In Writing

The campus writing center is hardly a likely location for a love story. It is brightly lit, and the furnishings are dominating by serviceable tables and bookshelf full of style manuals, guides to technical writing, and the occasional anthology. Conversation usually revolves around refining thesis statements and discussing the finer points of comma splices and academic diction. Sometimes things are very wild, and after talking about structure and organization, we try increasing the rhetorical punch of a conclusion.

He is a freshman, finishing up a mandatory paper for first year ethics class, in which he must give and defend his “life mission statement.” The professor, bless him, has offered extra credit for a visit to the writing center, and over the past week most of the class has trickled through our doors. It is the sort of assignment that seems great in concept–mission! values! fufilment!–and, in fact, this sort of self-knowledge can be the sort of thing that animates a life. But purpose is better to have and to manifest than to talk about.  In the hands of conscientious but inexperienced freshmen, the prompt has largely produced pages of untested cliches, the realest moments places where doubt seeps through.

He is nervous about grammar and offers the customary disclaimer that he’s bad at English, as though the tutors of the writing center stand ready to judge his soul on the offense of a misplaced comma. But his life mission starts not with “traditional values” or “giving back to the community,” but in the well-traveled experience of six younger siblings. Leadership, he says, matters to him because he cares what happens to specific people. And when I ask him to clarify a connection in one of his paragraphs, I can watch him seeing them.

Forty minutes later, his comma nerves are (somewhat) soothed and his organizational structure strengthened. I ask if he is going someplace warm for spring break. His smile is full of confidence: “Oh, I’m going home. It will be great.”

Two Years Later

First she was a rumor.  A guess, extrapolated from snippets of telephone conversations that I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on. It was none of my business and I speculated without seeking confirmation, a little embarrassed to have overheard at all.

Then she was a secret, one I was forbidden to share even with those who had more right to know.  And though my confidence was a matter of professional necessity rather than privilege, I was nevertheless pleased, gratified by the evidence of trust, excited by the sheer magnitude of the knowledge I was privy to.

After that she was an announcement:  weight, length, gender, and name.  She was The Big News, shared around the office: initially statistics, then a face in a photograph, wrinkled and red with dark eyes and a remarkable mop of straight black hair. I fell in love with her in those first pictures, received by email and text message. I was no relation, but somehow felt as possessive of her as an aunt – a kinship born in the days when I shared the secret of her impending arrival.

Finally she was a small, present person, cuddled close and cooed over, the recipient of little gifts and bestower of imagined smiles.  Her parents took it for granted that she would love me, and when she was old enough to know who I was, she seemed to take it for granted too.  We played clapping games at her first birthday. When she was taking her first unsteady steps we spent a summer afternoon exploring the campus. She fell in the fountain under my supervision, but both she and her parents forgave my negligence, and really, it was a fine adventure.

Now, at two years old, she’s growing up.  She is tall and thin – like her parents – and precocious and happy .  She is the joy of her family, the answer to years  – indeed decades – of waiting, the culmination of hopes and prayers.

As her mother and I visit over lunch she eats her macaroni patiently, occasionally inserting her own oddly-relevant observations. Ours is a quiet, intense conversation between women who know the struggle (to paraphrase Eliot) of waiting without hope of the wrong thing and clinging instead to the presence and promises of God, the working out of all things truly to good.

The little one glances up with a smile to repeat a word she likes, oblivious to the catch in our voices or the deeply aching love in the words of her mother who lays a hand on the head of this long-awaited child, “look what He’s given.”

And as I look I am offered broken crayon: “Atshee fix.”  I peel away the paper so that she can use the colored wax and hand it back to her. She bends seriously over her child’s menu, carefully scribbling blue in bold strokes. Will she know, I wonder as I watch her, just how much of a blessing she is – not just to her family, but to all of us who know her?  She is, like Isaac or Samuel, a tiny, perfect sign of God’s faithfulness and goodness to those who love him and are called according to his purposes.

The Garbage Truck

On 6th Street in Arlington, the trash gets picked up at about 11:30 am on Fridays. I know this at all because, for two little boys who lived in a modest, bright two story house on that street, this moment was a genuine highlight of the week. When they could hear the truck coming, slowly making its way down the street, they would run to the glass storm door to watch. And when the men jumped off the truck in front of their house, they would begin to wave madly, grinning and jumping, until their adoration was acknowledged by their heroes in navy coveralls.
 
I wondered nearly every week what those men thought of this little ritual. Little boys often like trucks and loud noises. But more often, the objects of such joyful admiration are firemen or perhaps construction workers. Maybe in this case their attentions were captured because the garbage men were there every week, only steps away from ordinary life for small people in an ordinary house. I am sure that when they were hired these garbage men did not expect any groupies at all, even if they were very short and sometimes sticky ones.  They probably expected smell, grime, weather and daily drudgery–a hard job with almost not cultural appreciation of its difficulty.
 
