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students

Nobody Listens

The last months have cast me into many varieties of stress and time-crunchedness, and whenever I do have free time near a keyboard, there is always non-blog writing that needs to be tackled. I miss blog writing. Lately, I’ve put seven minutes per week towards a long-suffering blog post, which basically means I get half a sentence written before the dinner bell rings.

What I have made time for, as a kind of joyful decompression, is doing quick recordings for Instagram Stories. In this era when Facebook is roiling with politics, judgment, disagreement, and adding spackle to the walls of users’ ideological bubbles, Instagram Stories feel like a safe place to just. have. fun.

Soooo, as a tide-you-over while I continue to hack away at that other blog post seven minutes at a time, please enjoy these IG Stories videos that I recorded the other day, recounting a quick interaction in the classroom. Because I am reliably a dipwad, I’m very proud of myself for remembering to download the videos before they disappeared into the ether, which is what happens to IG Stories after a day.

RIGHT NOW I HAVE EXCELLENT POSTURE HERE IN FRONT OF MY MONITOR BECAUSE I AM VERY PROUD OF BEING A BIG, COMPETENT, REMEMBERING GIRL.


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Celebrate the Student

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This week, I start my 25th year of teaching college English.

The brain, she boggles. Brain has been along for the entire ride–since the first day my clammy hands pushed open the door of a classroom on the University of Idaho campus. Clutching a stack of fresh-off-the-ditto-machine, purple-inked syllabi to my chest, protecting my carefully dot-matrix-printed Instructions to Self (first line: “Write name on board”), feigning confidence, I strode into the computer-free classroom, paralyzed by twenty-two sets of eyes that stared in shock at an instructor their own age. From that first day in Idaho, through a move to the University of Colorado–where Christian Coalition-ized students in the early 1990s wrote papers arguing that people with AIDS deserved it–and then on to the community college system in Minnesota–where I’ve taught students whose families were still scarred by the Hormel strike of 1985, students who are locked in the grips of meth and opiate addiction, students who increasingly embrace the culturally transmitted message that college is a place to learn workplace skills, not to gain a broad-based education–my brain has shrieked “Wheeee!” and “Whoaaa!” the entire ride.

Yet, she reels: 25 years?

How can this be, when I’m still a four-year-old who wants to feel the brown, crunchy grass of August under her scalp as she turns somersaults in the yard?

How can this be, when it seems only last week I noticed with frantic pride that my mom had let go of the bike seat while I pedaled wobbily down Forsythia Boulevard?

How can this be, when there’s still a part of me that’s waiting to be asked to Prom by someone other than a cute gay guy from the speech team?

How can this be, when I just want to burn up the dance floor at The Saloon, mouthing the words to “Groove Is in the Heart” until last call?

How can this be, when I still feel like a young mother, stuffing the desperate entreaty of “Someone, please, help the hours pass” beneath my smiles?

How can this be, when I’m busy falling in love every day with the man who’s been my husband for the quick blink of 16 years?

How can I have done anything for 25 years when I’m just getting started?

Naturally, as is the case with all interactions with the world, teaching has had its challenges. There have been students who scared me silly, students who broke my heart, students who pushed boundaries. There have been students, colleagues, and supervisors who have caused me to retreat into my office, lock the door, cradle my head into my folded arms, and cry. There have been students, colleagues, and supervisors whose words and actions have led to 3 a.m. pacing around the living room, a fleece blanket caped over my shoulders to ward off the chill. There have been long-term effects on my body’s health (I’m starting physical therapy for that nagging shoulder, most likely caused by mouse usage, but at least the pain counters the fire that runs down my left scapula when I write by hand), long-term effects on my defenses (I’ve gotten better at spotting sociopaths and drunks), long-term effects on my psyche (when someone treats me with affection, I now game out the many ways it might morph into rage).

I have earned every dollar, no matter what the public-institution-funding state legislature might argue.

On the other hand, if I’m a creature of free will, a woman privileged with choice, and I’m still doing this thing, then there must be more to it.

There is.

For every unnerving interaction, there are ten affirming moments with students, colleagues, and supervisors. For every time I’ve paced the floor in the middle of the night, there have been ten evenings of chattered debriefing with my husband, in the kitchen, rundowns where I tell him about someone emerging from a life of abuse to discover she wants to be a psychologist, where I regale him with classroom hilarity, where I cry the happiest of tears–the type that spill out when someone who lived in his car for two years earns a degree.

For every student who scares the crikeys right out of me, there are ten shining lights who blaze into the classroom.

One such light brightened this summer for me when she enrolled in Multicultural Literature. Every week, her discussion posts elevated the tone of the class; through her modeling, her classmates were able to see what the behaviors of a successful college student look like. Midway through the class, students were given a “Coming to America” essay assignment with a variety of topic choices. Each student could interview someone who immigrated to the United States. If the student lacked a firsthand subject, he/she could research an immigrant and report on that person’s experience of leaving home and the facing the challenges of assimilation–a topic option that yields entirely too many papers on Albert Einstein and, get this, Mila Kunis. Finally, if students had ever lived abroad for 3 months or longer, they could write about their experiences as “foreigners in new lands.”

Below is the response submitted by the tremendous student who made my summer: Sarah Y. After I read it, I immediately noted that her writing and story deserved a wider audience; I asked her if I could publish it on my blog. Her response was quick, enthusiastic, and lovely. From start to end, Sarah was a student for the ages, one who reminded me that

I couldn’t have a better job.

An American in Spain, 1998

Sarah Y.

In late 1997, my parents let me know that they were divorcing. I was in the middle of a very unsatisfying semester of college, my grandmother dying, and my future seemed a swirl of dank unhappiness. I instantly decided that I was moving home to take care of my dad. It seemed perfectly logical at the time: he wouldn’t be able to keep it together on his own. I knew I could give his life stability and my life meaning.

“Maybe you should go to Spain,” my mom hinted. Something in those words woke up a sleeping part of me, the curious, engaged person that had been stuck in a quagmire. The idea to travel seemed purely selfish, but it took my head out of my parents’ problems. It was also a good idea for my study of Spanish. So I jumped on it. Plans fell into place easily, as is the case with many good ideas, and before I knew it, I was on a plane.

I had a small backpack crammed with a few clothes. I didn’t take much with me because I wanted to be a minimalist and I also wanted to be forced to abandon the comforts of my American lifestyle. I would be living with a Spanish family, so my household needs would be taken care of. Electronic devices were not a thing yet, so a film camera and a journal completed my pack.

The plane landed in Madrid, and I was to take a bus to Oviedo, in the north of Spain, my home for the next half year. First I had to spend the night somewhere, which involved a series of transportation decisions and communications. I was congratulating myself on getting through this respectably while waiting for a taxi, when I saw a very blonde head bobbing my way. Next was the familiar smile, and I was standing with that girl Emily from my college! I was not super excited to see her, because I thought I could do better independently. I wanted the whole experience of Spain, unencumbered by reminders of my old life. Nevertheless, Emily and I teamed up, spent the night somewhere, shared notes and jet lag remedies, and got ourselves on the proper bus to Oviedo the next morning.

My eyes were glued to the landscape out the bus window. The lack of trees surprised me. There were some mountains, but not much else to look at. At midday we stopped at a roadside rest area, and I bought my first slice of Spanish tortilla, an egg and potato quiche. This moment of Real Food while on the road, and the discovery of the ubiquitous Good Coffee, made me fall in love with this country a little on my first day.

The initial journey came to an end in Oviedo, where I registered with my program, and met my host family. They lived in an apartment about a 45 minute walk from the University of Oviedo. Walking became my new way of life, and I spent most of the next six months on the streets, the lovely streets, the ones that were built before cars were invented, so cars did not fit. There were winding alleys and steps and narrow arches, and stone plazas with more statues than I’d ever seen before. I learned that young people rarely went into each others’ homes in this community, and so most youthful business was conducted out of doors. Couples necked on benches, and large groups of teenagers cruised in flocks through the parks. I had never lived in a city before, and along with all the streets and buildings, I had to get used to all the people, all the time, everywhere. I was a solitary, pale-faced, too-big, non-feminine anomaly among them, walking through the crowds and taking it all in.

My host family had two daughters, but one had recently moved in with her boyfriend, so they had a spare room for me. Meals were provided. I thought that this meant I would spend time with them and get to know what life was like in a Spanish home. The family was not very warm, and didn’t spend much time with each other. Each one had a different schedule, and although I always got a meal, it was usually sitting alone in the kitchen. Once, the mother told me that she wished we could all just take a pill when we got hungry. Mostly I lived on chocolate cookies and cured sausages, and the maid when she came would fix me rice with a fried egg and tomato sauce, and leave a huge salade nicoise for the family. Once in a while the mother would make croquettes or a fish called pixin, pure white and very flavorful. But like the rest of the people in this city, I started going out, and discovering the food of the city.

As my few supplies ran out or wore out, I shopped to find new things: shoes, pants, hair clips, notebooks, a knife. I was amazed by how shopping was done in this place. It was unheard of to browse. The shop workers wanted to know straightaway what you desired. I was not used to admitting to anyone what I was looking for. I was a wandering shopper. This didn’t work well in Spain.

