A Clemente Course student

If the timing of this seems crazily off, it’s because the contents of this post (and more!) first appeared in my monthly email newsletter in July. If you subscribe, you can get more writings like this delivered straight to your inbox and not miss a thing. Sign up here.

With the appearance of the Washington Post article about the NEH that featured the Clemente Course, a kind reader asked to learn more about Clemente and what “inspires or confounds” the students. To that end, here’s something I wrote a couple of years ago, edited for clarity. It started out as an email to Mass Humanities, the folks who fund the program, and a version of it ended up in their newsletter. The subject is Waldo, who’s mentioned in the WaPo story as graduating from Suffolk U this spring; he gave me permission to tell this story publicly.

Today is my birthday and this morning I got a phone call from Waldo Aguasvivas telling me that he had been accepted into four year programs at UMass Boston and Northeastern for Criminal Justice (he wants to be a lawyer).

Waldo first came to Clemente in 2011, a young gay Dominican man who was having some trouble at home after coming out. He told me that he had not yet earned his GED but that he would work on it concurrently with the Clemente Course. He did not finish the year out and made excuses for not finishing his work or not coming prepared for class.

In the summer of 2012 he called me (I remember I was mowing the lawn), asking to take Clemente again and telling me how he had changed and how he had invited some friends to take the class with him and that he was going to finish this time. Having friends in the class helped, but he was still not a great student. Our writing teacher, Ann Murphy, said he had difficulty handing in written work; even paragraphs they wrote in-class were deemed not good enough to share with her.

Then, following the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, we were discussing the controversy over burying Tamerlan Tsarnaev in Cambridge or elsewhere in the Boston area. The class was almost unanimously opposed to the burial. Then Waldo said, This is like Antigone. When they had read that play by Sophocles earlier in the year, most people had sided with Antigone, who wanted to give her brother a proper burial despite his crime as a traitor to his city. Waldo’s analogy to the play changed the tone of the conversation about the bomber, allowing for more empathy and reflection of the Tsarnaev case as a moral issue, and not simply emotional reactions (our philosophy instructor might say that they approached the issue as philosophers and not sophists).

This, to me, is the best example I can give when I say that the Clemente Course gives people the chance to reflect, and not just react. In two hours of discussion in the fall, the arguments about whether a funeral was a human right were made with clear heads about a literary character. In the spring, after the bombing in the city, our students already had well-reasoned arguments on a horrifyingly contemporary issue, even as seasoned newspaper columnists delivered their “first takes” in the daily paper. Of course, it took Waldo’s comment for the rest of the students to realize they had this preparation.

Waldo knew he had made a great contribution to the class that day and I believe that that was the catalyst for him to invest his time and attention to his studies. From that point on, he kept up with his work and he went back and made up all of his previous late papers. He became less self-conscious about his writing and used the resources available to him — our writing teacher Ann — sending her drafts of all his work for additional editing before turning them in.

Following Clemente, Waldo went to Roxbury Community College, a fact I knew because he once called me from the Registrar’s Office, trying to convince the Registrar herself to take the Clemente Course after having extolled our virtues to her. (He put her on the phone and I spoke to her but clearly it made more sense for her to take classes at RCC; Waldo was becoming an evangelist for everyone to further their education.) He also continued to send his community college papers to Ann for editing. And she continued to help him with his drafts.

This fall he asked me to write him a recommendation for the Common App for four-year programs. He told me that he had a 3.7 GPA at RCC and that he had discovered a strong interest in the law. In my recommendation for him, I wrote about how he is an extrovert who likes to stand up for others and I think he will be a great lawyer.

This morning when he called, Waldo told me how he often thought about Clemente and how weird it was that he didn’t even have a GED when he met me. He told me that our encouragement meant a lot to him and his decision to further his education. I reminded him that his achievements were the result of his own hard work and determination. I also told him it was my birthday and that his telephone call was the best birthday present I’ve had in a while.

This is not a fundraising letter, but if you want to read more about the Clemente Course in Massachusetts, watch some great short films about our students, or donate to the course, you can follow this link


If the timing of this seems crazily off, it’s because the contents of this post (and more!) first appeared in my monthly email newsletter in July. If you subscribe, you can get more writings like this delivered straight to your inbox and not miss a thing. Sign up here.

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