On average, I have more men in my classes most semesters than I do women; many of the young men have beat the odds, some still won’t. They laugh, they joke; some work hard, some don’t.  Behind them the invisible women in their lives–their mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, surface from time to time, voices over their shoulders telling them to push on, work hard, and keep their chins up. They are relentless in propelling their boys forward–ever forward–into opportunities they themselves didn’t–and couldn’t–have. Most of the men (boys?) in my class are first generation college students, negotiating the ins and outs of college life on their own, for they have no one back home to advise them, no one who’s been down this path and can tell them what to expect.  They are pioneers of sorts, and it can be a lonely business.

This semester, though, I have more women than men in one particular English class. Two are mothers, one of a four-month old boy, the other of a seven-year old boy. The third is pregnant with her first–a son–and due at the end of May.  She never goes anywhere without her bottle of water, is a very hard worker, proud of her pregnant belly, and careful to dress in very hip and stylish maternity clothes (I’ve always been in awe of pregnant women who can wear tight shirts over their swollen bellies and look chic).  In contrast, the mother of the small baby is very young herself and uncertain about which role to occupy in her own life. She frequently talks during class to the young man next to her, and seems to have trouble paying attention on a regular basis. She’s prone to spontaneous outbursts about things that have nothing to do with what we’re talking about. I often find myself irritated by her lack of attention.  Somedays she fiddles with her cell phone during class, other days she’s writing notes to the young man.  I feel for her, though; she is so obviously caught between roles.  She talks about her baby son as if he were a doll or plaything, yet she isn’t fully at ease in the college classroom either.  She seems to me to embody the term student-at-risk.

Stay in college! I want to say to her over and over again, until the words become her own mantra, not mine.

The mother of the older boy has had seven years to settle into her role.  She has come back to school again at a time when things are more manageable for her. Her son is in school now and old enough to appreciate her return to college, and what it might mean for the both of them.  College might become more than a second-chance for him, but instead be an attainable, welcomed and natural fact of life. The young woman expecting her first is enveloped in that clichéd glow of pregnancy. Other students give her too much space in the classroom.  She sits surrounded by an almost tangible aura of contentment and self-assurance. I imagine her son curled up inside of her, stretching his limbs, fluttering and kicking; waiting to be born, impatient to learn.

I hope that in a few years time I will see all three of these young women walk across the stage at graduation.  Their sons will be watching from the bleachers, perhaps in a great-grandmother’s lap, as their mothers’ names are called, and as these women step out into the light, visible in new ways now, wearing pride around their shoulders. More importantly, they will be able to pass on the greatest legacy of all to their sons: the ability to extend a helping hand to them and to one day say with pride, I have done that too; I have been to college, just like you. Look at me, look at all I’ve done.