I walked down the empty corridor, the heels of my pumps clicking satisfyingly on the tiles. After a three-hour night class, I was eager to get home for dinner and an icy drink, so the clicks echoed quickly, pertly.

As I walked, I considered the joy this class was bringing me. Last year, I had a group of students so challenging–so street hard, inculcated in the culture of drugs, guns, stripping, and prostitution–that I had been left unsure I could continue in the profession.

If this new semester had presented me with an equally unruly and chaotic bunch, I would have had to make some serious life changes. Fortunately, the students in the night class–while full of the standard issues and agonies–were loves. They couldn’t believe they were in college, and, despite deep deficits, they wanted to be worthy.

I almost didn’t know what to do with this delightful lot.

Each week, as I stood at the front of the room, I struggled with recollections of how scared and out of control last year’s students had made me feel. Not only had they failed me, I had failed them; we had all failed each other. For an entire semester, I had felt sick and full of tears.

Indeed, in comparison, I almost didn’t know what to do with this charming, eager night class.

What I did was this: I battled nerves all afternoon before the class. Then I strapped on my Big Girl Spanx and got to campus. There, I sat in my office and felt nauseous for an hour. Finally, when the clock got to 5:54, I steeled myself and headed to the classroom, carrying a stack of handouts clutched protectively to my chest.

When I hit the door and was fogged by the heat of the poorly ventilated room, my armpits got clammy. I was there. I was carrying too much. I was sweating. I was wearing heels. Wearing heels reminded me I was the adult. They pitched me up and made me taller, more powerful. They kept me, literally, on my toes.

Into the classroom I walked, clammy, clutching, pumped.

Then they turned their faces to me, checking out who had just come in.

When they saw it was me, they smiled.

At 5:59 p.m., they were in their seats, notebooks open, glad to be there. Twice, a student baked cookies for the class. Another time, one brought four boxes of donuts. Every week, the fellow we called Snack God toted in a bag of treats, which he offered to his classmates, most of whom hadn’t eaten or, if they had, it was from the vending machine.

When I got to the front of the room and started setting out all the instructional materials—handouts, stapler, laptop, grade book–they didn’t mob me with excuses and problems, which we then sorted through, one by one, for the first fifteen minutes. They didn’t race up to buy mercy with pleading eyes. They didn’t waggle a finger and ask if they could talk to me in the hall, whereupon they’d disclose a problem with lice or show me a missing tooth or tell me they’d punched a cop.

Rather, these students stayed in their seats, chatting easily. The girl who always waved her hand in the air–wanting clarification on thesis statements, topic choices, and comma splices–called out to me, “Hey, when you wore pants last week, it was the first time you didn’t wear a dress!”

She twirled happily in her rolling chair and leaned to ask her table mate if he had his rough draft done. Of course he had his rough draft done. They all did.

Then: it was time, 6:00, and as happy chatter flowed, the last few students hustled in, not wanting to be late. If they were late, it would be disrespectful. When I mentioned that the first night of class, they were listening. They heard me.

As soon as my mouth opened to make the first announcement, those with phones out tucked them away. Every set of eyes focused on me.

In that moment, for all the very best reasons, I wanted to cry.

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Published by Jocelyn

There's this game put out by the American Girl company called "300 Wishes"--I really like playing it because then I get to marvel, "Wow, it's like I'm a real live American girl who has 300 wishes, and that doesn't suck, especially compared to being a dead one with none."

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22 Comments

  1. Reading this, knowing by now a lot about the type of students you often gather together in any of your classes, it made me feel great when I got to the end of this piece to realize that this group has evidently returned your sanity level to a good place! It has to be such a great feeling, not just of relief, but pride then in those students but also in yourself, your efforts, taking shape!

  2. Now, THAT felt like a good cup of coffee with a friend.

    I’ll say this for writing: it HEALS. I have never felt more centered, more questioning, more grounded, more open, than when I went online five years ago.

    I work through my shit, and I’ve never felt more in my skin. After I finish a post, I’ll run about my day and wonder why I feel so good. Then I say, Oh, yeah, I wrote today.

    xo ( am so happy to have crossed paths)

  3. I so identify with this post! I have never taught a class as difficult as yours last year, but the anxiety all day and night beforehand, then the actual beginning to lecture and finding smiles, compliments, friendly faces at the end, all ring really true to me.I actually wrote down some of the good things that happened or were said to me and kept them in a little box, to take out and read during the harder times.

  4. I’ve started get it off my chest blog posts on one or the other of the two issues that prey on me (literally); the mother of these two little girls here (who also happens to be my daughter) and the out of control bully elected official I work with in a job I have to keep because of the aforementioned daughter.
    I develop a thesis,start making my points, launch into a rant that really is tangential, but hasn’t advanced my story, backspace and begin again. And again and again. And eventually I’ve exhausted it out of myself and close down the computer.
    What a pleasure to have it go the other direction because the world has come back into balance, as it does. Sometimes it’s alternate semesters, sometimes it’s even numbered years, not odd. It generally happens when we put our best into it.
    Well, I haven’t figure out the ultimate solution to the bully…yet.

  5. i so wish my community college daughter could be in this class with you, with them. she wants to be there and is so disheartened by those who are but don’t. and then there’s the doddering english prof on the verge of retirement or death and who just.doesn’t.care. thanks for your perseverance. i give thanks that you’ve been rewarded by this class.

  6. As always, I either laugh or cry at your writings. I cried and cringed with your posts from last year’s class…can I say I’d love to smack down that female who DARED to critique so poorly (an inaccurately) your teaching skills. I’m teary over this little story simply because you have a group who deserve your teachings.

    I understand the deviation from the “road map of what I plan to write” by taking the other fork to “what I NEED to write” It’s cathartic no matter which path you take.

  7. Laughing because I just did the EXACT same thing with my blog this morning. I went in intending to write about what a trial I am to live with and ended up going in a softer, sweeter direction.

    And now I am dying to read about what you first intended to write about so spit/spot…get moving, girl.

    And your teacher moments remind me of Bing’s. Last year, she had the class from hell and she teaches in a very impoverished area that is referred to simply as “the hood.” So, for this class to be hellish, she meant truly hellish…as when as we watched the news one night and saw a photo of a boy arrested for killing an old man with his sister, she said, “That’s one of my kids!” or the time when one kid’s Mom called to ask her if she’d come to the hospital as her son had tried to kill himself and had listed Ms. Bing as one of the four people in the world whom he felt he could trust. Or the time that one girl offered to go down on her in exchange for a better grade. “Hey, I’ve never done a chick, but it can’t be THAT hard. I’ve done hundreds of blow jobs.” Or the one…never mind. I’m sure that the two of you could compare some notes….

    And great shoes….

  8. We never were allowed to evaluate our teachers in college. I have, however, been on the other side of those negative words before and it’s hard to get past them once you get them in your head. It sounds like you’re doing a great job of shutting those voices up and moving ahead, knowing you’re a great teacher! I think we’re all at our best when we feel like we’re being supported and appreciated.

  9. I have been reminded of a writing style whenever I read your pieces and have never been able to put my finger on it. You are unique, yes. Very much so. But, I just realized that your writing reminds me very much of the works of Lorna Landvik. Maybe it’s a Minnesota thing, I dunno. But…you both of this gentle sway to your words and then…(as Sheldon would say) BAZINGA!…I burst out laughing at something that comes flying out at me when I wasn’t expecting it.

  10. Love this post! For the most part, my middle child (on the spectrum) has had the most supportive teachers at her community college. I can think of a number of them who wrote extremely encouraging comments on her papers. I felt like thanking them by email for their kindness, but I know at this stage in life, parents are supposed to be hands off.

  11. This was phenomenal. I had a group for a while a couple of years ago and I felt like I had Stockholm Syndrome–I started identifying with the bitterness of my captors. I am glad you have this great group to hit the reset button.

  12. Oh, this post hits me on so many levels. Shoes. I love the clicking of real heels on an uncarpeted floor. I have been wearing “sensible” shoes for a while now, post new knee, and I miss that sound. Unfortunately, I don’t have a way to write posts about my work frustrations, and the absences of feedback from friends here in the blogosphere would make writing it just for myself much less satisfying. And yes, the differences in groups of young people is so amazing. I have clients who range from a 15 year-old operating at a 9 year-old level, to the 12 year-old caring for 4 younger siblings and a chemically dependent parent (or two). I am so glad you wrote this, and I am very much looking forward to reading what you originally planned to write. I’m sure it will be even more of a treat to read.

  13. I’m actually doing exactly this right now. I started out writing a post and halfway through it turned into something completely different. Now I’m taking a break and blog reading before I return and figure out what exactly I’m trying to say. Great to come across your blog.

  14. What a great post. I really don’t get how you teachers do it though. I keep wondering why you would do it. My brother, who’s a high school teacher, told me that all it takes is one of them who’s face lights up because the finally got it… You people are saints.

  15. This is the reason why teaching is the most important profession in the world. I loved this post from beginning to end. I don’t care if it’s the one you intended to write or not. You write with such honesty.

    Greetings from London.

  16. Writing is the cheapest, most effective therapy I know of that doesn’t come in a bottle. Great post. I am curious to hear more of the stories from the hard class (and I need to go back and find the link/password to the other blog that was sent and which I intended to check out) but after reading this I am already relieved for you without even knowing the details. Lastly, I love the magic and discovery of writing. It never fails to amaze me what hides secretly within each of us until we release it through the pen (er, or keyboard these days). You, my dear, wield quite a wand in that regard.

  17. I am SO glad you are having a fulfilling time of it this semester. Last spring sounded horrific. And to get just LAMBASTED like that would be the final nail in the coffin. That is exactly why I never will look at student surveys again. I mean, where’s MY survey to let them know how I LIKE or DO NOT LIKE them? Education is a two-way street, but modern times puts all the burden on the instructor which is, excuse my blunt tone, bullshit. We’re expected to pour in our energy, our resources, create a stimulating and relevant course while competing against every single imaginable distraction and help EVERY student succeed–what’s the student’s skin in the game? Where’s my chance to say “1–does not promote a respectful classroom environment” and “1–does not interact well with others.”
    In short, bully for you to have a great class–what joy! And if you need anyone to help light that pyre of student evaluations, call me.

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