Notes from The Professor

June 16, 2012

Vince: the invisible

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.


January 4, 2012

Stevie: the Marine

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:57 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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.

October 3, 2011

Quincy: the gentleman

I’ve said many times that my classes are composed of unlikely combinations of people. Currently, my oldest student is well into his 60’s, my youngest not yet 18. Even as a veteran teacher, it is somewhat daunting for me to presume to teach anything at all to someone twenty years my senior. I know I have something to offer them, but I also know that they have an awful lot on me in terms of wisdom and life experience.

And yet, it is these older students — sometimes those with the least skin in the game — who are the best learners. Sometimes, they’re the best teachers.

Quincy was one such student. But it wasn’t his age that impressed me when I first met him; it was that he was the consummate gentleman. He wore a tie to class every day, and a Fedora. He would doff his hat as he sat down at his desk, perching it neatly on top of his books–a simple act that might have seemed foppish or calculated from someone younger or less elegant than he. He insisted on calling me ma’am, which I found somewhat disconcerting from someone old enough to be my father.

During discussions, Quincy took copious notes on a yellow legal pad in neatly slanted longhand. He listened intently to everything I said–to everything anyone said, and he nodded and sometimes even muttered a “yesss!” or an “uh-huh!” in agreement, as though he were in church. He asked plenty of questions, and I did my best to answer them, even though they were often prefaced by comments so tangential and rambling as to be unintelligible. I’d try to wait politely for him to get to his point, resisting the urge to make a “wind it up” gesture. His classmates sometimes rolled their eyes and glanced impatiently at each other telegraphing “here he goes again” to one another and squirming in their seats.

It’s always a challenge when there’s one student who dominates discussions or gets off topic or compulsively argues. I usually don’t have any trouble steering those people back on course. But for some reason, I found it nearly impossible to do this with Quincy. Moreover, I didn’t want to. He was so eager, so earnest, so genuinely seeking to understand and persuade, I just could’t bring myself to shut him down. Sometimes, he’d turn to his classmates, shake a slender finger, and preach right to them: about commitment, about racism, about hard work and sacrifice. I was not surprised when I found out he had been a minister.

His writing was as discursive and strangely poetic as his speech. When I worked with him on drafts, he’d listen intently and nod. I could tell, even as I spoke, that he often wasn’t following me when I talked about organization and unity and transitions between ideas. His vocabulary was good, and there were these lovely nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout his papers. But punctuation was a mystery to him. Trying to get him to write in any way other than stream-of-consciousness proved nearly impossible. I hated putting grades on his papers. I could’t justify anything higher than a C for most of them, so riddled were they with comma splices and nonsequiturs. I cringed inwardly every time I handed one back.

“There are so many wise insights in your papers, Quincy. You always say something I haven’t thought of or make me see something in a new light. But you understand, I have to take writing conventions into account when I grade…” I’d apologize as I showed him his paper, riddled with corrections and question marks and marginal notes in my handwriting.

He’d listen and nod, telling me he understood and not to worry–that he was enjoying the course and learning plenty, and that he wasn’t worried about the grade. Then he’d smile and pat my hand, put his Fedora back on, and tell me to “have a blessed day, Professor.”

I’m not sure Quincy’s classmates always appreciated him. I’m sure many of them thought of him as an eccentric old man, but I hope they listened to him, too. If they had been more patient, they might have noticed that there was another, wiser teacher in the room.

June 29, 2011

Olivia: the basket case

“Ok, I have all my sources for the research paper. Now, what’s due next time?”

Olivia had stayed behind to ask this question despite the fact that I had spent the last twenty minutes of class explaining that very thing.

“The research proposal is due next time, Olivia. You shouldn’t be gathering sources until your proposal has been approved.”

“What’s the research proposal?” She looked at me blankly.

“The short paper I just assigned. Just now.”

“So we’re not supposed to be conducting research for a research paper?” she said accusingly, looking at me through narrowed eyes and brushing aside the lock of hair that perpetually hung over one of them.

“Of course you are–just not yet.”

