Miller, Mark James

“Never give up,” are three words frequently on Suzanne Gerbasi’s lips. Told this past July that she is suffering from stage-4 liver cancer and has, at best, six months to live, she is determined to make the most of the time she has left and to tell her story to as many people as she can.

It is a story that needs to be told. Suzanne is a part-time speech instructor at Allan Hancock College. Like nearly all part-time instructors in the California Community College system, she has no health insurance. Before losing her job due to her illness, she lived paycheck-to-paycheck, as do many of her part-time colleagues. She is not eligible for state disability insurance or unemployment compensation.

Too young for Medicare, she was able to get an early retirement from Social Security, but that small amount does not come close to covering her expenses or paying her rent. She has been trying to collect what she has accumulated in her California State Teachers Retirement System account, but was told that could take as long as six months. Sadly, she may become homeless soon.

Perhaps hardest for Suzanne is having to give up the profession she loves.

“I was living my dream,” she said. “I always wanted to teach in college. It was my way of giving back.”

“We all cried when she told us she had cancer and couldn’t teach us any longer,” said a former student of Suzanne’s.

Before the illness struck, Suzanne had lived a robust and happy life. A single mother, she raised her daughter to believe anything was possible. Her motto: “You can do what you dream.”

Suzanne’s plight is hardly unique. There are 42,210 part-time instructors in the community college system vs. 19,210 who are full-time, a ratio of more than 2-1. They teach on average half of the classes the college offers, but for far less pay than their full-time counterparts. Not only do they lack health insurance, they typically have no offices, and must meet their students and grade homework on their own time. More and more reports are coming in of part-time instructors who are homeless or on the edge of being homeless.

“I’ve always worked hard,” Suzanne said. “All these years I thought I was paying into the system and would have something waiting for me when I couldn’t work anymore. Now I find out that isn’t true.”

She speaks without bitterness, but as one who has made a painful discovery of a truth she wasn’t prepared for.

“I was blindsided,” she said.

Suzanne is unbowed, wounded but not broken. Her voice is soft but not shaky. To keep her mind clear, she refuses to take any opiates in spite of the severe pain she must endure.

She wears a stylish hat, some jaunty necklaces and remains upbeat. Recently she put on her Pittsburg Steelers jersey and went to a local bar to watch the game and cheer on her favorite team. But she doesn’t try to pretend the sorrow isn’t there.

“I’d give anything to be back in the classroom with my students again,” she said.

While she knows that won’t happen, she is determined that her passing mean something, that her story be told so others are aware of what can happen to a person in her position.

Suzanne may only have a few more months to live. But her determination to make her last days count for everything they are worth is a lesson in fortitude as great as any I know. This is truly courage, defined.

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Mark James Miller is an associate English instructor at Allan Hancock College and president of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at mark@pfaofahc.com.