I did eventually find out how to get what I needed. I also found a guitar, which I had been desperately missing. It was a cheap Korean thing. I was in the wrong part of the country to buy a bona fide Spanish guitar. This one had six steel strings that stayed in tune well enough, and a soft case with backpack straps. Back in my solitary room I focused on songs, writing down lyrics, and learning new melodies. Soon I had an idea: I would sometimes see scruffy people on the street singing and making money, and I decided to try it. After much scouting, I chose a place under an archway in the pedestrian zone. I lay my wool jacket on the cobbles in front of me and sang my heart out– all the American folk songs I wanted to sing. Carter Family, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan. Coins clinked together steadily down into my jacket. There were lots and lots of ones, but many fives as well. I usually played for an hour, and never made less than forty bucks. It all went to my eating/drinking/travel fund.

I wondered why people gave me money…. Was I begging? Did they appreciate the music? Or was it pity? Were the gypsies going to get mad at me for taking over their turf? As I played, I had a unique vantage point. I was staying still, and could watch all that was going on around me. I became invisible, in a sense, and could stare at people much more overtly. Dramas unfolded before my eyes. I learned another side of the city.

I had a boom box in my room, and I picked up albums, fueling my musical studies. All were American artists, nothing had anything to do with Spain, but here I had so much time to focus on my obsession. I also began to spend large chunks of time at the public library. The process to get a library card was excruciatingly complex, so I contented myself with sitting among the stacks, pulling out a variety of books, and then puzzling over the I Ching in Spanish, trying to find some oracle of wisdom to make order come to my life.

When I got sick with a bronchial infection, I didn’t know what to do. There was no campus nurse, no family doctor. At the weekly market that I walked through on my way to class, I saw a lady vending herbs. I described my symptoms to her, and she made me a bag of something to take as a tea. It seemed to work for a day or two, but then a classmate clued me in: I could just walk into any drugstore and buy antibiotics. That was a miracle.

One of my biggest challenges was finding who to hang out with. I imagined meeting Spanish people and making friends, really absorbing the culture through them. I loitered around the college, and skulked in the students’ coffee house. I made tentative eye contact, smiled. I carried my guitar around and made excuses to talk to people. Again and again, I was treated like someone you would pass on a New York City sidewalk. I was there, but I felt ignored, like everyone knew I would not be staying permanently, and I was not worth the investment. I watched friends sitting in pairs and trios at outdoor cafes, deep in intense conversations, touching each other, laughing ecstatically, their speech dripping with tantalizing obscure slang phrases that I would never know. I was not qualified to be friends with anyone. I would be gone soon enough.

So, I was left to the Americans. I spent part of my day with them in class anyway, and they seemed to be just as hungry for companionship as me. In my first week, I had been disappointed to learn that although I was enrolled in the University of Oviedo, I was not to be taking classes with the general student population. We Americans were stuck on the non-EU floor with a few Japanese, Australian, and Brazilian students. The classes were designed for non-native speakers, and were not challenging and full-speed like I had been imagining. It was not so bad, once I accepted it, as was hanging out with the Americans. But when I realized that my grade was based on the final exam, which I was sure to pass, I gave myself liberal permission to cut class and experience as much of the non-academic culture as possible.

But I did become friends with the Americans. And we traveled together and experienced Spain together. We looked at thousand-year-old bridges and churches, and ate huge festive meals, and showed each other the bars that served French fries with twenty different sauces, and the underground pub with all the board games. We reminisced about Bon Jovi and the Beatles and TV shows that we were missing. We moved in a pack, and dared each other to be more outgoing. And then the Spaniards seemed to see us. We found ourselves in conversations with people who saw us less as individuals and more as a force. We had strength together. One week I rented a car with a couple of my best friends, and we explored the coast. In a sketchy neighborhood in Santiago de Compostela, we returned to our parked car to see a pair of threatening men flashing a gun. We linked arms, put our heads together, and laughed as we walked towards our car. No one got shot.

I still most often traveled alone. I went to France by myself one rainy spring week and cried in the Louvre, unable to absorb any art. I bought a book of poetry by Raymond Carver and sat on a Paris bench and got lost in it. In Bordeaux I met roller-skating kids and ate canned soup cooked on a hot plate in a dorm room, and tried to explain why I was not a hippie. I stood under an awning during a drenching cloud-burst with an old French man, and he gave me a vocabulary lesson. “When it rains like this we say it is ‘comme vaches qui pissent’” He wrote it down on a piece of paper and I tucked it into my pocket. Later I puzzled out that it meant it was raining like peeing cows.

On the way back to Oviedo, dreadfully sick again, I tried to telephone to find a room late at night and lost all my Spanish. The kind woman on the other end revealed that she was an American and she comforted me in my mother tongue. I was too relieved to be offended, and accepted my luck. I spent too much money for clean sheets and slept and slept. And then I bought more antibiotics at another corner store.

I wandered. I read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and decided that I needed to experience bullfighting. Ciudad Rodrigo was having a fiesta and bullfight coming up, so I threw some clean underwear and a notebook in my backpack guitar case and hopped on a bus. I stepped off in Ciudad Rodrigo at ten in the morning, and walked smack into a group of three drunk young men who had been up all night. For the first time, real Spanish people were paying attention to me, so I kissed all of them. And then one of them said he had to go home to echar a las vacas. Let’s go to the farm and feed the cows. Then we’ll come back to the fiesta. I jumped in the car with these boozy strangers and got dropped off twenty minutes later on the side of the dusty road.

The fellow I was with, Pedro, lived with his parents and sisters. He slurredly introduced me to them and told me to get on the tractor. He started it up and we rolled toward the gate, and he motioned to his father to open it. The old man just stood there. “Open the gate!” he roared. The father shook his head. The mother came out. “Por favor, Pedro,” she called. “Por favor.” There was a standoff. I just stood on the back of the tractor, along for the ride. “I have to feed the cows!” “Please, Pedro. Get down.”

He finally gave up, and he stumbled to his bed and passed out, after telling me we’d go back to town and stay at his grandmother’s house that night. I was glad of that, because I knew the hostels were probably all booked up. I sat at the table, waiting stoically. The mother and sisters just looked at me. Then they fed me. They told me there was a bus back to town in twenty minutes, and told me where to stand to flag it down.

A couple hours later I was rolling once more into Ciudad Rodrigo. I never saw Pedro again. On my own again, I wandered the town, in this fragile, lonely, hungry state. The time was up for the running of the bulls, and I found myself in the perfect place, in a bar along the road they ran down. Iron bars on the open door warned people not to casually walk out. At the last second, several men jumped inside, and a couple of black shapes hurried by. We all filed back out and followed them to the plaza. I sat on bleachers as the bullfight happened. I tried to put myself in a Hemingway frame of mind, but I never quite understood the ritual. I was surrounded by men, this lone, strange American girl who wanted to do manly things. I didn’t work out very well. I returned to Oviedo, dusty and sad.

I went to Valencia with an American friend of mine to visit a Spanish guy that she had dated when he was an exchange student at her high school in Massachusetts. She was my best friend in Spain, but as we got nearer to Valencia, she distanced herself from me. Revisiting this friendship was on her mind.. We were there for Las Fallas, the big festival, where neighborhoods build huge sculptures and then burn them. On the way there I lost a contact lens on the bus, and spent the rest of the trip half blurry-blind. I was constantly disoriented, and had the increasing feeling that I was an unwanted companion. Not knowing what else to do, I tagged along, knowing I was boring and in the way. The ex-boyfriend and his friends were artists, into motorcycles and cocaine. My friend was swept along in the excitement. The best part of that experience was the sandwich that the ex-boyfriend’s mother packed me for the bus ride home. She squeezed tomato pulp onto the inside of a cut-open crusty roll, and layered on the ham and razor-thin slices of manchego. I ate it, and we rode home in silence.

With every experience in this country, making my way through these uncomfortable situations, my shyness dissolved. It had to. I forced myself to speak up, to be understood, to insert myself anywhere I thought was a good idea. And, I inserted myself in plenty of bad ideas. Through it all, my accent got pretty good. I learned new words constantly. I understood just about everything. I felt fluent, comfortable moving through the country. I would go to the movies, and know I hadn’t missed anything.

One evening I watched Good Will Hunting, a current American drama, overdubbed into Spanish, as all movies were. I don’t remember much about the movie except for the closing scene. A car hits the road, the road reaches West, forever. It is an absolutely American image, and for the first time, and like a load of bricks, I began to miss home. I had enough Spanish loneliness; I yearned for the American loneliness of the open road. I cried through the credits.

Six months into my stay in Spain, my mom came to visit me. We explored a few new places, but mostly I ended up taking her to some of my favorite finds. We went to the same paella place I had been to in Valencia. We went to the Inquisition museum, had many drinks, and many tapas, and stayed in lodgings one grade higher than my norm. One evening, in the plaza of a beautiful town, we took a walk before dinner, and the whole rest of the town was out, walking, holding hands, sitting together, gossiping. My mom decided this was an excellent time to show the world her faux tap-dancing routine. Maybe the sound of her leather-soled sandals on the plaza stones gave her the idea, I don’t know. I was mortified that she had blown my cover. I was suddenly just another American traveller, not cooler than all the rest. We were just as obnoxious as anyone. We went to dinner and my mom tried to speak Spanish with the waiter. She was getting it all wrong, but I couldn’t shut her up. I don’t know if I needed to prove more to her or to the Spanish strangers that I was good at this, that I could blend in and be part of this country. But she was the reality check: I couldn’t hide where I had come from. I brought her to the airport, and sent her back to her country.

