An author recounts the lessons he learned as a community college professor in this education memoir.
Bachus (City of Brotherly Love, 2012) spent four decades as a gatekeeper of sorts, serving as a professor of English composition at the Community College of Philadelphia. “Though the door to college might swing wide open to let these students enter,” he writes, “once inside they run into a second door, English 101, which looks to them more like a great locked gate.” His students were not uniformly young, bright scholars interested in learning for learning’s sake. In addition to the typical teenagers one would expect to find in a first-year college classroom, they included single parents, ex-convicts, and senior citizens. In this diverse cauldron, Bachus sought to help students express themselves as thinkers and assert themselves as individuals. This task was not as consistently rewarding as it might sound: the book opens with the author accepting an early retirement package after breaking up a fight between two students in the hallway that left him with a bloodstain on his shirt. The memoir cuts back and forth between Bachus the teacher during fall 2011, as he worked his way through his final semester in failing health, and Bachus the writer during spring 2012, as he labored over a manuscript in a tiny cliffside cabin on the west coast of Ireland. Both from the trenches and from a great distance, the author ruminated upon his life as a teacher: why he started, why he stayed, and why he finally walked away.
Bachus writes in the direct prose—sometimes elegant, always clear—one would expect from an English teacher. He is adept at simple yet effective metaphors, such as this one, describing the first class of his final semester: “Like dancers paired for a waltz, teachers and students worked closely for fifteen weeks until a new semester gave them different partners. The music was cued up. It was time to dance.” The two strands of the narrative are complementary, placing Bachus on various sides of the educational line. In the fall in Philadelphia, he is corralling students of disparate stations in life, attempting to assist and understand them as he guides them through a class that is simultaneously simple and demanding. In the spring, he is a fish out of water, relieved to be writing and yet somewhat purposeless, navigating the diverse community of artists at Cill Rialaig residency in County Kerry. As one might expect, he does a great deal of learning of his own in both places. At 345 pages, the book is perhaps longer than it needs to be. It succeeds most when it focuses on Bachus’ interpersonal interactions, however brief, such as those with his student Jim or his taxi driver Jack McCarthy. The author’s extracurricular biographical details, though occasionally illuminating, feel more like digressions from the volume’s topic. Even so, Bachus is a cleareyed and likable protagonist, and his hard-earned reflections on the way humans learn from one another are worth a read.
A valuable and thoughtful work from a professor at the end of his teaching career.