The Re-admit

By Linda DeMers Hummel

The Re-admit

I arrived at the assigned classroom and silently rehearsed my opening line. I waited until my English Comp 101 students had all filed in and sat down, the awkward silence of the first day hanging heavy. Then, without any sense of how self-important I sounded, I began. “Ladies and gentleman, from this room you can go anywhere.” It was my first day as an adjunct professor, and I had already walked away with the Full-of-Yourself Award.

For the first few weeks, my classes hummed along, and I believed my own hype. But then some students dropped out. A few more disappeared. I liked the word “attrition” for the thinning of the ranks because it made it easier to forget their faces: The quiet, studious kid, who took copious notes but never came back when the paper was due. The young man who worked the night shift and found he just couldn’t get out of bed for class. The ones who ran out of money or succumbed to their addictions or didn’t want to be there in the first place.

I blamed myself for not being a good enough teacher. A colleague took me aside and said, “Look, this is community college. Lots of kids bail on their first try. Don’t take it personally.”

When I added hours tutoring in the college’s Writing Center, it became a sort of panacea. If too many of my “real” students gave up, this assembly-line approach would save me. In and out students came, wanting only an hour of my time, just a little slice of my expertise. “Can you help me fix this?” they would say, and I would, and then the next person would sit down.

On the morning I met Annie, I spotted her leaning against the doorway, deciding if she should enter. Her head was shaved on one side, showing off dozens of piercings on her left ear. She wore army fatigue pants and thick black boots. A tee shirt tight across her chest bore the name and logo of a rock band I’d never heard of, for good reason. As she sat down, I realized she was anxious. She pushed three sheets of paper across the table. “This needs help,” she said.

It didn’t.

I read it through twice to give myself time to decide how to respond. Sometimes students plagiarized and made it easy for me. I could just hand their paper back to them and say something like, “Uh…William Faulkner wrote this,” and they would feign disgust and storm out. But Annie’s essay didn’t have the telltale hints that it had been lifted from someone else. I went with what seemed an innocent question, “Where do you think it needs help?” If she froze up, I’d know it wasn’t hers.

Instead, she pointed to a paragraph on the second page and said, “I think right here I begin to lose direction a little, don’t you?”

It was her work, and it was brilliant. Not only had she written this little gem, but she wanted to make it better. I didn’t want to fix everything. I wanted her to come back. The next week she showed up early.

Annie was termed a “re-admit,” someone who had dropped out years ago, and was now giving it another try. Tutoring was bumpy in those first few weeks. At times she seemed so frustrated with herself that I was afraid she’d give up and be sucked back into her “old life,” her euphemism for the years that had lapsed. She commented on how much older she was than other students, regretting all the time wasted. I lost track of how often I reached for clichés about Rome being built. But every Tuesday and Thursday, there she’d be at the door, and I would exhale and think, “Good.” And then she’d step in and get to work.

After a few months, she was still coming to the Writing Center, but I was running out of things to teach her. I began to worry that I was giving her too much credit for work that might have been just average in a four-year school. One day the director of the Center, a woman who’d been teaching community college English for 30 years, sat at the next table waiting for her appointment to show (or not). Annie and I were working on her latest paper. I leaned over, and as casually as I could muster, said, “Would you mind looking at this?”

I watched her eyes get bigger as she read. She looked at Annie and asked, “Did you write this?” Annie nodded.

“Then we need to find you a better college.”

That would come, and when it did, it would be on a full scholarship. From there she was accepted into an English PhD program at a university that had all the trailing ivy and Gothic towers that were missing at the community college where she had taken that first step. She kept in touch. I realized I was no longer qualified to give her advice on anything she was writing. That elated me.

When her dissertation was finished, she landed the only position she wanted. Now on the opening day of the semester, she enters that classroom the way I did years ago, on the same floor, in the same building, right down the hall from the Writing Center where she stood in the doorway that first day. I picture all her nervous students waiting for their professor. No grand and bloated opening line for her. All she has to say is, “I have a story to tell you.”

About this writer

  • Linda DeMers HummelLinda DeMers Hummel is a Baltimore-based writer who has recently completed a memoir, “I Haven’t Got All Day.” She spends a lot of time lately hoping to get good news from her agent.

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2 Responses to “The Re-admit”

  1. Bill Todaro says:

    Nice story, well told. I started at Community College & went back to teach there too. Older & less prepared students are my people.

  2. Mary Ann says:

    Especially love the ending of this story. We all have a story to tell, and you told yours beautifully.

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