While I was at the airport, I inquired at the ticket counter about changing my departure date. I had a week left, and $212 dollars. It wasn’t enough, but I was planning to play more music in the street. I just didn’t know where else I wanted to go. The lady behind the counter told me it would cost $200 to change my ticket. I boarded a plane a few hours behind my mom.

The same day, I was stepping off the Amtrak train in upstate New York, shell-shocked. My friends picked me up at the station, and we spent an evening together, trying to catch up, although everything seemed much too current to be news. It was so sudden, I was back, and I didn’t know what to say. The language that I had been working on so diligently had just evaporated from my surroundings. I continued to dream in Spanish off and on for the whole summer.

I haven’t been able to pretend that I had a fantastic, lovely time in Spain. For a long time I blamed Spain for being inhospitable and lonely. Now I think that I was going through a hard time in life, and it would likely have been hard no matter where I was in the world. I struggled with insecurity and lack of direction. With the false confidence of the uncertain, I went there thinking I would fit in, become European, be celebrated, stay forever. It wasn’t the case. However, in Spain I developed the ability to push myself out there, even with low self-esteem, to communicate and to perform. I found some real strength underneath the arrogance, and had more reasons to like who I was.  But in the end, I needed home and family. I missed the endless American road. I wanted to be driving west into nothingness.

I went home and worked at a gas station. Then I went back to college and no one had missed me while I was gone, but I didn’t necessarily need that. I knew what I needed, I loved everyone more, and appreciated the wonder that is a small college town in America. I was still looking for connection, reality, independence, and authenticity.

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When I finished reading this essay, I sat quietly for a minute, feeling, of all things, gratitude.

Thank you, Sarah, for pouring yourself into this assignment, for viewing it as an opportunity to record and clarify an important part of your life.

Thank you to all the students who are thinkers, workers, wanderers, wonderers–you students who remind teachers that they are privileged witnesses to transformation.

Indeed, thank you to all the students who make Year 25 of a teaching career feel not like a sigh of exhaustion but, rather, like the start of another beautiful adventure.

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Perhaps a Late Paper Isn’t the Worst of Her Problems. She Also Thinks It’s a Heron That Drops Off Babies.

Her eyes filled with tears as I spoke.

“Yup, you will lose twenty points on your essay if you submit it today. The policy is that you lose ten points for each day that it’s late, and since today is Wednesday, and the paper was due Monday, that’s what you’re dealing with.” I stood in front of her, having fielded her question as I made my way around the classroom during a group activity. Moments before, I had been checking in on everyone’s progress; when I reached her and her partner’s corner of the room, the student had stopped working to ask if she truly had to lose points for turning in her essay past the deadline.

Upon hearing my answer, she slumped down in her chair and leaned her head onto her bent arm, propping her upper body against the wall. Blinking rapidly, trying to get a hold of herself, her speech was agitated. “But I don’t want to lose twenty points. That means I might as well just take a zero–”

“NOOOO, don’t think of it that way,” interrupted her partner, a thirty-six-year-old mother of three. “You have to turn in your paper today. Do it today, right after class, when you go home. You can email it to Jocelyn or put it in the Dropbox online, and you can still get most of the points!”

I agreed with the partner’s advice and emphasized the logical option: “At this point in time, losing twenty points is the best possible deal you can get, so please, please, please salvage what you can, and submit the thing today–tonight, before midnight. Use the Dropbox as soon as you get home, and turn that paper in. Twenty points does some damage, but you can still get a passing grade.”

“But I don’t want a grade that’s twenty points lower than what the paper should get. It’s a really good paper. I don’t want a lower score on it.” Her face was flushing with emotion as she teetered between tears and anger.

When I responded to her, it felt–as it all too often does with teaching adults–like I was counseling one of my children. Actually, I was counseling this adult in a way my children wouldn’t require, for they would have turned their work in on time. But I tried to help her understand I wasn’t going to make an exception to the policy simply because she wanted me to. Trying to inject a supportive tone into my voice, I told her, “The thing is, you can’t go back in time and change your behaviors from two days ago, when you didn’t turn in your paper. All you have is the chance to make the best possible decision you can today, right now, with the reality that’s in front of you.”

To her credit, she was frustrated with the situation, not with me. Reaching her limit, she threw her hands up and announced, “Screw it. I’ll just take a zero.”

“Wait a minute,” I challenged her. “What’s that attitude about? Do you realize you literally just threw your hands up in the air as you dismissed something that’s bothering you? You have to know that if you don’t turn in this paper, even for meager points, you literally cannot pass this class, as all four out-of-class essays have to be submitted, no matter how poor their scores. Submitting them all is a baseline requirement. So why are you rolling over on this? What’s the benefit to having an attitude of all-or-nothing?”

Even more to her credit, she gave a giggle of self-acknowledgment as she confessed, “Because that’s how I’ve always dealt with everything in my life. If I can’t have it all, my way, then screw it; I’m done.” As her memory flicked back through various life events–becoming pregnant in high school, drug addiction, getting kicked out of her dad’s house–she drew in a huge breath. “I was so sure things were going to change now. I just got a new job, so I’m not unemployed any more, and I was going to prove that I could do my new job and not have it hurt my schoolwork…this was going to be the time I didn’t mess up.”

Her helpful partner chimed in again, “So don’t let it. If you take a zero, then you lose. Turn in your paper today, take the hit, and then you’ll prove something to yourself.”

The partner was a qualified counselor. She had been through Stuff. When she was pregnant with her third child, it was her male OB/GYN who told her she had to leave her husband since the husband was a tyrannical addict. Not only did this advice wake her up to the grimness of her life, it also provided her a life-altering epiphany as she realized, “There’s actually only one man I’ve ever known who’s listened to me and asked me questions. It’s probably not a great sign about the state of my existence that the only caring male I’ve ever known–my doctor–is in my life because he’s paid to be here.” After issuing an ultimatum, she ended up kicking her husband out.

Since making that change, life has not been easy. Divorced, she lost the nice house and comfortable lifestyle she’d enjoyed during her marriage and, as a single mother of three, working as a hairdresser at Great Clips, she has raised her children in poverty. On the day that this hard-working student advised her classmate not to give up, her sixteen-year-old daughter had just received yet another ten-day suspension from school; apparently the ten-day suspension the teenager had received a few months before hadn’t had any effect. In explaining the situation with her daughter, my student provided important perspective: “Do those people at the school not know how hard it is to get her there in the first place? And then they keep kicking her out? I mean, it’s killing me, but at least she’s there.”

As I stood and listened, my wander around the classroom paused at these female students’ table, a handful of thoughts zipped through my mind. Long ago, I learned that judgment is never constructive–yet, naturally, it still tried to nudge its way in. I also battled against frustration. Fatigued by 160 students, all of whom were in the middle of something, my most authentic self wanted to shout, “No matter what’s going on in your world, do your work already, and if you don’t do your work, own the consequences.” Simultaneous to pushing back against judgment and frustration, I was also holding defensiveness at bay. Being a policy enforcer requires an emotional separation from the pleading eyes and tragic words; holding the line made me the bad guy, and it’s difficult not to jut the chin self-righteously in that role. And then there was appreciation–affection!–for the single mother of three who used her voice as Peer more effectively than I could use mine as Teacher. When it came to weathering challenging experiences, trusting that education might transform her existence from one of not enough to one of plenty enough, understanding how exhausting it can be to fight to an upright posture after being ground under life’s heel, she provided her stressed-out table mate with an emotional fist bump. Because my life has been very fortunate, I wasn’t speaking to the late-paper student from a place of “Hey, honey, I’ve been there” empathy–nor, it could be argued, should I have been. However, what I knew in the moment was this: we needed the voice of that poverty-stricken hairdresser in the room. Her energetic and informed point of view, dovetailing with my inflexible standard bearing, created something unexpectedly powerful.

Woefully, easy happy endings are the stuff of Disney and the citizens of Jan Karon’s Mitford.

They are much more rare in the community college classroom.

The agitated student whose essay was doomed to lose twenty points was not magically reformed by the words of Teacher and Peer. She did not race home and submit her “really good paper” to the Dropbox before midnight. Possibly, she had to work. Or she had to pick up her two-year-old from the daycare since they had given her notice that leaving her son with them 16 hours per day was too much. Or she smoked a few outside a brick building while laughing with friends. Or she called up her mother and had a fight. Or she lay down on the couch, wanting to put her feet up for a minute, unable to turn in her paper electronically because she couldn’t afford Internet service in her subsidized apartment.

Another day ticked by. No essay.

Then another. Still no essay.

Four days past due, a semi-good paper slammed into the Dropbox, submitted just late enough to convey an attitude of “Here. Take it. And what-EVER about your lateness policy. But give me points. Or don’t. I don’t care. Except please do.”

