Five in Five

Butt Hurt: Tuesday, February 28

Gack! Here I’d hauled my cookies downtown and raced breathlessly into the lobby, readying myself for a much-needed yoga class, only to be greeted by a sign on the counter announcing a class cancellation. 

What made it worse was that I’d known the teacher couldn’t find a sub and there would be no class, but I’d totally forgotten — my brain full of Jessie Diggins, what to pack for 57-degree temperatures in Tennessee, grading drafts of research papers, and wondering why the city doesn’t crack down on off-leash dogs. 

Well, as long as I was ready to work out, I figured I might as well get return for effort and head upstairs to the Boot Camp class due to start in ten minutes. 

The Boot Camp class I hadn’t attended in more than a year.

The one that leaves me unable to climb stairs for three days afterwards unless I moan and pound my quads with every trudging step.

That one.


But other than the plank walk and the open-mouthed scream lap around the track when I was yoked to a hyper-fit dude named Alex as he dragged my dead weight behind him at a speed faster than I’ve ever run before, I handled the hour.

Now it’s today.

The day after Boot Camp.

Friends, my ass is yappin’. 

I cannot sit, stand, squat, bend, lunge, or move a fingernail without oooooohhhhmaaaannnn. The only thing worse than the day after Boot Camp, in fact, is two days after Boot Camp, which means the oy-vey is getting worse by the hour. Do not tap me tomorrow, even lightly like a feather’s breath, or I might punch you by mistake. 

My ass hurt when I awoke and sat at the computer to grade student work; it yelped when I poached my morning egg; it hated me when I crouched next to drawers to paw for clothes; it yoiked when I climbed stairs to a classroom at the college where a candidate for a position in our department was about to present his teaching demonstration.

Seriously, it was noon, yet the crook of my rear felt 28 hours in.

But then. You guys. As I sat in the classroom, waiting to absorb the presentation of a guy who really wants a job, my glutes relaxed — perhaps to balance out the wild racing of my mind. See, the candidate, before he started explaining how he would teach the concept of “an essay” to developmental students, came around the room and shook everyone’s hand. When he got to me, I said my name, but even as I spoke, he was nodding and waiting, a comment prepared.

“Oh, I know you, Jocelyn. You were my teacher in 1997 at Riverland Community College; we read Memoirs of a Geisha…” — my Novels class! — “…and I still remember the attendance policy on your syllabus told us we could never miss a class for a Beavis & Butthead marathon, but it would be okay to miss if it was for a Ren & Stimpy marathon.”

How could an ass not go soft in the midst of such an unexpected, strangely delightful moment? How could a butt wallow in pain when an English teacher stood in front of an English teacher and connected their dots? Sitting there, shaking this guy’s hand, feeling life inchworm — tail end squinching up to meet the head — my below cheeks went slack as my facial cheeks flushed red. I wasn’t embarrassed, but something about a forgotten past manifesting into a very real present welled up me in a way that made my face red. Maybe it was because my dean and colleagues witnessed the exchange; maybe it was because I’d seen his name announced as a finalist and had a blip of “Do I know that name? Nah.” Maybe it was because his words took me back to a time when I felt more secure in the classroom than I do now, twenty-one years later when my cage has been rattled enough that its bars are less secure.

At any rate, I blushed fully while my tush became mush.

Ahhh, that felt good. For a full half hour as I listened to this fine young teacher explain himself, from the way he teaches essay writing to his personal disclosures about his father’s death, rebelling against his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, finding salvation in the classroom, my rear reveled. When he randomly interjected a quick quip about the way a colleague’s nephews used to call me “Batgirl,” my brain tripped down twelve different paths. At the same time, my hand wrote feedback about the teaching presentation.

And then it was over.

Buttocks re-tautened, I got in the car, left campus, and took myself out for some air at my favorite place to ski. The temperatures were warm, too warm really, but I wanted to unfurl fully into the lovely gift that is two feet of newly fallen snow. 


Getting out of the car taxed my ass, as did every two-inch movement necessary to put on boots, hat, coat, gloves, and skis — repeated again fifteen minutes later when I returned to swap out skis, from waxed to waxless, because this was a very clumpy day in the moods of snow.

I wanted to move my body to help the soreness recede for even an hour. I wanted to move my body so my brain could process the emotions of seeing, out of the blue, someone whose life I had impacted when I was 30 and he was 18, someone whose life had gone on to mimic my own. I wanted to move my body because every last thing on the planet feels better when I do. I wanted to move my body because doing so is a gratitude.