An exchange like this one happened nearly every time Olivia came to my twice-a-week class. She made it most days, but almost never without being 15 or 20 minutes late. She made a lot of racket coming in, and noisily settled herself at her computer. If I was speaking when she came in, she would go straight to her seat, but if the class happened to be working on something, she’d come up to the front of the room where I was seated at the instructor’s podium and start in on an elaborate explanation — always in full voice and peppered with way too much personal information. She spoke entirely in run ons and nonsequiturs.

“My son woke up this morning with welts all over his legs we’re pretty sure it’s bedbugs so we’re going to have to move out while the exterminator fumigates the place but my mom just got evicted so we can’t go to her house and my boyfriend isn’t exactly on speaking terms with his family so I have no idea where we’re going to be living over the next week or so so I’m not sure what I’m going to do about getting my school work done and my car is in the shop and my boyfriend can’t drive because his license is suspended so I may have to bring my son to school with me next week if I can even get a ride because we can’t really afford daycare and we can’t be in the house with the bedbugs so it’s going to be sort of a weird week.”

I waited for her to take a breath, nodding sympathetically and trying divine one single piece of information that was at all relevant to her performance in my class.

“Sorry you’re having such a tough week. How can I help you?”

It is not unusual for my students to need a break now and then, when their families, jobs, transportation issues and health interfere with their schoolwork, but Olivia needed one every single week. More frustrating, though, was that she never, and I mean never, paid attention in class. She was always hard at work, her keyboard clacking loudly, but she was always doing the wrong assignment, the next assignment, or the assignment that was due the day before.

“Olivia,” I said one day, exasperated, “you have got to start paying attention to what’s going on in class. If you will just stay with us, you’ll be fine. Reading ahead to figure out where we’re going isn’t helping you. If you get too far ahead, you’re going to have to redo a bunch of your work. It doesn’t make sense to do research before you have hammered out your question. Trust the process.”

Or, that’s what I wanted to say. In the course of my plea, she interrupted me at least three times. “But I don’t have a computer at home. But I already know my topic. But I already know how to do that.” You get the picture.

I’m not a my-way-or-the-highway kind of teacher, and if I had thought Olivia were equipped to go it alone, I probably could have tolerated her refusal to conform to my schedule. But she wasn’t. She was obviously bright and curious, but her writing was a mess — often tumbling out in the same haphazard stream of consciousness her speech did. I found it nearly impossible to communicate with her.

Other students started to notice her, too. They were annoyed by her tardiness and by the fact that I would frequently have to interrupt class to ask her to stop typing when I or one of her classmates was speaking. When she did participate in discussions, her contributions were often overly personal reactions to the material that derailed the conversation. In short, she was exhausting.

The day she insisted she was going to write her term paper her own way, I finally had enough:

“Olivia. Stop,” I said. “Stop talking. Listen to me. I am the one who is grading your paper. I am the one who designed the assignment. If your paper does not meet the course objectives, you won’t get a passing grade. Do you understand that?”

This pulled her up short. She looked at me, again with narrowed eyes, her thin face pinched. Finally, she sighed.

“Well, okay,” she said, and turned on her heel.

Apparently, something had finally sunk in. She managed to get through with a C. Her final paper was really quite well-researched and informative, if a bit disorganized. Still, I was somewhat relieved to see her go.

And then she turned up in my lit class not two weeks later. It was not a course required for many majors, so I was surprised to see her there. And I wondered why, when she had been so disdainful of all my pesky requirements, she’d take another class from me.

The first day, she approached me when class was over.

“Are we really going to need the book?”

“Well, it’s a lit class and the book is an anthology. I don’t see how you can get by without it,” I said as good naturedly as I was able.

“Well, I’m on financial aid and I can’t really afford it.”

“Oh, well, you can probably get away without it for a week or so, but as soon as you get your money you’re going to need to buy it. In the meantime, I might be able to get you a loaner.

“Oh, no. That’s not the problem. I got my financial aid check. I just can’t afford to spend it on books. My boyfriend just lost his job and it turns out it wasn’t bedbugs but fleas and my son is allergic and scratched so much he got an infection so we had to get an antibiotic and we don’t have health insurance and we have to get rid of our dog…”

I didn’t have the energy to explain that using financial aid funds for personal living expenses was fraudulent. I knew she wouldn’t listen. And as it turned out, the point was moot. She didn’t make it very long this time. She showed up to class with her visibly ill toddler one day. Once her boyfriend actually stuck his head in the door of the classroom and said he needed to see her “right now.” By the end of the third week of the quarter, she had disappeared.