And so it goes.

SONY DSC

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Resonance

I bet your’re a book reader.

That is: like attracts like, and I am a book reader, and you are here.

So we are readers, yes?

I’ll go even further and guess that, because love of reading is innate in us–or because we learned it as a joyful or comforting habit in childhood–we are well attuned to the gifts that books bring. For me, I know that during lonely periods in my life, I still had the companionship of books. I know that a three-hour delay at an airport, instead of making me to groan with dismay, causes me to think, “Yay! More time to read!” I know that the absence of a book, when I have free time, creates anxiety. I feel unprotected, exposed, even vulnerable without a book on hand.

As well, at least half of what I know about people has come from books. In reading stories and meeting characters, I have been given insights into humanity’s motivations, foibles, and vagaries. In reading tales set in foreign lands, I’ve gotten to know the world. In times of stress or confusion, books have clarified. Handing over a well-loved book to a friend or family member feels like we’re about to take a trip together.

In what is only a minor overstatement, I assert this: Books mean everything to me.

I want to hug all of the books, all of the time.

That’s why it can be so difficult to teach non-readers. When students proudly proclaim that they don’t read, I realize there is a chasm between us, a values disconnect so profound, a lack of sympathy so jarring…that I may not be able to bridge our differences. To put a finer point on it, the frustration I feel with non-readers makes it so that I sometimes don’t care to build a bridge to these callow youth who wear their puerile disregard for the written word like it’s a nose piercing worthy of comment and admiration.

This feeling of “Why do I even try?” was reinforced last semester when a male student made a loud announcement in class that he had never read a book and never intended to. After he spoke, my heart stopped for a moment. It had to stop so it could catch its breath and recover the will to beat. As the class looked on, many of them nodding in agreement with him, I responded honestly, “You have to know you’re hurting my heart up here. This makes me so very sad. Could we try this, though? Could I buy you a book? My gift? I’m not talking about some fancy book that is painful to read. I’m talking about a book that I really think you would enjoy–maybe a graphic novel? Or something about playing pool? You’re a competitive pool player, right?”

He stared me in the face, blinked once, and said, “Don’t even bother. Didn’t you hear me? I. don’t. read. books.”

And while I wanted to clip out, “And. you. don’t. talk. to. your. English. teacher. like. that, you ignorant buffoon who doesn’t belong in college,” I managed a more civil reply: “But you could. My point here is that you could, and so I’d like a shot at showing you how great a book can be.”

Blinking again, he responded, “Nope. I don’t read books. Save your money. I’d never read it.”

So, well, there’s that illustrative moment which will have a permanent place in the annals of my inspirational teaching history, most likely in the chapter entitled “Students School the Teacher.”

However, when I teach a literature class–those cherry classes that keep English teachers from spending the last twenty years of their careers with their arms wrapped around themselves, rocking in the corner of the classroom–the whole point of the class is to make students read. It’s then that I realize I am, in truth, power hungry, for I LOVE to make them read, especially if they don’t want to or if they have never explored the pursuit before.

My all-time favorite literature class to teach is the Introduction to Literature: The Novel course. It’s one thing to read essays or short stories in other types of literature classes, but in the Novels course, I get to increase the reading load significantly, and in doing so, I get the chance to unlock the world of reading for The Reluctants in the room.

It’s heady stuff, that power.

During the class, we read seven novels in fourteen weeks, which means they’re reading half a novel each week, roughly 160-200 pages.

Yes, a few drop out. But, surprisingly, most of them hang in there; retention rates are comparatively high. Yes, a few of them acknowledge that the reading load is intimidating. But most of them just shut up and drop their heads into their books, either through excitement about exploring new worlds or through a fear of the quiz and everyone-must-participate discussions. So they read.

Because I realize this is a rare chance to transform non-readers into readers, I stay away from Thomas Pynchon. There is no Heidegger. We don’t delve into Finnegans Wake. The books I choose, and they vary term to term, are fairly mainstream, yet they still qualify as literature. The books take work, but students don’t end up with beads of blood dotting their foreheads.

At the end of the semester, I send out a take-home final exam with four questions on it. The first three deal with analyzing character, plot, setting, and point of view, and then the final question is a “softball”–but one that yields the most interesting responses, answers that I tuck into my heart and take with me into the next classroom, into the next semester, into the next face-off with a disinclined pool player.

Below are two such responses, shared with the students’ permission.

The question:

Often times, fiction traces the personal journey and growth of a character. Of the novels read this semester, which character’s journey has the most resonance for you as an individual? Why? (Incidentally, if you aren’t familiar with the word “resonance,” there will never be a better time for you to look it up.)

One student wrote:

Of all the characters that I have met this semester, the one that I felt closest to was Little Bee. When we met her, she had survived a terrible ordeal. She was in survival mode, and spent an awful lot of time figuring out how she would kill herself if “the men came”. While I have never been in a situation like hers, I have been in an extremely abusive relationship. This relationship only lasted two months, but the abuse didn’t end when the relationship did. He stalked me for a year, and used his power over me to continue to hurt me and control my life. Even when he eventually went to prison for 4 years, and I was technically safe, I found myself making escape routs in my head, and planning what I would do if he showed up. She handled it better than me, continuing to live her life the best she could. I wish I were that brave. My post traumatic stress disorder turned into agoraphobia with panic, and I stopped living life for awhile. Years have gone by now, and I’m still not who I was. I learned some good things, and still have some ghosts that haunt me. But reading Little Bee, I saw a part of me in her.  I had experienced the constant terror of thinking you would be found at any moment. We are both survivors of violence and feel the effects on a daily basis. It’s my favorite literary connection, and it’s one of the truest. Little Bee says something that will stay with me always.

I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defeat them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived…Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this story teller is alive. The next thing you know, something fine will happen to her, something marvelous, and then she will turn around and smile (Cleave, 9).

I had never thought of the emotional and physical battle scars I had that way, but she was right. Survival is beautiful, and so are the marks we get when fighting for our lives, no matter what that situation may be. We read Little Bee right as I was finding myself again, which is probably why I connected with her so much.

———————

Another student wrote:

Snow Child was the novel that resonated the most for me. I was really brought into the emotional life of Mabel. Having been in a very dark place in my life where there seemed to be no hope and no way out I felt strongly connected to her. I am a recovering addict and there were many times in my life that I felt like there was no way out. That I would not be able to stop and desperately wanted to change my life. Fortunately, like Mabel, a miracle happened and I was saved from the pit. I know longer live in fear and regret. I have a full life. I don’t have to wake up at 3:00 in the morning filled with anxiety, knowing that again that morning I would not be able to not drink and use. I was a prisoner in my own life. Mabel’s character expressed that same feeling when talking about the winter to come and the demons that haunted her. She knew what was coming, she did not think she could face another day like that. On the upside, the both of us received divine intervention and not only survived but thrived. Every day upon waking I realize I am not physically sick. I won’t have to take a 40 of Miller Lite in the shower with me in order to stop shaking and start my day. I have a place to sleep and roof over my head, a loving family in my life and true friends. Then I look at my dog. He rocks. Another blessing given in sobriety. A biggy, I am getting my degree. Like Mabel I am finally happy. For that I am truly grateful. That novel stays with me. It was truly magical, and easy to lose myself in;

The sun was setting down the river, casting a cold pink hue along the white-capped mountains that framed both sides of the valley. Upriver, the willow shrubs and gravel bars, the spruce forests and low-lying poplar stands, swelled to the mountains in a steely blue. No fields or fences, homes or roads; not a single living soul as far as she could see in any direction. Only wilderness.

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was beauty that ripped you open and scoured you so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all. She turned back to the river and walked home. (The Snow Child)

————————————-

So I read their final exams,

and I get a little misty at these glimpses of their burgeoning Readerhood,

and I wish them a lifetime of comfort from books.

Then I smile

and welcome them to the fold.

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I Wish I Had Enough Money

Raising my voice above the clamor, I called out, “Okay, you can start your ten minutes of freewriting NOW.”

Even in my rowdy, chaotic, feral-children-come-to-college afternoon class, that command settled them down. Heads bent over notebooks, and fingers tapped away on keyboards.

For the next ten minutes, the usual cacophony calmed down, and they focused on writing journals.

Asking them to keep journals at home would be a fool’s assignment. They can hardly get to the classroom with pants on. They’re so caught up in the drama of bad relationships, daycare that has failed them, parents who are addicts, boyfriends who grab them by the throats, getting “beat down” by their girlfriends, going out and buying “a 750” and nursing that huge bottle of liquor all day before attending math class in the evening, cars that veer into the ditch, “wiping butts for a living” in their home healthcare jobs, being handed a blunt by their pals who know they just got out of juvie…

they’re so caught up in figuring what a bad decision looks like

that I would never see a journal entry from any of them if it were assigned as homework. So, well, we do the journals in class. I time them. I tell them to go off on tangents, make shopping lists, draw me pictures–but to keep their hands moving for the entire ten minutes, no matter what. I describe the activity as a brain vomit and urge them to spew.

The results are mind-boggling: crazy, confusing, hilarious, amusing, informative, unfiltered.

