IN 1974, I graduated from Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif., an underachieving student with lousy SAT scores. Allowed to send my results to three colleges, I chose M.I.T. and Villanova, knowing such fine schools would never accept a student like me but hoping they’d toss some car stickers my way for taking a shot. I couldn’t afford tuition for college anyway. I sent my final set of stats to Chabot, a community college in nearby Hayward, Calif., which, because it accepted everyone and was free, would be my alma mater.
For thousands of commuting students, Chabot was our Columbia, Annapolis, even our Sorbonne, offering courses in physics, stenography, auto mechanics, certified public accounting, foreign languages, journalism — name the art or science, the subject or trade, and it was probably in the catalog. The college had a nursing program that churned out graduates, sports teams that funneled athletes to big-time programs, and parking for a few thousand cars — all free but for the effort and the cost of used textbooks.
Credit Vivienne Flesher
Classmates included veterans back from Vietnam, women of every marital and maternal status returning to school, middle-aged men wanting to improve their employment prospects and paychecks. We could get our general education requirements out of the way at Chabot — credits we could transfer to a university — which made those two years an invaluable head start. I was able to go on to the State University in Sacramento (at $95 a semester, just barely affordable) and study no other subject but my major, theater arts. (After a year there I moved on, enrolling in a little thing called the School of Hard Knocks, a.k.a. Life.)
By some fluke of the punch-card computer era, I made Chabot’s dean’s list taking classes I loved (oral interpretation), classes I loathed (health, a requirement), classes I aced (film as art — like Jean Renoir’s “Golden Coach” and Luis Buñuel’s “Simon of the Desert”), and classes I dropped after the first hour (astronomy, because it was all math). I nearly failed zoology, killing my fruit flies by neglect, but got lucky in an English course, “The College Reading Experience.” The books of Carlos Castaneda were incomprehensible to me (and still are), but my assigned presentation on the analytic process called structural dynamics was hailed as clear and concise, though I did nothing more than embellish the definition I had looked up in the dictionary.
A public speaking class was unforgettable for a couple of reasons. First, the assignments forced us to get over our self-consciousness. Second, another student was a stewardess, as flight attendants called themselves in the ’70s. She was studying communications and was gorgeous. She lived not far from me, and when my VW threw a rod and was in the shop for a week, she offered me a lift to class. I rode shotgun that Monday-Wednesday-Friday totally tongue-tied. Communicating with her one on one was the antithesis of public speaking.
Classes I took at Chabot have rippled through my professional pond. I produced the HBO mini-series “John Adams” with an outline format I learned from a pipe-smoking historian, James Coovelis, whose lectures were riveting. Mary Lou Fitzgerald’s Studies in Shakespeare taught me how the five-act structures of “Richard III,” “The Tempest” and “Othello” focused their themes.
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In Herb Kennedy’s Drama in Performance, I read plays like “The Hot L Baltimore” and “Desire Under the Elms,” then saw their productions. I got to see the plays he taught, through student rush tickets at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Those plays filled my head with expanded dreams. I got an A.
Of course, I goofed off between classes eating French fries and looking at girls; such are the pleasures, too, of schools that cost thousands of bucks a semester. Some hours I idled away in the huge library that anchored Chabot’s oval quad. It’s where I first read The New York Times, frustrated by its lack of comics.
If Chabot’s library still has its collection of vinyl records, you will find my name repeatedly on the takeout slip of Jason Robards’s performance of the monologues of Eugene O’Neill. On Side B he was Hickey, from “The Iceman Cometh,” a recording I listened to 20 times at least. When I worked with Mr. Robards on the 1993 film “Philadelphia,” he confessed to recording those monologues at 10 in the morning after lots and lots of coffee.
President Obama hopes to make two years of free community college accessible for up to nine million Americans. I’m guessing the new Congress will squawk at the $60 billion price tag, but I hope the idea sticks, because more veterans, from Iraq and Afghanistan this time, as well as another generation of mothers, single parents and workers who have been out of the job market, need lower obstacles between now and the next chapter of their lives. High school graduates without the finances for a higher education can postpone taking on big loans and maybe luck into the class that will redefine their life’s work. Many lives will be changed.
Chabot College is still in Hayward, though Mr. Coovelis, Ms. Fitzgerald and Mr. Kennedy are no longer there. I drove past the campus a few years ago with one of my kids and summed up my two years there this way: “That place made me what I am today.”