Olivia seemed to live in a constant state of crisis and upheaval that probably just overwhelmed her. And while I was relieved to get her through one class, I was sorry when she disappeared entirely from the second one. I had hoped she might persevere — that one class at a time, one crisis at a time, she might get herself out of whatever mess she was in. But sometimes, chaos wins.

May 23, 2011

Nathan: the patient

Since we are an open enrollment commuter school, and a “teaching college,” it is part of our responsibility to teach students how to “do” college. Data consistenly show that success rates are heavily correlated to attendance (duh) so if we can keep bodies in seats, we can improve outcomes. To that end, and unlike a lot of four-year institutions, we have a mandatory attendance policy in most of our classes.

I am deeply ambivalent about this. One of the hardest parts of my job is keeping track of excuses. Because their lives are so demanding (nearly all of my students work; many have kids; some commute an hour each way; you name it) there are plenty of good reasons people miss class. With 125 students per quarter, it can be a recordkeeping nightmare to keep up with excused and unexcused absences, tardies, and makeup work. And when students are a) adults, and b) paying tuition, it sort of seems like it should be up to them to decide what they want to get out of the experience. I try not to take it personally when people don’t show up, but I do.

It especially galls me because of students like Nathan, who never missed a class. Ever. He always did the reading, he never missed a deadline, and he (most shockingly of all) frequently read parts of the book that weren’t assigned, just out of curiosity.

When he asked to do his research paper on stem cell research, though, I was disappointed. We spend a lot of time brainstorming topics so the proposals they write end up being something that might actually be useful to them, rather than just busywork for a grade. Surely he could come up with something more original than that.

“Why that topic, Nathan? Surely there’s something more relevant to your life.”

“I’m diabetic,” he told me. “My kidneys have failed. I spend six hours a day on dialysis. Researching a cure for this disease is pretty relevant to my life.”


We chatted for a while about what he hoped to learn, about whether a pancreas transplant would work for him and what advances were being made. He was politically conflicted — a Republican who was very unhappy with then-President Bush’s restrictions on stem cell lines.

Finally, I asked him how he managed to keep up with school (and work, and life in general) when he was hooked up to a machine for one quarter of his life.

“Dialysis has made me the student I am,” he told me. “For six hours a day, I have no choice but to sit still. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t spend it watching t.v. or playing video games or messing around online. When you’re on borrowed time, you don’t waste it.”

He went on to describe the setup he had at home, his bedroom serving as both his office and his clinic. I couldn’t help but try to imagine how much better my other students would do if they would devote six hours a day to school work. But then, I can’t imagine anyone–myself included–having that kind of discipline.

Despite his considerable challenges, Nathan looked perfectly healthy. He was thin–maybe too thin–but his color was good and his energy level completely normal. Had it not been for our conversation, I would never have known he was sick. He managed his diabetes just fine, but it was doing a number on him anyway.

His final term paper was smart, informative, and balanced. He concluded that the most promising therapies for type I diabetes would have to rely on stem cell research, and he cogently addressed the ethical issues surrounding it without getting bogged down in identity politics. It was a great paper.

I don’t know what became of Nathan, or whether he got his transplant–a kidney, a pancreas, or both–or even whether he’s still alive. But I think of him now and then when some kid skips a class or misses a deadline and makes a lame excuse. It’s not exactly fair to say, “Nathan got an A when he was on dialysis for six hours a day, and you could’t make it to class because you had a fight with your boyfriend? Really? You overslept because you were playing World of Warcraft until 4am? Really? You didn’t bother to even make an excuse? Really? Do you know how much harder you could have it?”

But I don’t say any of this. Instead, I try to give my students the benefit of the doubt without being a sucker. I try to make it worth their time to come, with natural consequences if they don’t. I try to make them want to come to class for intrinsic rewards. And I enforce the stupid attendance policy, just in case.

