It turns out that the main reason the community college was going to begin to offer English classes in these rural towns was that there was a new need for them. Because of new laws, Sheriff deputies, town policemen(and they were all men), firemen and practical nurses were now being required to earn their A.A. Degrees. Previously, these jobs had required only a high school diploma. Eventually, these jobs would require Bachelor’s degrees, but in the early 70’s a two year degree was sufficient.
So, despite my original theory, most of my students were not there by choice. The greatest challenge was the Introduction to Literature class. Fortunately by now I had lived in Columbia County for a few years and had an intuitive sense of my students. However, I had never taught adults, much less ones who were being required to further their educations to keep their jobs.
Fortunately we shared a general dislike for English teachers who approached literature as laden with “secret meanings” that only English teachers could interpret. I told them that their life experience was all that mattered when we read anything together. I taught them that literature had been written for regular people, not English teachers, and that I was just a fellow reader with more experience with literature, but not with life.
And class discussion was always lively and fascinating. Sure enough, their life experiences, now welcome in an English class, allowed them to share not only their understandings of the texts but also how some of the texts helped them understand these experiences. The firemen and nurses had an easier time with the poems, while the policemen gravitated towards short stories. Occasionally a policeman would share how the job had required him to bottle up many of his emotions and that talking about a story allowed him to share in a safe way. I was deeply moved, especially, by their experiences with family violence. One shared coming to a house where the mother was now dead and knowing the kids had watched the shooting.
I realized that I loved teaching English to adults, especially “nontraditional” students, and it became my life’s work.