Notes from The Professor

January 4, 2012

Stevie: the Marine

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:57 pm
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This is an Air Force town, so I have quite a few veterans in my classes: some have just finished their service, some have retired and are retraining for their second careers, and one (that I know of) was forced out of service by DADT. Almost without exception, they are great students. They are punctual, they don’t make excuses, and they don’t like bullshit.

Stevie, a Marine fresh out of the corps, was particularly intolerant of the latter — which is sort of funny given that he was full of it. He looked like a recruiting poster for the USMC: square jaw, high cheekbones, skin that looked like it had been buffed to a high gloss, a flat top you could balance a book on, and a Clint Eastwood squint. He wasn’t particularly big or tall, but he carried himself with a sort of puffed up machismo that made him seem bigger than he was. I always thought the diminutive ending of his name was funny–a bit out of sync with his tough-guy exterior. Not Steven, not Steve, but Stevie.

Not shockingly, he was a rabid conservative. He was in my class during W’s second term; it was primary season for the 2008 election. He was a Fred Thompson guy.

“Fred Thompson, Stevie? Really?” I’d say, and he would fire back with a joke about Hillary’s pantsuits. He would goad me about gun control; I’d counter with a jab about corporate greed. It was good natured ribbing, for the most part.

I appreciated the fact that Stevie (unlike some of his younger, more timid classmates) always knew exactly what he wanted to write about: global warming, the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq, the tax code. And he always knew where he stood: firmly on the right of everything. I’ve written before about the struggle to be objective when grading writing. It is hard enough to put aside my own biases about Cracker Barrel to assign a fair grade on a restaurant review, let alone swallow an argument in favor of the right to carry a concealed weapon.

Fortunately, Stevie was a smart guy and a very good writer. He did his homework. He did not ignore counterarguments; he addressed them with a level head. As full of bluster as he was in person, his papers were measured in tone and fairly well-researched. He didn’t change my mind about anything, and I did a lot of scribbling in the margins pointing out things he’d missed or failed to address or studies to the contrary. Over all, though, it could not be said that he wasn’t thinking critically, supporting his claims, or writing clearly. He did all of those things, and his grades showed it.

Not long after Stevie finished the composition sequence (I think he took all three courses from me) I had a visit at my office from an FBI agent. He was conducting a background check on a former student who was applying for a job with the Department of Homeland Security. I didn’t even have to ask.

“Let me guess. Stevie Smith?”

“Yes, ma’am. Do you have any reason to believe that Mr. Smith is anything but loyal to the United States of America?”

I almost laughed. Stevie loved America, his little boy, and his girlfriend, in that order. That much I’d read in his papers.

“None whatsoever,” I said.

“Does Mr. Smith have any known enemies?”

Again, I wanted to laugh. The only time he’d missed class was for a custody hearing.

“Does his ex-wife count?” I said, jokingly. The guy didn’t crack a smile.

“We are already aware of his marital situation.”

“No. Not that I know of,” I said, pretending to be chastened.

The guy asked a few more routine questions and went on his way. A few weeks later, I got an email from Stevie telling me he’d been offered the job he’d been coveting for months and thanking me for a good class. And he attached a global warming joke, just for old time’s sake.

December 6, 2010

Ella: the indomitable

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 7:56 am
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Most college kids send an email attachment or download a file with the ease of sharpening a pencil, but sometimes the biggest challenge for “non-traditional” (read: middle-aged or older) students is not the course work itself, but the platform they are required to use: the online portal where their syllabi are posted and assignment drop boxes reside. At sixtyish, Ella fell into the latter category.

For the first few weeks of the quarter in my 111 class, she scowled and frowned at her computer monitor, lifting her chin to get a better view of the screen through her reading glasses. The young man who sat next to her often had to show her where to click and on what. After a couple of days, she confided to me that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to handle school. It was her first quarter, and she felt overwhelmed.

I encouraged her to be patient, told her where she could find some help outside of class, and offered to let her hand in her assignments the old fashioned way when possible. She thanked me and nodded, but did not seem all that reassured.

Ella had an almost regal bearing. She was not more than five feet tall, and had a prodigious, shelf-like bosom that made her seem much bigger than she was. Her skin was the color of milk chocolate, and she always smelled powdered and perfumed, though not overly so. Every day, her hair was neatly coiffed; it was clear that she was particular about her appearance, and about her classwork too. I can still remember her handwriting: the elegant slant, the slight flourish. Penmanship is a lost art; legibility is part of the reason I require that most students submit their work electronically. But this was never an issue for Ella. I loved seeing her words in her hand.

When the time came to write a memoir essay, Ella approached me and expressed some concern.

“I’m sorry, Miss Professor,” she said (although I had asked her to call me by my first name, she could not break herself of the habit of adding the “Miss” to it), “I just can’t think of anything to write about.”

“Sure you can, Ella. You have kids, right? A family and a past. There has to be something. Think small. It doesn’t have to be an ‘event,’ just something memorable.”

“Ok, Miss Professor,” she said. “I guess I’ll think of something.”

She wound up writing about putting on her Air Force uniform: the rituals of pinning and tucking and polishing and smoothing until everything was just so. Underlying the piece was her pride in having served many years before. She wrote about a son, but I never asked why a partner or other children might have been so conspicuously absent. While she had a raucous laugh and took a grandmotherly interest in her classmates, she was quite private about herself.

It wasn’t until weeks later while grading her portfolio that I learned, in a letter she submitted with her finished papers, why topic choice had been so difficult for her. “Every time I recalled a ‘significant’ event, something I had learned from, it was something sad,” she wrote. “I just could not bear to sit with those memories for any length of time, let alone write about them. But I’m still proud of putting on that uniform.”

As I read this I thought about a few things Ella had let slip during the quarter. The one time she had missed class was because she could not afford to have her car repaired. Her argument paper was about health insurance reform, and mentioned that she, a veteran, had no coverage. In bits and pieces, I glimpsed a very rough outline of a life of hardship and disappointment; of hard work and little reward. And yet the face that I knew was kind and serene, wise and humble. Neither in her eyes nor in her words had I ever detected the slightest hint of bitterness.

When she came by my office to pick up her portfolio on the last day of the quarter, Ella was visibly nervous. I handed it to her with a smile, knowing she’d be pleased with her grade, a well-deserved A. She thanked me and left without opening the folder or looking at the grade. Seconds later, though, I heard a whoop from the hallway outside my door, followed by a robust “Thank you, Jesus!” She burst back in, clutching the yellow folder to her generous bosom with one hand and fanning her face with the other. She was bouncing up and down like a game show contestant, tears streaming down her face. I wasn’t sure if she was laughing or crying, but maybe it was both.

“Thank you, Miss Professor. Thank you so much,” she said breathlessly. “Do you mind if I give you a hug?”

“Of course not, Ella,” I laughed, letting her wrap me up in her squishy embrace. “But I can’t believe you’re surprised.”

“I had no idea. I worked so hard, and I hoped for the best, but you just never know.”

I’m not sure what events in Ella’s life taught her that effort did not always pay, to expect disappointment, that fairness is never guaranteed, but I was glad that being back in school was teaching her otherwise.

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