The Heartbeat of City College by Tehmina Khan

The Heartbeat of City College


after Malinda Seneviratne’s “The Heartbeat of My Country”


The heartbeat of City College pounds the pavement

from Balboa Park BART station uphill to the Science Building

then down to the MUB and later

up the circle to the library before it closes at 2:45 on Friday afternoon.


The heartbeat of City College is the eighteen-year old

who always felt hated by school,

who comes to class on the first day,

with a swagger that betrays fear,

but he sees himself in the faces of his classmates

and comes back the next day and the next.


The heartbeat of City College

is the thirty-year old who works at a nightclub until 

three in the morning and then makes it to math class

at nine.


The heartbeat of City College

is the immigrant grandma who takes non-credit English classes

at Chinatown Campus

and everyday tells you something new,

How are you, I am fine.

I tell you story…

Then she passes her citizenship test

and votes for the next mayor and the next president.


The heartbeat of City College

is solving for x and y and mapping points on a graph

long after you’d shut down the numbers inside you

because you thought you couldn’t do math.


The heartbeat of City college

is the high school graduate who took six AP classes

and got admitted to UC Davis but then his father

had a heart attack so he comes here instead,

so he can be home with his family every evening.


The heartbeat of City College

is the 50-year old carpenter who fell from a ladder

and needs a new career, who comes to English class

and reads an entire book for the very first time

and pours out his passion in a research paper

about gentrification.


The heartbeat of City College radiates

energy over Twin Peaks,

northwest to Pacific Heights,

southeast to the Bayview, outwards to Ocean Beach,

and inwards to Mission Bay.


The heartbeat of City College

is a daily journey from Antioch

because the city rents are too high

but you need to be here because you’re from here.

You need to feel the city pulse

and see the rainbow of brown faces 

in your classrooms and hear the symphony 

of global accents and dialects,

the echo of the neighborhood that once was.

And you know you are lucky,

because one classmate lives in a car,

and another slept on a campus bench last night,

but still they come to class, because it 

makes them feel hopeful, alive, and smart.


The heartbeat of City College

is the refugee from Yemen whose high school transcript

along with her school was blown up in the proxy war,

who rides MUNI every day through 

the stares and glares at the scarf on her head,

as she checks her phone for news from home,

and she walks into the classroom because 

her education is all she has.


The heartbeat of City College

is the woman living with chronic illness

who drives out to Fort Mason Campus

to dig her hands into wet clay,

molding it into beautiful things.


The heartbeat of City College 

is the mother from the Pit River Reservation

who tells her people’s origin story

in English class and writes an essay comparing 

it to the Epic of Gilgamesh.


The heartbeat of City College

is the retired engineer 

who always wanted to paint, 

who comes to study oil painting, watercolors,

then art history, then Spanish because

her grandson is learning Spanish in kindergarten.


The heartbeat of City College

is the artist who had a stroke

who boards the bus with his adaptive scooter

and rides to John Adams Campus

where he trains his right hand to paint again,

and with his hand, colors emerge from 

the grey fog inside his mind .


The heartbeat of City College

is the janitor who cleans the classrooms

after the last night class,

who is a student too, and 

arranges his work hours 

so he can attend English class in the day.


The heartbeat of City College

lands heavy and broken

after a massacre at a school, a prayer hall, a shopping center,

and we all want to hide away,

but we come to class anyway

because we know we will look into 

each other’s faces and find someone

who looks back at us and knows our pain.


The heartbeat of City College

is the dentist who retired early

because the job was killing him,

who learns to love flowers, and arranges them in displays 

for a reception at the fancy private school 

his daughter attends,

where he tells everyone how the flowers and City College have saved his life.


The heartbeat of City College

is the single mother who left an abusive man,

who creates a soft space for her children,

who seeks out a caregiver, goes to work,

then says yes to herself every day

when she enters the classroom.


The heartbeat of City College

are the stories that come together

in the classrooms and hallways,

stories of border crossings, hate crimes, police brutality, sexual assault,

loved ones murdered, legacies of generational trauma, 

and we listen, 

and we don’t flinch 

because in each story we hear our own voice.


The heartbeat of City College 

is repeating a class and repeating it again

and feeling discouraged and wanting to quit,

and you sit with a tutor in the lab and 

try one problem again and again,

and then you get it.  Algebra starts to make sense, 

and it’s actually a little bit fun.


The heartbeat of City College is strong

when people tell you that you are not Stanford,

why should we listen to you?

And you say we are here,

and we’ve lived things, and we know things,

and we can read and write and analyze,

so listen!


The heartbeat of City College 

is the overeducated professor,

who was offered a university job in Kansas,

but wants to live here,

who talks like a peer-reviewed journal

but learns to listen to the languages in his classroom,

and changes the way he talks 

to make physics playful again.


The heartbeat of City College

is the professor who took ten years to get her masters degree

though illness, parenting, and work,

and finally gets the job she loves, even if it’s part time.

Spends day and night thinking, worrying, planning,

only for the job to be taken away.

And still she comes back 

because she refuses to work at a job she doesn’t love.


The heartbeat of City College

is a fusion of food cultures at Chef’s Table

spicy hot, salty sweet—

hailing from five continents.

Elegant tables masking the joyful sweaty chaos

of the kitchen.


The heartbeat of City College

is the Rams Market food pantry

to feed our bodies, brains, and souls,

because we know we can’t 

change the world on an empty stomach.


The heartbeat of City College

is the transgender student from Sweden

who also has autism,

who stands up at the Board of Trustees meeting

and tells them to keep the diversity classes

and not put them online,

that in these classes 

we find community and become strong

in an era of hate.


The heartbeat of City College

is the Latina student who joins Vasa

and learns to dance Oceana dances,

feels the fluidity in her body,

connecting one community to another.


The heartbeat of City College

is Sanctuary, 

affirming our right to exist in our pronouns, 

our clothes, our faith, our languages, 

our names pronounced correctly,

our skin, our hair, 

and all the history coursing through our veins.


The heartbeat of City College is 

commencement in the stadium,

all flowers and balloons,

and cries of joy from the villages that raised you

resonating upwards into the sky.


The heartbeat of City College is a living breathing thing,

a soft thing with feathers,

fierce at its core,

shining with a light so bright

it blinds us of everything else.


It cannot be defined, stenciled, and colored within the lines.

It cannot be put in a box, covered in shiny paper and tied with a ribbon.

It cannot be bargained over and sold to the highest bidder.


The heartbeat of City College 

is unruly like this poem

it will not sit down and do as it’s told.

It is impatient and full of ideas flying in all directions.


The heartbeat of City College 

is ready

to shake things up 

with hands, hearts, words, 

numbers, investigation, 

and imagination.


The heartbeat of City College

is you, is me, is us,

and it is our best hope 

for a new day.