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

The greatest teacher I ever saw

My decision to pursue a college degree in the late 1980s drew a variety of responses from those I talked to. At the post office, the main reaction was derision. “My cousin Wilbur graduated from college, and he’s working at Burger King” was a typical response. In the blue-collar work world, people who pursue college degrees are viewed as not knowing their position and station in life. “You’ll fail, like you’ve failed at everything else,” one boss said.

The front page of the student newspaper reporting the death of Watson B. Duncan III.

The front page of the student newspaper reporting the death of Watson B. Duncan III.

I was determined to prove her wrong – and did.

One thing I used to tell people was that the smartest people in the county believed I was pretty smart, and the dumbest people in the county – postal management – believed I was not smart. “I’m betting that the smart people are right,” I said. And I was right.

In the realm of education, there are teachers who get up there and teach for the love of it. Sure, the doorway to administration and the really big money and recognition always beckons, but they prefer to stay in the trenches, never forgetting that it’s those who are closest to the students who truly are “educators.”

One of the great mentors of my life, Dorothy Martin, took a very different view from the postal bosses. She said it was a great idea, and added one piece of very good advice.

“I’m going to give you one name: Watson B. Duncan,” she said. “Take his class.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“You’ll find out,” she said.

Those provosts, deans, assistant vice presidents and others who populate the organization charts at colleges are just filler. The real work is done by those who get up in front of a group of undergraduates and deliver the goods.

The second page of the story.

The second page of the story.

Watson B. Duncan III did that, and more.

What kind of man?
What kind of man spends decades teaching undergraduates at an obscure junior college, rising to become a department head but still teaching classes of about 200 students from the stage in a theater named for him?

A great one.

What kind of man believed that everyone could benefit from understanding the literature of “that scepter’d isle”?

A great one.

What kind of man would bring a bust of William Shakespeare to the class on the Bard’s birthday, and then lovingly pat it every time Shakespeare’s name was mentioned?

A great one.

The first Duncan sighting

One day, after I started classes at Palm Beach Community College (then just changed from Palm Beach Junior College, and now Palm Beach State College), I was in the Watson B. Duncan III Theater for something, and suddenly a man with a smile on his face walked through the lobby, holding papers and greeting us in a friendly tone. He walked toward a door, opened it and went into his office. The person with me said, “Do you know who that was?”

“No,” I replied.

The third page of the story.

The third page of the story.

“That’s Watson B. Duncan.”

I was intrigued.

He must have been in his early 70s then, but he had the look of a younger man, maybe in his early 60s.

I learned soon after, he’s not “Dr. Duncan” (he didn’t have a doctorate) and he never stood on titles like professor. Students called him “Mr. Duncan.”

He personified Palm Beach Community College, I learned, far more than its president, who had once been a student in his classes and had gotten Cs.

I wanted to experience Watson B. Duncan in all his glory – and I know that in my bucket list under “completed” are two notes: “Take English Literature to 1660 under Watson B. Duncan III” and “Take English Literature after 1660 under Watson B. Duncan III.” I feel privileged in ways that cannot be imagined to say that I was able to take and get A grades in both classes.

The greatest privilege was to experience the wonders of English literature through this man. I mean, in how many other classes does the final class period end in a standing ovation? The students at PBCC loved Watson B. Duncan, and taking his classes was considered the capstone of your college career.

Registration day triumph
It wasn’t easy to get in.

Today, you register for classes online, but back then – in the late 1980s — you had to line up early in the morning at the cafeteria, and if you didn’t have a lot of credits, you didn’t get to register until later in the process.

My story on the donation of his book to the library.

My story on the donation of his book to the library.

On my second attempt, I went there with my class list for the upcoming semester and hoped like mad that I’d get accepted. The registration office employee tapped in the information, then said, “You’re in luck. You got everything you wanted, and Duncan’s class.”

There it was: English Literature to 1660, and next to it: Duncan.

I was ready to explode, I was so happy.

At the campus bookstore, I saw the book I needed to buy: “The Literature of England.” I paid $37.50 for it. I still have that book, more than 23 years later. The thought of selling it back would be like selling my experiences of Duncan. No way, it’s staying with me.

The story was that Duncan used his copy to teach so much, he had to get spare copies because he kept filling the margins with notes. Today, in his honor, the book is encased in glass in the library at what is now Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Fla. My copy has moved with me, and the other day I leafed through it, remembering the lessons Duncan taught.

I remember that first class day. Students had gathered outside the theater early, and I made sure I got a seat close to the stage. The place filled up, and finally Watson B. Duncan walked out from behind the curtain to applause, and began to teach.

It was like that every day, and it was a joy that I want to cry about not seeing again. Literature came alive and he’d sometimes share experiences he had. Occasionally, I couldn’t restrain myself.

