Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Community college killer can’t kill the spirit

When I moved to Florida in 1986 on a transfer within the U.S. Postal Service, I was focused mainly on work and advancing myself within the organization.

As a high school graduate and a veteran, I mistakenly thought that I was ready for the challenges ahead and was eager and ready to work within the defective system to make it better. Little did I know that for many postal managers then – and today – the goal was to prevent change and improvement.

It was almost like coming to a military base for the first time, and hearing of all the places “in town” that are off-limits to the troops. When I was in the service, there were places that sold drug paraphernalia (carburetors, roach clips, KISS posters (It was the late 1970s, remember), etc.) where you could get into a lot of trouble if someone in the higher ranks saw you.

At the post office in West Palm Beach in 1986, there was one place that was considered to not even exist. Back then, it was called Palm Beach Junior College. Employees considering taking courses were warned to stay away from that place. The very idea that you – a career employee – might be considering training for a job outside the Postal Service was anathema. To many postal managers, the workers at the General Mail Facility were “stuck” and could never function in another workplace.

It was important to consider the source, though many of us were so indoctrinated into the postal mindset that we failed to do so. Most top postal managers have high school diplomas or GEDs, and you can even find a few who didn’t finish elementary school.

To them, the notion of college was so far beyond what they had attained, they believed that attendance at college could turn a submissive worker with no options into someone who might leave and tell the world about what went on in the postal facility.

And believe me, there was a lot to tell. I remember watching fellow workers ripping damaged and destroyed mail out of machinery, and throwing it on the floor, where it was run over by equipment and sometimes obliterated.

At the “nixie” table, employees on light duty sat and either tried to piece the mail back together, or simply rifled the envelopes for cash. I will admit that the latter eventually were caught by the postal inspectors, who usually were trying to set up drug busts using unreliable informants and were themselves often very corrupt.

The place of hope
Despite all the warnings and threats from the post office, one day I decided that I needed a future. I passed the renamed Palm Beach Community College on the way to the postal facility every day and fantasized about taking a class or two. I actually did take classes in postal management through the college, but when those failed to get me advanced, I realized I had to go all-in.

One day, I drove onto the campus, found a parking space, went into the right building and said, “I want to go to college here.”

I often think about where I am today in life, and realize that thanks to those words I am so much more than I could have ever been, even if I had advanced in the Postal Service, because I took the big chance.

I was handed a sheaf of forms and informed that I had to take the American College Test, to be given in a couple of months, and then I could try to get in.

It was a lot of work, but I was determined and I plowed through the paperwork. I told a few people at work about my efforts, and most of the responses were negative. One woman told me her first day at the college had been her last because someone mentioned evolution. Others told me that the people there were wasting their time: there were no jobs to be had “out there” outside the Postal Service.

I felt sorry for those people who had let themselves be led by the nose into such a negative view of life.

A day of horror
For this reason, I was horrified to hear about the mass shooting at the community college in Oregon. The person who did this attacked so many people and for no good reason. They were building their future, starting at the bottom at a level of college that is often mocked and derided, but can lead to so much more for those who work through it and take advantage of the help that’s offered.

Community college kept me sane during the worst years of my Postal Service torment and reminded me that there was a world of opportunity out there that didn’t involve mentally defective and corrupt bosses, moronic top managers and a babbling ding-dong of a postmaster general.

I would come from the college and into the disaster that was the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility, with mail hidden in every nook and cranny and machines tearing through paper and supervisors wielding mindless authority, and then leave and return to college, where sanity ruled.

I met some of the most amazing people at Palm Beach Community College, who made the low-life trash at the post office like Shirley Cordle, Terry Cahill, Gary Miller and so many other postal sleazes look like wastes of humanity.

You’ve heard of Burt Reynolds, right? Well, I knew the man who first encouraged him to appear in a play. Watson B. Duncan III was one of the greatest men you never heard of. He could have been the president of not just a college but a college system, but he preferred to teach English literature to giant classes of eager undergrads in a theater that was named for him.