And occasionally, as in the case of one of the best students in the class, a young woman who was thirty days sober when the semester began, a young woman who wrote her first paper about waking up in detox–not for the first time–and then being kept there for three days, until she was functional again, the results can be moving.

Here is what she wrote when given the prompt “I wish I had enough money to…”:

I wish I had enough money to live without having to pay off hospital bills and unhelpful therapy bills.

I wish I had enough money to buy clothes two times a year instead of once.

I wish I had enough money to find a physical activity I’m passionate about.

I wish I had enough money to have a car and maintain it.

I wish I had enough money to see a therapist more often.

I wish I had enough money to take a vacation to California every year or two or three. I would love to go every summer.

I wish I had enough money to get my natural hair color back.

I wish I had enough money to adopt a lot of animals and feed them and take care of them.

I wish I had enough money so my mom and I would not have debt.

I wish I had enough money to change things.

I wish I had enough money to always have bread and milk at my house.

I, her teacher, wish all of these things for her, too. I wish and hope that a college education makes all of those things possible

and changes all of her everythings forever.

She’s why I can walk into that classroom every day. The toughest of the lot–the dealer, the pimp, the ones with guns in their backpacks–stopped coming. The ones who relied on smooth patter and attempts at charm instead of effort stopped coming. The ones who couldn’t fight the urge for heroin, whose parents called the college, frantic to know their child’s whereabouts, stopped coming.

But this self-described “drunk,” she’s in the classroom every single period. She and the blonde identical twins in the back row almost came to blows one day. To this young woman’s credit, they managed to keep their annoyances verbal and reined in their tendencies toward the physical. This gifted “drunk” finally offered the olive branch of “I’m sorry if I came off as bitchy, but you two just have to shut up sometimes,” and we called that détente.

This gifted “drunk” has been a delight of my semester. Always, she should have bread and milk in her house.

We all should.

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End O’ Semester and Dontists

The end of the semester always lands with a crash–a head-snapping bump at the very least–and never moreso than when final exam week is topped off with a root canal. As I sat in the endodontist’s office this past Friday morning, nervously fidgeting in the exam room, one of the office workers decided to come in to keep me company while I waited.

Note to humanity: Sitting down with someone who’s nervous is an act of kindness, of course; however, it’s also possible that the nervous person (who was listening to some soothing voices through her iPod as she waited) wishes she didn’t have to take out her earbuds and drum up the energy to make conversation with a stranger.

Especially when that stranger is, intellectually, a few peas short of a casserole.

So there I sat, the hostess of a spontaneous chit-chat party held on site at a dentist’s chair. One one level, I felt under-dressed and as though I should have a platter of hors d’oeuvres to pass. On another level, I considered tossing a garbage can into the wall and becoming so raucous so that the guy getting his head drilled into over in the next examination room would decide to call the cops to bust up our merriment.

Instead, I decided to let the nice woman be nice, even if it meant keeping my Cranky on a leash. So I asked her about her kids, in the process discovering that Nice Lady says “overhauls” when she means “overalls,” and you know damn straight that the second you notice such a speech quirk, the person subsequently uses the offending word ten times in the two minutes. It was okay, though, because she was talking about her son and what he likes to wear, and so then I got to thinking about Dexy’s Midnight Runners in their cute little overhauls and the music of the 80s, and before you knew it, while I was nodding with great interest and asking follow-up questions, I was also replaying A-ha’s “Take On Me” video in my head. As it turns out, blurring reality with cartoon drawing is an effective form of therapy when one is nervous and waiting for the pain to begin.

Next time I go to a middle school band concert, I plan to transform the entire theater into delightful scribbles in my skull.

In addition to revisiting some of my favorite hits of the ’80s and learning more about a dental receptionist’s son’s Prom plans, I also got to enjoy my companion’s surprised look every five minutes when I’d excuse myself for a quick visit to the restroom. Normally, ideally, my nervous bladder is allowed to relieve itself without an audience, but in this case, we had a witness doing some tallying.

Eventually, we got to talk about me, and I mentioned that I teach at the community college. Leaning in close and adopting the over-confidential tone of voice that sometimes means the word “cancer” is about to be uttered, my new friend said, “Let me ask you something. I know colleges want to make as much money off students as they can, and so they make students take all sorts of classes that they don’t need, but how is it that my older son is going to school for welding, yet he has to take classes in math and writing and all that other junk that has nothing to do with welding?”

We in the business of education call that a Breathtaking Question. We Liberal Artsians sometimes go so far as to weep quietly into our bent elbows upon hearing it. It’s one of those questions where I need to use my increasingly-honed ability to count to ten before replying, lest I start yelling and spluttering about how any and every educational opportunity is a gift and how the notion of “having to take classes that are ‘junk'” is offensive to my very bones because I’m still grateful I had to take the physics class in college that completely flummoxed me and which I very nearly failed, for there were huge lessons in not being comfortable or successful and hearing words and ways of thinking that were outside my purview and how I personally want to make my living with language but would find taking a welding class to be a delightful challenge and how most people change jobs at least seven times during their professional lives–and so how could a thinking person NOT want to be equipped to handle every possible potentiality of the future by having a broad and adaptable education?–and, well, any time I end up doing mental spluttering in all the colors of the rainbow, we know it’s time for

one. two. three. four. five. six. seven. eight. nine. ten.            eleven for good measure.

Smiling as widely as my ailing tooth would allow, I asked my new friend, “So, now, the program that he’s in, is it a certificate program or a diploma program? Or is he working towards an A.A. degree?”

Eyes crossing as she tried to parse out my question, New Friend said, “I have no idea.”

Ah. Her lack of knowledge about her son’s course of study told me more than a content-filled answer would have.

It was time to shift from mom-to-mom into teacher-to-learner mode. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but suddenly I found myself talking more smoothly and articulately than I do when I’m in regular-citizen mode. That tends to happen when I’m gettin’ my teacherly on.

“Well, if he’s in a certificate or diploma program, which I’m guessing is what welding would be, that means he’s mostly focusing on learning the skills of the trade, but his instructors–who have experience in the field and a well-established knowledge of what it takes for success in the profession–will have built the curriculum around not only practical skills but also the more abstract skills that they know are essential. In some cases, that might mean they have planned some courses that deal with concepts that go beyond welding, such as math or writing. If you think about your own life and the work you do behind the counter for a dentist, you probably can see ways where it’s helpful to be number savvy and have accomplished communication skills. For example, you file insurance claims, do billing, schedule appointments, hand-hold nervous patients, oversee office logistics, and so on. If you were simply able to pick up a phone receiver and say ‘Hello,’ you wouldn’t be completely able to meet all your job demands, would you?”

Looking like there was little she’d rather be doing than picking up a phone receiver and saying, “Hello?” at that moment, she simply stared at my moving mouth.

Continuing, I said, “And if your son’s program is, in fact, an A.A. track degree, then he’ll finish it with the label of ‘college graduate‘ and the possibility of transferring to a four-year institution, where he would enroll in higher-level college classes. Thus, the community college not only has to ensure that its graduates can handle the next academic challenge, it also has to ensure that its A.A. graduates fulfill society’s–employers’–expectations of what a ‘college graduate‘ is. College graduates absolutely need a broad base of foundational knowledge. The caché of being a college graduate would lose its weight, if employers hired someone with the expectation that he/she could write a letter or balance the books…but then were told by the new hire, ‘Actually, I don’t exactly know how to put paragraphs together, and I can’t figure out how much this client owes us.’ Were this the case, employers would have the right to think, ‘Why the heck did I hire a college graduate? Did this person not learn any of the basic, important skills?'”

At this point, we took a breather so that the doc could come in and give me the first four of what would eventually be twelve numbing shots. Patting my arm, he left the room and said he’d be back in about twenty minutes.

Having already forgotten that she was getting more than she bargained for, my new friend looked at me expectantly, as though I might suddenly hold up my hands and launch into “This is the church/This is the steeple” so as to amuse her better.

But no.

I went on: “Thus, it’s imperative that the college asks its graduates to gain some breadth and not just depth in a single area…”

Re-engaged, perhaps perking up because the word “breadth” sounds like “breast,” my new friend noted, “The thing about my son, and I know him well, is that two days after he finishes these classes he cares nothing about, he won’t remember a thing from them. It’s not like he’s going to remember some biology business or what year some document was signed. The information will be gone from him the second he leaves the classroom.”

With a certain admiration for this defense, I nevertheless had to rebut: “The point isn’t that graduates will remember the details–although it’s surprising what bits do stick. The point is that the ‘junk,’ ‘non-practical’ classes are the ones that teach people how to think…how to become critical thinkers who are able to handle any situation or problem, no matter the job, simply because they have been trained in how to break down the issues, examine the angles, play through all possible outcomes, look for faults in logic, hang in there when things don’t make sense. They’re being taught abstract thinking skills that reach far beyond recalling the parts of a cell or that William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. They’re being taught more than how to take two pieces and apply fire to them; they’re being taught how to be thinking citizens with the ability to consider every life choice.”