For example, one time he said, “Next, we’ll be talking about THE GREATEST WRITER IN THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE –”

“Stephen King!” I called out.

He looked down at me with mock horror – and maybe a little real anger – and said, “WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE!”

After class, I went up to him and apologized. He accepted it, noting that his beloved wife, Honey, enjoyed King’s novels, though he couldn’t understand why.

My story on the memorial service.

My story on the memorial service.

When we had tests, we couldn’t take them in the theater, so he’d direct us to report to a classroom, where we’d have tables to lean on. By this time, I know he had assistants who graded the tests, but he’d still write personal notes. One, to me, read: “I am enjoying your writing in the Beachcomber.” (The student newspaper at PBCC).

When the papers were graded, Duncan would hand them out but make sure to note that he was calling the names in alphabetical order, and not by grade.

“If I were to call you up by the grade you expected,” he’d say, “you’d all rush up here and I’d be crushed to death, and what would follow would be mass disillusionment.” At our grades, he was saying.

One time, I was talking to him and we got on the subject of him ever leaving teaching. He said he never wanted to stop teaching. “My fantasy is to go while I’m teaching,” he said, “but I know it will be a bit of a shock to the students.”

Another time, he described a dinner party he was at, where he recounted the speech of a very well-dressed society woman said to him: “Oh, Mr. Duncan. I think you should know that I’m a direct descendant of William Shakespeare.”

Duncan said he replied: “Why, the media must be called immediately. This is amazing news!”

The lady asked why.

“Ma’am, as far as anyone knows, William Shakespeare had no direct descendants.”

“Oh.”

“But he did have several illegitimate children,” Duncan said he called to the woman, who got away from him. The students loved that story.

Another story he told was of the time that an engineering student informed Duncan that he did not need to study literature, as it was of no use. Duncan retorted to the engineering student that he had checked the course catalogs of all the great engineering colleges in the U.S. and not one did not require literature. Everyone, he said, needed culture.

Be nice to animals

The actual textbook I used in Duncan's classes. I've kept it all these years.

The actual textbook I used in Duncan’s classes. I’ve kept it all these years.

While teaching the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Duncan recounted the time he was on a committee that was evaluating teachers in South Carolina.

One was teaching her class about Coleridge’s story, and she said, to Duncan’s horror: “This is be kind to animals week, and it’s appropriate that we should be teaching ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ because the meaning of the story is Don’t shoot a bird’”

Duncan said he was horrified at this interpretation, and declared, “The meaning of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ isn’t ‘Don’t shoot a bird,’ I said. So I shot her a ‘bird’.”

The place erupted in laughter at the thought of our beloved Watson B. Duncan “shooting a ‘bird’” at anyone, but if there was anyone who deserved a “bird,” it was that hapless teacher.

Worrisome rumors, and then sadness
I was in one of the last groups of students who got to experience Watson B. Duncan in all his glory. I finished the second class with an A, and moved on to other classes. I was busy with my despised job and the fun I was having working on the student newspaper, the Beachcomber.

But there were disquieting stories. A young lady who was taking Duncan’s course said he was absent more and more, and one day he taught the class from a wheelchair, she noted.

I still remember the morning I arrived at the Beachcomber’s offices (I was the paper’s News Editor) and got the terrible phone call from the university’s public relations department: “Watson B. Duncan died last night.”

Yes, textbooks were expensive back then. I would have gotten about $20 back, I think, had I sold it back to the bookstore.

Yes, textbooks were expensive back then. I would have gotten about $20 back, I think, had I sold it back to the bookstore.

We set to work on a commemorative issue of the paper and gathered information for the main story, while local media converged on the college to cover this event. I remember that I was interviewed by a Palm Beach Post reporter, and others shared their fond memories of the beloved and great man.

People walked around campus stunned, and even those who had never taken Duncan’s classes felt the loss keenly.

The stories were told of the great man, how he’d advised a young fellow who came into his class, how the young man had been recovering from a football injury at the University of Florida, and Duncan had encouraged him to try out for a play.

That man was Burt Reynolds, and the story was that Reynolds had been shooting a movie and the crew had found out about Watson B. Duncan’s death, but kept it from him until shooting was over because they knew he’d be so upset.

A few days later, the memorial service for Duncan was held in the main theater. I looked and saw Duncan, lying in state, and felt like something was gone from Palm Beach Community College. The buildings were there, and nothing else had changed, but it was like a bright, bright light of love and knowledge had been extinguished.

Life went on, as it should. I moved on to Florida Atlantic University and eventually went from the college newspaper business to the real news business.

I’ve never forgotten Watson B. Duncan III or those great lessons he taught. But if there’s one quote that illustrates his greatness, it’s the one below.