I’ve written about Duncan before, so I’ll just say that I was privileged to know him and take his classes. I’ll never forget what he wrote on one of my test papers: “I am enjoying your writing in the Beachcomber.”

He told me that he loved teaching so much, he hoped to “go” to his reward while in front of a class. His passing was a terrible tragedy and the life seemed to leave Palm Beach Community College after he was gone. Watson B. Duncan was everything to me that the post office wasn’t: educated, gentle, compassionate, respectful, rewarding.

And he taught at a community college.

I eventually moved on to the university after graduating from Palm Beach Community College (now called Palm Beach State College) and sometimes would see the campus at State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and wish I could just go back as an un-degreed undergrad and do it all over.

Hang out with the students before class, talk under the trees about our instructors and maybe even take in a sports event or two.

Back in my day, we’d argue and debate, and sometimes there were creepy people who needed to be removed, but the idea that someone would come on campus and shoot others was beyond our belief.

That happened at the post office, people said back then, not at a college.

Well, things have changed, and disturbed people have realized that college students make great targets.

I want these shootings to stop. I want community college to be what it was for me, a place of learning and education and enlightenment and new opportunities.

Postal managers would ridicule me and tell me the college was filling my brain with nonsense and absurd ideas that I mattered and was a worthwhile person.

At the college, the instructors were telling me that I was someone who could go far if I applied myself. Sadly, I remember by name those who disdained me at the post office and have forgotten the names of many of the wonderful people who encouraged me to chase my dreams. Here’s one: Ernest Parbhoo, the journalism teacher at PBCC and student newspaper adviser, who not only encouraged me but also had me come into his journalism classes at PBCC later on to talk about my career. Thanks for everything, Ernie.

I ache for those who lost family members in those shootings. I ache for those who were injured, and the hero Army veteran who took multiple bullets to protect his classmates.

The next time I’m in the Palm Beach County area, I will make a special trip to Palm Beach State College, and I’ll drive past and murmur two words to that place that gave me so much: Thank You.

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October 6, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Community college is where your future can happen

When I heard about President Obama’s proposal for free community college, I knew that it wouldn’t go over very well.

Sadly, most folks despise the president’s ideas. If he recommended beating children bloody in school parking lots for rules infractions, people would come out against that.

Still, encouraging people to get a two-year degree, even if it costs a lot, has to be less expensive than incarcerating people. A community college president once told me that it cost the state of Florida about $50,000 a year to lock someone up in prison; by comparison, even the most costly state university was a bargain at about $25,000 a year, and community colleges cost about half that or less.

Unfortunately for Florida, the state’s leaders fell under the influence of a well-meaning but terribly wrong adviser who recommended preparing for a tsunami of violent youthful offenders on their way up from childhood. Seeking to be ahead of the curve, the state built several very expensive prisons and staffed them up, waiting for the surge of criminality that never materialized. Out in rural areas, the prisons are still there, but the youths never appeared in the expected numbers.

The reality is that we now live in a society where workers need education beyond high school to get a good-paying job, and those who drop out are going to find themselves in an impossible situation. Back when I was a youth, there were all these ads pushing “high school equivalency diplomas” and I remember the pitches: “He can’t get ahead in business because he lacks a high school diploma.” You could replace “high school diploma” with “two-year college degree,” and you won’t be far off the mark.

I know all this from personal experience.

For me, Palm Beach Community College (now Palm Beach State College) basically reinvented my life. I went into that place in August 1988 as a frustrated veteran and disgruntled postal worker whose dreams of career advancement had been dashed because I thought the Postal Service existed to serve customers.

I left the community college with a two-year (associate’s) degree in journalism, a new peer group of smart friends and the confidence to continue at the university. In April 1994, I graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in communications and within two years was working as a newspaper copy editor.

