I have been asked how I can possibly remember all of my students. Some of them are unforgettable, and some of them stay in touch, but the truth is, I forget plenty of them once they leave my class. In a typical quarter, I teach five sections of composition. Classes used to be capped at 25, but now, with enrollment booming and class space at a premium, it’s more common to have 28 or 29 students in a section. A handful of these will drop, fail, or simply disappear, but at quarter’s end, I’ll still be looking at well over 120 faces.
The faces, I remember. The names are a little harder, but I make a point to learn them by the second or third week of the quarter. Unusual names or people are easy, but I struggle with the Kayla Kelsey Kaitlin Kendra Kaileys.
KKKKK is a young girl between the ages of 17 and 20. She can usually be identified by her hoodie, jeans, Ugg boots (or flip flops, depending on the weather), a ponytail, a stretchy headband, and a tan (regardless of the weather). She comes to class regularly, turns everything in on time, and almost always gets good grades. When it’s time to write a memoir, she writes about her grandpa’s funeral or her prom. When it’s time to write a review, she chooses a top 40 album or a chain restaurant. Her journal entries are written in fat, bubbly print (almost no one under the age of 30 writes in anything resembling cursive), and she compiles her portfolio in a polka dot folder. She writes research papers about preventing animal cruelty, the evils of beauty pageants, or the perils of texting while driving. I realize, with some horror, that I am old enough to be her mom, and that she probably sees me in that light. In other words, she is the typical American teenaged girl.
Typically, the KKKKKs come from big suburban high schools; some have not yet graduated, but are exercising the option to take college classes for high school credit. It may be my imagination, but I’m guessing that enrollment stats would bear me out: there are a lot more KKKKKs at my school now than there were ten years ago. Some of them write about how their family circumstances have changed in the past couple of years: their parents have split up, one or both have been laid off, someone’s health has failed. In other words, they hadn’t planned to go to community college, but they are making the best of it. Most of them will transfer to a university after taking their general education courses here.
I think I would die of boredom if I taught at a school where all of my students were 19, well-prepared, entitled, and hungover. I tend to gravitate toward lost causes or less traditional students who usually ask for and need more help, or write about issues that are more mature or memorable. They stay after class to chat now and then. But I like these girls, too. Twenty five years ago, I was one of them.
It takes me weeks to learn which K is which. By quarter’s end, I know that it was Kelsey whose dad died when she was twelve. It was Kayla who had to cut back her hours at the Cheesecake Factory when her grades started to slip. It was Kaitlyn who missed a week because of the flu. But they’ll all make it. They’ll get A’s and B’s, and they’ll smile and wave when they see me on campus the next quarter or the next year. I won’t forget them exactly, but I might not remember them, either. At least not their names.