University students are typically 17-23 years old, prepared to succeed academically and motivated to succeed in the classroom. The beauty of being a professor at a California community college is that the classroom is filled with non-traditional college students. Students age could be between 14-65 years old. Some students are still in high school, some are right out of high school some are single moms coming back to school, some have graduated from a university but have decided to retrain for a new career, and (believe it or not) some go to school for personal growth.
It's 1998 and I'm 31 years-old. I'm ready embark on my second year as a Biology professor teaching the non-major's Biology GE course. A student in the class, Sammy (name is changed to maintain his anonymity), is about 10years older than me and extremely excited about the class. I learn that he is from the poverty stricken area of Bakersfield called Oildale or the "Oh-8" for it's zip code (93308). He's a golf coach but his a passion is to be a college Math professor. Sammy speaks with an Oildale drawl that lends to a persona of genuine kindness, a sense of humor and approachable personality. He's also very intelligent...and the guy can TALK your ear off. I'm usually very concise with my conversations, but conversations with Sammy could easily go on for hours. I loved hearing his silly jokes, perspective on current topics and obstacles he had overcome.
We would always exchange pleasantries when we would see each other at the golf course or the grocery store. It's now December 2020 and I saw Sammy at the driving range working with one his golf prodigies. He lacked the normal twinkle in his eyes and smile. He told me that he was recently diagnosed with malignant kidney cancer. It had spread to his stomach, intestines, spleen and vertebrae and his prognosis was not very good. He was scheduled to have half of his kidney removed in combination with several drug treatments.
It had been months since I'd seen Sammy at the driving range or the golf course. I would send him a text, "Hi Sammy. Hope you are doing well my friend". My fear would be that I would not receive a response. Each time, I would receive a text that would say, "I hanging in there. Thanks for checking in on me".
It's now early February (14 months later) and I decided to go hit some golf balls at the range. I walk towards the far end of the range and I see...Sammy. His smile and twinkle were back. We saw each other and gave each other a huge hug (Covid be damned). Sammy told me of his medical journey consisting of several surgeries, multiple organs removed and two chaplain visits to provide his last rites.
But life has taken a turn for Sammy. He's a new grandpa. His daughter (also a former student of mine) gave birth to twin girls two weeks ago. Sammy is also currently part of an experimental immunotherapy treatment for his type of cancer that has shown positive results: Shrinking in all tumors the disappearance of one tumor. We spent two hours sharing stories and laughs.
We finished our conversation with him mentioning how people consistently ask him, "How's your cancer?".
I replied, "Well there's good news when someone asks you that question."
Sammy looked confused, "Why's that, Joe?"
I said, "This means you're alive...and you can answer that question."
We laughed and gave each other one more hug. We said our "good byes" and as he walked with his golf bag over his shoulder, I yelled out to him, "How's your cancer?". He gave me a thumbs up, a huge smile and yelled back, "It's goin' great".
I look forward to asking the question and getting a response again and again. But what do I know...I'm just Joe.