I worked hard in those years, taking night shifts at the post office and attending college during the day instead of sleeping. But my instructors at PBCC and my professors at FAU gave of themselves, and I am forever in their debt.

At community college, the confidence I gained was well worth the sacrifices I had to make.

I remember getting a variety of advice. Dorothy Martin, my second cousin Angelo’s sister-in-law, gave me so much encouragement. “Whatever you do there,” she said, “take Watson B. Duncan’s courses. He’s the greatest teacher.”

I took those courses, and Dorothy was right about him.

Others were less enthused. My postal bosses were downright negative, advising me that college was a waste of time, and wouldn’t help my advancement in the post office. “We don’t like to promote college people,” I was often told. “They think knowing things is the key to getting things done right.”

What they feared, I later learned, was the worker with a brain and the willingness to use it. I later used the skills I learned in community college to start my own underground postal employee newsletter, “Samizdat,” and even sent copies to the postmaster general. Unfortunately, they were written above his reading level, and his minions were not impressed with my brilliance.

The education I received at community college gave me the tools I needed to counter the anti-education rhetoric I heard at the post office, and I can still remember the last night I wasted at the post office, leaving that shithole facility in West Palm Beach with its cheating on the Price-Waterhouse testing, exaggerated mail volume reporting, mail destruction in the machinery and human destruction by managers such as Gary Miller and Terry Cahill, not to mention Barbara Shaler and Shirley Cordle.

I drove off to an uncertain future, but one that had limitless possibilities. On the way home to my house in Lake Worth, I drove on Congress Avenue in West Palm Beach past Palm Beach Community College.

It was on the left, and I remembered that first day when I had gone on the campus and requested a course catalog and began the process of getting myself admitted.

Now I was heading into a future that that wonderful place had opened up for me, and I gave the place a hand salute as I drove by.

Today, I read about community colleges like State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and I wish I could go back there, take classes, sit in the sun before the classes start, talk with my fellow students, pull all-nighters at home, spend lots of time there on the student newspaper and just be a part of the academic community.

Community colleges are wondrous places, and I’m not the only one who got a life-course correction in those classrooms.

So let’s support community colleges and get behind plans, no matter where they come from, to get more people to attend community college. Our nation will benefit, of course, but so will the many people who find a new life and a new career in a place where learning is treasured, and students matter.

That’s what happens at community colleges.

 

January 12, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Seeds of Postal Service’s decline planted years ago

In June 1994, leaving the employ of the U.S. Postal Service seemed like the biggest mistake I had ever made.

Friends, relatives, co-workers and postal managers advised me that I’d starve to death out in “the private sector,” and that as soon as a job interviewer found out I had a postal past I’d be removed from consideration for employment. I didn’t feel that way, though, and it turns out I was right.

It was easy to understand their viewpoint, however. Many people sought lifelong jobs, economic security and a sense of purpose in the Postal Service and found it there. Sure, the postal facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., where I worked for more than eight years of my nearly 11½ years in the Postal Service, was far from a workplace where insight, understanding and forward thinking were encouraged, but for many people it was the only job they ever knew. The devil you know is often a lesser threat than the one you don’t, and that kept people from considering other careers, pursuing educational opportunities and eventually leaving the Postal Service.

I was a rebel. An outlier.

For six years, I had pursued higher education at a community college and then a university, working at night at the postal facility and taking classes during the day. Thanks to a set schedule that never changed, a benefit of being in a union job, I could plan my semesters, find the courses I needed and even participate in a couple of extracurricular activities at college. Thanks to the good postal pay, I was able to cover my living expenses and get a bachelor’s degree without taking out a student loan. During lunch breaks, I’d sit in the employee cafeteria with headphones on, studying and doing homework while listening to Mozart and Beethoven, and dream of my future outside those walls.

In many ways, it was the best time of my life. I had given up my hopes of advancing within the Postal Service and was on a new and better path.

