By Michael Thompson, Part-time Faculty RO/SF
It’s another gawker delay on I-696, and I am biding my time with NPR, relying on the 45-minute cushion I gave myself. The rest of the drivers are impatient, switching lanes, but I already know from experience that those tactics aren’t likely to work. When the traffic finally clears, I’m off to Royal Oak, and I’ll still have twenty minutes to spare before my Tuesday morning 1510 gets started. Another morning in the life of a freeway flier.
My goal, way back in the ancient times, was to be that high school English teacher whom everyone loved. When I graduated from Michigan State University in 1987, I was full of dreams of a long public school teaching career. At the height of the recession that summer, when I would apply for a position in the smallest northern Michigan town, I’d be one of 300 applicants. I ended up moving home, working at a restaurant at night, and substitute teaching during the day. It was a cold reality. After my fiancé at the time (my wife now) graduated the following year, I tailed after her, from her first job to her graduate school experience. I subbed some more, and found my first real teaching job—at a fashion design college in Lansing. It was a transformative experience. I was essentially the general education department, teaching composition and psychology. I even taught a class in buying (which I handled like a basic math course). I loved every minute of it.
Perhaps I should have been suspicious when the largest class I ever taught had 12 students, but I came in one day and they informed me that the school had gone bankrupt. Davenport College (now Davenport University) bought the college and allowed me to stay on long enough for the fashion students to finish. They informed me that a master’s degree was required to teach at Davenport. By this time, my wife got her first post-graduate job, and once again, I followed. By this time, I was six years out of school, with only this one real job under my belt, and now working as a cashier at Meijer. I decided to start back to school to pursue that master’s degree. My goal was to go one course at a time, but my very first instructor, when she found out I was a teacher, suggested I apply for a graduate assistantship. When I received one in the summer of 1993, I was able to teach at Eastern Michigan University while completing my degree requirements. It was here that I first learned about freeway fliers—part-time instructors teaching at multiple colleges. It sounded to me like a tenuous existence. I still had that public school dream: tenured comfort, summers off, beloved by the students and administrators.
I struggled through my thesis, and at the end of 1998, I finished. Detroit Public Schools was my next stop. I was hired to teach sixth grade Language Arts and Social Studies. For four and a half years, I worked at three different schools in Detroit, and was awakened to the fact that public school teaching was not the dream I had hoped for. I learned a lot, had some amazing experiences, but some heartbreaking ones as well. I could see the writing on the wall as more and more instructors were let go. I remembered the incredible experiences at Eastern and at the fashion college. Washtenaw Community College was hiring. I created a resume, and was hired as a part-time instructor. I taught a Composition 1 class one night a week, in addition to still teaching in Detroit. In February of 2005, I was finally laid off in Detroit.
That summer, I applied at Oakland Community College. When I was hired to teach that fall, I began this new life as a freeway flier. I added Wayne Community College District, and, later, The Art Institute of Michigan. Still later, after moving from the fine community of Wayne to the small town of Manchester, west of Ann Arbor, I added Jackson College. This Winter term, I teach seven classes between Washtenaw, Oakland, and Jackson. My 2008 Kia Rondo has nearly 200,000 miles on it. I have never been happier in my working life.
I am in my thirteenth year of this life, driving from town to town, and I have likely taught 200 classes, perhaps close to 5000 students—more people than live in the town I reside in. Each term is a fresh start. The energy of students is infectious. Each term, as I read those hundreds of essays, I get the privilege of reading about their dreams, their life-changing events, their opinions on world issues, their discoveries through the research process. Each college community has its own atmosphere, from the collection of gamers at the Student Center at Washtenaw, to the quiet tapping of the dozens of keyboards in the library in Royal Oak, to the light-hearted chatter of the computer commons at Jackson.
They share the amazing diversity that many universities try to somehow recreate, that diversity that at a community college happens so naturally: every age, ethnicity, religion, and personality type.
I am rewarded when Matthew tells me how much he enjoys coming to my class, and how much he appreciates the approach I take. I get to watch the amazing progress Steven is making through each essay, as he becomes a budding writing talent. I get to hear Anna discuss issues brilliantly and forcefully in class, and bathe in that wonder that I am learning as much from her as she is from me. I am allowed access to Demetrius, on his first stop of a brilliant college career, and am amazed at his intelligence and sincerity.
And yes, I have to challenge plagiarists every term, and I watch miserably as Teagan, who wrote that beautiful first essay, stops coming to class, never to be heard from again. I drive in miserable weather (as we all know, Oakland never closes), and I miss time with my family in the evenings. This life is not what I imagined, but in so many ways, it is more fulfilling, more of a true educational experience than anything I ever could have done in a full-time, public school setting. Tomorrow, when I am driving home from midterm exams, my thoughts will be filled with all that energy, all of those ideas, all of the triumphs, and of course, with the failures as well, and I’ll know that I have been touched by so many lives, so many experiences. The freeway flier will wake up tomorrow, and resume the journey.