Wishful Thinking

audacity: A willingness to take bold risks; rude or disrespectful behavior.

The teacher observed the young woman, almost a girl, staring at her, wide-eyed. The student sat in the far row to the teacher’s left, near the door, in the second seat. She sat up straight and never took her eyes off the roving, smiling teacher during this first class meeting. The teacher nodded at her and smiled and looked deep into her unblinking eyes many times during her introductory lecture. She looks scared, thought the teacher. Really unsure of herself. She wondered if the student was having trouble understanding her. Perhaps English was not her first language. Or she didn’t know anybody in the class. Or she was afraid the teacher would call on her. There was something about this child that captured the teacher’s attention. Her sweet-face beauty? Her erect posture? Her undivided attention? She looked forward to getting to know this student. There was a depth in those big saucer eyes. There was thought there, the teacher could tell. There was something to bring out. The quietness of a deep well. The reserve of an observer. Oh, this new teacher did like all the possibilities she was certain existed in the fresh faces of these freshman, many of them first generation college students. She said, on the first day, that she believed in education and how education can change a person. One doesn’t need to be in school to become educated but it is easier. She believed that they, perhaps unconsciously, knew there was a bigger world and they wanted to be a part of it. Even if they didn’t really want to be in school, if their parents were making them attend or if they didn’t know what else there was to do, a part of them must be a wee bit curious about college. It’s about trust, she said, looking at the girl.

The student was not in class on the second day or the third or ever again.

On the state-mandated attendance list required to be submitted two weeks after classes began, the teacher reported the student’s last date of attendance (the first day of classes) and that was that.

A year later, the school was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars by the state and federal financial aid programs for students who took out loans and received grant money but never attended the school. Apparently, the rules were one classroom visit got the aid in motion and dispensed. The rules changed quickly, reporting was improved, and it became more difficult, if not impossible, to get that money. Students had to attend for most of a semester to scam the system.

Is that what her doe-eyed innocent did? Scam the system? She imagines the scene: the student’s father, maybe her brothers, no, her boyfriend. They talk her into it. He heard from his friend who went to the school for a day and got a 3000-dollar check that he cashed. No problem. It was easy. All she had to do was register for classes, maybe take a test, but no one cares about your score, show up to all your classes on the first day. You don’t have to talk or anything. You could do this, babe. No one would doubt you. She is a shy girl and, at first, the idea terrifies her. The college over there has nothing to do with her. She had never been there. She heard people talk about it. She wasn’t sure what kind of a school it was. How was she supposed to find her classes? He’d come with her. He’d walk her to each class. Okay, she said. She wanted to do something for him.

She was pretty nervous that first day. But everything happened just like he said. She sat in class, pretended to listen, didn’t take any notes, like some of the other students, and left. He went with her to pick up the check, which came in right away. She liked the fact that she earned that money. Even though he took it. He bought a motorcycle for them and a new flat-screen large television. Three cases of beer. Lots of steak for the freezer. They were happy.

They ignored the demands for repayment throughout the next few years, letting the loan go into default, whatever that meant. Until, unbelievably, the bright pink envelopes from the federal services stop coming. Well, they had moved a few times. Maybe the government gave up on them. He knew that 3000 dollars was like a penny to the government. He was wondering if she could register for more classes now. His friend told him to wait a few more years. He should have taken out a bigger loan.

The teacher imagines the student thinking back on her first – and possibly only – day of college. She remembers her open face, her brightness, her intense stare and listening. She imagines she was focused on the lie, which is why she looked so frightened. And she imagines the student and boyfriend – her father, her brothers – laughing at their audacity (not that they would use that word), incredulous that they got away with it, wishing they could do it again. Look at all the stuff they got. The teacher knew the young woman had been coerced into the theft.

The teacher imagines that behind the girl’s laughter as they talk about their lucky break, she hears the teacher’s voice in her head. She was a nice woman. She made us laugh. She encouraged us. She told us that learning – not school, but learning – was important. She said something about trust.

The student has often thought about the day she sat in a college classroom. The idea of becoming a real college student tugs at her, a kind of longing, a possibility.

Wishful thinking. (On the teacher’s part.)

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