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.