This is why I write about working-class lives and lives lived in economic insecurity.
This is why I reveal so much about my life that others would work hard to hide.
This is why I revel in vulnerability so others can find their footing more confidently.
You might miss it, because I nearly did and I’m always listening for these things.
There is a slight knock on my office door and a slightly built young woman with sweat beading on her face looks at me as if she is scared and nervous and small. I’m expecting her, a masters student who emailed to ask if she could meet with me about her program of study.
“Do you mind if I sit?” She walks uncomfortably into my office, looking at me with an expression that I can’t place.
“Of course not, please, sit down.”
“I’m here to get some details about my program. I began in the summer and want to finish by next summer.”
“Alright. Well that means you will definitely have to register for comps this semester so you can write in the spring.”
“Can I ask you a stupid question?” she asks, still sweating and not quite looking at me.
“Of course. No questions are stupid.”
“What are comps?”
“Comps is what we call our Comprehensive Exams that all masters students must pass before they graduate.”
I pause and smile.
“I had heard everyone talking about them, but I didn’t know what they were at all. Is it like a test?”
“You will receive five or so questions from which you will choose one to write about, then you will write a ten page paper in response to the question. It’s a good idea to start keeping notes and references now from your readings and courses so you have them nearby as you write, because we do expect that you will cite readings and course discussions to support your argument in the paper. When you turn it in, two faculty members will read it.”
“So it’s not a standardized test or something like that?”
“No, we want to know that you have learned something deeply in your program and can articulate that learning in relation to what it means to teach. It’s a take-home paper.” Smile.
Her face relaxes a bit and I think I know why she’s sweating and nervous. Comps are scary. Not knowing what the scary thing is is even scarier.
“Okay, great. So what have you taken so far?” I ask and pull out a grid to begin penciling in courses that meet requirements in our program as she reports the memorized course numbers and instructor names. When prompted, she describes a bit about the course so I can decide where it “fits” in the program of study. We talk about classes she can take in the spring and she wants to know if I am teaching a course.
“Yes, but it’s a doctoral seminar. “ Strange. I know I’ve never met this young woman, maybe she’s just asking to be nice or she’s heard about me before.
“You know, in my Thursday class we’re reading your book,” is that a redness in her face? “and I read it as an undergraduate and kept it and didn’t sell it back like most of my books and I have so many things underlined. But it’s really amazing that now I feel like I’m getting so many different things out of it and I’m underlining different things. I love your book.”
“Thank you. That’s really nice.”
“I mean, I kind of connected with what you were writing about in your life. I’m the first person to go to college in my family too.”
Now the pieces are falling into place.
“And you know, as a junior when we were reading that book and I was surrounded by all these girls in my class who weren’t from families like mine at all, I always felt intimidated by them and I was afraid to speak up. But when we were discussing your book I was like raising my hand! I was telling everyone that I can talk about those things from firsthand experience!”
Smiles – and maybe redness in my face?
“It made me proud.”
“Thank you so much for telling me that – it’s exactly why books like this in school are so important, so people who have never felt quite comfortable in school settings can have a space where they feel privileged and valued. Thank you for sharing that, it makes me really happy that my book could do that for you.”
“It did! And when I found out you worked here I couldn’t believe it! I mean, I thought you were this amazing famous person because you wrote this kind of book.”
Ahhhh. Now the nervousness and sweating is becoming even clearer. She was afraid of meeting me!
“And that’s why I didn’t know what comps were. No one in my family has ever been to college, much less to graduate school, so I have never had a clue. I went to group advising, but I thought I could come here and ask you about comps.”
She talks about her freshman year and earning enough scholarship money to live in a dorm but spending most of her nights at home in a neighborhoing County with her family. By her sophomore year she was living full-time back home and in her junior year she found a roommate who was – very surprising to her! – from a poor family who was proud of their Goodwill shopping, coupon cutting, and figuring out how to eat with little or no money.
“I’ll probably never meet anyone like her again,” she tells me, “but it was perfect that we were roommates. We didn’t have to hide any more.”
Her body and her face transform and she is now a tall-sitting, confident, excited talking young woman who didn’t even resemble the person I had opened my door to.
“Now I’m married and we live in the same apartment that I had with my roommate, in fact, now I’m the resident manager so we only have to pay one-half the rent. We do everything we can to cut down our costs.”
She’s moving to another city next summer and she plans to get there plenty early enough to do community ethnographic work where she’ll be teaching well before school begins, “Just like in your book,” she tells me.
“I did so many of those things even in my student teaching. I did home visits and went to a Quincierita, and really listened and learned about my students’ experiences at home and with money and how I could make connections with them to make sure they felt proud of who they are. I just know that when I have my own classroom I can do even more.”
Our conversation lasted much longer than the 30 minutes I had scheduled it for and I knew my daughter was waiting impatiently for me at the YMCA to pick her up, but these are the moments I continue to revel in.
And marvel at.
When perfect strangers seek me out because of something I said about working-class families or poverty or first generation college students or just because they had been assigned my book.
As we ended our conversation she apologized four times, “I’m sorry I’ve kept you so long.”
“You’re gonna have to work on that you know. Not apologizing. You deserve to be here talking to me just as much as anyone else does. Don’t apologize…I enjoyed the conversation just as much as you did.”
We smile and I want to grab her and hug her and thank her and wish her all the best in her today and future.
But I’ve just met her.
And she was nervous and sweaty about meeting me.
I didn’t want to traumatize her again.