Educational policy is a topic mired in agendas and statistics that often obscures or erases what actually happens in the classroom. In all the heated discussions about CCSF, what seems to be missing is the impact these policies have on real lives. I want to describe some of what transpires at CCSF, something I have found that is rare, and speaks to the miraculous power of creating community together.
Yes, I did use the word miraculous, for it is nothing short of a miracle that some of our students even cross the threshold of the classroom. Today’s San Francisco is perhaps making it more and more difficult to imagine a disenfranchised class of people, but let me tell you they are here, and they are at CCSF, struggling to stay in the fabric of our community. And they arrive at CCSF looking for opportunity.
I have been teaching in the Cinema Department for the last decade. Unlike my own education, which was predicated on cut-throat competition, CCSF is an open door, a place that welcomes everyone, a place that redefines success. Yes, we have traditional academic excellence, with many of our students coming from top-rated schools or transferring to them, but we also serve a broader mission, one that I have come to see as equally valuable.
An open door policy is what we have at City College of San Francisco in many of our courses, particularly the introductory elective classes. As one might imagine, this can create a challenging educational environment; it also happens to foster one of the most surprising, uplifting and truly life affirming experiences I have ever witnessed.
So I want to share the stories that are not told, the world of our classroom that is a jewel.
I want to tell you about Dwayne (all names have been changed for confidentiality). He came to class fresh from a prison sentence. He was living in a Tenderloin men’s shelter, trying to get his life back, wanting to learn filmmaking so he could help promote his son’s acting career. I don’t know the sequence of events that led to his present state, and I don’t want to know. What mattered is that he was in class after a very long absence from school, and he was nervous about it. He wanted to succeed.
Dwayne was a diligent student. He never missed class and did all the work. He got average grades, good enough to pass the class, but that wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted to really master the material, to feel absolutely in control of the technical parts of the course, so he enrolled a second time, which is not unusual in beginning filmmaking. Students sometimes need a second semester to absorb all the material, or just to have the chance to experiment or do better. Dwayne re-enrolled, re-did the assignments, and this time he shined. Once hesitant in class, he now contributed to discussion and volunteered for leadership roles.
His success in the classroom prompted him to enroll for a full-slate of cinema courses. Now when I see him around campus, it is with other students, holding a boom pole or camera, performing as a central member of a crew with people often twenty years younger, and he seems happy. Under new guidelines starting this Fall, Dwayne is no longer allowed to repeat the class, since such redundancy is perceived to be a waste of taxpayer money. It’s possible Dwayne would have succeeded no matter what, but the class repetition is what allowed him to find his sea-legs after being out of civilian life for so long. That one extra semester, I believe, convinced him he could succeed according to his vision of success.
I want to tell you about Charles. Charles was a senior citizen who looked to be in his early eighties. He had bushy eyebrows that protected soft blue eyes that would often stare off in space, even as he sat in the front row of class. He was good-natured, asked pertinent questions and would bring to class relic cameras he’d found at flea markets for the other students to see. He liked to tinker. He noticed I sometimes stood on a chair to pull down our screen, and arrived in class one day with a home-made pole with a metal catch. He failed the midterm, and sometimes lost the thread of lecture. One day after class he confided that he had suffered a brain injury and it was difficult to function as he used to, when he was an engineer. Despite his grades, he wanted to continue in the class. He said he enjoyed it.
I worried about him, and discretely tried to ascertain if he was completely on his own or if he had a support system outside of class. He said he lived in the city, he had a daughter (a relief), and that he liked to grow dahlias. “Oh, I love dahlias. They’re my favorite flower.” He agreed and left.
Several weeks later he came into the department with a bucket full of the most beautiful dahlias you can imagine, in every shape and color. There were compact, orderly wine colored flowers, huge bobbing fire-streaked flowers, perfect pink blossoms, deep red starbursts. I had never seen anything like it. Charles explained he was a champion dahlia grower, and his flowers had won awards. For the rest of the semester, and several after, he continued to treat everyone in the department to his prized flowers, trudging in with his signature white bucket and gardening tools. When he finally stopped showing up around campus, for unknown reasons, we all missed him. And what I realized is that we don’t know people’s story. And sometimes it takes awhile for a person’s humanity to emerge. And sometimes we need to just give people a place to feel at home and appreciated.
Charles detracted nothing from the class or other students, in fact he enriched the learning experience, yet he is the exact student we are told we need to be rid of, since he did not complete the class with “success.” Now that CCSF has been downsized, and “life long learning” and “cultural enrichment” have been eliminated from our Mission Statement, Charles has no legitimate claim to be in the classroom.
I could tell you about Jose, who leaves his house in a rural community at the far-flung edges of the Bay Area at 4:30 in the morning to commute to class, or Estelle, who spent a semester couch-surfing before deciding she couldn’t afford to return to school, or Stephanie, who juggles a toddler and GE requirements, or Westley, whose videos show neighbors pointing out the spots on the sidewalk where friends and family members have been shot.
Because too many of our students are un or under-employed, or conversely, working all night before coming to class, living on food stamps, scrambling for transportation, fighting for financial aid, returning from war, stressed. Increasingly, they’re melting down over minor things, like parking tickets or bureaucratic hitches. In a world of maxed out, every detail seems to weigh heavily. Yet they come to CCSF because they want a better life.
So instead I’ll tell you what it’s like when all these students come together in the classroom. The unlikely alliances that form in this classroom would surprise people. The beauty of a truly diverse classroom goes beyond racial and gender diversity, and includes a range of ages, backgrounds, incomes, sexual identities, and life experiences. When this class works together on a film, they hear each other’s ideas, collaborate, and offer feedback. The generosity of the students, the patience they show each other and the respect they exercise is an example for all of us, an example of tolerance and flat out kindness. It is people getting along. It is people learning. It is people being educated about each other and themselves. It is remarkable.
CCSF is not perfect. Certainly there are semesters with extremely challenging students and situations. But often I have been humbled by what I’ve witnessed, and for a window of time we create this structure that feels like a little piece of utopia, because even when we don’t have their backs, the students are there for each other, volunteering on each others films, providing moral support and friendship, creating the community we are meant to serve.
The idea of a leaner, meaner CCSF appeals to many, as does the battle cry for efficiency. Despite being the largest single district community college in the country, CCSF has managed to focus on the individual, and that, we are told, is wrong. The criticism is that somehow students are trying to game the system. Students need to get in, get a degree or certificate, and get out, because someone has decided that education is nothing more than job training, and anything else is “inefficient.” Such a narrow view of public education seems misguided at the least, and a real erosion of what we might consider the common good.
The Accreditation Commission has damaged CCSF already. If it succeeds in downsizing the college further, let alone closing it, we will lose our community members already at the margins, and we will cease to be the open institution that has served San Francisco so commendably since 1935.