[lines 287-310 of the General Prologue to
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer]

A Clerk from Oxford was there also,
Who’d studied philosophy, long ago.
As lean was his horse as is a rake,
And he too was not fat, that I take,
But he looked emaciated, moreover, abstemiously.
Very worn off was his overcoat; for he
Had got him yet no churchly benefice,
Nor he was worldly to accept secular office.
For he would rather have at his bed’s head
Some twenty books, all bound in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher in base,
He had but little gold within his suitcase;
But all that he might borrow from a friend
On books and learning he would swiftly spend,
And then he’d pray diligently for the souls
Of those who gave him resources to attend schools.
He took utmost care and heed for his study.
Not one word spoke he more than was necessary;
And that was said with due formality and dignity
And short and lively, and full of high morality.
Filled with moral virtue was his speech;
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

April 2, 2013 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Regular colleges offer a tougher path to a degree

Back in the early 1980s, when I was in the Marines and stationed at MCAS Yuma, Ariz., one of the guys in my squadron decided to avail himself of the educational opportunities offered at the local civilian college.

Back then, there was something called “distance learning” – usually over the television — and there were correspondence courses from the Marine Corps Institute, but few guys seemed to have completed any of that. The main way to get a college education was to go to college.

Arizona Western College’s offerings were touted on the base, but the lack of transportation to attend classes blocked me from attending. My co-worker, however, found that once he was admitted, going to college while working in a Marine squadron was not as easy as he thought it would be. He often missed classes for extra duties – the Marines always took priority – and I do remember one incident where he needed a note from an NCO because he had missed something important, like an exam.

Today, the troops have not only unrivalled access to education but also a government eager to pay for it. Unfortunately, easy access does not mean that the education is useful or even legitimate. Private “career colleges,” both online and those you attend in person, have sprung up. While some may be sincere in their claim to want to educate, the consumer needs to be careful.

My experience with these training schools is very limited and I won’t use names. But let’s be realistic: they’ve existed for decades. Go to google.com and check out the old back issues of magazines like Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, etc., and you’ll see countless schools in their issues going back into the 1910s, offering training (correspondence or through local schools) in a wide variety of fields. In my quick study of the offerings, financing was available, and I wonder how many people got themselves deeply into debt back then trying to learn a skill to land a job.

Education was not free for me in the military or afterward – the GI Bill did not exist in the post-Vietnam era, and there was something called VEAP and I paid into it, but later cashed out before I was eligible for benefits.

I had registered and attended the first day of class at a school that could train me for the Airframes & Powerplant licence, but I had just been hired by the post office and decided to drop out. I also gave back the student loan I had taken out.

In the late 1980s, down in Florida by this time, I initially thought about going to a local career college for electronics training, but decided not to because of the cost.

I had become terrible disaffected with the Postal Service but had bills to pay, so quitting without any training was irresponsible, so I decided my best bet was to knuckle down and continue working, go to a regular academic college and see what would develop.

The hard part for many adults, who believe the nonsensical idea that college is only for the 18-21 set, is just getting themselves in the door. It’s also psychological, because many adults incorrectly think that they are not that intelligent and will be made to look unintelligent in college classes, and humiliated by the professor and fellow students.

I was apprehensive, but one day in 1988 I drove to Palm Beach Community College (now called Palm Beach State College), parked the car and went into the admissions office. It was an intimidating place, even for me, in my late 20s, a former Marine and then-postal worker. The woman behind the counter wasn’t too welcoming, and handed me a list of things I needed to do if I wanted to attend.

First of all, I had to take the ACT. Then I had to see if I needed any remedial work. And then, finally, I could register, but I’d be last in line.

The important thing was, I wasn’t in a hurry to get started or get some certificate or degree. I had time to look over my options and get ready. I registered for the ACT, studied for the test and passed it. I filled out the many forms that a public college requires and eventually got set up for my first class, a summer-semester course, Introduction to the Social Sciences.

Some of my postal superiors and co-workers thought I was wasting my time and money going to college, but I knew they were wrong. My friends and neighbors thought it was great. I thought it was something that would help me in the future.

The thing was, I was flexible about what I wanted to be, and in any case the first two years at the community college would be just courses I needed to get a degree. Later, I could take the courses toward my specific area of study.

The social sciences class was great, and I fit right in. We were a mix of kids out of high school and adults returning to school, and I did well. Soon, I had my first three college credits and was off to the races.

College was a long-term commitment since I was working full time, and that meant taking two or three courses a semester. I think one semester at Florida Atlantic University I took five classes, and got four A’s and a B. Working and making a good living – albeit for an organization I despised, the Postal Service – meant I could pay my way through college with no borrowing or grants.

It took about six years to get my bachelor’s degree in communications, and I graduated owing nothing to those student loan companies, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Believe me, I attended too many “mandatory” financial aid meetings.

That piece of paper I earned has opened countless doors to employment and insight, much more than a certificate from some for-profit “college.”

The hard way is the best way, in my opinion.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment