Sunday, October 28, 2012

Only an English teacher

After I found out I wouldn't be teaching at the university this semester, I wondered if I would miss it. Teaching becomes an identity, although I identify more strongly as a writer and an editor.

Almost daily on Facebook a former colleague will post a sentence from a student paper that a typical Japanese sixth-grader would be ashamed to turn in. Or someone will post that the stack of papers is only four feet high now, and she only has six hours of grading left to do.

At those times, I do not miss teaching. I don't miss wading through papers that I'll spend more time grading than the students spent writing. I don't miss trying to make sense of a jumble of random words, and then trying to figure out how I can give positive feedback that will turn that shit into gold.

But I do miss my students. I miss the classroom interaction -- watching a light bulb come on now and then, learning from them as they learn from me, creating a safe place where a classroom full of strangers will become friends. I miss their stories.

Many months ago, I wrote the post below. I didn't publish it then because I didn't want to violate any of my students' confidentiality. I changed details and left enough vagueness I don't think it could have happened, but I wanted to be sure.

Now, so many months later, I don't even remember the names of some of these students, although I do remember their stories.

This is one thing I miss about teaching: learning my students' stories. And sometimes watching them succeed in spite of their struggles outside the classroom. Tomorrow, just to keep the balance, I'll post something I don't miss.

A Facebook friend shared this video tonight. I have heard every excuse in that video just this quarter. I was even accused of punishing a student because his 30-something uncle died of AIDS. Of course it wasn't because he missed 3 out of 4 weeks of class and didn't turn in any assignments.

The only difference is that I don't get the opportunity to respond as succinctly as the teacher in the video. Sometimes teaching is the most frustrating profession I can imagine. It can really fucking suck. And sometimes ... sometimes it simply breaks my heart.

I was hanging out on Facebook tonight, avoiding the stacks of papers I will have to read tomorrow because I didn't do it tonight. I may even have to sit out my weekly karaoke night to get ready for two days of conferences Thursday and Friday. Back-to-back, ten-minute conferences with each of my students for two days. I actually enjoy the one-on-one time with them. We get a lot done. But it's draining, and I'm already crispy.

Early this quarter, some of the students in one of my classes asked for a free-writing assignment. I don't think that's ever happened. They said they wanted to try to write something that would disturb me, because I had told them they couldn't disturb me by swearing in some of their informal writing.

 I said, "OK, I'll give you your assignment," and the next week I scheduled a "disturb Reticula" free-write for both classes. Let them take their best shot.

A few of them read their pieces aloud in class, but not as many as usual. More of them wanted me to wait until after class to read what they wrote.

One kid was sure he disturbed me with his graphic description of a father being brutally murdered in front of his young daughter, and then her subsequent rape and murder. He didn't though, this kid who carries a Bible with him to class every day. I told him he'd have to try harder than that, and we laughed.

One girl wrote about being shy in person, but leading a double life as a web-cam porn star. At the end she wrote "JUST KIDDING!" and a smiley face. She's not shy, so I believe her. I think she will be one of the few who get an A this quarter. (Note from the future: She did and she came in and danced around my office.)

But one girl wrote about how she was raped when she was 14 and she hasn't been happy since--not even for a second. She's tried everything: booze, dope, eating disorders, serial therapy, fast cars, sports, dares .... She's 19, and she thinks she'll never be happy again. I wish I knew the answer. I hope she's wrong. No JK. No smiley face. Not fiction.

Another girl wrote about her experience getting an abortion. She described the cold white walls, bloody pieces in garbage bags, drills and other tools, and holding a nurse's hand. And she wrote that she went alone and didn't tell her boyfriend she was pregnant, because she didn't want to share him. No JK. No smiley face. I don't know if it's fiction or truth.

One girl said she gets angry with people who stare at her because she's only 19 and she has a 5-year-old son. But she wrote that she was raped and she doesn't believe in abortion, so she's doing the best she can. No JK. No smiley face. Not fiction.

I guess that throw-away assignment foreshadowed the rest of the quarter, because the stories kept coming. I don't want to violate their confidences, but here are a few general snips of the stories I've heard since.
  • One girl was in a car accident that left her with a heart condition and other health problems. She wrote that she wishes I could have known her before she was so damaged. She's 19.
  • One young man wrote about losing his eye in a car accident and surviving a two-week coma. He wishes people would just ask about it instead of avoiding looking at him or talking to him.
  • One girl wrote about her grandmother's recent suicide, and how angry she is.
  • One boy said his mother started drinking heavily a few months ago. He goes to school full time and works full time. The rest of the time he keeps a vigil for his mom, waiting for her to come home drunk or making sure she doesn't leave drunk and drive. He falls asleep in class.
  • One young man wrote how much he loved his girlfriend of four years and how they had planned their future together. The next week she broke up with him. And the next week his 25-year-old brother had a stroke and underwent an unsuccessful heart surgery. He may spend the rest of his life in a nursing home instead of going home to his wife and two small children. The student will be deployed as soon as he graduates.
  • An older student came to my office to tell me she'd been in jail for several days for beating the pedophile who molested her 4-year-old grandson. (Note: I wrote about that here.)

I'm only there to teach them academic writing, but how do we write without revealing ourselves? I can't. They won't ever be real writers unless they can, so many of them start with me.

I could be a different teacher. Some of my colleagues don't assign any personal writing at all. They don't want to know about their students' personal lives, and that's fine. We aren't paid to be mothers or therapists or friends. Sometimes I wish I could do that too. Of course, I could do that ...... but no. I teach them writing, and I hear their stories. I don't know how to do one without the other.
But sometimes their stories are so heavy, and even though I don't carry that weight for them, I listen. I care. And I still have to grade their work -- some will pass and some will fail. No matter how rough their lives are, I still have to wield my red pen as if I didn't know anything about them at all.

Halfway through week 8 of 10, and I am a little bit crispy. We all are. College is hard work. Living is hard work. I wish my kids didn't have to learn that so young.


  1. I love your courage in showing up, day after day, year after year, until the powers that be decided you were too threatening in your uncompromising commitment to truth. (Sorry if that's judgmental...I know the decision may actually have been made solely by seniority.)

    I guess some people are just cut out to care, whether it hurts or not. You can't save the world with that kind of love, but I know it can make a difference for one person here, another there, the kind of difference that can quietly save lives.

    1. Thanks, Ria. One of the difficult truths about teaching is that teachers don't really know what our effect is on students. All we can hope is that we add some kind of positive branch on the tree of their learning, something that moves them forward and sticks with them. And students don't know how they affect their teachers either. It always goes both ways.