The class that wasn’t meant to be was an English class. Pierce College. Just one of those two-year places meant for pursuing hobbies and cheaper GE creds. Nothing to write home about, mainly because you don’t leave home to attend a school like this. “American Literature,” was the course title. And it happened that I’d happened upon it because I was already planning on French. French 1. Elementary. I have my reasons. But the thing is, I like school, and I figured if I was making the trip for one class, might as well make it for more. Not that it’s a trip, even. I ride my bike in. But still.
And so I’d tacked on a Child Development class that specialized in Infant and Toddler Growth and Development, and then I’d tacked on another, because there were two. Again, I have my reasons. And from there I shopped the catalog and bingo, American Literature. Nothing better, in my opinion. I like some of the Japanese translations because they read cold, and Anais Nin, but really what gets me going are those modernist writers born and bred in where I came from. Culture plays a lot into it, maybe. Or maybe you just can’t top McCarthy. Maybe there’s something special about reading Barry Hannah and feeling like you’re reading Faulkner just before he mentions a car in his narrative of a make and model that you’ve known and the present day comes flooding in despite the words.
The literature class had a nice course description and while it didn’t mention what era we were talking about, I figured the word “American” limited us to the most recent handful of centuries. Maybe we’d get some Salinger, some Steinbeck. Bukowski maybe. Or postmodern—what if? Maybe my love for DFW could be put to the test and I’d come home with a letter grade of proof.
I tried to sign up.
Thing is, though, Pierce college considers this course something of a “high level” thing. You need credentials, it seems, to properly read about books.
So I went down to their little counseling office. The paper sign taped to the desk read, “Counserling”, followed by some announcement about the state of the academic nation. There was a woman texting pictures from her phone. She asked what I wanted.
I said, “Listen, this class needs proof of a prerequisite. I have a few of these little two-year degrees. One of them is from a school in your system. Surely you have the records showing I have successfully completed English 101.”
I was told to come back Friday.
For an appointment?
“No”, the woman said from behind her Iphone and her desk, “To make an appointment.”
So I came back Friday to make an appointment.
The following week I was admitted to said appointment. The counselor informed me that a degree from their very school district was no proof that I’d met the English requirement, that their system had no access to the systems of the other schools in their system, and that I should order transcripts now and start attending the class in the meantime so that it could still be added once the records came through.
Classes started the following Monday. French was nice. Is nice, I should say. The teacher seems serious about her work. She has no tolerance for distractions. When she catches me texting she says my name and she says, “Non!” and I can almost hear the silent n in the curtness of her vowel. Non! I am learning things, it seems.
The first Child Development class has been wildly informative. It makes me wonder at how we’ve come this far with such delicate and easily disrupted things in our care.
And then with Wednesday came the first session of the elusive literature course. I’d forgotten that lit students can be terrible to sit through a class with. So it stands. The teacher, though. An entertaining fellow. He made many references to Ghostbusters and Star Wars and then tossed open the text book and randomly chose some reading for the semester with a little class input. “Read this for next week”, he said, and he pointed to the book. There were still two hours left in the class, but it was the first class, after all. He said, “Go home.”
The second Infant and Toddler Child Development class was…. redundant. The teacher showed up thirty minutes late and passed some pictures of her kids around the room.
She said, “Okay, now ask me questions.”
“About what,” someone said.
She looked at us blankly. “About me.”
I raised my hand until she called me.
I said, “How is this different from the other one?”
She said, “It is. This one is more in-depth.”
And then she let us out early, too.
The week went by and no transcripts came. I bought the books and did the reading. The reading for the lit class was not Steinbeck. Nor was it Salinger. Nor was it anyone I’d ever heard of because the reading was actually just transcribed by people who do that sort of thing. Transcribers. They were Native American oral traditions recorded onto paper. Fair enough. I read them.
French class continued. I learned to introduce myself and to not sit in front of the kid who drinks too much coffee in the morning. The second Child Development class, I decided, was not for me. Or anyone, if you’re trying to learn something. I figured there was a fair amount LA culture behind a woman who would keep us waiting for thirty minutes only to ask us to talk about her, but still. Culture isn’t always forgivable.
And still I was waiting for those transcripts. The lit class came around again. A night class, I should mention. Once a week. I was still doing that thing where I looked forward to it. On the second class meeting the teacher arrived with a fast food bag and a bike. He sat up front and kicked back a few minutes after the class started. He talked about movies, pop culture. Things likely relevant but not obvious from where I sat. Then he broke out a hamburger. He began to eat the hamburger. He motioned at all of us. He said, “Talk about some movies.” And so people talked. They talked about anything. I broke out my phone and did something that felt pressing. Fifteen minutes passed while he enjoyed his burger.
And then he got on to the beloved text. He pointed out that one story used a lot of color. Another sounded like a Bible story. Genesis. Some other basic observations. He got back on the Ghostbusters track. He allowed lit students to talk, which, in my opinion, is indulgent and painful. Then he ate another burger. We all sat back and watched. He invited us to take a break.
