Salt on the Road
Grey sky hangs low, a cinder block compressing the horizon. Lifeless, yawning fields spread to the left; decaying tillage muddles the acres on the right. The car flits past a “Did You Know? My Heart Beat 18 Days from Conception” billboard, then another, this one taking the tack of “My Doc Says I Could Smile Before I Was Born.” Next is a sign touting high-quality smoked fish on offer at an upcoming truck stop. Along the berm runs a fence, its broken posts half buried by drifts of blown snow. In front of me, leading me, the black asphalt of highway is narrow; one lane is clear, but the other is coated with grey glaze, turning passing into a dicey prospect. On both sides, the shoulders of I-35 are covered with dingy whorls from a recent blizzard. The car’s defroster battles the chunks of freezing moisture flapping onto the windshield. When a truck passes me, dirty muck smacks the glass; I squirt the wiper fluid, clearing a 2 x 3-foot expanse, and my eyes once again scud across the somber flatness of February, the month when winter tips from glory into grind.
I’m on the road for work, driving south to visit two high school teachers whom I’m mentoring. In Minnesota, high school students who qualify can enroll in college classes using the “post-secondary” option. Some take classes online. Others come to campus and sit in college classrooms. Still others complete college courses that are offered within their high schools, taught by high school teachers. In all cases, the state covers the cost of their books and tuition. Particularly clever and motivated students can graduate, simultaneously, with a high school diploma and an A.A. degree.
The third option, the one where high school students complete a college class without ever leaving their high schools or having a college instructor take the helm, is controversial. Problematic. In most cases, the classes they take are “concurrent enrollment,” meaning the students earn both high school and college credit for the same course, accompanied by the caveat that the class will challenge students with “extra” assignments and assessments to boost the content from secondary to post-secondary level. In many cases, these courses are taught by high school teachers whose academic credentials would not qualify them for hire by the colleges granting credits to these students. In the next few years, that issue will be resolved, when a new policy (thank you, teachers’ union!) is implemented, one requiring that all teachers of classes resulting in college credit have the requisite credentials. What will not be resolved are the issues of atmosphere and curriculum that crop up when high school students stay in their high school classrooms and are taught by high school teachers, all while earning college credits.
The bandaid on this sticky issue is the college-instructor mentors. Through a carefully hammered out agreement, every high school teacher and post-secondary class benefits from the oversight of a college teacher, someone who evaluates the syllabi, textbooks, assignments, and examples of student work.
Simultaneously, this is a good idea and a fraught idea. Yes, we should have our hands on what’s being taught in remote locations under our college’s name. But. It sets up a bizarre power differential in which two colleagues–united in mission, skill, and passion–are thrown into a relationship where one makes demands, conducts reviews, and completes paperwork about the other. While that differential can be largely neutralized by sanity and interpersonal awareness, there remains a whiff of “Kapo” about the whole thing, at least to the nose of this taking-a-jiff-to-sniff-for-a-whiff-of-spliff-or-a-reason-to-miff-and-roll-out-some-rhymes-in-a-riff mentor.
So I’m driving south on I-35, blasting the defroster and squirting the windshield in order that I might sit, one-on-one, with two high school teachers in two different towns, running through a checklist with each of them, ultimately, ideally, deeming legitimate the work they do.
Getting into other people’s business is not my jam. Then again, assigning respect and value to a college education is.
A decade or so ago, I willingly agreed to be a mentor. We who sign up for the gig trade off a bit of teaching time for a bit of mentoring time. To an English teacher, the prospect of reading a a hundred fewer papers in a semester is a kind of bliss. Yes, I said back then. I will mentor.
It’s possible I had conflated mentor and Mentos and was actually thinking, “Mmmm. Candy.”
What I discovered over those years of mentoring was that, unlike the uplifting experience of eating Mentos, it left me feeling as grey as a February sky inside. Back in that era, site visits were “optional,” with no clear process set up to compensate instructors for the gas and food they’d need in order to travel to schools a few hours away, so virtually all communication took place through email and over the phone. One of the high school teachers assigned to me was phenomenal, a glittering diamond, but the other was…well…the opposite of diamond. Coal?
For two years, my dynamic with Coal was this: I’d start the semester by letting him know there were certain materials I’d need to see and review, as part of the contract between his school and mine. Coal would return neither calls nor emails. Every three days or so, I’d send him another message. Eventually, I’d get a one-liner in response, making an excuse. He was busy. Would get on it, though. In a couple of weeks.