Most importantly, I wanted to move my body because I wanted to follow in the steps of someone who affected me during a formative time, wanted to practice the technique of someone whose abilities moved me, wanted to flex my ass in tribute to someone who showed me a new way of being: Johannes Klaebo, that gold-medal Norwegian who takes hills like he’s out for a run with skis on his feet.

My ass is yappin’.

My mind spirals repetitively through memory.

Somehow, the two are linked.

If you care to share, click a square:

Navigationally Challenged

A couple of nights ago, we sat in a “preparing your child for high school” meeting at the middle school.

Several times, the speaker referred to the date of an open house “which was in the email we sent out last week.”

Leaning towards Byron, I whispered, “Did you see a date in that email?” No, he did not recall seeing a date. “We should stop and tell her on the way out, then, that they didn’t include the date, so they should send out a follow-up email.”

Before we did that, however, Byron whipped out his phone and scrolled through past emails. Ah, the date for the open house HAD been in the original message — in an attachment that neither of us had opened. 


It seems to peak around the tenth day of class.

I log in, and both the email and the “Ask Jocelyn” folders within my online classes are peppered with messages from students. Although the wording and nuances vary, the essence of each message is the same: “How do I know what I’m supposed to be doing?”

In response, although the wording and nuances vary, the essence of all my replies is the same: “Take a look around the class. Maybe start with the announcement that greets you on the homepage.”


In November of 2016, Outside magazine published an article by David Kushner about an American man, Noel Santillan, who decided to take a much-needed vacation in Iceland. After landing at the Keflavik airport at sunrise, he hopped into his rental car, input the address of his hotel in Reykjavik into the car’s GPS system, and began driving the forty kilometers towards the city.

After about an hour, Santillan started to worry; he didn’t see anything that looked like a city. However, he was committed to this adventure, so on he drove, following the directions given to him by the GPS.

By mid-afternoon, jet-lagged, understanding that he was off course — “There was no one else on the road, but at that point there wasn’t much else to do but follow the line on the screen to its mysterious end. ‘I knew I was going to get somewhere,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know where else to go.'” — Santillan pulled over in a small village and walked into a hotel. After he handed the receptionist his reservation, she burst into laughter.

Santillan was standing in a village on the coast of Iceland, 380 kilometers north of Reykjavik.



Good evening, I was just curious as to when you are going to give out information on the topics for the papers.

If it is a choose your own thing, or you assign the topic. That is all.


All the dates for everything in the whole class are on the Semester Calendar on the Content page (under Introductory Information); I have suggested everyone print it out. Also, you can click through the weeks of the class on the Content page and see all the assignments for the rest of the class. It’s all there…including the Research Paper Assignment sheet (there is only one “big” paper in the class, due at the end).
So click around, and you’ll get a sense of what will be due and when. All the activities build up to the big paper at the end, including shorter “papers” of writing a Brief Summary Report and a Research Proposal.
Thanks for checking!
After the hotel receptionist stopped laughing long enough to post about Noel Santillan on her Facebook account, word of his epic lost-ness spread. In short order, he became a bit of a sensation in Iceland, posing for pictures, doing interviews, eating comped meals, taking free tours of museums. Most exciting of all, the marketing manager of the world-famous Blue Lagoon hot springs and spa offered Santillan a free visit. 
The Blue Lagoon is such a popular attraction that its address comes preloaded in rental cars’ GPSes, After half an hour of following the directions he was given, Santillan reached the address and parked. He was in front of a convention center on an empty road.
Once again, because he turned off his brain and fell victim to automation bias — “the human tendency to trust machines more than ourselves” — Noel Santillan had no idea where he was.


Are we supposed to have done a discussion question prompt this week? Also, would you like us to keep track of the three week rotation, or will you tell us the specific Mondays that we are supposed to post on? Or… I am just thinking… is this on our calendar for the class?


You are not supposed to have done a discussion prompt for this week. And the three-week rotation is and will be laid out in three places:

1) The Semester Calendar (under Introductory Information on the Content page — I asked everyone to print it or transfer all assignment due dates to whatever calendar system you use)

2) Within my instructions for all the assignments that are on the Content page

3) And each week, on the main course homepage, within my weekly announcement, there will be a listing of what you need to do, along with deadlines. So, for example, you can look at the current announcement (this week’s starts with the eulogy my friend Nina gave at her dad’s funeral and ends with the assignments for the week) to see what all is due by this Sunday night at 10 p.m.

I’m glad you asked; I don’t want you to be confused or uncertain!


The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists who shed light on human beings’ “internal GPSes” by discovering two new types of cells in the brain: place cells in the hippocampus and grid cells in the entorhinal cortex. Both types of cells contribute to spatial problem solving and recognition — to the creation of cognitive mapping systems.