I no longer spend Friday mornings in Arlington. But I think of the waving and the grins whenever I start (a little impatiently) to follow a slow garbage truck down a city street. Heroes. And my mind drifts a bit further back, to an aquired memory, not even properly my own.
 
See my family drives Fords because my grandfather worked for the Ford factory in Buffalo. Even though the necessities of the Depression stopped his education after eight short years, by his retirement he was doing a job that now requires a degree. But there were earlier years when there were five children and not very much money. And so, after shifts at the factory, he worked another job, too, as a garbage man on small town NY streets. An image of him on the back of the truck, taller perhaps than he was in real life and straighter than my last memories of him, plays over the mental soundtrack of one of the last conversations I had with him, which was how to work hard in a new job you didn’t like yet. 
 
I like to think those boys were also cheering for him.

That One Student.

We did not exactly get off to a promising start.

I had just taken over as a permanent substitute and was overwhelmed by the chaos that was supposed to be my classroom. He stood defiantly by his desk, refusing to take his seat. I had not yet learned The Look given by all mothers and teachers (a skill, apparently, that is learned and not an innate gift of womanhood) and he was unimpressed by my authority. I was embarrassed and helpless and he knew it. But he overplayed his hand.

“That’s right,” he pulled himself up to his full height, “you can’t tell this N**** what to do!”

The strength of my reaction would later surprise me. Why did I care what some pain-in-the-neck kid called himself? But I did care. Enough that my frustration changed to a remarkably quiet, stern anger.

“Pick up your backpack,” I said, amazed by the composure of my own voice. “I will not have language like that in my classroom.”

He was slightly taken aback, but still belligerent, “I can say what I want. ‘Sides, I’m black.”

“I’m a woman,” I answered calmly. “You’ll never hear me call myself a bitch.”

Some hesitation in my voice let the class know that the word was as unfamiliar for me to speak aloud as it was for them to hear from a teacher. They fell silent, all eyes on Ed and me.

“You’ve gotta respect yourself or I guarantee no one else will.”

Great. I thought. I sound like an actor delivering a line in one of those “inspirational” race-issue films.

He glared down at me. His anger was palpable. I returned his gaze, hoping he couldn’t see through my bluff. If he didn’t listen, there was literally nothing I could do.  At almost fifteen he was too old for his grade. He was half-a-foot taller than me and at least a hundred pounds heavier, already used to being in charge, to being intimidating.

I was fresh out of grad school, barely a decade older than most of my students. A week ago I had been full of the self-assurance of youth. Academically successful, excelling at all my previous jobs, I was excited to be offered a teaching position for the year: my own classroom, a place to implement my own pedagogical philosophy. The night before I started, I dreamed of introducing these under-privileged students to the world beyond this small town, helping them discover a love of history, guiding them in discussing the great questions that drive men and nations.

But that’s not quite how it worked out.  I inherited my classroom from a senior teacher who’d had a nervous breakdown.  It took approximately 6 hours to destroy all my self-assurance.  I left the school defeated at the end of the day, worked late into the night trying to catch up on lesson plans and make some sense out of the former teacher’s grade-book, and collapsed into dreams full of the hopelessness panic that defined my work day. Then woke exhausted the next morning to do it all again.

A week in, I had yet to teach a lesson.  I was fully aware that, for the first time in my life, I was facing real failure.

I prayed he couldn’t tell.

Our standoff lasted for seconds that felt like hours. Then he reached down, picked up his bag, and left the classroom (not without slamming the door).  I turned back to a strangely subdued class.  For the first time we completed the lesson.

The next day he was back, sullen but not defiant. It may be imagination imposed on memory, but things got better after that. I perfected The Look, and on the advice of another teacher, began making students line up outside before I let them into the classroom. It would take months (and endless prayers ) for my class to remotely resemble my early expectations (we never did quite get to eager shining faces and orderly discussions) but students at least sat in their seats, and we made it most of the way through most of the lessons.

One morning a few weeks later, a picture in the social studies book reminded one of the students of Barack Obama’s campaign logo.  “Isn’t he’s the best president?!” someone asked.

“If you’re into that Hope and Change stuff,” I answered wryly, moving the  conversation back to the 11th Century before we got too far off track.

By lunch, I’d forgotten my flippant political commentary when I looked up to see my young nemesis standing in my doorway.

“Hey, what’s up?”  I asked.  I’d established an open-door policy for lunch, and my room had become something of a haven for sweet quiet girls and little nerdy boys who needed a place to hide from bigger students. Needless to say, he was not one of my regulars.

