In 2011, I was teaching an “adult transition to college class” for a special program at a community college.

If you want to see a true and pure slice of America–America in all its glory of conglomeration, weirdness, exuberance, achievement, and commotion–visit a community college. The word “community” actually means what it says in this case: everyone in the area, from all different backgrounds, in some type of sync for some vaguely shared goal. In this case, formal education. Everyone and anyone.

In the fall of 2010, a reticent young woman who moved to western Massachusetts from Cambodia showed a knack for camera work and an interest in digital editing. I was impressed with her audacity–she used a digital still camera to secretly record all of us on our last day of class, made a video with creative cuts and music, and then told us by handing out DVDs.

So I made up my own production company, French Fry Productions. And asked if she wanted to make a video of this semester’s class. It took some negotiating. I think she wanted to believe I was joking. At one point, far into the process, her nephew downloaded a virus onto her laptop; she had to re-format and lose the file. Or at least that was her explanation for the delay…

She made this video with promotion in mind, the promotion of education for people who didn’t think they would go to college. Students who need not only academic preparation, but also cultural initiation. Because college is its own culture, with distinct jargon, conventional practices, accepted creative and intellectual products, and behavior patterns that are passed along. (I remember the pummeling of my own initiation, just a year after my father’s death, 17-years-old at a summer program in Boston. Surrounded by heirs to distinct privilege and bearers of international ambition, I flailed my way through the process of registering, getting syllabi, meeting professors, and walking across the yard to the cafeteria. I learned to cast away my parochial suburban habits–I was self-possessed yet pliable, dominant traits of the striving adolescent.)

I realized after a semester of teaching the “adult transition to college class” that psychological reinforcements help students flourish as well. Most have not had positive experiences with formal education. They harbor deep secret personal anxieties which can be triggered by stress from the unknown and the pressure of college deadlines. Fear of success with its expectations can sabotage as easily as the fear of failure with its despair or simple familiarity. I write prompts on the board like “What are external obstacles to college? What are internal obstacles?” and they brainstorm and we discuss.

The students who stay, those who believe formal education is worth everything or those who come to the decision they will transcend into anything they might become in this world–they develop trust in me and each other, and their willingness allows me to share my own terrors (granted from the safety of my instructor position and advanced degree).

This reciprocity, this soulful contact amidst the daily grind of paperwork, attendance sheets, and repetitive instruction, gives my life such moments of grace.