Others thought I had gone around the bend psychologically. Out of the thousands of workers at the postal facility, only one other had gone to college at the same time I did and graduated, and then moved on to better things. I was determined to be the second one.

By the early 1990s, the reality was that computers were here to stay, and online services were becoming popular. People found they could contact each other in writing without writing a letter, putting a stamp on it and mailing it through the Postal Service. Businesses pumped out catalogs and advertising mail, and some postal facilities were getting close to gridlock.

“The mail will never be replaced, so long as senior citizens can’t figure out computers,” I heard from postal managers. “And they’re too old to learn to use them.”

But I knew that wasn’t true, because I’d seen retired folks take to computers and discover the wonders of email. Computers were becoming easier to use. Businesses were learning how to use the Internet for functions that had, in the past, taken place through the mail. Much of what we take for granted about the online world was in its formative stages then, but depending on who you asked I was either out of my mind or correct in my belief that the Postal Service was going to lose this technology war.

In 1993, I attended a postal “Career Awareness Conference” to see if there was finally any chance that I could advance in the system. I had started in college in 1988 after two years of mostly futile efforts to get promoted to even entry-level management; I again wanted to see if there was any future advancement in the Postal Service for someone like me.

If nothing else, the conference showed me that I was on the right track out the door. “God has taken the Postal Service under His protection,” one worker declared. “He won’t let anything bad happen.” That sort of thinking, while comforting, didn’t take into account that alternatives to the mail were already in use, and more were on the way. Other signs were more worrisome. In Florida, hundreds of able-bodied workers were on “injury comp” and not touching the mail, and virtually every postal installation had a horde of allegedly injured “Equal Employment Opportunity” staffers who made a postal salary while making photocopies and handing each other paperwork for 40 hours a week.

Training for newly hired workers was non-existent, and most of the new hires I saw in my years in West Palm Beach quit soon after starting the job or were fired, though not before royally messing things up due to a lack of training. A supervisor once took issue with the fact that I was teaching newly hired workers their jobs, declaring, “It’s a waste of time to train them because they just quit after a month.” I tried to explain that training them might mean they’d stay awhile and do better work, but she declared that the fact that they were working for the Postal Service instead of doing something else was a clear indication of their lack of intelligence and untrainability.

In the Postal Service, position made you right, not experience or knowledge. I had to stop training newly hired workers and refuse to answer their questions.

I found this odd because in late 1982, after getting out of the Marine Corps, I had worked over the Christmas holiday for United Parcel Service, and even though I was a temporary worker, one of the two managers in the facility watched me work, taught me how to load the familiar brown trucks and explained how I could do my job better and more efficiently. I was flattered that even though I was a temporary worker for the holiday the company was willing to expend that kind of time, money and effort on me, and the supervisor said it was an investment for the company, even if I left or was let go – as I was — and never came back.

In the Postal Service, though, training – except for the letter sorting machines and other sorting devices — was considered a waste of time that took resources away from “productive” work. “Most people who come to work here are too dumb to work anywhere else,” a human resources manager told me one time. “So what’s the point of showing them how to do anything?”

Such a viewpoint was even expressed to new hires at new employee orientation, which shocked me. In all my years of working since the Postal Service, I have never worked for a company, no matter how menial the job, where orientation began with an insult for coming to work there.

Sadly, despite my own intellectual pretensions, I think that even if the Postal Service had given me more than a two-week tryout as a supervisor and manager, the outcome wouldn’t have changed. Technology is making the Postal Service obsolete; it’s just taking a very, very long time to work itself out.

I am part of the problem, too. I buy stamps perhaps once every two months, and transact most of my business online. I still pay a few bills by mail, and order products and services online. Still, I will miss the catalogs and occasional letters that land in my mailbox. It’s a hard fact that the decline and eventual fall of the Postal Service, at least in its current form, is an inevitability.

Change is very painful to people, and while some of us can embrace it and find new paths, there are many who believed that the Postal Service would never change, and never would face a serious challenge to its dominance. If there’s anyone left in the Postal Service with any foresight at all, they will see the approaching end. If not, they will be the first to pay the price.