Basically, the more we move through the world tracking where we are, the better we get at “dead reckoning,” taking sightings, recognizing familiar paths, correcting ourselves when our location doesn’t make logical sense given our understanding of where we are in a larger picture. As David Kushner notes of these scientists, “Their work has profound implications — not only for our understanding of how we orient ourselves but for how our increasing reliance on technology might be undercutting the system we carry around in our heads.” 



For each of the free writing exercise that we have to do for each chapter, do we continue to submit these “journals” into the folder called “Reading Journal Annotations?” 


I’m so glad you’re asking! You, in fact, will not be doing each freewriting exercise for each chapter, and you will only be doing journal annotations (mostly to learn that this way of interacting with a text exists and that you might want to use it in the future) next week. So there is only one document you will ever submit to the “Reading Journal Annotations” folder.

If you want a preview of everything you WILL be doing, you can skim the Semester Calendar (or print it and hang it from your ear like a huge earring) and take a gander at everything that will be due, along with the due dates.

Thanks for checking in on this.


When we rely on our own brains to navigate, the challenge activates cells to the point of growth. Literally, the size of the brain increases in those who don’t just stick to known routes, in those who memorize new paths and ways of moving throughout space. 

According to David Kushner:

University College London neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire has used magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of London taxi drivers, finding that their hippocampi increased in volume and developed more neuron-dense gray matter as they memorized the layout of the city. Navigate purely by GPS and you’re unlikely to receive any such benefits. In 2007, Veronique ­Bohbot, a neuroscientist at McGill ­University and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, completed a study comparing the brains of spatial navigators, who develop an understanding of the relationships between landmarks, with stimulus-response navigators, who go into a kind of autopilot mode and follow habitual routes or mechan­ical directions, like those coming from a GPS. Only the spatial navigators showed significant activity in their hippocampi ­during a navigation exercise that allowed for different orientation strategies. They also had more gray matter in their hippocampi than the stimulus-response navigators, who don’t build cognitive maps.

Put another way: if we push ourselves to decipher unfamiliar landscapes instead of sticking to the known and the easy, we get smarter.


Student: While reading the (very interesting) assigned text, I simply wrote notes and annotations on a legal pad. My question is this: in what form should this assignment be typed and submitted? Should I simply type out my notes as I wrote them or should I rearrange them into more coherent sentences and paragraphs with a little more finesse? Thanks!

Me: Probably the easiest way to communicate what I’m looking for would be to direct you to Week Two on the Content page; there you can see an example of this assignment as completed by a student in a previous semester! Also, if you’d like another example, there’s the one I refer to in my instructions on pp. 107-112 in your textbook.


Wikipedia has an entry for “Death by GPS,” a phenomenon common enough that the phrase has been coined. Fortunately, more often it’s the case that lost people — individuals with limited experience in creating cognitive maps, whose hippocampi are measurably smaller, who put faith in screens and computerized voices over noting landmarks and sensing their position within a larger context — have near-misses or become the protagonists in sheepishly recounted stories. In the summer of 2016, The Guardian published an article, “Death by GPS: are satnavs changing our brains?”, detailing multiple stories like that of Noel Satillan. There were the Japanese tourists who drove their car into the ocean in Australia; the woman who drove her car into a lake in Bellevue, Washington, because her GPS told her it was a road; the woman who was aiming for Belgium and only realized she was in Croatia when she looked at the language on street signs; the Swedish couple who were certain they’d arrived at the island of Capri but who were, instead, in an industrial town called Carpi, never wondering why they hadn’t crossed a bridge or needed to take a boat to get to the “island.”



I am in the Emu group and I read that there is a three week rotation between: favorite discussion, group discussion, and discussion question posts. But I couldn’t find anything about which weeks I will have to complete which task? Did I just miss or skip over it? Also I was wondering when the presentations are due, I am assuming you will let us know after we have have signed up for a specific book? Sorry to bother you, but please let me know.

Thank you, have a great day!


I’m glad you’re asking!

If you go to the Content page, you can look under Introductory Information for the Semester Calendar. That document tells you what each Wild Animal group will be doing each week for the entire semester. It’s also laid out, week by week, on the Content page in my instructions there. As well, each week’s announcement on the main homepage will tell you. 

As far as presentations go, all the due dates are listed on the Semester Calendar, too, along with being listed in the weekly instructions on the Content page (and they will be in each week’s announcement on the homepage). Your one chance to choose the book you do your presentation on is now — I’m still waiting for a few more volunteers on The Moon Is Low — but after this first book, I’ll be assigning everyone presentation topics on specific books!

