Dreaming class

It is a clear, bright day in mid October. Twenty-some first-years–majority white, also brown and black, from public and private, urban and suburban high schools and now all at this college–board a bus (though one misses it). One of our student consultants tells us to attend closely on our ride down the Main Line into West Philadelphia: Mark when we cross City Line Avenue, recognize when the walls, hedges, lawns, shops and restaurants of the well-to-do are replaced by trolley tracks, cement steps, corner stores in a “food desert.” She invites us to divide and class-ify, reminds us of power lines mapped over subtler differences: servants’ houses in midtown Bryn Mawr, large elegant homes visible over the city line.

We disembark. Move easily or hesitantly through the entryway of a wide, squat building that houses two schools, get checked in by guards, then up a wide spiral into a large corner classroom where twenty-some high school students, all or mostly black, sit interspersed amid desks and chairs they’ve left open for us. This is a small, school described by the principal as one of the least selective of the district “special admits”: there are fewer resources here, such as AP courses, electives, sports.

Fifty-plus cram into the classroom, not yet comfortable but alert, excited. Students talk and laugh with friends, glance at others. The college and high school teachers welcome everyone and explain our activity, the game of “Barometer,” in which we will read statements aloud, asking participants to respond by locating themselves on a continuum from “agree” to “disagree.” We ask for five volunteers from each school. The high schoolers put themselves forward quickly, the college students more tentatively.

I read out the first statement: People need to go to college to be successful. The high school students move quickly to “agree,” college students to “disagree.” The division is absolute. There is intake of breath as I ask, Why are you standing where you are?I read out the first statement: People need to go to college to be successful. The high school students move quickly to “agree,” college students to “disagree.” The division is absolute. There is intake of breath as I ask, Why are you standing where you are?

The high school students give the college folks a dubious look-over. Of course they want to go to college to become successful. Is this some kind of trick question?

The college students are in college. Fresh from reading Luttrell’s Schoolsmart and Motherwise, they are passionate about the value of life intelligence gained outside school. But the high school students are putting considerable stock in just the sort of education being (modestly, but firmly) dismissed by those in college. The college students defend their position and enter a limbo, unlearning from the high school students what they think they know about themselves.

We continue this conversation in an on-line, college-based “diablog” (the college students already have usernames; the high school students enter as “guests,” under the guise of names chosen from well-known African American figures):

Sarah Goode (guest)

I noticed that most Bryn Mawr students believed that you don’t have to go to college to be successful, and all of them are in college….1

George Washington Carver (guest)

I think that if you go to college, you would have a better job, and life. But what really got me was the college students, most of them disagree the statement when they are in college be successful in life.2

j.nahig

Considering the majority of the Bryn Mawr students’ responses to the question about college, I completely understand why you’re asking “why are you in college”.…I think it is easier for us to say that college isn’t necessary, because we have (to a certain extent) a choice as to whether or not we are in college. Clearly we have the means in some way or another to attend college, and so we have the luxury of being able to consider a life without college without having to face that as an actual reality.3

Louse Armstrong (guest)

College is in some cases to be successful….But there are thousands of people that have attended college at this day of times they can no get jobs.4

Chandrea

I do see your point about the irony of us college students stating that one doesn’t have to attend college to be successful. I suppose I chose to disagree with the statement because I was feeling pessimistic that day. My mom always told me that the higher up the educational ladder I go, the better for my future. But in today’s economy we constantly hear about how college students graduate with loads of debt and end up jobless. It’s a scary thought… And success has varying definitions. My mom had to stop attending her community college because she gave birth to me. The only thing she’s got is a high school diploma, and I can see that that doesn’t get much for her, so I work hard to get my degree from college and I hope for the best that there’ll be a job waiting for me as soon as I step off of Bryn Mawr’s campus….5

In mid-November, the high school students come to our campus, where we get re-acquainted through the interactive exercise “Where the Wind Blows”: “Everyone wearing the color red–go!” Students dart across the circle of chairs grabbing for a seat before they’re called out. In small groups, questions deepen: Where do you feel most creative and alive? Where do you have the most to learn? To teach someone else? Then groups of two college and two high school students head out to explore campus through “one another’s eyes.”