April 18, 2011

Levi: the brain

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 7:29 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Community colleges have been called by one Professor X “colleges of last resort.” I don’t think so. Sure, there are kids here who could’t get in anywhere else, or those who don’t really know what to do with themselves after high school and just sign up for a couple of classes. But for the most part, the people I teach are not here by accident or by default. They are here because they can get in no matter what their grades in high school, because they can afford it without loans or help from their parents, or because they need training in a particular career field. Many of them are extremely goal-oriented, stereotypes about community colleges aside.

But once in a while, I do have a student who makes me wonder, “Just what are you doing here?” Such was the case with Levi, but not for any of the reasons you might guess.

The first day of class, Levi asked me if he could take my course for honors credit. Since it was his first quarter at the college, he didn’t have a track record or a recommendation, so I wasn’t sure how to answer him. When I told him the requirements, he didn’t flinch.

“I don’t think that should be any problem,” he said from behind his thick glasses.

That turned out to be an understatement.

Levi was, by far, one of the brightest students I’ve taught in the last twenty years. When I taught high school in an affluent suburb, I saw plenty of national merit scholars bound for the Ivies. Levi was every bit as bright, well-read, and articulate as any of those kids. He, too, had attended a good high school in a nice neighborhood. But in all the time I knew him (he ended up taking two classes from me over the course of about a year and a half) I never did ask him why he had chosen a community college.

Early on in our acquaintance, he came to my office for help on his memoir essay about the trip to Eastern Europe he had taken with his dad and brother a few years earlier. It was weird and hilariously funny and a little bit sad. During our conference, he told me more about his dad: a Hassidic Jew who lived in Brooklyn; a ridiculously brilliant but only borderline sane guy, and by Levi’s own description, not much of a father. I suspect part of the reason Levi had wound up at my school was due to finances; his mom was single and struggling to raise him and his younger brother, and his dad could not be counted on for support or help with tuition.

That didn’t explain everything, though. Certainly kids with financial challenges go to elite schools, and he could have earned a scholarship with his considerable intellect. Not to mention that fact that AP credit, well within his grasp, exempts most kids like him from taking comp at all. I try not to ask students about their high school careers; I want them to have a fresh start with me. But if I had to guess, I’d say that Levi was one of those kids who was so bored or disinterested in what high school had to offer and so busy reading about whatever was consuming him at the time, he could’t be bothered to worry about grades. Maybe he was just the classic underachiever; as bright as he was, he wasn’t a great student, missing class and deadlines more often than he should have.

A shy kid with a wry and sophisticated sense of humor, he took to stopping by during my office hour to chat. Often, he wanted to discuss his honors paper about the Feminist evolution of Cyberpunk. I knew nothing about the genre, but he had an encyclopedic knowledge of it…and of just about everything else: politics, economics, history, and sociology. It seemed as if there were nothing he hadn’t read. We bonded over our shared dislike of the then president and our love of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Once in awhile, I’d recommend a book. Two days later, he’d come back to my office to talk about it, having devoured it in the meantime.

As much as I enjoyed his visits, sometimes I had to shoo him away. I didn’t always have thirty or forty minutes to engage in conversation for its own sake, when grading, committee work, and other students demanded my time. I think Levi was intellectually famished. It must be lonely to have so little in common with one’s classmates, to think on an entirely different plane. Even with 25 years more reading and a lot more education behind me, I couldn’t keep up. His final paper was twice as long as I had required and his honors presentation inscrutable to ninety percent of his classmates, even though it was articulately and enthusiastically delivered. Both would have held their own in a graduate course.

Levi transferred after completing his general education courses to a university nearby. A few days ago, I got an email asking for a reference; it was automatically generated, not from him personally, and asked me to comment on his suitability to be a teaching assistant. Since I had not heard from him, I was happy to get some indication he was on track and ostensibly doing well. I always felt slightly inadequate for not being able to offer the intellectual stimulation–sometimes companionship–that he needed. But I’m glad, no matter why or how Levi started here, to have been a rung on the ladder to wherever it is he’s headed.

