Every Wednesday evening last spring, I presented myself with a challenge.
A friend encouraged me to take a jazz singing class with her at our local community college. I’d been looking for a new musical outlet, so I agreed.
I nearly walked out the first night.
The teacher was a venerable local swing band leader who immediately started calling on students to get up and perform. Accompanied by a piano, a series of cute young divas got up and sang polished songs. I started to feel uncomfortable, knowing that I hadn’t gotten up in front of an audience and sang without a book or a guitar to shield me in a very long time.
Then a woman much older than I volunteered. She got up and spoke into the microphone. “For my whole life I was afraid of talking in front of people,” she said by way of introduction. “I’m taking this class so I can get over that.”
I thought, “she’s afraid of talking in front of people and now she’s going to sing jazz into a microphone?”
That’s all I needed. When he asked for the next volunteer, I raised my hand. If a woman 20 years my senior with no vocal training was willing to put herself out there, who was I to pretend I couldn’t do it?
I did it, and then every week following I did it again and again.
There’s a lot of wrangling going on right now about the purpose of community college. The combination of limited funds and the push for “college for everyone” has incited discussion on whether community colleges are for the community as a whole or just for the specific purposes of helping young people on to four-year colleges and giving specific technical degrees.
Personally, I have always loved the “community” aspect of community college, and I think it would be sad to see it go. I have both taught at and been a student at a few different community colleges, and I think they only benefit from mixing the “young divas” with the more, ahem, seasoned members of our community.
My jazz class was a great example. Each student was there for a different purpose—there were a few music majors preparing to apply to four-year universities. There were some lost souls who drifted out of high school and were now drifting into college without a plan. There were adults who just love adult ed and have taken a variety of courses over the years. And there were adults who had specific agendas, such as being more comfortable in front of an audience.
Our teacher didn’t spend much time “teaching”—he didn’t have to. Each student inadvertently brought his or her own wisdom and questions into the mix, and just performing and working together engendered deep learning in everyone. Occasionally our teacher would see an opportunity for a bit of a lecture, but he kept it short and to the point.
People who want to separate the community college from the community are probably unaware of how much learning takes place in a classroom that seems so informal. They are also probably unaware of (or unconcerned with) how important intergenerational learning can be to many of the eighteen-year-olds who end up drifting into community college simply because nothing had gelled for them yet.
I wish those people would attend a class like the one I was in. They would see the teacher energized by working with older adults who shared a passion with him. They would see that same teacher trying to offer confused and unhappy teens a reason to put some structure into their newly unregimented lives. They would see a bunch of people modeling healthy learning behavior for each other: set a task, work on it a bit, fail to perform as well as they’d like, work more, succeed.
At the end of the semester, we all performed songs we’d prepared in a local bar that hosts jazz bands. Though our teacher wasn’t much for direct instruction, it was clear how much we’d all learned.
I don’t know if I’ll take another class soon, but I love knowing that community college is there for me, a member of our community, as well as everyone else who wants to continue their education.