If you’re thinking I’m just typing all this up for a blog post, and I didn’t really rattle off so very much rhetoric at this poor woman, then you have no idea how much I can talk when I’m scared. Those poor people on the Titanic would have been hard-pressed to hear the orchestra playing “Nearer My God to Thee” over the noise of my holding forth about how a hypothermic death has inherent merits over death by fire.

Fortunately for my listening audience and the future of higher education, the endodontist and his assistant came back at that point to administer four more shots, unfortunately not of tequila, and to begin the procedure (flash to five minutes in the future, when he began clipping in the dental dam, and I winced; it was at that point the final four shots slid into my cheek). Kindly, my new friend bid me good luck and dashed off to answer the ringing telephone. Was she able to gasp out the requisite “Hello?” We’ll never know.

After the root canal and during its subsequent complications (a separate blog post in itself), I spent a lot of hours online, wrapping up the work of the semester. As I was grading final exams from my Modern Literature class, I was reminded repeatedly that the “junk” courses which feel to so many like a nasty way of milking money from their pocketbooks are, in truth, movingly transformative. Even when skeptics can concede the value in a math or writing class, they are generally unmovable in their opinion that literature classes are worthless. Of course, this attitude hurts me, personally, for it hits me where I live, but even more, it insults something beautiful: the way fine writing can inform our view of the world and the people who inhabit it.

You don’t get that from a welding class, Butch.

Before I give you evidence of how the Modern World Lit class affected a few of my students (not because of me, necessarily; because of what they read), here’s a quick update from the student I wrote about in my previous post. She did get her paper posted–one minute before the deadline–and it wasn’t terrific, but she did it. Here was her submission message with the final draft of her essay (I always ask students before using their words, incidentally):

“Well, here it is. It’s obviously not the work I would have liked to do, but I am just trying to get through the last week. Having a baby is crazy! I knew it’d be tough, but wowza, even finding time to shower is a huge time zapper in the day. I really enjoyed the class up until now, and I’m sorry my effort was so poor. I did the best I could to finish all my classes. Thank you for making me laugh through all your posts.”

So, despite adjusting to her new reality, she managed to soldier through (I feel like “mother through” would be a more apt phrase here) and finish the thing out. She is one of the many happy endings who came out the other side of “junk” classes, having learned something–mostly about herself.

And look at a few of the things students gained from taking a literature class–ideas and information that will change the way they function in the world forever. The paragraphs below are excerpted from the final question on their final exam. I asked students to consider all the many readings from the semester and to highlight what they had learned, culturally–to provide a few cultural tidbits they had gleaned and that would stick with them.

One student wrote:

“One of the biggest things I took from this class was from the various readings coming out of South Africa, particularly ‘The Lemon Orchard’ and ‘The Return.’ I never knew things had been that bad in South Africa, in most of our History Classes here in the states it seems like anyplace that isn’t the U.S or Western Europe gets passed over, especially Africa. It’s rather shocking to know that a system so similar to our Jim Crow Laws was still in existence in South Africa, a place with a heavy Western influence.”

Apartheid. Violence and injustice in Africa. Introduced to a young man through literature.

Another student wrote:

“There are a view stories where I had those ‘learning moments’ or times where I put a few things together and realized, ‘Hey, this is actually real! These are real people, this is a real thing that is happening somewhere around the world!’ I feel that too often when we’re ‘learning’ about a culture or a group of people that we forget that these people are humans too, and not just facts in a text book. Therefore, I was extremely grateful to be able to read literature written by these people around the world. There’s emotion, conflict, feeling, and meaning in literature, something that I couldn’t get from a history book. However, with the knowledge of history, I got to learn what happened and how it happened, and together with this class I learned how people FELT when it happened.”

Empathy. Connection. Compassion. Introduced to a young woman through literature.

Yet another student wrote:

“‘Kicking the Habit’ stuck with me the most, as I really have never considered speaking a second language could be so troublesome, as there are many people at the college from different cultures that speak English as a second or even third language. In the poem, the frustration of the narrator is uncovered in the first eleven lines (‘Late last night, I decided to/stop using English/I had been using it all day–/talking all day/listening all day/ thinking all day/reading all day/ remembering all day/ feeling all day/ and even driving all day/ in English–‘). This poem illustrates a person who is forced into a specific outline which makes them a person who they are not, someone synthetic, temporarily robbed of their identity. He explains that he is so accustomed to English ways that he grew an addiction that masked who he was (‘So you might say I’m actually addicted to it; yes, I’m an Angloholic, and I can’t get along without the stuff: It controls my life. Until last night, that is. Yes, I had had it with the habit’, line 36-44 on page 141), so he quit to regain who he “was”. At the end of the reading, I felt a sorrow for people of different cultures that are forced into speaking a second language that plagues everyday they have to use it, I was totally oblivious to the psychological effect and toll on the mind. I will forever remember the meaning of this poem and will exercise extra care and understanding when speaking to someone who does not speak English as their primary language.”

Dawning understanding that language is power. Immigration is traumatic. The psychology and dynamics of personal identity. Introduced through literature.

Ultimately, my new friend in the endodontist’s office sweetly tried to distract me from my nerves. She didn’t succeed.

She did succeed in driving me to distraction.

And while I was in that distracted state, monologuing as if to save my life, I was reminded that there is power in my everyday work. The pain of a root canal will fade over time; certainty that lives are being transformed through education…well…the joy of that will be with me forever.

Put another way:

“Junk” classes? My ass.

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I Need Fifty-Nine Drinks

 

 

When I was 18 months old and napping one day, my aunt felt compelled to hold a mirror to my mouth to check my breathing and find out if I was still alive. I slept that deeply.

When I was an adolescent, my sister once poured a glass of water on my face while I was asleep. I didn’t wake up. This proved her hypothesis.

When I was in my thirties, two squalling babies kept me from REM sleep for a total of six years. I did not hurt them. They will make it up to me in my dotage by bringing me hazelnut lattes at The Home and helping me to change the channel when “The Price Is Right” is over.

As it turns out, too many people messed with a good thing.

Crushingly, this week, I can’t sleep.

Insomnia is largely unknown to me; ever since I first pledged to life and passed the initial hazing of swallowing multiple bowls of gummy rice cereal while strapped to a chair, sleep has been one of my favorite sorority sisters in the Delta Delta Gamma house.

But this week, sleep is a mo-fo, and it is my foe.

I know the cause of my open eyes. I know why my brain races. I know from whence my anxiety stems.

It’s a student, of course. I’d love to disclose all sorts of juicy details, but I daresay that’s unethical, even for someone of loose ethics like me. An abbreviated, anonymity-preserving profile of him might read: “batshit, narcissistic, delusional, illogical, excuse-making, sweet, sad, and, oh, yes, most likely alcoholic.”

All of you who have met this person in his many forms on the planet are nodding knowingly right about now, ja? This person, when you met an incarnation of him, caused you lost sleep, too, didn’t he?

But his presence in my life this academic year is teaching me all sorts of things I wasn’t aching to discover: he’s showing me how ill-equipped I am to deal with his pathologies—how easily the teacher role casts me as an enabler. He’s good, too. When I try to reset the boundaries a bit, drawing a pre-1989 line to send him back into East Berlin while I keep partying and buying truckloads of consumer goods over in West Berlin, he gets defensive and broken and lobs a few little rocks over at my wall. They take chinks out of me, too.

So all these hours when I’m not sleeping? I’m trying to figure out how to help both Gorbachev and me keep that all-important wall intact. I need the protection.

Dropping the labored metaphor, I can just say that he’s got me obsessing and has inspired an exhausting mania in my darker hours. I completely want him to miss the bus (see, he has a car or two, but can’t drive them, um, because doing that is expensive, so he has to take the bus. It’s not at all related to DUI issues.). I want him to miss the bus and miss class. Forever.

What’s getting me through this very minute of internal fretting and typing, this trying minute of 2:41 a.m., is the bear-hunting program I’m watching on Channel 10. All these guys in camouflage are kind of sad in their own way (and trust me, I can see the case for hunting…but baited bears?). They’re assuring themselves of their own worth with all their guns and gadgets, the same way poor Batshit and his delusions and drinking give him a skewed sense of validity. It’s all about wanting to feel that you’re powerful, that what you’re doing has a purpose, that you’ve got control over something, inn’t it?

Ooh, now that they’ve dropped the mighty beast, the shooters on the screen are urging me to buy an ATV trailer called the “Tail-gator.” Apparently, it can also help me drag carcasses out of the woods.

What I really need is an “Alkie-gator” to help me drag a student out of the classroom.

And fifty-nine gin and tonics to help me sleep.

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bad days birthdays Niblet students

The Twelve-Inch Scar

 

Five years ago, on January 17th, I made one of my students vomit.

I hadn’t even assigned “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” either.

Rather than yacking up her lunch as a reaction to Coleridge’s opium-induced writings, she barfed out of affection and empathy.

See, this student came from a background so sketchy, so traumatic, that you would be skeptical of the details. The first twenty years of her life were positively and brutally cinematic, in a directed-by-Quentin-Tarentino-and-starring-Harvey Keitel-as-a-coke-addicted-mafia-enforcer-with-a-blowtorch-and-a-pair-of-pliers kind of way. In short, any possible abuse that you can imagine inflicted on another human being had been heaped upon her before age 11, when she finally broke free of her parents’ terrors one seminal night and found possibility–found life–on the streets.