Students are learning from and teaching each other, as the diablog makes clear. A high school student brings boldness and self-confidence, for example, which a college student desires to emulate:

Maya Angelou

Something that i taught somebody in life is how to never worry about what people are saying about you.6

nbnguyen

This is the thing I really want to learn from you. If you have time, please tell me how to do that…I am easily influenced by people’s opinions. I try to be perfect so no one can criticize and look down on me. But I know, it’s quite impossible to satisfy everybody’s wants. Sometimes, I am not brave enough to make decisions for fear of mistakes and criticisms…. I wonder how you learned this skill7

In a deeply classed system of education, the value of what these two students bring may be flipped: the high school student’s confidence, her willingness to dismiss “what people are saying about you” echoes the intelligence Luttrell shows working-class women gleaning from life. The college student’s being “easily influenced by people’s opinions” maps to a common value of higher education, learning to be influenced by others, to read, quote, emulate them.

Walking campus together, students’ experiences of the space are altered by one another’s perspectives:

Martin L King Jr.

I learned how to interact with strangers in a nice and pleasant way. Also that by us coming to their school and this being their first year, we took them to places that they have never been before on campus, and taught them new things about their school.8

Zora Neale Hurston

Something I learned is that you can be apart of a community even if your new to it yourself. It becomes old to you once you share it with some other new people coming into the area.9

HSBurke

After walking around campus in groups on Tuesday, I realized how far I’ve come since I arrived at Bryn Mawr. Only three months ago, Bryn Mawr was completely new to me.…Now, as I proudly touted our campus to the [high school] students, I realized that Bryn Mawr has become familiar and comfortable, and that I feel a small sense of ownership: this is my home now.…I was able to take a look at the campus through new eyes.10

A college student envisions the partnership as a bridge to new possibilities:

snatarajan

I definitely loved having the [high school] students visit us because not only did we get the chance to show them some of our most favorite places on campus, but I was also able to learn about the hopes, dreams, and future goals of the students, some of which could potentially come to life on Bryn Mawr’s campus in the future.11

Another, however, sees a disturbing specter:

Rae Hamilton

It hurts me to think of all the [high school] girls who fell in love with Bryn Mawr, who might not be able to attend. It would be amazing to start some initiative program that would allow [these] students to come here instead showing something they can’t have. 12

At semester’s end, when the classes meet via Skype to exchange appreciations and thoughts, the college students write collectively, then read:

Thank you for calling us out on our inconsistency: a bunch of us [said] that college isn’t necessary for success, but you pointed out that we are in college now; it was easy for us to say that college wasn’t necessary…because we’re in college….Thank you for teaching us that it’s ok to identify ourselves as what we aspire to be…

Reflecting on the semester’s encounters, the college students talk about the “wisdom” and “maturity” of their high school partners, but also describe their “aspirations” as “heartbreaking”: they have “the desire…a dream of college,” talk about becoming pediatricians, nurses, college and professional athletes, but “don’t take the next steps…” Identifying as “what [you] aspire to be” seems to play differently for some than for others. None of us—teachers, students, student consultants–knows much about where the high school students stand academically or financially. Although we speculate about how we might intervene, step into that gap of knowledge and resources to address a disconnect between dreams and means, we agree that we’d need more regular visits, stronger relationships, college visits….A semester is much too short.

By the end of the semester, the clout of class difference is palpable: our classroom conversations reveal that even where class (and race) cross over, the college and high school students perform class differently. From their position inside an elite institution, the college students “negotiate [their] inherited and chosen identity toward where they are headed”;13 they also begin to look more clearly at their own complexly classed identities: one who works three jobs to stay here, several on leadership scholarships, another from an immigrant family stretched and anxious about their children’s education.