He did not return my smile.  “Miss T.  We need to talk.”

He was very serious, but did not sound angry.  “Alright. What do we need to talk about?”

For a moment he tried to look dignified, but his boyishness got the better of him and he blurted out “WHY don’t you like Obama?!”

I laughed and turned the question around “Well.  Why do you?”

He shrugged ,“A lot of reasons.”

“Well then I guess you better come in and sit down.”

He sat on my desk. I quickly covered the papers I was grading.  And we began our discussion. Initially, his praise of Obama was what you’d expect from a young teen, “he’s the first black president. . . . he’s such a good speaker . . . I just LIKE him.”  But as I pushed him, his answers became more nuanced, more policy based, and – I noted – much more informed than I would have expected.

We discussed the war in Iraq, the welfare state, education, federalism and levels of administration.  I was thankful for the example of professors who had pushed me to the limits of my arguments, who had respected me enough to disagree with me, and who had  sharpened my mind even (perhaps especially) when they did not change it.

He warmed to the conversation, becoming more enthusiastic than I had ever seen him, his face relaxing into a child’s grin, beaming when I acknowledged the validity of a point he made. We were both surprised when the bell rang. “Thanks Miss T!” He called as he ran outside, “that was fun!”

The following afternoon the buses had all left and I was organizing my classroom when he walked in.  “I’m staying for the after school program today, but it doesn’t start for half an hour.  If I help you clean up can we talk politics?”

I agreed, and we discussed environmentalism while he straightened the desks and wiped off pencil marks with a damp paper towel.  He told me about a tree planting he had attended and asked what I thought about global warming.  I admitted a lack of knowledge but a certain skepticism.

“But you ride your bike to work!”

I admitted that the bicycle riding had more to do with personal vanity and an unwillingness to spring for a gym membership, then added that I did think caring for our environment is important, but had more to do with personal responsibility and living within limits.  “We can’t just buy whatever we want, and throw whatever we don’t want away.  We need to think about the decisions we make.  Do I need this new t-shirt, or ipod, or whatever?  What am I doing with my old stuff?  Sometimes its easier to wear a ‘go green’ t shirt than it is to pick up your litter.”

“Like that,” he answered, pointing to some trash blowing past the open door, “But I still like my ‘go green’ shirt.”

We laughed and he promised to stop by again.

It became something of a routine on the days of the after school program.  He would meet me when I got back from seeing off the buses, wait for me to prop the door open, and then come in and help me around the classroom. Since he was taller than me, I set him to work cleaning the high cupboards against the back wall while I scrubbed down the bookshelves.

I don’t think anyone had really cleaned that room in years, and as we cleaned, I found I hated the room less and less. One day in early spring, he was taking an inventory of textbooks while I graded multiple choice quizzes. We were discussing the relative value of liberty and equality, and I was making the case for freedom. He wasn’t sure. “So you think freedom is more important even if it means some things are not equal.  What about education?  What about college?  Shouldn’t everyone be able to go to college?”

“It depends what you mean by ‘should be able.’  I don’t think everyone should go to college.  I think there are a lot of people who would do just as well if they never went to college, who aren’t particularly interested in higher education and who could learn what they need to for work at their job or at a trade or technical school.  There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that.  I think college might be one example of how a push for equality has changed the whole system – it means a certain type of education is dying out. And losing that could result in a sort of loss of freedom; certainly in the loss of certain ways of thinking.  But on the other hand,”  I added, “I grew up in a family that could never have afforded to send me to college, so I’m very thankful for merit and need-based scholarships.”

He thought for a minute, “Do you think I should go to college?”

“You? Yes.  I think you would love college.  You like our conversations?”

He nodded.

“That’s sort of what college is like, only for four years.  You’d be right at home.  And you’d get to write about all the stuff you think about.   At least if you get into a good college.  Which  you can, but it takes a lot of work.”

I said goodbye to him at the end of the school year amidst the intoxicating excitement of the sudden summer freedom. I wonder often how he is doing. He must be almost done with high school now. Has he kept up his grades? Has he thought more about college?  Maybe he’ll get a football scholarship (the kid was just so huge). I can see him working hard through college – maybe going on to law school.

I like to imagine him, years from now, as a federal judge, writing an opinion in a wood-paneled office.  And as he types the word “equality,” he thinks back to his seventh-grade teacher and how she would argue with his liberal interpretation of the law.  Knowing him, that wouldn’t change his ruling, but it might make him add a paragraph or two by way of explanation and justification, even if he knows I’d never read it.

