After Umpqua Community College

October 1, 2015

The first thing I read that day was a thread from a professional listserv. A professor asking advice from colleagues about how to deal, and help her class deal, with the shooting of a student.

The first thing I wrote that day was a conference proposal about the ethics of writing center sessions, and their connection to diversity and inclusivity

Because I had several writing tasks that day, I kept myself away from social media and news sites. It wasn’t until after lunch that I heard about the massacre at Umpqua Community College.

The Pacific Northwest is a large place. Physically, I am not from anywhere near Umpqua Community College.  I did, however, begin my educational career at a community college in the Pacific Northwest; perhaps, that is why this particular incident of school violence feels different to me.

Grays Harbor College entry, Aberdeen, WA USA

Grays Harbor College entry, Aberdeen, WA USA

Image from here, couldn’t find appropriate credit.

Though I went to community college in Washington and perhaps things are different in Oregon, the community college mission is so closely tied to region and place that I feel comfortable generalizing a little bit from my own experience. With the caveat that I am only speaking from my experience as a student: Community colleges in the Pacific Northwest are different than I have seen elsewhere, because, though they provide technical support and programs, they function more like junior colleges preparing students for transfer to four year schools.

I do not joke, or exaggerate, when I say that the best part of my education happen at that community college.  I learned how to think; In a 10 week quarter learning community, I did nearly as much writing as I would do for my dissertation. Most importantly, my time in the community college classroom introduced to the importance of diversity of all kinds in the classroom. My community college classroom included traditional students fresh out of high school, recent returners, like me, with a year or two of “real world” experience, grown men and women forced into retraining by the declining industries in our area. Throughout my studies there I learned to work with people of different faiths, races, sexuality, and abilities. Was I always the best friend and all I could be, no; I was naive, and I was learning.

Cardiac Lane stairs at Grays Harbor College

Cardiac Lane stairs at Grays Harbor College

Image from here.

Of course, I wasn’t able to articulate the importance of my experience in that Northwest community college until I left it.  Until I sat in an undergraduate classroom where everyone there looked the same, and though I couldn’t articulate it, I knew we were missing important perspectives. Until I moved south where I could really learn about race, racism, and how my silence and support was sometimes better than my best intentions. Until I taught at a community college where technical programs were valued over liberal and general education courses.

Certainly, my image of my community college is tinted in the rosy glow of nostalgia, but even so I would never have called it an idyll or safe space.  I was pushed, challenged, and yes … sometimes it was uncomfortable, but I was never afraid. Having been away, having my own new perspective, it was that little difference; my confidence in my physical safety, that allowed me to accept the push, the challenge, and the discomfort of my community college education. That is the little difference, the confidence in their physical safety, that the students of Umpqua Community College, and many other community colleges lost yesterday. As I grieve for the lives lost, the lives irrevocably altered, I also grieve for that lost confidence, the lost element that enabled so much of my own learning.

One of the posters to that thread on the professional listserv reminded everyone of  “the question from Mary Rose O’Reilly that Claude Mark Hurlbert put before us at IUP: “Is it possible to teach English so that people stop killing each other?””
Perhaps, I am not the English teacher I thought I would be when I was at the community college.  Heck, I am not even the English teacher I thought I would be in grad school. As of October 1, 2105 though, I am an English teacher ready to wrestle with this question; to do everything in my power to “teach English so that people stop killing each other.”


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