Ned Bachus has written several books in one: a personal memoir (Son of Immigrant Single Mom Makes Good), a deep reflection on life at the end of a rewarding teaching career (Farewell to Alarms), a writer’s journey with walks on the Irish coast (No Man Is an iPhone), and a bone-honest testimonial on what it takes to learn just about anything in adult life (Friends in the Time of Cholera). The book succeeds in its ambitious attempt to weave threads as seemingly disparate as sheep grazing and learning theory thanks to Bachus’s sincere, articulate voice that makes no excuses for anyone, including his aimless younger self. There’s a lot of what used to be called “pleasure reading” here in the time-navigation that alternates between gritty, real-life issues back home in Philadelphia and lyrical interludes from a writer’s retreat on the west coast of Ireland. Just when you’ve agonized enough over a student’s miscalculation or self-inflicted failure, you feel invited to relax by a peat moss fire and share in the author’s solitude. Most writers would have simplified the story, somehow, but the underlying metaphor of learning how to learn operates in every dimension of what Bachus has to say. After all, learning is connected to the resilience required of life itself.
As Bachus explains in his Epilogue, so many—half of all American undergraduates in 2014—learn how to learn in a Community College. As a first generation college student myself, who plunged into a state-supported university long ago at age 17, this compassionate book inspired me to relive my own learning journey. Though that was far from easy (with a job that consumed 28 hours a week and a full load of courses), my sense is that it’s much harder today … especially for immigrant and minority students who come to the classroom with even less “scaffolding” than I had as a middle-class kid in the 1950s with a set of World Book Encyclopedias in the den. Time, technology, high rents, family needs, and many other forces stand in opposition to writing a lucid analysis of assigned reading—on time. And yet, as Bachus demonstrates, we all have a stake in the success of community colleges and those who attend them. I would add that we also have a stake in the success of professors who dare to take on the challenges that Ned Bachus embraced in his thirty years of teaching. “Open Admissions” is A Tale of Many Cities from a man who spent the best years of his life refusing to give up on anyone.
–Patti Marxsen, author of Tales from the Heart of Haiti, Helene Schweitzer: A Life of Her Own, Island Journeys, and others.