Nobody wants to be here. In remedial English, earning no credit, stuck. Now—after months of commas, clauses, and four-paragraph essays—students have one last chance to write their way out.
Twenty students sit at computers, poised to start the final in-class essay for English 002 at Montgomery College. Just outside Washington, this suburban community college is tucked in a neighborhood between two Metro stations. Anybody can enroll here, and all kinds do.
The professor, Greg Wahl, walks around the room. On every blank screen, a cursor blinks.
In 85 minutes the students must craft a thesis and clear topic sentences, using evidence to support their opinions. They have to answer one of three questions, about their assigned book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, or their difficulty in mastering goals for the course, such as “Write and edit sentences that observe the conventions of standard American English.”
Names appear in the upper right-hand corners of screens. Kenneth Okorafor, a Nigerian immigrant who lives in his sister’s basement and strives to live by his father’s words that education is power. Dominique Parrish, a high-school dropout chasing a bachelor’s degree. Lynn Clemons, a middle-aged mother of three who’s often anxious in class. Xiomara Sanchez, a bright but sometimes unmotivated 19-year-old expected to look after her sister’s children.
As the minutes tick by, the students type, flip through their books, stop and stretch in their seats. One rests his chin in his hand and gazes at his screen. Sounds from the movie Dick Tracy, playing in the next classroom, blare through the wall.
At 12:15 time is up. Those who haven’t yet printed their work turn it in and file out. Kenneth, in black plastic glasses, and two West African classmates are still frantically typing. <Read more.>