February 20, 2011

Irene: the grandma

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:25 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Every so often, a teacher just gets one of those classes: a weird mix of people, an imbalance of genders, an odd time of day or a not-quite-right classroom. One spring quarter 6 or 7 years ago, I had a class that met all of those criteria. It was small for my school, which is to say there were fewer than twenty students who showed up regularly. (These days, with enrollment skyrocketing, it’s more typical to have 28-29 students enrolled in a section. But that’s a rant for another time.) Anyway, it was not looking good.

Of those twenty or so students, nearly all of them were young males–teenaged and young twentysomething guys who looked as though their parents had sentenced them to community college. They schlepped into class five, ten minutes late, looking like they had just rolled out of bed, even at two o’clock in the afternoon.

Thank God for Irene. She was not messing around, and was not going to have her time wasted by those little punks. She’d glare at them when they came in late like the disapproving grandmother she was old enough to be. She had retired from a long career as an autoworker, and thought it was about time to get her college degree. For her second act, she wanted to be a cop. You might think that goal was pretty unrealistic, but then you’ve never met her. She was no little old lady.

Irene was tall and broad shouldered, and had a deep, sandpapery voice earned by at least a pack a day (until, as she proudly told me, she had quit smoking after retirement). Her skin was tanned and as wrinkled as crumpled paper, but she moved like a much younger woman. She spoke up in class often, asked smart questions, and took notes furiously.

The day of the first draft workshop, she was in a group with three of the aforementioned young men. As I circulated around the room eavesdropping on their progress and checking drafts, I heard her say to one of them, “Why’d you only write two pages? It’s supposed to be at least three.”

The kid she’d addressed gaped at her like a fish and mumbled something about it just being a rough draft and not counting for a grade.

“But the professor said three pages.” She stared at him over the top of her reading glasses and waited for an answer.

From then on, a mutual grudging respect formed between her and the kids in the class. She became the ad hoc grandma of the teenaged boy crowd. Irene was not a great writer. She had plenty to say, but sentence boundaries eluded her. Fortunately, Caleb was in her group: a lanky, heavily tattooed, copiously pierced, Doc Marten wearing artist and a fabulous writer. She kicked his ass when he was late or absent, and he proofread for her. It was a perfect symbiosis.

When Irene turned in her first paper, she remarked that it had taken her longer to type it than it had to write it in the first place. And when she said “type,” she meant “type.”

“I’m thinking about getting a computer, but I don’t really know how to use one.”

I told her I thought it would be a good investment, but that she could get by without. Two weeks later, when her next paper was due, she handed in a perfectly-formatted computer-generated document.

“I bought that computer on Friday,” she told me. “Took me all weekend to figure out how to use it, but I think I’ve got it down.”

Her essays improved steadily as the quarter went on. One was about the night she went on a ride-along for her criminal justice class. I kept wondering why a woman her age would want to subject herself to such brutal hours and dangerous conditions, but she loved every minute of it. “I worked in a factory for thirty years. I’ve raised my kids. I could use a little excitement,” she told me. I could hardly argue with that.

By the end of twelve weeks, my ragtag bunch had become my favorite class. I was sorry to see them go. Irene said her goodbyes to her boys and to me, promising to keep in touch. I didn’t see much of her after that, but a couple years later, at commencement, I saw her name in the program. She was profiled, along with three or four other “nontraditional” students, in an article about student success. I watched for her as the 1200 or so students filed past the college president to receive their diplomas, and sure enough, when she was handed hers, a cheer went up from the other graduates in her major. She pumped her fist in the air as she went back to her seat, a grandmother, a retiree, and a graduate. Commencement, indeed.

*An edited version of this post was featured on The Story with Dick Gordon, an American Public Media production that airs on NPR stations nationwide. Please listen here.

January 29, 2011

Hassan: the other

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:15 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Hassan sat in the back of the classroom each day, always in a freshly pressed dress shirt and sharply creased trousers. His short beard was neatly trimmed and shot through with silver, like his hair. He struck me immediately as the consummate gentleman.

Over the course of eleven weeks, he proved to be exactly that. His accent was lilting, the r’s rolling and consonants originating in his throat or tripping down his palate. His voice was gentle, as was his demeanor. Often, he would stay after class to ask for clarification about an assignment. Although his English was quite good, I am *ahem* a bit of a fast talker, and verbal instructions sometimes got past him.