And then we were back. Second burger down. He talked about Star Wars. He looked at the clock. More than an hour still to kill. He began talking about his office. His office hours. Star wars. Returned to his office hours. Then he stood up with a flourish. He said, “Let’s go see my office.” And the whole class stood with him. They went to see his office.
I went to see my home.
And so the lit class, I decided, was also not for me. This happened at 9pm on September fourth. On the fifth I returned to French class. I learned my ABCs. I thought they could probably stand to merge the e and the u and avoid a lot of unnecessary confusion but, hey, English isn’t exactly the patron saint of simplicity either. From there I rode up to the bookstore to unload the weight that was the lit textbook. I’d flipped through it, you see. There was no Steinbeck. No Salinger. Instead there were letters printed from Columbus back to the royalty in Spain, there were accounts by townsmen of the witch trials, there were transcribed stories… all very historical and none of it written for the sake of strong writing, as far as I could tell. Nothing post-Civil War. Not worth keeping, from a hobbyists perspective.
At the bookstore I was promptly declined. “No returns after September 3rd”, a handwritten sign said. Strange, considering the add/drop period wasn’t even over. I spoke to a serious woman who spoke with a serious accent behind a counter. She handed me a petition slip. It was colorful.
She said, “Fill this out, and we consider your case.”
And so I did. I wrote something to the tune of, “I will not spend my time or money on a class that forces me to watch a grown man eat a hamburger and talk about Star Wars. I can get that for free at home. Thank you.”
By Monday they’d reviewed my “case.” I was eligible for a fifty percent return. The book had cost $100 new. I called in a higher-up. I said, “Listen.”
He bumped my return up to seventy-five percent.
He said, “The book is used.”
I looked at it. There was no evidence of it having been read. Or touched, really. That’s how you know when a book is bad.
When I got home my transcripts were sitting on the counter.
And this whole laughable ordeal just got me thinking. Because maybe it’s not a representative sample—to sign up for four classes at this school and find two of them to be less than worthless—and god knows I’m not a representative student. This is recreational for me. A leisure activity. Something to do because I have the time and a slight bit of curiosity and I can ride my bike in. But think about the students who are attending because they are grasping at the chance to alter their futures. These are not kids on their way to Harvard. They don’t have all of the wide open opportunities that stem from attending anything that elite. They are likely young, and still uneducated, and they are working on that. They are likely working. A lot. School is likely a full-time job alongside their full-time jobs. Time is precious and education is essential and this is why most students are here, attending these schools. Because this is what they can do now, and hopefully it helps to make things better in the future. And what is this school supposed to be to them? It is a business, yes, but it takes heavy funding from the state. From the tax dollars. The great pool that the parents have paid into willingly or not, and now the students, new as they are to the tax-paying population. And so with that in mind, it should follow that an institution like this should be for the students. Though it would seem that it is nothing other than another machine to suck you in long enough to suck the dollars out without the promised return. It is a dishonest transaction. Dishonest because it is expensive time investment to pursue education, because most students don’t have the time to sit through a “high level” English course that teaches nothing, that is a mockery of the time allotted, that openly looks for anyway to use it up without trading the knowledge it had represented you were paying for. Most students aren’t taking night classes so they can waste those minutes staring at a chalkboard waiting for a teacher to show up and pass pictures of her kids around. Community colleges make it a point to advertise that they run because there is a need. Because to get ahead in this world we need to know so many things that resting for even a moment can feel like a loss. And it is a joke, maybe, until you look at those little stings—a college closing its return window before it closes the window in which you are able to still add or drop a class, allowing classes to run that do nothing but attempt to run out the clock, a business making a promise in exchange for your money and shutting off the grace period before you have had a look at the product you have purchased. And that’s what it was, at the heart of it. And I am definitely not a representative student for being able to merely laugh at the money I lost on a book return. Because for most students, twenty-five dollars or fifty dollars is a number of hour’s worth of work. It is precious time lost. It can be the difference between a positive and negative balance in the bank account at the end of the month. I know this. I have been that student. I have carried fifteen units and two jobs and stressed over splitting the electric bill.
Today on my way to the French class I noticed those transcripts still sitting on the counter. They were still unopened. I grabbed them with the intent that I would drop them off, get them on record. For all I know there may be another class requiring credentials in the future. In the French class I learned adjectives. I learned disagreeable, and stubborn. Afterward I brought the envelope to the office, sealed. A woman stared at me through the class. She was hirsute, as Wallace might say.
“These are no good,” she said
I said, “Why.”
“Because you’ve handled them. You might have tampered with them.”
I said, “They’re not even open. I was told to get them and deliver them. This is what your glorious institution has directed.”
She shook her head and threw them in the trash.
A short and basic French description of her person ran through my head.
Just then it occurred to me that what had emerged was the biggest joke of all: that this college will hold up all of the packaging—the manicured lawns and stucco walls and the mission-style arches in the front, the rigorous processes—this college will move forward with whatever it takes to keep up the appearance, to keep the students pouring in, keep the books off the shelf. This school will do anything to stay in business short of actually schooling. But for me the better joke is this: I am still not eligible for the English class.