Thanks for checking in. In summary: use the documents on the Content page, and read the weekly announcement, and you’ll be golden.


In 2003, a heavy fog suddenly descended on Nantucket Sound. Disoriented, hopelessly lost, two young kayakers died. A half mile away, John Huth, having made note of wind and wave directions as he started out that day, was able to paddle his kayak — blindly but correctly — back to shore. 

After that day, distraught that he lived while others died, Huth found a kind of therapy in immersing himself in traditional orienteering techniques. Even more, he wrote a book, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, and began teaching a class on ancient navigational methods, both of which, according to writer David Kushner, make “. . . a powerful case for learning how to get where you need to go simply by paying attention to the environment around you.”


In my online classes, it’s difficult to remain upbeat and patient when I’ve already spent hours creating and posting documents intended to provide clarity. For example, the tenth day of class — when confusion seems at a maximum — occurs during the second week of the semester. And yet from day one, the entire class is there for them, already revealed, completely ready for digestion.

For example, during Week Two the announcement on the homepage says:

So, during the second half of week, please complete Assignments #5-7:

#5–Read Chapter 3 in your Veit and Gould textbook. Savor it. Roll around with all that fun prose.

#6–Read “Pressure and Competition: Academic, Extracurricular, and Parental” (pp. 119-125) and write at least five annotations per the “Keeping a Reading Journal” example on pp. 107-112; your five “reading journal” annotations are due to Assignments by Sunday at 10 p.m.

#7–Participate in the whole-class “What Meets the Eye” (pp. 191-198) discussion; this means you should post your own freewriting and then respond to at least two classmates’ freewritings by Sunday at 10 p.m. I urge you to remember that your posts really need to be well developed and well edited. Put some thought and time into your posts, and make sure you proofread them (no text messaging-type writing, either…please: no LOL usages!).

Supplementally, there is this from the Semester Calendar (which, in case you don’t recall, is under Introductory Information on the Content page. I thought you’d be tracking this shit by now, GENTLE READER):

Week Two–(January 16 through January 22)

Assignments #5-7, explained in greater detail on the Content page

Read Chapter 3, “Strategies for Reading”    

Read “Pressure and Competition: Academic, Extracurricular, and Parental” (pp. 119-125) and write at least five annotations per the “Keeping a Reading Journal” example on pp. 107-112; your five “reading journal” annotations are due to Assignments (this was previously called the “Dropbox) by Sunday at 10 p.m. 

Read “What Meets the Eye” (pp. 191-198) and freewrite for fifteen minutes in response to the ideas presented in this essay; then participate in the discussion on these essays (post freewriting and responses to classmates by Sunday at 10 p.m.)

And then there’s the listing of the week’s various instructions, also on the Content page. Students can — in a beautiful dream world where whoopee pies are calorie free, tubes of lipstick are tossed to onlookers at parades, and no one ever needs an alarm clock — click on each link and read my detailed instructions for every last individual assignment:

What’s more, in an initial effort to get students to seek out the helpful documents, I have them take a quiz the first week of class in which they answer questions such as, “You will have a big research paper due towards the end of this course. Referring to the Semester Calendar that is located under the heading Introductory Information on the Content page, look for the date when the rough draft of this paper will be due. What date will the rough draft be due?” 

Within the landscape of the class, students have been given cues, sign posts, lodestars, street signs, constellations, landmarks. Thus, I feel well justified when I have to inhale slowly…one…two…three…four…lungs are filling on five…six…seven…pushing into eight…nine…TEN…before I reply to each “How do I know what I’m supposed to do?”

It should be easy. They need only take some time to stare at the links on the screen in front of them and then do some clicking and reading.

Everything is there, if only they know how to look.


Ancient Norse explorers divided the day into eight sections, each corresponding to a section of the horizon; the spot on the horizon smack in the middle of any of the eight directions was called a daymark (dagmark). In such a way, Scandinavians associated the passing of hours with what they could see in the world around them.

Current online college students are presented with a toolbar across the top of the classroom, a series of five links containing drop-down menus. At eye-line as they sit in front of their computers are these visual “classmarks”: Content, Materials, Communication, Assessments, Resources. The learning curve, for brains used to being told where to go when navigating a new land, requires paying attention to the markers in a way that engages their hippocampi.

Unfortunately, for brains accustomed to instant gratification, navigational confusion is quickly followed by impulse that precludes the engagement of the hippocampus: they send the teacher a message.


Mostly, I am able to remain patient with students because I have empathy for their confusion.

Always, I’ve had a terrible sense of direction, have called myself “spatially challenged.” Reliably, when in a new place — heck, when in a place I’ve been many times before — I get lost. To me, GPS, which I rarely have used, is just another method of landing me in Borneo when all I needed was a dozen eggs from the Super One.