Hassan was, in every way, the model student. He worked hard, asked questions, and met deadlines. And although he struggled a bit with English grammar and idiom, so different from his native Arabic, his writing had a poetic quality that I admired. His use of metaphor, even when writing expository essays, was lovely. I would guess that the rhythms of his native language found their way into his work.

As the quarter went on, I also learned that he was warm and thoughtful. Once he learned that I had children, he inquired after them almost every time I saw him.

“How are your little girls, Miss?” he’d ask, the initial “h” throaty and the richly rolled “r” in “girls” giving the word an extra syllable: “geh-rrruhls.” One day I asked him if he had any children, and his face darkened and lit up in the same instant.

“Yes, I have one daughter. Her name is Habibah. She lives with her mother.”

I didn’t ask for details; it was clear that the subject was difficult for him. But over the course of the quarter, things leaked out in his writing. One of his papers made an argument that Islam was not the violent religion that most Westerners believe it to be. In it, he cited passages from the Koran to show how extremists had perverted an otherwise peaceful religion. Another paper was an argument against the state, alleging that he had been treated unfairly by the court system in the custody battle for his daughter.

The latter paper was painful to read; the longing for Habiba was palpable in his words. But perhaps worse than the ache of missing his daughter was that his ex wife was using his nationality and his religion as ammunition against him in a custody battle, even though she shared both. She had shed her hijab for the hearing. She had denounced her religion openly, even though Hassan knew that she was still observant. When asked in court if she had any reason to suspect that her ex husband was involved in any anti-American activity, she said she didn’t know, but that it was certainly possible. This in spite of the fact that they had together faced discrimination following 9/11. Most of the attackers were, after all, Egyptian, like them. That Hassan’s attorney allowed such questions to be asked, let alone answered, left him feeling utterly powerless, and utterly alone.

Despite this, he never seemed angry. Grief-stricken, perhaps. Demoralized. But not angry. Not violent. In fact, he seemed grateful. Humble. Appreciative of the opportunities that were in front of him–opportunities that he’d left Egypt to pursue.

I have been thinking of Hassan a lot this week, as the news of rioting, internet blocking, and revolution have dominated everything from network TV to Twitter. Hassan’s country is trying to shake off the mantle of 30 years of authoritarian rule. His homeland is in turmoil, its future uncertain.

Certainly, one might think he could have a better life here. His daughter could be free of fear and oppression. His wife could be free of systemic misogyny. He could be free of the radical elements of his faith that had hijacked both the airliners and his religion.

And yet here, where we believe in fair trials and justice and freedom, we have branded him a threat. His own wife has already learned to exploit the ingrained prejudices of people who should know better: attorneys, magistrates and judges, to keep him from his own child. Here too, his home is in turmoil, his future uncertain.

It’s quite a trade.

December 30, 2010

Gina: the mother

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 7:40 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

“I’m freaking out,” Gina said as she flung herself into the chair in my office. “I’m sorry. I’m just freaking out…”

“Relax, girl. It’s just a paper.”

The quarter was almost over. Portfolios were due in a week. My office hour was crammed with back-to-back conferences with panicked students. It is hard right before finals week not to take on some of their stress. “It’s just a class. Just do the work,” I want to tell them. Sometimes that helps.

But not Gina.

“No, no. No, it’s not that,” she was starting to cry.

I handed her a tissue.

“I’m pregnant again,” she blubbered. “I’m sorry I’m sorry. You don’t need to know this…”

But she went on, the words spraying out like water from a ruptured pipe. She was a fast talker to begin with; it was all I could do to keep up.

Gina had frustrated me all quarter. She was loud. Constantly late. In the habit of interrupting class to ask a question that I had answered just minutes before. But I liked her. She laughed easily, and there was a ferocity to her that lurked just beneath the surface.

In her first paper, I learned that she had been incarcerated for two years prior to coming to school. She wrote about her meth addiction. It had begun as a way to cope with sleep deprivation and weight gain following the birth of her child, and had landed her in jail after she moved in with a loser who was cooking it in his basement. The baby went to foster care. The boyfriend was in for five years.