I didn’t know all this at first, of course. All I knew was that she seemed oddly experienced yet unformed there in Freshman Composition, and when I gave students twenty minutes to write up a paragraph of introduction, she fidgeted and ultimately turned in less than a line, apologizing that she was having a bad day. At that time, I didn’t know her literacy was so newly-minted that it shattered in the face of pressure.

As the weeks passed, I noticed that she was making tentative overtures of friendship and that she seemed willing to expose some hidden parts of herself (when she came up after I’d assigned the persuasive essay to say, “You told us to write from our personal experience, so, uh, could I argue that the War on Drugs is a good thing, from the point of view of those in the drug trade? I can easily come up with three reasons to support that idea–it keeps our, um, their prices higher and keeps employment opportunities up for some of us, um, them and such to have drugs outside of government control). I told her to go for it, draw from her experience, and if she didn’t want to share her essay with classmates during a peer review session, she didn’t have to.

In particular, she seemed fascinated by my expanding belly that semester, as I was in my last trimesters of cooking up the Wee Niblet. She started with “I’ve never seen a healthy pregnancy before” and, a week later, progressed to “So this kid won’t be addicted to nuthin’ when it comes out, right?” before eventually winding around to “Because of some stuff that’s happened to me, I can’t have kids.”

Thusly, through small disclosures, we became friends. The semester and third trimester carried on.

Then the semester ended in December, and the third trimester carried on. And on. And on. Those last weeks dragged out endlessly, as they do in most pregnancies, but for me they were exacerbated by a big baby in my uterus deciding to turn. Generally speaking, at the end of the pregnancy, a fetus is too big to move much, but Niblet apparently was feeling the squeeze because he shifted from happily-head-down (the Ready to Rock position) at about Week 38 of my pregnancy to Head Up and Right, Head Up and Left, and eventually Head Slowly Descending, which I think is also a yoga pose.

Trust me, having a huge ball of flesh move around in a womb that’s stuffed to bursting–bursting like Paris Hilton’s closet, but not like her head–is painful. Each time he started travelin’, I had to stop and grab the counter or the car or Groom’s leg, thinking, “Holy Red Hots, but this is some funky contraction.”

Then it would stop, not a contraction at all. I’d clean up the spilled cereal or pick up the groceries or administer a soothing cream to Groom’s broken leg skin, and we’d move on.

We did have the support of a doula during the pregnancy and labor, fortunately, and during the “Where the Hell’s the Head Now?” phase of things, when I was getting weekly ultrasounds to determine the babe’s position, she would come over and help me try to flip the Niblet. There are age-old methods of baby moving, apparently, that require the expectant mother to crouch on the living room floor in a position called Turtle or to do lunges against the edge of the couch, in the hopes of prompting the Little Shaver to rotate. Since these methods have emerged out of eons of childbirth, I found them worth trying, although I never could figure out how prehistoric women did them–what with not having living rooms or couches.

After all my contortions, the baby ended up head down, but anteriorly, not posteriorly (translation: when you’re standing behind a birthing woman–which is safer than standing in front of her, where any missiles she lobs…water glasses, car keys, unopened condoms…can nail the innocent onlooker–the baby’s face should be looking right at you when it exits the birth canal. In my case, the baby was trying to come out face forward, so he could watch and flinch each time innocent onlookers were pelted with unopened condoms). The upshot was that the kid was overdue and not in ideal position, but he could make it out.

Ultimately, labor was induced. The night before, I was checked into the hospital, where a heavy-handed resident practiced, with loudly-whispered advice from the bystanding nurse, inserting a little P-gel, in the hopes of ripening my crabby cervix and making it more amenable to labor. It didn’t help much, so the next morning, they broke out the hard stuff: Pitocin.

Haysoos Marimba, but a Pitocin contraction is a regular contraction on steroids (or, um, Pitocin). Bigger, harder, meaner. I labored for about six hours–in awe at my water breaking, at upchucking my Nutrigrain Cereal Bar when I dilated to four centimeters (classic stuff, I was told). Truth be told, I was only awed for about 4 seconds during that time. The rest of it?

I wanted to die.

There’s a reason why I’ve never written about this day before. Even with my love of juicy vocabulary and a sound thesaurus, I have continued to have the sense that there just aren’t words for that day. When I type, “I wanted to die,” it sounds cliche. It sounds like me at the mall when I spy the perfect pair of ankle boots on clearance–and, amazingly, they are available in my size–but when I get them to the check-out, I am told they weren’t on clearance after all. That’s when I usually drum up a good “I just want to die.”

So it’s almost impossible for me to convey my longing to die that day. Unquestionably, if I had been Linda Purl in The Young Pioneers, out there alone on the prairie, just me in my corn-husk bed, raising my calico skirts to make way for the delivery, reaching for my sewing shears to sever the umbilical cord, I would have died. I would have reached over for my plow-loving husband’s rifle, angled it towards my head, and pulled the trigger.

Fully aware of the impact of my actions and the fact that I would miss that year’s wheat harvest, I still would have pulled the trigger. Knowing how much we had desired this baby, craved his addition to our family, planned to have him, I would have pulled the trigger.

On our way out of the world, I might have whispered an apology to the baby. But mostly, I would have welcomed the release from the agony. That day, in the hospital, I just didn’t care. I only needed it to end.

In my recollection, the long hours are actually a blur. Women in labor dive so deeply, internally, that we don’t realize our husbands are shoveling in Dagwood sandwiches while standing next to us–getting the bones in one hand crunched during a contraction, snarfing down a stack of turkey and lettuce with the free hand. I certainly had no idea Groom had eaten. Later, I expressed to Groomeo my admiration at his uncomplaining fast, noting that he must have been incredibly hungry as he worked Support Staff. Turns out, he ate quite a bit while standing a foot away. He probably answered the phone, too, fluffed some pillows, and carried on conversations about the local news anchors’ hairstyles. I had no idea.

Certainly, I was not proud; I availed myself of one, two, three epidurals, the story of which is another twelve-page post. In brief, epidurals are more efficaciously administered when the hospital pages the anesthetist on duty, not one who is at home shoveling his sidewalk. And certainly, I had my peeps. Pulling me through that day were not only the doula and Groom but also our kids’ Godmamas (the beautiful lesbians), my cousin’s wife (herself nine months pregnant, yet she dropped to her knees repeatedly to massage my lower back as we paced the halls very early in the process, helping me wheel the IV stand along), and my mother (who was ultimately sent from the room, when she couldn’t handle seeing her own grown-up baby girl in such a state). This troupe went through their own physical contortions on my behalf: pressing into me a foot or an elbow to counteract the back labor; chasing the heartbeat around my uterus with a mobile monitor, to avoid having to insert a scalpal monitor into the baby, who was firmly lodged inside of me; getting my husband that big ole sammy.

Even surrounded by help and love, however, I was ready to die.

Still working, our doula urged me to lower my vocalizing from high, squeaking, ineffective pips down to lower, stronger, diaphragm-centered tones, yet the baby didn’t descend any further. The nurses came and went with a bustle. And then the resident insisted on checking my dilation during a contraction.

As I bellered at this painful indignity, and the cast swirled around me, trying to regain focus out of chaos, the curtain shielding the door to my room was pushed aside. It was my excited, naive student. She was happy, expectant, ready to see a healthy baby for the first time in her life. She was ready to behold the post-birth beauty of Mother and Child, nestled in joyous union.

Instead, she walked in on Dante’s Inferno, if Homer Simpson had doused that inferno with charcoal lighter and held a Bic to it before spraying the whole thing with aerosol hairspray.

At the moment she popped through the door, she heard one of my low, gutteral,”I-am-a-broken-person” moans. It struck her as a familiar a sound. It struck her as the same sound she’d made herself in moments of profound physical pain, when others were on her, in her, torturing her. It struck her that I was dying. I wager it struck her that I wanted to die. She’d been there.

As the doula called out to my stunned student “This is NOT a good time,” she’d already turned and run–run down the hall, stumbling into the nearest bathroom, where she vomited up her visceral reaction to what she’d seen and heard.

For the rest of that day, both of us were shaking. I had five more hours of torment before decelerations in the baby’s heartbeat led to an emergency C-section. Strangely, I felt shame about not being able to get that baby out on my own. I felt I hadn’t worked hard enough. I felt a failure.

However. When the blessed epidural finally took effect in the operating room, and the misery ceased for the first time in eleven hours, and I proclaimed my everlasting love to the anesthesiologist, they pulled the Niblet out of me, and no matter how he got here, I was oh-so-glad he had arrived.


(with Niblet weighing in at a few ounces over 10 pounds, the surgical team greeted him with a roar of appreciation; for at least a few more days, he had the distinction of being the biggest baby born in the city that year)

Due to the sheer amount of painkiller my body had accumulated throughout the day, I had been on oxygen; I had the shakes; I had uncontrollable itching. As I was prepped to move into the recovery room, the brusque surgeon took two seconds to stop by my arm, which she touched briefly. I had been warned that bedside manner wasn’t her forte, but her words sliced me as deftly as her knife: “You need to know that you couldn’t have done this any other way. Neither you nor he would have made it. This was the only option.”

