Early each term, I let my students in on a little secret: some of the writing tasks assigned in college are about as far from any real-world application as can be. Most often in the real world, one person writes for an audience of many — whether it’s a novel, a letter to the editor, or a business plan. But in college, the many write for the few — dozens of papers pile up for an audience of one. And the “one” for whom it’s intended is going to judge it. How terrifying.
I try to mitigate the horrors inherent in this scenario by trying to convince students that their audience is their classmates. I have them peer edit before they submit their work for a grade. I encourage them to rewrite and I reward revision. But ultimately, my little show doesn’t work. The fact that I deliberately eschew red ink does little to ease their anxiety, my purple pen just another little fake-out that they see quickly see right through. They are the students, and I give the grades.
There’s a strange kind of intimacy in teaching composition, particularly the personal narrative. Because the subject of their essays is their experience, (as opposed to, say, WWII or the life cycle of a cell), we comp teachers learn things about our students that most of their teachers in other disciplines will never know.
Online classes add another odd dimension to this intimacy, as students share their work with each other but may never see one another face to face. When I grade their papers, I don’t have a face to put with the name in the online dropbox. Unless I happen to look up their pictures on my electronic roster, which I seldom do, my online students exist for me almost entirely in text.
So, despite the fact that I wouldn’t know him if I passed him in the hallway, I do know a few things about Vince:
In his first paper, he wrote about the day his mom left when he was fifteen. And the day his dad, overwhelmed with his own grief and rage, left, too — three days later. He wrote about getting himself up to go to school every day. About being alone at night. About living on Ramen noodles and peanut butter. About getting a job to pay the rent, and trying to stay in school. About wearing clothes that were too small, because he was still growing and could not afford new ones. About finally dropping out and winding up getting evicted anyway. About making a life for himself since then. About his own family and his devotion to his kids.
By the end of his paper, I was sobbing. It certainly wasn’t the first time a narrative essay had moved me to tears (the ones about putting dogs to sleep get me every time) but this was one of the few that got under my skin. It was completely raw and matter of fact. And it made me angry: at his mother for her faithlessness, and at his father for indulging his own pain at the expense of his son. I thought about it constantly for days after I read it. I think about it, still.
Even though nothing in the personal narrative assignment requires students to write about something serious, it does ask them to write about something significant and meaningful, so certain topics emerge. In our more cynical moments, my colleageus and I refer to these as the “dying-grandparent-and-car-crash papers.” An account of grandpa’s funeral titled “The Worse [sic] Day of My Life” that is riddled with comma splices can cause a beleaguered teacher’s heart to harden rather than empathize. But then there’s a paper like Vince’s that cracks it wide open again.
Some of my colleagues have stopped assigning personal narratives in Comp I. One says she just can’t bear it — it’s just too hard to read these tales of hardship and trevail that inevitably bubble up from students’ psyches. One says he doesn’t see the point. Freshman comp is supposed to prepare students for the rest of college, and it’s not as though they are ever going to be required to use narrative writing again. It’s just not practical, he reasons. I can’t really argue with that.
But at the end of the quarter, when students write about their experiences in the class, they invariably say that the personal narrative was their favorite piece to write. Often, it is also their best. Many say that writing it was therapeutic. Some say it helped them work something out. One student came to my office two years after she’d graduated asking if I still had a paper she’d written about her dad; he had died recently, and she wanted to read from it at his memorial service. I’m not sure how practical the assignment is, or even how well it prepares them for future classes, but somehow, it seems important.
In Vince’s case, writing his story allowed him to sort out what had been taken from him and see what he had made from the ashes of his childhood. It made a record of how he became the husband and father he is today — something he could point to and say, “Look what happened to me. Look what I did anyway. Look at me now.”
I don’t remember what grade Vince got on that paper. I don’t know if he tells people about his childhood, or whether he keeps it to himself. I don’t know what he looks like. In fact, I don’t even remember his real name.
At today’s commencement ceremony, over 1000 names were called. I’m sure there were dozens of my former students in that sea of black robes. After ten years, their names all start to sound alike, and their faces are a blur from where we are seated. But their stories, I remember.