I took some deep breaths to rein in my emotions, but the tears started to slide out. How embarrassing.
He apologized for making me cry to which I insisted, “Don’t apologize to me for your life!” I just looked at him, so full of integrity, so full of good intentions. He is somebody’s son, I thought. I thought of my son. I wanted to hug him, but I resisted. “Professor,” he said, “I just want to do the assignment. I don’t want any special treatment, I just want to do the assignment.”
My brain was reeling with a million questions that I couldn’t ask. Where was his mom? Why wasn’t he in a shelter? How could his parents live, knowing their son was alone on the streets of this crazy city? Was the Staten Island Ferry safe at night? Wasn’t he cold? Hungry? Tired? How did he muster the ability to come to class every day?
I pushed these questions aside and gathered my wits. Get your shit together, Lori, I told myself. This poor kid doesn’t need you crying over him. I cleared my emotional response away and focused on the student, the assignment, and how we could make it work. In No Impact Man, Colin Beavan finds that once he clears away the consumption from his life, he has this immense amount of extra time to play with his daughter, cook and bake, and spend time with his wife. Glen, since he does not consume much, also has this extra time. Since he has no home, no food, and no commodities like television, he has 12 hours a day that he needs to fill until he can come back to the college. Both he and Colin have time on their hands due to their lack of consumption, but the circumstances for their lack of consumption could not be more different.
We decided that this could be his thesis. He had charted the time spent going back and forth on the ferry, waiting at each station for the next ferry, and how many times this happened each night for his Quantitative Reasoning class. That would be the data within the essay. He walked away with a plan. I went down to the faculty floor, gathered my things, and went home to my little family and my one-bedroom apartment that suddenly seemed warm, home-y, and more perfect than ever.
After tucking my kids into bed, I told my husband the story, tears leaking out again. “What can we do for him?” I asked Adam. “Can I make him a lunch every day? Do you have any old clothes?” And my sage husband (he keeps demonstrating how he’s smarter than me; it drives me bonkers) said, “Honey, the best thing you can do for him is to make sure he succeeds in college. He needs this degree, this start, more than most. Make sure he makes it.”
Glen got a B+ on that paper.
And I am teaching with new purpose.
[Originally posted in The Huffington Post here.]
[A great article written a week after this post about the same topic here.]