It is so rare that we hear exactly what we need to, exactly when we need it most. She gave me that rare solace.

—————————
The day after Niblet was excised, when I was still hooked up to the ease-inducing morphine pump, the phone in my hospital room rang.

It was my dear, traumatized student. She opened with, “So you’re alive?” An hour later, she sat at my bedside, a bag of chocolates in her hand. With awe, she took in the fact that I had been through such an ordeal, yet I was still her same Jocelyn (read: happy to see the chocolate). When the nurses brought my boy in for a feeding, she refused to hold him, aw-shucks-ing that she wouldn’t want to drop him.

A few minutes later, after our goodbyes, I spied her down the hall, standing outside the nursery, where she stared through the glass at him with marvel bordering on reverence. Overwhelmed, I hit the button on my morphine drip and clutched a pillow to my foot-long incision, grimacing as I anticipated the pain of an approaching sneeze.

That hospital hall saw my student move from spew to wonderment in the course of twenty-four hours. It took me weeks to recover from the agony of Niblet’s delivery, but the sight of her down that hall, her nose against the glass, appreciating for me what she could, can, never have, was an instant benediction.

Her joy at my good fortune,

her joy at seeing a healthy, welcome child,

her joy in his tightly-swaddled purity

reminded me that beauty can be birthed out of terror and anguish.

And now Niblet is five, and Student has just this week accepted her first professional job.

As a nurse.

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names students

Paging Ms. Chandelier…Mr. Crystal Chandelier. Your Prescription Is Ready

There is a host of traditional names slapped onto mewling, unsuspecting babies in the United States when they’re born: William, Emily, Alex, Susan, Mary. And we’ve all seen and heard those more creative names–some of which have cultural or familial connotations–such as Shaniqua or Anders. But then there’s a whole other class of names out there: the out-and-out “Did Mama’s epidural seep into her brain?” monikers.

I heard a story several years ago about a woman who was cooking in her kitchen when she went into labor. She ended up naming her baby “LaMonjallo” because the last thing she saw before she hit the floor that day were the words printed on the Lemon Jell-O box on her counter.

And then there was the time a friend of a friend of a friend (the most reliable of sources, and always just where I need her!) was in line at McDonald’s, and in front of her was a kid who was cutting up, dancing around, bumping into folks. After rolling her eyes a lot, his mother finally shrieked, “Spatula! I have two words for you: BE HAVE.”

No matter how you Ginsu up a name and the word “behave,” however, the fact remains that the tags we use to identify ourselves on our homework, job applications, and ultimately tombstones, matter. A rose by any other name smells like garlic toast.


Feeling as I do about names–convinced of their importance and ability to shape lives–I found myself involuntarily snurfling with laughter and disbelief last week at the end of my Short Story class, as I read over my students’ responses to an activity that had asked them to analyze their feelings about their own given names (as much as I like to mess with the kiddies and pack their hours with meaningless busywork, this assignment actually related to a story we’d read about a Chinese man who had to change his name during the Cultural Revolution). Part of the activity required them to explore optional names for themselves; that is, if they had to abandon their given names and choose new ones, what would they choose and why?

Gentle Readers, here is a cross-section of their answers, carefully vetted to give you a clear picture of the analytical abilities of our nation’s next generation of leaders. They would change their names thusly:

“Probably something like Sydney because I have always wanted to go to Australia and I just like the name.”

“Semore Butts–saw it on THE SIMPSONS, thought it was funny.”

“My new name would be Hiro Nakemura. It’s the name of an awesome and funny character on the show HEROES.”

“I would change my name to Buddy. I think it would be kind of cool and funny if everyone called me by a slang version of the word friend. It would be like not having a real first name.”

“I’d change my last name to Shanks and my first name to Adam. Shanks because it’s badass and Adam because it flows with Shanks.”

“If I were to change my name, I would change it to Jagermeister. I would choose this name because the meaning of it is ‘hunt master.’ I love to hunt things of all kinds. I think this name would be suiting for me. It is also the name of a rather popular drink. I also like to drink it. I could drink my own name. Not many people can say that. I would also have a nice looking coat of arms. It would be the picture on the Jag bottle. It’s a big old buck.”

————————–
By my calculations, President Jagermeister, Vice-President Shanks, and their Cabinet of Intellect will take charge of the White House in roughly 2037, ushering in a tenure of leadership that will make Americans long for the relatively-sensible logic and thoughtfulness of thirty years earlier.

This is your heads-up. They’re coming.

Duck.
Cover.

Move to China; change your name.

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Barbara Ehrenreich community college students

The Student

“The Student”

What I love the most about teaching at a community college, which is what I do, is that the education we offer provides under-prepared students with a new type of focus and motivation. We also provide cheaper credits to students who don’t want to undertake lifetime student-loan-repayment programs. Because we’re accessible and low rent, mos’ def, we teach an amazing cross-section of students in the community college, from returning vets, fresh off the deserts of Iraq, to recovering meth addicts, to former-stay-at-home mothers of five who are finally having their turn, to high school students who are taking advantage of Minnesota’s post-secondary schooling option.

And with 150 or so of such people in my classes every semester, ’tain’t never dull. But even when I get overwhelmed (as I am this week, the last week of classes, when research papers, persuasive essays, portfolios, etc. are flying with great force towards my gradebook), I always have an appreciation for my students’ efforts to get themselves to college. They may not do it well, and they may not do it for the right reasons, but every now and then, the education sneaks up on them–GOTCHA– and reorients their lives.

This was evident in an excerpt from an email sent to me by one of my students a couple of years ago. This particular student, raised in a household of fear by an alcoholic mother, has earned her way through two years of college by working at a variety of jobs, the most lucrative of which is exotic dancing. Her life story is heartrending, littered with abuse, abandonment, rape, and bipolar disorder…yet she is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful students I have ever taught. When I received this email late one night, I thought she was just sending me a copy of her posting to the online discussion about a Barbara Ehrenreich essay we had read (an excerpt from her book Nickled and Dimed). However, this student, then working at Goodwill, was feeling frustrated with the way the online discussion was going (students were adopting a “if you don’t like working at Wal-Mart, just quit and get another job” stance), so she sent me this email to open her history and hammer home to me how transformative a college education can be:

I just wanted to share with you that I bought Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickled and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America. I identified with her experience so much it was a little scary, except of course that my slave-wage jobs were not research for a book and I was working to survive and did not start out with a car or any back up money…It will certainly be fun to leave it on the breakroom table at work. Although Goodwill purports to be one of the largest employers of former welfare recipients, I would actually make more money working for Wal-Mart, but I won’t because my manager at Goodwill is a nice crazy, older lady who is pretty easy to get along with and even though sifting through donations is often dirty and hazardous work, it’s kind of like looking for buried treasure, or at least that’s how I like to be optimistic about it. Goodwill also denies its employees full-time status in order to dodge giving them health benefits. I was disappointed to learn that even though I only make $6 an hour, have no benefits, and only work 20 hrs a week I am now denied almost all healthcare from MNCare because I am single, have no dependents, and my Goowill job puts me at 75% above the poverty line. I found this hard to believe until I read Nickled and Dimed, now I am more motivated than ever to pursue my dream job, and will at least more gratefully suffer through 10 more years of poverty than I previously have. I was really discouraged before, after reading her book I realize I am actually much better off than most people even though I too worked full-time at one point and lived in my car. It’s not a matter of people being lazy anymore so much as it is working ‘til exhaustion and still having nothing, easy to become disillusioned with the American dream, I am fortunate that I have found a way to go to college at all…I’m glad it was one of our assignments to have read part of this book, and I just wish that some of the more fortunate people…could live a month in a low-wage employee’s shoes, their feet would be very sore and their eyes would be more open…

This email humbled me and took me back to a very thoughtful place, in terms of what I do in the classroom. Sure, I get annoyed with students and their hectoring me about grades. Sure, I’m going a bit crazy this week–I never realized when I was in college that my professors weren’t just lolling about in their offices, eating hard candies out of a bag kept in their top drawers, playing Corridor Crash in their rolling chairs but, in fact, were overwhelmed and stressed out and edgy, too, as they ate their hard candies and played their rolling chair games. And sure, I pretty much wish most of my students were more consistently committed to their work.

Then again, if they’re not living in their cars, or are finding post-rape counseling, or have just moved out from an abusive boyfriend, maybe there’s a place in my teaching for an attitude of “Okay, so this week, you missed an assignment, skipped class, lied to my face, and then turned in a crappy paper. Yet I couldn’t be more delighted with you. Because you’re doing what you can. You’re putting one foot in front of the other. You’re bruise-free; you’re talking about the cruelty instead of passing it on; you have a bed. This week, my inconsistent student, you are in college, and if anything’s ever going to make a lasting change for you, this is it. Come on in and give me more of your distracted, stumbling prose. We can work with it.”

And with that, I’m off now to grade my 124th terribly-written paper of the week. Of course, each piece of dreck has

its own story

and, therefore,

its own worth and charm.

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