After a couple of weeks, I’d send a reminder message and then sit in my office, humming to the melody of Jiminy Cricket’s legs sawing together. One semester, I never received any materials from this teacher. When I approached the person in charge of the mentoring program and complained about this lack, she said she’d contact the school principal. The semester ended. We all went on break. The end.
The next year, that same teacher was assigned to me. The sound of my much-put-upon sigh still echoes off Lake Superior on particularly starry nights. By the second year, I’d heard from parents and students, whom I happened to know in my personal life, about Coal. I’d heard that, even with high school instruction, he was everyone’s worst idea of a teacher–truly terrible at his job. That he was teaching classes for our college was mortifying. I hounded him endlessly for copies of his syllabi, samples of assignments, a peek at student work. Behind the scenes, I pumped the person in charge of the mentoring program, asking what the consequences were for not adhering to the agreement. Possibly, the college could decide not to renew its contract with this school in the future, which would mean the college would lose money. Possibly, a different teacher could have been asked to teach the college classes, had the school been in a bigger town, where there was more than one teacher as the option. Ultimately, the bottom line was that he could continue to stall, continue to be crap, and continue to compromise the education received by the students under his tutelage.
Through sheer, unwavering, constant pestering, I finally squeezed some materials out of Coal. In the last week of the semester, an envelope arrived, and in it were his syllabi and some examples of student papers that he’d already graded. The idea was that I could look them over, decide how I would have graded those papers, and then we could discuss any discrepancies in our perceptions of the quality. Generally, this is an extremely productive exercise for teachers to undertake; the discussion of “why” behind assigning a score is hugely helpful for all involved.
So Coal sent me a handful of essays to which he’d assigned “A”s and “B”s.
After I read them, I had to rest my forehead on the little wooden table–the grading table–in my office.
If I squinted really hard and played make believe in my head, these were “D” papers. At best.
Not only was it frustrating to discover how highly he was valuing low-quality writing and thinking, it was frustrating that his grades had already been assigned, and even if I objected to them, there was no recourse. Crushingly, the high school teacher’s grades were submitted for college credit, and under the agreement between our schools, they were filed using the mentor’s name. In short, students whose work I would have failed were assigned superlative grades with my name attached to them.
Worst of all was this: well-intentioned students had received a faulty message about their performance. Excited to take college classes, they were given the impression that they were rocking post-secondary education. Under another teacher’s eye, many of them probably would have been. However, the entire thing served a colossal injustice to the students, and that lodged in my craw.
The next year, I asked to relinquish my mentor role. Gratefully, I added another section of writing students to my teaching load and graded those hundred+ student essays each semester, having learned an important lesson about myself: I’ll gladly assume masses of fruitful work rather than pour energy into inauthentic rigmarole. So devoted to this concept was I that I checked into paying for a run of a few thousand t-shirts with those words on the front, thinking I’d hand them out at the mall on sunny days to shoppers heading into J.C. Penney, but when the lady at the silk-screening shop wanted to add an extra “a” into the middle of rigmarole, the deal fell apart.
So how, then, did I end up driving around Minnesota on a grey February day?
Always, the nuanced explanation is complicated. The Twitter version, however, would read: Enrollment is down; sections were cancelled; teachers still need to fulfill their credit loads; fewer papers to grade = heaven. The follow-up tweet to this would summarize: Contractual obligations intersected with a fatigued instructor.
Fortunately, in the interim between the last time I mentored and this go-round, the program has been significantly improved. There is a new director heading the program, and not a single duckling waddles out of her well-organized rows. There is process. There is paperwork. There are funds. There are mandatory site visits. There is a checklist. There is accountability.
Still, there are no Mentos.
Fortunately, on that mucky February day, as I close in on the school of the first mentee high school teacher, I exercise one of my superpowers by getting completely turned around, needing to stop at a gas station for directions, and using the opportunity to purchase day-brightening treats (Mentos + donuts). After driving back in the direction from which I’ve just come, crossing over the highway, put-putting down the town’s main street–ruffled awnings galore!–and spotting a hulking brick building, I park in the lot near all the other cars. Picking my way through slate-colored slush, I head towards the nearest door.
It has a sign on it, a notification that all doors except the southwest one are locked during the day. I need to head to the southwest set of doors and get buzzed in there.
…as though I have any slip of a sense which way is southwest. There’s a reason I pursued a career that lets me read Alice Munro, the masterful short story writer who once famously asserted, “No thinking person should ever know which way is southwest.”
