Learning from Anthony
And if we linger with Anthony a while longer, either in the doorway or back inside at a library table, we might get the chance to reflect on the basic question of what school is for, the purpose of education. What brought Anthony back to the classroom after all those years?
Food wrappers and sheets of newspaper were blowing in the wet wind across the empty campus. It was late in the day, getting dark fast, and every once in a while I'd look outside the library - which was pretty empty too - and imagine the drizzly walk to the car, parked far away.
Anthony was sitting by me, and I was helping him read a flyer on the dangers of cocaine. He wanted to give it to his daughter. Anthony was enrolled in a basic skills program, one of several special programs at this urban community college. Anthony was in his late-thirties, had some degree of brain damage from a childhood injury, worked custodial jobs most of his life. He could barely read or write, but was an informed, articulate guy, listening to FM radio current affairs shows while he worked, watching public television at home. He had educated himself through the sources available to him, compensating for the damage done.
The librarian was about to go off shift, so we gathered up our things - Anthony carried a big backpack - and headed past her desk to the exit. The wind pushed back on the door as I pushed forward, and I remember thinking how dreary the place was, dark and cold. At that moment I wanted so much to be home.
Just then a man in a coat and tie came up quickly behind us. "Hey man," he said to Anthony, "you look good. You lose some weight?" Anthony beamed, said that he had dropped a few pounds and that things were going o.k. The guy gave Anthony a cupping slap on the shoulder, then pulled his coat up and walked head down across the campus.
"Who was that?," I asked, ducking with Anthony back inside the entryway to the library. He was one of the deans, Anthony said, but, well, he was once his parole officer, too. He's seen Anthony come a long way. Anthony pulled on the straps of his backpack, settling the weight more evenly across his shoulders. "I like being here," he said in his soft, clear voice. "I know it can't happen by osmosis. But this is where it's at."
I've thought about this moment off and on for twenty years. I couldn't wait to get home, and Anthony was right at home. Fresh from reading something for his daughter, feeling the clasp on his shoulder of both his past and his future, for Anthony a new life was emerging on the threshold of a chilly night on a deserted campus.
These few minutes remind me of how humbling work with human beings can be. How we'll always miss things. How easily we get distracted - my own memories of cold urban landscapes overwhelmed the moment.
But I also hold onto this experience with Anthony for it contains so many lessons about development, about resilience and learning, about the power of hope and a second chance. It reminds us too of the importance of staying close to the ground, of finding out what people are thinking, of trying our best - flawed though it will be - to understand the world as they see it... and to be ready to revise our understanding. This often means taking another line of sight on what seems familiar, seeing things in a new light.
And if we linger with Anthony a while longer, either in the doorway or back inside at a library table, we might get the chance to reflect on the basic question of what school is for, the purpose of education. What brought Anthony back to the classroom after all those years? To help his economic prospects, certainly. Anthony wanted to trade in his mop and pail for decent pay and a few benefits. But we also get a glimpse as to why else he's here. To be able to better guide his daughter. To be more proficient in reading about the events swirling around him - to add reading along with radio and television to his means of examining the world. To create a new life for himself, nurture this emerging sense of who he can become.
For some time now, our national discussion of education has been dominated by a language of test scores and economic competitiveness. To be sure, mass education in the United States has always had an economic motive at its core: prepare the young to make a living. But parents send their kids to school for so many other reasons as well: intellectual, social, civic, ethical, aesthetic. Historically, these justifications for schooling have held more sway. Think about it, though. When was the last time you heard a robust national conversation about that cluster of reasons to educate the young?
One last thing to consider as we sit with Anthony. The community college he's attending is publicly funded, and the program he's in is supported by a mix of state and federal grants. The community college has been called "the people's college" for the broad-scale access and opportunity it provides. In its programs, in its library, Anthony is pursuing an opportunity that had eluded him in the past. But now, "this is where it's at."