December 1, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , | Leave a comment

We’re not spending. Are you happy now?

I awoke Friday morning, the third day in Barack Obama’s America, to read that retailers are despairing about the Christmas shopping season and that unemployment has hit 6.5 percent, and 240,000 people have lost their jobs.

It seems every large company is planning giant layoffs in time for the holiday, and I don’t care what anyone says: We’re in a Depression, and we’ve been in one for awhile.

After the stock market crash in October 1929, people didn’t automatically decide that the economy was in a depression. It took time, and there was talk that the word depression was the wrong word. People even wore buttons declaring that there was no problem in the economy.

Well, there was a depression, a big one, and as more and more people lost their jobs, homes, possessions and hope, there was fear that the worst was yet to come.

I think there was also a sense of loss, and a pining for the recent past, as there is today. The boom was so big, and we were all so hopeful, and to see it all gone just hurt then and hurts now.

I live near a large outlet mall, and during the boom when I was working for the newspaper, on Thanksgiving when I was working I knew I had to come up with an alternate route to get home because traffic would be backed up for miles on I-75 as people arrived for the start of the holiday shopping season.

It sounds nuts, but people went shopping at midnight.

Even on Thanksgiving Day, stores would open, and I remember that a psychologist in Sarasota would always babble some pseudo-scientific nonsense about how they had all run out of things to talk about, and how terrible it was that people were shopping and spending money.

Well, I hope that stupid, moronic bitch is happy. Our economy is in the toilet, which always seems to make happy and prosperous those whose lives are built around commenting on others’ lives.

Let me drop you a little secret about psychologists. Now, I’m not a Scientologist or someone totally opposed to the profession of mental health, but they should focus on helping people, not getting quoted in the paper.

I was in community college, and taking a course in psychology. The instructor was kind of weird but OK, and I did learn a lot, but she told the class one thing that changed my view of psychologists. To pay for her education, she had gone to work for an outfit that counseled clients on why they should not do drugs and alcohol.

These operations, called “rehab” today, pretty much operated along the lines that you really weren’t cured until you ran out of money. Anyway, she said it was pretty stressful and that the staff found a great way to relax and burn off the stress from counseling people against going to wild parties and using drugs and alcohol.

By throwing wild parties and using drugs and alcohol.

I have to tell you that after that, I refused to believe most of what she told me, and from then on anytime a psychologist was quoted in the newspaper or other media, I took it with a grain of salt.

These psychologists who run around babbling about “rampant consumerism” and so forth are full of malarkey. None of them are taking the bus anywhere, and I bet none of them are living in the woods or a homeless shelter.

I’m not broke or busted – yet. But without a job, I won’t be spending money. It’s OK, I have plenty of things (all paid for, except the house) and even still have hope that I can land a job by next March. But I have yet to read anything by one of these goofball psychologists talking about how maybe the consumerism of a few years ago wasn’t a totally bad thing.

Or maybe they just get their rocks off when others are suffering. Or maybe they’re just relaxing with some dope and booze.

Then again, to them our lives are just some diagnosis that they can use for profit and to get their names in the media, and maybe a talk show.

November 7, 2008 Posted by | Education, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Talking down to the community college

As someone who came to the college experience later than normal, in my late 20s instead of my late teens, I was always of the view that learning was learning, whether you got it in the Ivy League or at a lesser institution.

Circumstances — such as an insistence that I make my own decisions after graduating from high school — led me to join the Marine Corps at the ripe young age of 17 in 1978, and then my efforts to make my way in the world after my four years of service led me to the Postal Service. It wasn’t until around 1988 and I was beginning to tire of the sameness of life in the Postal Service that I realized that to take my life and career to the next level, I needed to go to college.