Statistically, I know that even college is unlikely, given his background and the quality of the local public schools. . . but then again, I guess being even a mediocre teacher makes it impossible to really think of your students in terms of statistics. They are too exasperating, obnoxious and precious to be anything but themselves. And if, somehow, he beats the odds, maybe some screen writer will want to make a movie of his life. There’s always that line about self-respect to help it get a nomination from the Academy.

The Brain Trust (A Tribute)

I have a confession.  I hate Federal Holidays.  Not because I don’t get them off, but because the other girls do.  It’s selfish of course (but then it would hardly be a confession if it wasn’t).

The thing is, I don’t miss them until they’re gone.  Each day, when I get to work, fix my coffee and open my gmail, I take it for granted that even if my inbox is full of google alterts and church newsletters and follow-ups on editing projects, I can count on them to remind me I am loved.

I look, immediately for that email.  The one with a subject line that reads “Another question for the brain trust” or  “Did you know?” or “I need to conquere something” (with conquer misspelled and everything).  It’s the email that already has seven or eight responses (morning comes earlier to the east coast) by the time I log in, that may already have covered a range of subjects from weather, to sex, to travel, to prayer. Each email is three or four lines at most.  Usually nonsense, occasionally painfully serious.

If one of us is working on an essay or email for work and struggling to come up with an elegant sentence, she has six excellent writers to call on.  If she can’t quite track down the statistic she’s looking for, she has six other researchers.  There’s rarely a work-related question that can’t be answered within five minutes by the help of the brain trust.

We represent four time zones and two continents and haven’t been all together in half-a-decade.  We are mothers (well, so far only one mother) and wives and single women, professionals and academics. We’ve talked each other through wedding preparations, health crisis, breakups and interviews.  Together (because we are together even when we’re separated by 3,000 or 5,000 miles) we’ve faced personal crisis and global crisis.

In some ways it would be hard to find seven more different people (though in other ways we are very much the same).  We have strong disagreements and moments of mutual incomprehension – which can be almost as heated when we’re talking about abstaining from coffee as when we’re talking about the moral status of sexual orientations.  But there is a safety in knowing that even when, as one of the girls recently admitted to me, “the email chain can be the most exasperating thing ever,” it will still be there the next day, with all seven of us contributing.

Except on those pesky Federal holidays, when most of the group is off and I find my quiet office a little lonelier.

Rare

A friend stopped by on Thursday night and I offered him some of the bourbon I was just about to drink. “I was conferencing with students all day,” I offered by way of explanation, easily dropping into the funny and exasperating stories that are part of teaching college writing: the student who offers cognac.com and a link to a blog post in place of an annotated bibliography. The one who thinks he can’t find any sources that talk about global warming.

But those stories skip over the better, less narratable moments of teaching. The flash of a smile when a student realizes he knowswhat he is talking about. The hesitating sentences that grow stronger as my devil’s advocate objection is answered. The excited report that “Areopagitica” was “amazing, why did no one tell me to read this before?”
For fifteen weeks they intersect with my life, their mannerisms, interests, and progress becoming mine in a way. A fellow young teacher tells me that she thinks of communication with students as a kind of communion, on a deeper level than simply imparting a set of skills. I am inclined to agree with her. I want to understand each of them and I want to be understood. That sort of attention and effort results in a connection, even within the set roles of teacher and student, that goes beyond words on a whiteboard and shades of B in a grade book.
Now here on the quiet Saturday at the end of this strange, full week I am thinking of the teachers of two other university students. One, a masters student close to finishing, the other an undergrad sophomore. One is dead and one is under arrest in a Boston hospital. From the hesitant attempts at character profiles published so far, they appear to have been very different sorts of students, as well as being victim and accused.  But I am sure that both of them had teachers who were eager for their success, gratified at moments of engagement and are now grieving a semester and a degree and a life cut short by the searing hate and destruction.
Because here’s a secret: even the most frustrating student, the one who appears to willfully embody as many stereotypes of not trying as possible, we love that student too. I’d trade all my funny stories for his success. And that student who, full of life and curiosity and hard work, gains intellectual ground in my class or even after. Or the average student, never soaring, never giving up, who offers a comment in class, or succeeds even in one place where she has struggled–those are some of the best things ever.
A student as a representative type for youth and potential is an old trope. This does not negate the immense truth of it. It is a truth that I have only slowly begun to understand as a I grow more and more comfortable with my role at the front of a classroom and more and more humbled by the responsibility and opportunity entangled in it all.
Each semester, as I look at my classroom, I realize every one of them matters. No matter how many students I have over the course of what I hope is a long life of teaching, each one matters and could not be replaced. A former professor of mine had the poem, “The Lantern out of Doors” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, himself a teacher, hanging on his office wall. It reads, in part, “whom either beauty bright / In mould or mind or what not else makes rare.”