Community College and How an English Professor Changed My Life.

This is a repost from my Tumblr, Keller’s Daily Post, from March 31,2013.

It was the fall of 2002, I sat in the Heinz Field parking lot about to step out of my ‘95 Nissan Maxima. As I hesitated, a sat there staring out over the steering wheel thinking about how my life was thrown off course.  How did I get here and what have I become? For the past two years, my life had been slowly fraying at the edges.  Now, in this parking lot I sat alone, and little did I know my life was about to be unexpectedly changed forever.

I knew Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) was starting off well when I skipped my first week of classes because my friends didn’t leave for school for another week. It would be the theme of my first two years and the main reason I choose to go to community college. The reason wasn’t to skip class, the real reason was my lack initiative. I wasn’t ready for the responsibility, nor was I ready to waste my parents and my own money.

For two years I floundered, I was learning and I even enjoyed a few courses but I still struggled to grasp what I could do with the proper mindset.  I was just getting by, not excelling. My lack of mental preparedness came head-on with a strict professor. It was an English course, my worst subject, and even though I’ve spoken the language my entire life, it’s punctuation still mystified me.

The short story is I went to class everyday, did the reading, and then failed the first two exams. In the class we completed all of our exams in a blue book, if there was more than three errors in our book then we failed. An error was a wrong answer, a misspelling, or incorrect punctuation. Instead of protest, I just gave up. For the first time in my life I quit going to class. I still attended my other courses, but I just didn’t go to English 102. Needless to say, I received an F, my first F.  It was the most shame I ever felt in my life. I was unhappy, lost, and slowly my idea of transferring to a four-year institution was slipping away.  Though all of these thoughts paled in comparison to the realization that began to take hold of me. I realized my lack dedication to my school work wasn’t only letting myself down. I was about to let down the people who cared about me the most, my parents and family,  I thought about all the long hours my mother spent waiting tables and the night shifts my father worked at the railroad so that I could have these opportunities. Opportunities I was letting slip away. I was being selfish and feeling bad about my current situation instead of taking responsibility for my actions.  I realized I needed to do this for them, for their sacrifices for me.  I needed to become a man.

My problem wasn’t that I couldn’t handle college, it was from not taking it seriously. I wasn’t treating it like a career. I spent too much time drinking and hanging out with friends. I needed to get my act together.

I also needed to pass English 102 to transfer. I resolved to take this course over the summer. It was a four-week course, something I’ve never taken, which meant I’d have class Monday through Friday, three hours a day, for the next four weeks.  It was a crazy idea for a kid who disliked reading and struggled to commit to any academic endeavor. In the end, some might say that stupidity won out and towards the end of May I walked into Professor Stein’s four week English 102 course.

Don’t you always hear about celebrities or pro athletes take about teachers or coaches who changed their lives? I always thought those answers were so phony and ridiculous.   Until I meet Professor Stein, because she changed my life.  Professor Stein, was a different than many of her community college counterparts. On the first day of her course, she talked about the many success cases of students from community college going to prestigious colleges. Two of the more popular examples were her two children who went on to attend Ivy League schools.  I was in a room surrounded by kids from other schools, who were only attending community college because their parents wanted them to take a cheap course over the summer. The first class went as we’ll as a three-hour course during the summer can go.  Before class ended, we were assigned reading, what seemed to be about a hundred pages, due by the next morning and a paper due by the end of the week. To no ones surprise, a collective groin ran through the classroom at the recognition of this news.

In three days time a busted my ass to complete all the readings and work on my paper.  I stayed shut up in my house during the best part of the year reading poems by Frost and excerpts from Walden.  I ignored friends, phone calls, and instant messages, this was 2004 which was right before text messaging would end everyone’s obsession with AOL IM.  Finally it was Friday, I turned in my paper along with everyone else in the class.  On Monday, I came to class to find that I received an A on the paper.  Only three people received A’s on the first paper and I was one of the fortunate few.  Writing this now seems somewhat ridiculous but at the time it was a big deal.  Professor Stein later talked to me after class about how I could get an A in this course if I continued to work hard and continued to clean up my grammar.

Recently, I’ve been reading a book titled, The Art of Possibility, which gives you a number of practices to do in your life.  One of their techniques is to give people an A.  One of the authors was a conductor who taught at the New England Conservatory.  One year he decided to do away with grades and give everyone an A.  He talked about how by giving everyone an A allowed all of his students to forget about stressing over grades and allowed them to take chances to experiment.  Allowing his students to become better and more distinguished musicians. Little did I know at the time, but Professor Stein was giving me an A with the first paper.  Instead on downgrading my grade for minor mistakes, she decided to focus on the positive aspects of my paper and instill some confidence in me.  The confidence to realize I can accomplish this course and I was as capable as other students in more prestigious colleges. It was exactly what I needed.

I went on to ace the rest of the course.  Each night I would come home from class to read and read and read.  I read more in a night then I had in my life.  Then something strange happened, I started to enjoy the readings.  I also wanted to compete against the other students.  I wanted to be better.  This course was the turning point in my life, not just college.  I was suddenly hooked.  After this summer, I dedicated myself to complete my education with good grades.  I went on to get an A in all but 5 of my future courses.  A year later I transferred to Robert Morris University (RMU), to see about a girl.  I ended up finishing my education at RMU with a 3.89 GPA.  It all started with a teacher who decided to go the extra mile and give me the confidence I needed.  Professor Stein was one of the main catalysts who changed my life and I’m forever in debt to her for rescuing my future.

Last fall, it was ten years since I sat in my ’95 Nissan Maxima, staring over the steering wheel, wondering what in the world I was doing.  Many amazing things have happened in the past ten years.  I can only hope the next ten leads me to meeting another transformative person, like Professor Stein, which will help advance my life again.