The building is massive, so I climb back into my car and drive around two long expanses of wall, eventually parking by the town’s post office, which is across from the high school. From that vantage point, I spy a different set of doors! A set of doors with the same notification taped to them! Just as I start to despair that I’ve plunged into an alternate reality where southwest is their heaven–an invisible promise, always just out of sight–I realize there’s yet another corner around which I haven’t yet checked, and after trotting another few hundred yards, I discover: damn if it isn’t SOUTHWEST. Praise the God of Cardinal Directions. I sought, and I did find.
Between getting lost and then getting loster, I’m ten minutes late. I hit the buzzer, leaning towards the intercom, ready explain my purpose, but after a two-second delay, a friendly voice crackles, “C’mon in, Hon!”
It’s swell to be inside a school I’ve never seen before, especially one where I’m anointed “Hon” before they’ve learned the reality of me. Gawking at posters and trophies, I make my way to the second floor where I spy the main office. There, I ask the pony-tailed secretary where the hell I can find the teacher in question; in response, she darts from behind the high counter, her tennis shoes squeaking on the linoleum, jerks her chin my way, and leads me all of ten feet across the hall.
Two hours into this professional outing, and I have yet to actually do anything exceptmentos. Felicitously, mentoring plays to my strengths.
Sitting behind her desk is an English instructor who, at 11:00 a.m., is done teaching for the day. She has reached the stage of her career where she’s in partial retirement, so her load consists of two classes, both of them college-level. She grabs a folding chair, and I settle in across from her, noting that her bright clothing reminds me of a summer dress I wear in the hottest months and that she seems completely without issues. Her easy confidence stems from decades of facing the battles and joys of the classroom and from a delighted sense that she’s almost done, nearing the day when she’ll head out that door, and not necessarily the southwest one, for the last time.
We chat for about 40 minutes. Clipped together on her desk is a packet of papers–the syllabi, assignments, strategies–that she uses in the two classes she is teaching for the college. When I ask to take a look at the textbook she is using for the literature class she’s teaching, I have to use both hands to heft the thing onto my lap; I ask if she’s ever actually weighed it. Easily, it’s more than eight pounds. As she explains the readings they’ve been doing–we both emit a relieved “Whew!” when she notes they’ve just finished Beowulf–I leaf through the immense text. She did not choose this book; it’s the one her high school requires for the high school version of the class. Luckily, the contents of the book qualify as college-level, too, although I marvel at how large, crude font can make even “The Wife’s Lament” feel like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
I enjoy talking to this seasoned teacher who is still rocking the classroom while also admitting, “I always loved my job. But now that I teach only two classes–to the cream of the crop–and I’m done dealing with special ed and behavioral problems and the more challenging students, I really love my job!” She has 5 students in one of her sections, 9 in the other. A faint moan of envy is born in my diaphragm.
What I like best about this meeting is what she and I don’t say: I am just one more thing she has to deal with. I understand this feeling. Much of my life, of all our lives, if we’re honest, is built around squaring our shoulders and facing tasks that are necessary but not likely to be folded into our hearts for safe-keeping. From paying bills to returning library books to calling someone back to watching someone check items off a list and then ask for our signatures, substantial amounts of energy are poured into drawing a line through the things that need to get done. My visit is the equivalent of returning a library book for this gracious teacher, and I appreciate that she and I are meeting each other with smiles that scrub a shine onto the subtext: “I am being patient and pleasant because this is something I have to do, and then it will be over, and then I will go get something to eat and talk to people who mean something to me, the real me, outside of this professional construct.”
We are good together in the room for 40 minutes, and it is lovely to see her face light up when she talks about her grand-daughter, but then the feeling of “Okay, we can be done” creeps in, and so it is over, and that is great. I return the textbook to her desk, offer to put away the folding chair, gather up the sheaf of papers, make sure she’s signed the form, and wave my way out of the room.
Walking in a southwesterly direction, I watch students in the high school corridor mess around at their lockers, and my stomach growls. I feel a roast beef sandwich calling to me–“Jawsin, I here for you!” (roast beef sandwiches favor baby talk). Ten minutes later, I watch a 50-year-old Hardee’s worker with two sleeves of tattoos and four rubber bands in his ponytail repeatedly yell “I’M MISSING MY HOT HAM!” and marvel that my per diem from the college barely covers a fast food sandwich and drink. Having said yes to the curly fries would surely have broken the bank.