And Palm Beach Community College was there. Close to my house, on my way to my job at the post office, and willing to let me drink at their fountain of knowledge. I worked nights at the post office, and was able to take day classes almost like a real and traditional-age college student. Thanks to good pay and benefits at the post office, I was able to pay for the whole thing out of pocket without taking out student loans.

Honestly, I could have gone to Florida Atlantic University first, but I was a little uncertain about whether I could handle college work and wanted to stick a toe in the water, so to speak. I eventually did go to FAU after I graduated from PBCC, but that’s another blog post.

Because I had to attend PBCC part time, it took me three years to finish the two-year course, and in that time I became more than just someone with a bunch of credits, but a more educated and cultured man. I still had a lot to learn, but I was on my way.

So when I read things about community colleges that tend to dismiss them as inferior places of learning, I get kind of defensive. It hurts more when someone acts as if attending a community college is a sign of failure that will have to be explained in a job interview.

When a community college tries to rise above and be a major player, it seems like there is an attitude that the leaders of the place should recognize their inferiority and remember their place in the educational pecking order.

That hurts. I learned so much from the instructors at Palm Beach Community College, and received encouragement to do more than just attend college. At PBCC, I worked on the newspaper, took courses whose lessons remain with me to this day, and have a cup running over of memories. Maybe I never pledged an “Animal House”-like fraternity or engaged in hi-jinks, but that was because I was paying the freight on my education and needed to focus on that. I was active on the newspaper and in the PTK chapter as much as I could.

Indeed the same folks who run down community colleges also tend to run down adult students such as I was, and throw words around like “career student.” I changed in a lot of ways during my time in both community college and at the university, and sometimes that upset people at the post office. Suddenly, I was studying on my breaks or doing homework. After work, I’d go home instead of going to a local bar to whine about management. Often, I had to get up the next morning for class after working late. Believe me, it wasn’t the easiest path, but it was one I willingly took.

Community colleges labor in obscurity and their successes are not immediately apparent, but those who have a negative view of them are wrong. The people attending them are intent on success and determined to get ahead in this world. Sure, that’s a threat to some people, but the students just want a better life, and are willing to invest their time, money and effort into it.

For that reason alone, community colleges should be cheered, not dismissed, and their staffs should be honored, not belittled.

Indeed, one of the greatest teachers of English literature worked his magic for decades at Palm Beach Community College, Watson B. Duncan III. You may have heard of him. Once, he encouraged a smart-ass student in the back of the class to try out for a play. You may have heard of that student: Burt Reynolds. See the Wikipedia entry for the full story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watson_B._Duncan.

Duncan could have taught anywhere, but he seemed happy at PBCC, where more than a hundred eager students would crowd into the Duncan Theater at PBCC to hear him explain the wonders of English literature. I still remember the names of those classes: “English Literature to 1660” and “English Literature After 1660.” The textbook you had to buy, “The Literature of England,” sits in a bookcase in my house. I should open it more often.

Back before Web-based signups for class, you had to line up and give your proposed or dreamed-of schedule to a clerk, who would check to see if there was room. Those hoping to attend Duncan’s class would line up early, and I know I punched the air when I got into Duncan’s class. His reputation preceded him, and he taught people, their children and even their grandchildren.

Like everyone, I loved his lectures, and loved to kid him. One time, I was sitting in class and he was declaiming on the wonders of the man he called “The greatest writer in the history of the English language: William Shakespeare!” Well, this time, I decided to have some fun, so when he said “… language,” I burst out, “Stephen King!”

He looked mad. I apologized after class, and he accepted it with good humor, noting that his wife, Honey Duncan, read King’s books, but he couldn’t see why they were so popular.

Duncan was a great man, and his passing in 1991, before I graduated, was mourned at PBCC. This long diversion into Duncan was just to show that there’s quality in community colleges, and it’s the people who make it so.

So next time someone says, “Ah, it’s just community college,” reply this way: “It’s way, way better than you think.”

September 20, 2008 Posted by | Education | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments