We are on our way to Boston from New Bedford in a yellow school bus that we’ve filled up with Clemente Course in the Humanities students. They’ve brought their children and neighbors, their grandmothers and boyfriends and as many as could fill the bus. The windows have already started to fog up even though it’s only late afternoon in November. We’ll arrive in about an hour at the Museum of Fine Arts just in time to see the new Frida Kahlo that they’ve bought, and to find the bathrooms and the place to leave our coats. 

Someone behind me taps me on the shoulder with something wrapped in foil that she made at home. They’ve all brought something to eat and they’re passing it up and down the bus, opening the plastic containers and passing around the cake they’ve learned to make from their aunts in Sao Miguel, and those little Azorean pasteis de nata, those little custard pies that are in every bakery in New Bedford. We’ve been working all semester towards this moment, looking at pictures of American art, thinking about Andrew Wyeth and Jackson Pollock and Jacob Lawrence.

We join the line to get tickets, and because it’s Wednesday night, admission is by voluntary contribution. We find the American Wing, but first stop beneath the big green glass sculpture for a group selfie. We can hardly squeeze in because there are a lot of us and the Chihuly sculpture is glass so we have to be careful. The doors open to the American paintings and the first thing we look at is Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere, someone we know because we’ve read about the American Revolution. “His head is kind of blocky.” “Looks like a stump to me.” “His table looks so shiny.” “Did he really make those silver teapots?” “Who had those kinds of things in their house?” Comments and mumblings from all of us.

Across the room, I see Santos, who is walking back and forth in front of the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. He thinks it looks cold and he runs to find another painting that he knows, the one of Sam Adams in his brown wool vest. 

Now he is looking for his favorite piece. His father is a fisherman and he knows all about “Watson and the Shark.” A small crowd has gathered to listen to him talk about the painting because he is now the unannounced guide who tells them that no shark looks like this, and that Watson wasn’t very old when he went for a swim in the harbor and the shark bit off part of his leg. Santos is 10, and he has come with his mother who is one of the students. He has listened to her talk about the painting, and he has looked at the pictures in her book. He has a lot to say.

Clemente is an unusual program managed by Mass Humanities across the state (there are five programs), and ours that is funded by People Acting in Community Endeavors (PACE) and that extends widely into those parts of New Bedford where adults on low income are eager to do a college course. 

They come wary of their skills. Most of them haven’t been in school for a long time and in the first few weeks they are hesitant to speak. By the end of the semester they hold strong opinions, now based on the evidence they offer and the essays that they have written. They sometimes quote from Kant or Plato and they have read the short stories of Tony Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. They’ve watched videos on Martin Luther King, and they have delivered their graduation speeches before their families who stand in pride in seeing this transformation.

It’s dark now and the Museum is closing its doors. As we get closer to home we will pass by the mills in Fall River where once there was work. For now, the children have fallen asleep and their mothers look into the darkness of the night.

I have been with Clemente students for a long time, 18 years now, and I’ve seen the results of the education and possibilities that the program offers. Some of the students are now nurses, some have become teachers, some local activists and some are still deciding. Many of them are single mothers whose children are ‘mini-Clementines’ for their curiosity about what Mom is doing. During the pandemic we kept going on Zoom, our enthusiasm for one another diminished only by our inability to form the kinds of friendships that you get from sitting together at one long table. Clemente reaches those parts and people who in turn come into the community, to serve, to teach, to practice what it means to be a citizen and to participate in a democracy. We need more programs just like this one.

Memory Holloway is a professor at UMass Dartmouth who teaches the Clemente Course in New Bedford.

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