Trust: I will NEVER excel at covering the shortest distance between two points.

A fortunate result of a lifetime of being lost is that I’m relatively comfortable with having no idea where I am. Floating randomly around impossible geographies as darkness falls is just another Tuesday to me. Although my hippocampus is undoubtedly smaller than a single tear of panicked desperation, it has grown enough over the decades that I now know to stop myself and take a few seconds of reckoning when I’m running on a new system of trails. Looking at a map before heading out gives me a broad sense of the route, but stopping at every intersection, turning around to see from another perspective what I’ve just passed, and making note of what letter of the alphabet or celebrity face the tree branches resemble has saved me more than once.


An article in Directions Magazine explains that landmarks have: 

use as organizing features to “anchor” segments of space; use as location identifiers, as to help decide what part of a city or region one is in; and use as choice points, or places where changes in direction are needed when following a route. In the latter cases, on-route landmarks may actually be choice points or may “prime” a decision – such as “turn left after the church.” In an off-route situation, a landmark may provide information about relative location, distance, and direction – as in “if you can see the tower on your left, you’ve made a wrong turn and have gone too far.”

The same article recognizes that some landmarks, the famous ones, are communal while others are person-specific and not necessarily known to others; think “favorite fishing hole” or “the bench where I cried when Idris asked me to move in with him.” This type of landmark is idiosyncratic.


I connect with the world through its idiosyncrasies. Many of us do, including people pursuing college degrees.

However, online learning platforms are deliberately free of idiosyncrasy; in the interests of clarity and logic, their design is standardized and uniform — built around communal landmarks. For students whose brains track idiosyncratic landmarks more readily, the class appears devoid of signposts . . . even though there are all those easy links right in front of their eyes, begging for a good clicking, all those laboriously typed instructions from the teacher, begging for a fair reading. 

For the brains in the class that nod knowingly when they are told “turn right at the huge rock that looks like Richard Nixon’s profile,” the carefully laid out learning space is a maze where all the walls are white and fifteen feet tall. 

It is these students whose messages fill my Inbox. It is these students with whom I remain patient.

I have to. I’m the person whose husband told her of an article in Outside magazine about how our brains are losing their abilities as “wayfarers” due to technology,

the person who then sat in front of the computer for half an hour the next day, typing in every possible search query, 

the person who could not find the article to which her husband had directed her attention,

the person who had to text her husband at work and ask:


Now it’s your turn, Gentle Reader:

Where in my online course can you find the Semester Calendar?


If you care to share, click a square:

I Suck at Badges. Reading Emails. Following Rules.

“Do you have your badge with you?” He smoothed his lapel, his gum chewing at odds with suit and tie. 

“Yeah, I do,” I assured him. “It’s buried somewhere in my bag, but if you hang on a minute, I’ll set this other stuff down and dig for it.” My arms were laden with folders, grade book, stapler, pens, and the invisible but weighty emotional baggage of sixteen weeks. Next to my feet sat a maroon satchel containing dry erase markers, staples, paper, keys, phone, lipsticks, bandaids, snacks, clips, and extra ballpoints. “Do you want me to find it?” I asked the man helping me gain access to my classroom. 

“No, that’s okay,” he eased back, grabbing the badge hanging from a lanyard strung around his neck and swiping it in front of the door.

Then, after a pause, he couldn’t help himself: “But do you have your badge? I’d like to see if it works.”

As we negotiated, dozens of students pushed past, nerves hustling them to seats so that they could boot up the computers and get ready to write. 

It was final exam day. We were running late. To everyone’s surprise, the classroom had been locked, leaving students milling in the hallway, wondering if the teacher was going to show, joking that maybe the final would be canceled. 

The teacher showed. The exam wasn’t canceled. 

Unfortunately, the teacher had no key.


When it comes to my job, there isn’t enough Me to engage with All.

Many of my colleagues have more adaptable circuitry and thrive when they explore the breadth and depth of All. Teaching? Just go in there and do it. Meetings? A meaningful way to make an impact. Changes of staff in the various campus offices? Chances for new friends. Updates in policies? Not hard to track; just read the emails! Planned social hours? FUN! It’s great when we hang out and get to know each other better!

Not so for me. Teaching is exhausting; meetings of questionable worth; revolving personnel impossible to track; new policies a buzzing that will change pitch again in a few years; planned socializing an outright hardship.

Confoundingly, I present as expansive, breadthy, and depthy, yet the truth is I am someone who has X to give, and in my equation, there are seven-foot-thick cement walls forming parentheses around X.

Indeed, if I hope for career longevity, I have to pick and choose which things matter the most, which things dovetail with my abilities, which things not only tap but also fill. I have X. Work pushes for All, striking chinks into my walls.

Many days end with me, squatting, piling sloughed off cement chips onto my open palm. There. I stacked them into a little tower, I reassure myself. 


He stood in the door frame, peering into the classroom with curiosity, his eyes alert, watching with wonder the energy of students settling into their seats. Thanking him again for his assistance while dragging a trash can to the doorway and using it to prop the thing open — “in case anyone needs to run out in the next couple hours and use the bathroom” — I promised the man in the navy suit I would dig out my badge and test its efficacy before leaving the classroom that day. 

Shucking off my thanks, he asked one last time, “Do you usually meet in this classroom?” YES. “And you’re scheduled to have a final exam in here right now?” Um, YES. “And the door has never been locked before?” 

No, never in the entire semester of class meetings held in this room, on this day of the week, at this time, had the room when locked when we arrived. Never before had we been locked out. Of course, haha, isn’t it just the way that something unusual would happen on the very last day, when everyone’s already stressed out?


As much as I projected bright and confident to the suit wearer, I felt sheepish that I hadn’t remembered faculty badges are programmed so they can open classroom doors with a quick swipe. I mean, months before I had read the email about it.

Skimmed it.

As I hit “Delete.”

I was probably eager to move onto the string of student emails — the daily peppering of “Could you maybe…?” “I messed up…” “When you told us to _____, did you mean…?” “My grandma…” “I don’t have the textbook…” “My meds aren’t….” “I have to be in court…” “How do you cite a government document when there is no author?”

Even more, although the gum chewer wasn’t overt about it, I knew I was busted.

I’d also read the emails about staff and faculty being urged (some might say “required”) to wear their badges at all times while on campus.

Here’s something really interesting that goes on behind my thick cement walls, though: we don’t wear badges and name tags there. Rather, we use words to say our names to each other. We look at each other and talk. Or, if a stranger breathlessly topples over the top of the 15-foot-high barrier and stirs up a puff of dust as he lands at our feet, we might just pat his shoulder and point, wordlessly, to the barrel of beer next to the blacksmith’s forge. We don’t need to know his name; he can just be there. Maybe later we’ll get to know him. Without the gimmick of a name tag. Moreover, if we get brave and drop the drawbridge so we — in full armor! — can gallop our fine steeds across the moat, say, to a fundraiser in a fancy house or to a cocktail party, we know immediately that we’ve made a terrible decision if we spot “Hello, My Name Is” tags in the foyer. 

One time I pinned a stack of fifty such tags to some William Morris wallpaper with my lance before clanking out in a rage.

I do understand why a workplace might want employees to wear badges. I get it. However, I’m an ornery juvenile — or maybe I cleave to an old-fashioned notion of college dynamics; at any rate, I sidestep the policy.

My badge is in my bag.


As the man in the suit, his cud in full chew, started to turn, raised a hand to indicate his departure, I offered a suggestion.

“You know, there were a couple of classes, not just mine, waiting in the hallway when I first ran down to the administrative offices to ask if anyone had a key. That’s never happened before today. The doors have always been unlocked when we show up — until today. But when the assistant in your office, the one who handles the switchboard, tried calling Security and Maintenance to see if anyone could come help, no one answered the phone. Then she realized that they all are out of the building right now, down at the main entrance to the college, because there have been multiple accidents in the last half hour on that stretch of road heading to the stoplight. It’s super icy, I guess, and a bunch of cars have slid off or crashed into each other. It’s apparently quite a pile-up. So I’ll bet the people who usually oversee opening the classrooms are otherwise engaged.”

His eyebrows jumped off his forehead and hovered two inches above his hairline. Cars crashing and sliding at the main entrance? What?

“Yeah,” I affirmed, turning to face my students as I reiterated. “Everyone might want to use the back exit after finishing the final because the main road is a mess.” I didn’t tell them the switchboard operator had cupped a hand to her mouth while whispering confidentially, “They never put salt or dirt out there. They can’t be bothered.”

The man in the navy suit had follow-up questions, but as his mouth opened, his voice was overridden by those of the students. Just as the president of the college started to ask me for details about the crashes, a firefighting student in the second row, his face scrunched, called out, “Wait, what do you mean ‘back exit’? Where is that? How do I get to it when I’m done today?”

The president’s mouth continued to move, but he couldn’t be heard, for the tall-haired guy in the back row shouted an answer, “So, when you get in your car, you’ll follow the main road, but the other direction. You’ll want to head that way.” He gestured out the window.

Simultaneously, three other voices chimed in with instructions and commentary. 

Taking a step backwards, eager to return to his natural habitat, the president gave me a wave, and I reiterated, “I’ll be sure to test my badge, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll get it updated. Thanks again!”


Two hours later, the room was empty. As I sat marking essays, cross-referencing paper and online grade books, wondering if the tennis player was going to earn enough points to pass the class, the room went dark. I flailed my arms like an orangutan feeling the beat; the lights switched on. A few minutes later, it went dark again. I put my hands over my head and swayed back and forth, my body bending side to side. I pretended it was 1986, I was at a Boston concert, and they were playing “Amanda.” An imaginary Bic lighter reached high. The room stayed dark. 

While this felt like an insult to Boston, I knew automated technology was finicky. Sometimes it took standing and walking to trigger the sensors. Then again, maybe it was time to pack up and head to my office, a place with thick walls and eternal light. 

Before loading my arms with papers and folders, I leaned down and dug through my bag. Ah, yea, there was my badge. It was clipped to an anchor and on a retractable string. Well now, that had been very organized of me. Apparently, at some point, I had carefully attached it for easy future access. Huh.

Killing the just-back-to-life lights, stepping into the hall, I let the door fall closed against the dim, hushed classroom. Satisfyingly, it clicked as it locked. 

Then, in a moment of anticipation and “What if…?” — the best kind of moment — I waved my badge in front of the key pad.

There was another click, the sound of a door unlocking. 

It worked. All along, like Dorothy longing to get back to Kansas, I had everything I needed. I just didn’t know it.


In his suit, behind his desk, protected in the confines of his office, he was a perfect figurehead.


Even though I had the key, even though I was fully capable without involving him, I’m glad the president was pulled from the easy comfort of his snug office. I’m glad my need extracted him from his cocoon. I’m glad he rubbed shoulders with the people he serves, glad he entered the fray, glad he saw how easily his voice could be drowned by those of his constituents. It was important that he be relegated to the sidelines while the chaotic masses created an energy that rendered him superfluous. It was important that someone’s desire for help woke him to the disorder just outside his door. 

The president may have a badge.

But the rest of us — with our muddy boots and overflowing arms and shouted ideas and stressed-out hearts — together, we are the power.


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Celebrate the Student


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.


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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I would like the legislature to know I'm not overpaid

She Wouldn’t Be The First Student To Complete Her Work While “Altered”


Count to ten.

Think before replying.

That old chestnut is actually fairly hard to apply in a classroom environment–where everyone’s eyes look expectantly at the teacher, where the teacher is supposed to be the font of information, where the energy is alive, where the teacher needs to carry the momentum with snappy decision-making. Particularly with today’s students, whose internal rhythms are accustomed to quick edits, it’s important to keep things moving.

Put simply, it’s a challenge to stop and count to ten when 30 Red-Bull-infused bodies are anxious to zip their backpacks and get out the door so they can check their phones and quell their jonesing for the next data hit.

While this thrumming feeling exists in the traditional classroom, it factors into online classrooms, too. To keep students from peeling off the sides of the pack and wandering off into the proverbial desert, the teacher needs to push ahead with an agenda of “Here’s what we need to do. Here’s how we’re going to achieve it. Any questions? Okay, then: let’s get on it!”

It might help to translate this feeling of “gitterdun already” into something more familiar. Consider this: have you ever visited a blog, taken a look at the length of the current post, and thought, “Too long.” When you see all those words asking you to slow down, take your time, put the brakes on your clicking around, you either skim or abandon. For most online readers, the feeling is “I’m here to say hi, maybe pop a quick note, and then I’m cruising to the next thing. Mostly, I was just hoping to see some pretty pictures of flowers and then tear the hell out of here.”

If you feel this way as a blog reader, imagine how an eighteen-year-old feels about his college class when he’s already running late for his shift at Target. The swirl of age, school, work, and a faulty transmission keeps him in a mental mode of Movin’ On.

As a teacher to students who are always Movin’ On, blipping in and out of their classes, their attention fractured by the demands of jobs, X-box, children, romance…

it behooves me to grab their energy and channel it. Thus, my general attitude as a teacher is:

1) the work is important, so do it well and right;

2) the work has a deadline, which you must meet;

3) as soon as one assignment is done, the next begins immediately;

4) let me know when you need to scream;

4) let’s join hands and gitterdun, my frantic chums. We can do this thing and come out the better for it.

Because the best way to get 150 or 175 students from Day One all the way through to Final Exam is constant motivation–pushing through to the next assignment (promise: reflection still happens!)–

and because grading and handling questions from that many students require that the teacher not take overlong in replying, I am Quick Reply McGraw when it comes to responding to their messages. Question? Excuse? Meandering tale of fear on an elevator? Photograph of a new bike? Clarification needed? Emotional breakdown?

