Matt Driscoll

Starving students? TNT columnist pushes back on a tired, romanticized trope

It’s time, once again, for my monthly, “You rip, I respond,” column.

You know how it works: Folks write or call, and I respond. Then hilarity and an occasional expletive ensues.

I hope you enjoy.

Sunday morning, several of us stood in line at my local 7-Eleven for hours upon hours waiting for The News Tribune to arrive in anticipation of reading your last Sunday of the month traditional ‘You rip, I respond’ column, only to be extremely depressed after not being able to find (it). … I hope you will write two “You rip, I respond’ columns in May to make up for this glaring absence. — James

Thanks for reaching out, James. And sorry for disappointing you last month.

James is correct. In April, for the first time in the history of this mailbag column, we took a month off.

I’m not proud of this. I feel a little like Joe DiMaggio probably felt after his hit streak ended, if Joe DiMaggio’s streak involved replying to occasionally abusive emails.

For the conspiracy theorists out there, there was no mysterious or murky explanation to the absence. I had some previously scheduled time off, and one thing led to another.

Happy to be back in action, James, but — unfortunately — just one mailbag column this month.

Please say hello to everyone at the 7-Eleven on Sunday morning.

The 6 enlightening words to make my day: Matt Driscoll’s column will return soon. I have been granted 24 hours of no liberal drivel. To paraphrase Jackie Gleason: How sweet it is! — Anonymous email

See! Both sides! Fair and balanced!

To quote Jackie Gleason (from a questionable internet source): “Does God have a sense of humor? He must have if He created us.”

Over 40 years ago, I too was a “starving student” as were many of my family and friends. The fact that struggling can build character is a positive human attribute and one that should be praised. This article points at struggling being a negative thing when I would disagree with that assumption. — Kevin

Hi, Kevin. Thanks for the note.

Kevin’s email came in response to a column I wrote on food and housing insecurity among University of Washington students, and specifically students at UW Tacoma.

For whatever reason, I received a number of emails in this spirit. I’ll spare readers from psychoanalysis, but it sure seems like noting the struggles of today’s college students, and how factors like increased tuition and area housing costs are making things worse, triggered a number of people.

There’s no doubt that the “starving student” narrative has been romanticized to the point that, to many, it’s become something of a perceived rite of passage.

The line of thinking seems to go something like this: I struggled in college, and I got through it. So current college students should toughen up and stop whining.

The flaw in that view is that the struggles current college students are experiencing simply don’t compare to the struggles of yesteryear.

I worked my way through college, delivering pizzas, holding down a paper route and freelance writing. It was far from glamorous, but I got through it. I made enough to pay the rent, afford food and managed to graduate with minimal debt.

Today? Even for the hardest working and most dedicated college students, that equation simply doesn’t pan out most of the time. Tuition has skyrocketed. So has the cost of housing and other basic necessities. In most cases, you simply can’t work your way through college delivering pizzas anymore.

The UW’s study illuminates a reality and a real problem.

In the university’s new release announcing preliminary results of the study, UW professor Lynne Manzo, who helped lead the study, sought to push back on the romanticized starving student narrative.

“We’re in an era now when we need to take those shorthanded scripts about poverty among students and look at them more seriously for the realities that students face,” Manzo said.

She’s right.

I have taught science here in Tacoma for over 20 years and I know that there are MANY exceptional teachers in our District — not just the two that you wrote about. I knew that teaching in Tacoma would be challenging, but I chose to stay. … Yes, teaching can be tough, but I’m not leaving or giving up on my kids! — Tony

Hi, Tony. I appreciate the note.

More importantly, I appreciate your dedication to kids in Tacoma.

Tony responded to a column I wrote about Nate Bowling and Hope Teague-Bowling deciding to leave Lincoln High School. Both respected educators will be teaching in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, next year.

First, Tony is absolutely right. As a parent of two school-age children, I can vouch for the skill, passion and professionalism of Tacoma’s teachers. There are some truly exceptional ones.

At the same time, I can’t help but note the similarities between this email and the previous one.

There is value in the struggle. I agree. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid taking a long look at exactly what we’re asking teachers to do, the toll that takes and how many quality educators we’re losing because of it.

When we spoke, soon-to-be-former Lincoln High School teachers said their positions have often meant acting as social workers, therapists, college counselors and even food bank operators sometimes.

“The job we ask teachers to do at schools like Lincoln is unsustainable over the long-term if you want to maintain excellence,” Bowling told me.

He was talking about his quest to maintain personal excellence in his profession, but it’s a fair assessment of school districts like Tacoma’s, too.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.