Our students move on to various pursuits; most have now graduated. Samyuktha, who notes above her pleasure at hearing the high school students’ dreams and goals, continues to work with the school. She reports that most of these students also have graduated; many went to community college or colleges in the area; some have since dropped out and have jobs, a few joined the military.14

Two high school students intern with Samyuktha to create a community garden, then visit her at Bryn Mawr to attend a poetry slam and other events. In their senior year, Samyuktha helps them with applications to colleges, including Bryn Mawr, where one yearns to go. But she is rejected, so devastated that she considers not going to college at all. Distressed, Samyuktha seeks counsel from the Education and Praxis Programs, which have supported the cross-school partnership. Along with Alice Lesnick from Education and Nell Anderson from Praxis, Samyuktha and I meet with several Admissions officers, but the situation proves intractable: the students’ credentials aren’t strong enough; what’s done can’t be undone; the college will try to offer more effective support in the future. Another meeting is planned, this time with the principal, and generates some shared goals, including more targeted collaboration on college admissions. This particular year was difficult at the high school, with no guidance counselors and little coaching for students about their applications; sharing this information is important to our collaboration.15

The two high school students attend community college, where they do well.

Although there is more outreach to students in Philadelphia, Bryn Mawr has yet to admit a student from our ongoing “community partner.”

The college remains haunted by those who cannot get in.

Our partnership with the high school engages many of our students in sharing ideas, respect, even friendship; blurs the divide. Yet in their friendly encounters with the younger students, the college students inadvertently glimpse what Lois Weis calls the “class warfare” of college admissions: they have access, the high schoolers do not.16 Being a “select” college means not admitting a number of students. Our efforts to use our educationally classed positions to invite others into dialogue are complicated and confounded by differences in access and unequal power relations. It is not only that the college students are in college now, at this elite institution in part because the urban high school students are not. It is also that what is made invisible, unaccidentally occluded, are the ways that the college and high school students are mutually embedded in and essential to each others’ positionings: each of our roles holds those of others in place. That these relationships can present as friendships, can be real and of value, renders the other dimensions of our interactions difficult to see, harder to get underneath.what is made invisible, unaccidentally occluded, are the ways that the college and high school students are mutually embedded in and essential to each others’ positionings: each of our roles holds those of others in place. That these relationships can present as friendships, can be real and of value, renders the other dimensions of our interactions difficult to see, harder to get underneath.

Even so, the encounters between the college and high school students gesture toward new possibilities for both the younger and the older students. Valerie Walkerdine notes that what people conjure as possible is as relevant to mapping and making change as their actual landscapes. The maps our students imagine figure both individual desires and visions of greater equity. Although vision “must be enacted in the world of what is possible,”17 moving imaginatively into that realm can help to create it.18

Growing out of this, Anne’s and my work with our students, and Samyuktha’s with hers, signal resistance to the strong undertow of things as they are, imagining into other possibilities…

I recount this story in major and minor keys: Desire and disconnection. Connection and critique.

  1. Sarah Goode, “I noticed that most Bryn Mawr,” October 20, 2011 (12:08 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  2. George Washington Carver, “Do you need college to be successful life?” October 20, 2011 (12:04 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  3. j.nahig, “Consider the majority of,” October 21, 2011 (5:37 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  4. Louse Armstrong, “Is college need to be successful,” October 20, 2011 (11:56 a.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  5. Chandrea, “In Response to Sarah Goode,” October 21, 2011 (5:27 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  6. Maya Angelou, “Something that i taught,” November 18, 2011 (12:45 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  7. nbnguyen, “This is the thing I really want to learn,” November 19, 2011 (2:38 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  8. Martin L King Jr., “I learned how to interact,” November 18, 2011 (12:33 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  9. Zora Neale Hurston, “Something I learned is that,” November 19, 2011 (12:34 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  10. HSBurke, “After walking around campus,” November 20, 2011 (3:07 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  11. snatarajan, “This is the thing I really want to learn,” November 19, 2011 (2:38 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  12. Rae Hamilton, “Hope for PHS students,” November 27, 2011 (1:40 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  13. Julie Bettie, Women without Class: Girls, Race, and Identity (2003; rev. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2014), 192.
  14. Samyuktha Natarajan, e-mail message to author, February 26, 2016.
  15. Alice Lesnick, e-mail message to author, March 23, 2016
  16. Lois Weis, Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  17. Walkerdine, 761.
  18. Maxine Greene, “Coda: The Slow Fuse of Change: Obama, the Schools, Imagination, and Convergence,” Harvard Educational Review 79 (Summer 2009): 396-398.