As is always the case with a roast beef sandwich, no matter how towering the pile of meat, it disappears too quickly, leaving me a few odd moments of dickin’ around in my car before I need to hit the highway again and head towards the day’s second location. I amuse myself by looking in the rear view mirror and realizing I am wearing both underwear and lipstick, which is significant adulting for this arrested juvenile. Then I visit social media to relate the tale of the 50-year-old Hardee’s worker. Watching him in his element had not been just one more thing I had to deal with. Standing there, clutching the plastic chip with my order number on it, I had been completely committed to the moment I inhabited. Observing that frenetic man dancing to fast food choreography under the heat lamps, feeling my eyes crinkle as he hollered about his hot ham, I had definitely felt the moment folding into my heart for safe-keeping.
Fueled by protein and people watching, I am ready to move on and drive another 70 miles. This time I let my phone, not printed directions, serve as guide, a clever strategy that lands me at the next school early–allowing me to text Byron a bemused “I’m here 14 minutes early. I am unaccustomed to this feeling.”
The second school is a newer, slicker building than the one I’d visited earlier. In drawing up the plans for this school, the architect, a fan of Alice Munro, had ordered, “There shall be no southwest. Simply make a front to the thing, and put doors there.” Blessing the architect, I walk in, talk to a nice lady through something like bullet-proof glass, negotiate the need for me to run out to my car and grab a photo ID, and eventually get buzzed into the main office where I lounge on a mauve chair until the final bell of the day rings, thus freeing up the mentee teacher to come retrieve me. Before he arrives, a gangly teenager slumps into the office and mutters to a cardigan-clad assistant, “My mom was going to drop off a bag for me.” When he is handed the bag, I spot tennis shoes. I hope he plays volleyball. This kid needs a team sport.
After he shuffles out, a perky 16-year-old and her best accessory, a boyfriend, enter the office. “I need to pick up my balloon and flower bouquets!” she chirps. As she floats out into the end-of-day crush of her peers, held aloft by 12 helium balloons, flanked by a boyfriend carrying a mass of flowers, she is proud, glamorous, the best-possible version of A Birthday Girl.
“I just hope she doesn’t ride the bus,” notes the assistant.
“Nope, she has a ride,” chimes in another secretary. “Her mom called and told me before she had all that stuff delivered.”
My eyes crinkle again. So Mom had balloons and flowers delivered to the school and now, most likely, is sitting outside in her car, providing them with a ride home. There are infinite kinds of nonsense in the world. Between the joys of hot hams and chauffeured balloon bouquets, it hardly feels like February.
Just then, a lanky man in his mid-thirties sporting a plaid flannel shirt enters the office holding a travel tumbler. If he walks the halls holding a beverage container, this man is clearly committed to his beverages. He is the second mentee teacher, and I like him already.
In his classroom, we sit side-by-side in student desks, which creates a very different vibe from the day’s earlier “I am behind the teacher’s desk while you are in a folding chair across from me” interaction. He offers me tea. He could be Pete Seeger’s grandson.
There isn’t much I need from this guy, outside of a face-to-face connection. Months earlier, during the summer, I had received materials from him when he was gaining approval to teach a new literature course as part of the college in the high schools program. He had wowed me back in August; his syllabus and semester calendar made me salivate with interest. As I approved his proposal, I also typed, “Pretty much, I want to be a student in your class.” In the intervening months, we have emailed a few times, and the previous week, he had arranged for me to be given access to his school’s online platform, through which student work is submitted and graded. This way, I am able to see both his assignments and students’ responses to them.
We talk for almost an hour, and I feel happy for both his wife and daughter, that they get to have him in their lives. I feel happy for his students–they who draw fantastic anthropomorphized horses onto the whiteboard, drawings that will remain for days because their teacher can’t bear to see them erased. This thoughtful teacher has many questions for me. We consider how he can know, for sure, that his grading is at a college level. We talk about how he will observe an online section of one of the courses he will soon be teaching for our college. We talk about textbooks, feedback, seeing plays, career development. As our conversation winds down, he asks, almost plaintively, “So can you come visit again?” I am unsure, as the college will fund only one visit. However, we can communicate through email, and we can definitely do some “norming” where we read and respond to the same pieces of student work. We can continue to foster this collegial relationship.
Pete Seeger’s grandson assures that he will be folded into my heart for safe-keeping when he directs me to a coffee shop on my way out of town. Just as I’m ordering a breve and a cranberry-white-chocolate scone that will curl my toes with pleasure, Pete Seeger’s grandson is emailing me a thank you and a link to a Fresh Air episode that worked particularly well for him in the classroom. Later, when I read the email, I will grin at the monitor
and flash back through the golden moments of that grey, flat day.
Splatters on the windshield.
A happy grandmother, vibrant, loving literature and the idea that she is almost done.
Roast beef. Hot ham.
A gentle educator, thriving on tea and teens.
The day redeems more than February for me.