I read it, view it, digest it–all in the space of a few seconds–and then I hit reply.

Of course, while many of my replies simply need to say “Look at the example on p. 214 in your textbook” or “You should have thought of that last week” or “Try closing your eyes and breathing deeply” or “Those tires look like they can plow right through the Spring mud” or “I’m sorry I wasn’t clear; I was trying to say that your introduction needs a better hook–perhaps a story from your own life” or “We have free personal counselors available on campus; would you like me to help you connect with one of them?”,

other times I do need to slow down


not type

the first thing

that pops


my mind.

The response to some questions shouldn’t be efficient. The response to some questions should be typed only after I


Count to ten.

Think before replying.

This is the spot where an example might be helpful, yes?

Last night, I got a very sweet email from an online student in an eight-week class (we do sixteen weeks’ work in eight weeks, so the deadlines hit at double pace, and there is very little wiggle room). As is the case with a surprising number of online students, she is pregnant. As is the case with a surprising number of online students, she has been intending to give birth during the semester and not miss a beat. By and large, these amazing new mothers manage to handle both chapped nipples and revising their thesis statements.


This student began her message apologetically, saying she had been debating even contacting me, but ultimately, she decided I should know her C-section scheduled for next week had suddenly, due to pregnancy difficulties, been switched to today.

As in: she was emailing me a few hours before she would head to the hospital for major surgery that would forever after change her life. As in: as I type this, she’s probably coming out of the recovery room. As in: I’m very glad she let me know so I can send a bouquet of 75 rattle-shaped balloons to her room at the hospital!

The point of her email was this: she had started the rough draft of her research paper but hadn’t gotten very far yet. She had to go in for this early C-section on Wednesday. She knew the rough draft was due by noon on Thursday. She wanted to assure me that she was still certain she could get her paper done on Wednesday, after the surgery, and even if her draft truly was rough, rough, rough, she would get something posted by noon on Thursday.

After reading her message, I quickly hit reply and started typing.

As the first words flowed out of my fingertips, I stopped. Started typing again. Stopped. Made myself really stop. Count to ten.

What my Quick Reply McGraw hands had been typing was a joking, “Oh, honey, there’s no way you’re writing the rough draft of a research paper on the day you had a C-section. NO WAY. Not only are you going to be in pain and a fair bit overwhelmed by this unrelenting new world you’ve just entered, you’re going to have a bunch of visitors, and you’re going to be on a morphine drip, and you’re going to have to clasp a pillow over your stomach at the merest hint of a sneeze. Oh, and then there’s that little thing called Your New Baby, and I don’t know if you’re planning on breastfee…”


Just STOP, McGraw.

What we had here, in this student’s message, was not only a lovely, almost-plaintive moment of “I’m a little scared, but you can count on me” from this young woman, a moment of sharing, a moment when she harnessed her voice and announced that she had big things coming,

we also had a teachable moment for the teacher.

This message didn’t need a quick, all-knowing reply. This message deserved a more measured response, one that acknowledged her excellent intentions rather than rolling out an overbearing “Well, I’ve been there, sweetheart, and let me tell you…” tone.

Turns out, ten seconds of silence is just long enough to tame a blowhard.

I took my hands off the keyboard, thought about what kinds of words might serve her best. Simple. Positive. Affirming her plan. Leaving the door open for commiseration. Not trying to own or direct her experience. Tossing in a dash of the cheerleader to counter her nerves.

And then, only after actually thinking about her as a person on the precipice of Hugeness,

did I type.

“Wow. Not only am I sending all good thoughts your way, I’m stunned that you’re determined to turn in the paper by noon on Thursday. I mean it: WOW. I’ve had a C-section, and I was good for nothing for quite some time after (long, complicated story, though–and yours will be quick and easy, I’m sure).

Anyhow, thanks for letting me know. Happy wonderfulnesses to you and your baby. May it all go well, and whatever you can get posted for the rough draft is better than nothing, for sure.
I’m excited for you!

Of course, to be deeply honest, I have to admit I can’t see her getting that rough draft written (what, she’s going to access the library databases and find peer-reviewed journal articles in between pushing the button on her morphine drip and attempting to put her feet onto the cold tile floor and stand up for the first time?).

However. I can tell you this. If she does post a draft by noon on Thursday,

no matter how crappy it is,

I will have nothing but respect for its every unfocused paragraph and uncited statistic. I will slow down, note the missing apostrophes, wish for a proper header,

and write careful feedback worthy of her effort.

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