D epictions of college students tend to fall into a few familiar categories: The uncurious "excellent sheep" at elite institutions, and their protesting classmates, who are either passionate and woke or oversensitive and unreasonable, depending on the source. The work-hard-party-harder youngsters said to dominate the state flagships and land-grant universities. And the work-force-oriented adults getting retrained at community colleges.
These portraits rarely reflect students like mine, the ones on campuses with compass directions or small towns in their names. Teaching creative writing at Eastern Washington University, in an area of the state that’s closer geographically and politically to blood-red, gun-toting northern Idaho than it is to multi-culti, rainbow-flag-waving Seattle, I know some things about my students.
My students have OCD, PTSD, anxiety, diabetes, depression, sleep disorders, eating disorders, hypertension, sexually transmitted diseases, problems with drug and alcohol abuse, and parents, siblings, and children who have problems with drug and alcohol abuse.
My students have minor-in-possession, misdemeanor, and felony convictions, and at least two of them have killed people with their cars. They have been sexually abused in their own bedrooms and kicked out of their homes. They’ve been told they’re stupid, ugly, and hopeless, dyed their hair green, come out as gay, changed their personal pronoun to "they." They have been beaten by their fathers, mothers, siblings, cousins, stepfathers, and boyfriends.
Some of my students have never left the state of Washington; some have grown up in farm towns with populations in the high triple digits. They have moved every year, lived on the streets, slept in their cars. They have hitchhiked and biked across the United States. They have earned associate and previous bachelor’s degrees, and they have failed out of many other colleges.
My students have been to war. These men and women ma’am me and sit in the front of the classroom, never with their backs to the door. They have read Dante and Milton by the banks of the Euphrates and have had to pick up the disembodied heads of their drinking buddies after Humvee explosions. My students have student-loan, alimony, and car payments. To cover their bills, they have fished commercially, worked construction, milked cows, bucked bales, driven semis, pulled espressos, collected unemployment, and sold their eggs. They have worked in insurance, at call centers, owned their own businesses, and ridden bulls professionally. They have broken many bones.
My students have hunted, killed, butchered, and cooked their food. Sometimes they carry unseen knives. They have sliced into their own skin to relieve stress. They have surreptitiously slipped vodka into their coffee cups in class. They have done writing assignments while drunk. They have had all kinds of sex. They have written, while sozzled, about their drunken sex.
They supported Bernie, Hillary, and you-know-who. Some didn’t vote, because they didn’t think it mattered; they are accustomed to being unheard. They are decades older than I am. They are decades younger. They refer to musicians whose names I don’t know and send me videos I must watch.
Their sentences have run on and on. They have abused semicolons, neglected commas, and used words that don’t exist in English. They have crafted images that stay with me for years, and noticed things I’ve missed in books, even those I’ve reread frequently.
Sometimes, when I go over their personal essays, I can’t hold in a small whimper, can’t stanch a few silent tears. I rally and focus instead on craft, showing them on the page ways they can make their prose stronger. We’re not doing therapy here, I say. This is work.
I refer to the people who take my classes using the possessive because I feel responsible to and for them, though often I wish I knew less about their lives; my impotence in the face of their trials shames me. When I get irritated because they fail to show up for class, don’t do the homework, or skimp on proofreading, I try to remember that as much as I know about them, there’s even more I don’t know.
I do know some facts. More than half of our students are the first in their families to attend college. Located between the scablands of central Washington and the mountains of Idaho, we have students who have never had a conversation with an African-American. We teach a host of undocumented Spanish-speakers, who live in both poverty and fear. No student should be referred to as a "kid," but only about 60 percent of ours come directly from high school.
Fewer than half our students graduate in six years. Many drop out without a degree but with truckloads of debt. Some, who never saw themselves as good at school, thrive under dedicated faculty and staff. These graduates go on to professional schools and advanced degrees. They teach English in Southeast Asia, join the Peace Corps, work in publishing, banking, sales. They write books and make films and sell their paintings. The lives they end up leading are foreign to their parents.
Early on, my inner snob believed I might not enjoy teaching at a college that didn’t attract the best students. I was wrong. I’m thrilled when my classrooms are filled with farm kids and military vets, with people who know how to work hard, who care about a job well done and view education as a privilege. Our students may not have always seen themselves as college material, but they rarely fail to rise to my high expectations.
My colleagues and I, out here in the provinces and far from ivory towers, are building citizens who can read and write, think and analyze, ferret out alternative facts, and distinguish real news from fake.
Doing this work feels good, when it’s not breaking my heart.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her new book, Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay, is published by the University of Chicago Press. Her website is Racheltoor.com.