For three years--ending with my graduation from the master's program last May--I was a night student on the same campus where I taught during the day. Going back to school wasn't easy. But my department chair said I had to finish my master's ASAP to be eligible for a full-time position.
As an adjunct without benefits, I had to pay my own way, full freight, for the 36 hours I needed for the degree. That meant almost every penny I earned as an adjunct prof, I paid right back to the school for tuition. I gag a little just remembering that.
The program I was in caters to the working adult. In classes, I met lawyers and doctors and other professionals (including a lot of public school teachers, whose tuition was partially subsidized). Why the lawyers and docs wanted another degree... well, they said they liked the liberal arts courses and enjoyed getting to know people outside their professions. I went out a few times with one of the MD's I met in a class. I think he was just there to meet women, but it seems like an expensive and time-consuming way to do it. I mean, there were an awful lot of research papers.
Among my classmates were lots of assistant coaches from the university who were required to be pursuing their master's degrees as conditions of employment. Typically, they'd show up for class the first week and we'd never see them again until the last two or three weeks of the course. They never did the work or turned in papers or took exams. Guess they weren't required to pass the courses, just be enrolled.
More than a few grown-up students were in the night program as a way to qualify for cheap health coverage. For about $700 a semester, you could be covered as a student and get access to the campus health center. One guy told me he got a $40,000 gall bladder operation covered, which is why he was taking only one course per term (most students took two or three)--to stretch out his student coverage as long as possible.
Another guy, kind of a weird dude who seemed to haunt the student center, eked out a living on Pell Grants and other student aid. He claimed already to have a master's degree in theology, but he didn't seem to have a job anywhere and he'd been lurking around the night program for a few years, flunking course after course.
Ah, the lurkers. They're there at all levels of college life. There used to be one in the building where I taught--a sweaty, stuttering man with thick glasses and a heavy sheaf of papers spilling out of a worn-out briefcase. The first year I saw him bustling up and down the halls, I thought he was a teaching assistant. By the fourth year, I tried to avoid eye contact. Say hello to the guy and you would find yourself trapped in circular conversations that could go on for hours. Several departments had banned the guy from signing up for their classes. Which meant he ended up in our division--the bottom of the net for students who'd failed to be accepted in other majors. For all I know, he's still on campus, sleeping on the benches at the end of the hallways and going from office to office looking for someone to latch onto. Poor guy. You just knew he lived in some tiny cat-filled apartment with his mother and got around the city with a permanent bus pass.
But back to my nights as a student.
I lucked into some great profs: the human rights teacher who required us each to volunteer 20 hours for an organization helping Somalian refugees gain citizenship (an experience that real quick will make you stop complaining about stuff that really doesn't matter), the poetry teacher who could zero in like a laser beam on the weak spots in student work and help fix it in a flash, the Freud expert who led us in five weeks of seminar discussions on the "Introductory Lectures." Fascinating.
There was also the lame-o drama prof who skipped three weeks of classes to direct a show in London. And his equally lame-o theater department colleague who misspelled Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams on his syllabus. Instead of a lecture or discussion of "American Drama of the 1950s-60s," he'd just plug in the movie of a play and then go off for a smoke. What a waste of time and tuition money.
I often was amazed to watch my classmates offer the same idiotic excuses that the undergrads tried when they hadn't done their homework. And I became convinced that the program was letting in everyone who filled out the application when I was assigned to do one of those dreaded "group project" things with a woman who turned out to be illiterate. Couldn't read a simple sentence off a page, much less limn the symbolism in "The Yellow Wallpaper." It wasn't dyslexia or vision problems either. She flat couldn't read or write. I watched in two different classes as she feigned pregnancies that would come to abrupt ends the exact weeks the term papers were due. The teachers were both fooled. They treated her "miscarriages" with great sympathy and let her off the hook on assignments. But she was never pregnant to begin with. I compared notes with another student who was hip to her act and it turns out the little mama had done the same thing every semester with every prof she'd had. She should have switched her major to acting.
But my favorite moment happened in that human rights class. Besides the volunteering and the 20 short papers and two research papers and the 23 books and the 15 films we had to see on our own time, we also had to produce an "art project." It could be any medium, depicting any aspect of the human rights struggle. On the last night of class, we unveiled our creations. There were lots of collages. One man baked cookies in the shape of Stars of David. Somebody wrote an original folk song about forced migration of Native Americans. And then a woman who actually identified herself as "a happy homemaker" (just like Sue Ann Nivens) held up her project. It was a beautifully sewn quilt about the size of a baby blanket. On bright cotton fabric in colors of lavender and blue, she had meticulously stitched her tribute to a painful chapter in the history of the Old South. There in the middle of the little quilt, outlined in shiny black thread, was the silhouette of a black man, his head drooped forward, his feet not touching the ground, his limp body dangling from the perfectly quilted tree limb from which he'd been hanged. It was the prettiest, coziest depiction of a lynching I'd ever seen.