But now she was out, she was clean, she had her now-three-year-old back, and she was determined to do right by him. College was the first step, and she was not, in her words “going to fuck it up this time.”

So this discovery, coming at the end of her first quarter of college when things were looking so good for her, was an earthquake.

“I can’t have a baby,” she sobbed. “I can barely take care of the one I have. I can barely take care of myself.”

Her honesty was raw and brutal; her fierceness had deserted her. I didn’t quite know what to say. I could not presume to suggest options, but I didn’t have to.

“I can’t have an abortion,” she said preemptively. “I’m adopted. Somebody gave me a chance. I can’t…”

She had written about her middle-class upbringing. Her struggles with ADD. The parents who did everything right, but still raised a troublemaker and an addict. She seemed vaguely apologetic for not having been the daughter they deserved, but also grateful to them for not giving up on her. She never once blamed them; it was as though her troubles had been predetermined in her genes.

“Well, what about that, Gina?” I offered. “Couldn’t you do the same? Give this baby a chance by putting it up for adoption?”

“He won’t let me. He has already said he won’t sign the papers.” She went on to tell me, as my blood pressure rose, about her poorly chosen mate, his financial issues, his debt to two other women and their children. It would not have done any good to shout what I wanted to ask: What the hell were you thinking, sleeping with this loser after all you’ve been through? Have you ever heard of birth control?!? But I didn’t have to. She said it for me.

When the storm had subsided, she sat for a few minutes while I handed her Kleenex. I encouraged her to talk to the baby’s father again. Talk to her counselor and her sponsor. She had some time to make a decision. It was too soon to give up.

“I have to go to my Psych exam,” she finally said. “I’m sorry I dumped on you. I’ll figure it out.”

When I saw her next, she was preternaturally cheerful.

“Hey, you look better,” I said.

“I am. I’m good, I’m good,” she told me. “He’s agreed to adoption. It’ll be fine.” She delivered this in her typical rapid-fire style, her jittery energy back in evidence. “I’m going to do this, you know.”

“I know,” I told her.

But I didn’t know. I still don’t.

I saw her again only once, about six months later. We were in a crosswalk on campus, rushing in opposite directions. By the time I recognized her and started to speak, she was gone. I couldn’t tell whether she was pregnant; by my calculation, she should have been close to delivery by then. But even shrouded in a heavy coat, she didn’t appear to be carrying a child.

Maybe it had been a false alarm, or she had miscarried, or had an abortion after all. Maybe I had calculated wrong, and she had already delivered the baby. I didn’t have a chance to ask.

Today, as I was writing this post, I got my daily email from The Rumpus. The editor, Stephen Elliot (author of The Adderall Diaries) said this: “You pull yourself up by the bootstraps. You get, in life, what you deserve. It’s patently false. You don’t get what you deserve, for better and worse. Bootstraps only work with safety nets, something to catch you when they snap.”

Here’s hoping hers didn’t snap, or if they did, that the safety net held.

December 16, 2010

Franny: the little person

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 11:17 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

On the first day of class each quarter, I have my students write an informal introductory letter. In it, they can tell me about their fears and hopes for the class, their kids, their pet pythons, or anything else they think they’d like to share. Some of the letters are stilted and dull (the ones who try to impress me the first day often bore me to tears), some over share, and some are just fun to read. But I can’t say I’ve ever before or since read a sentence like this one:

“I’m Franny, and I’m 27 inches tall…”

It’s not as though I hadn’t noticed this tiny woman in class, but when I was reading the letters the next afternoon, seeing the number was sort of jarring. “…in case you’re wondering,” she went on as if she were reading my mind. I would guess she’d been asked “exactly how tall are you?” by enough boors to just preemptively get it out there.

“I’m also 27 years old, an inch for each year. I live with my boyfriend. He is six feet tall. And yes, people stare.”

Once in a while, Franny would arrive at the classroom in an umbrella stroller pushed by a classmate. Sometimes she put her backpack in it and pushed it herself; her book bag was, after all, almost as big as she was.

“I can’t walk very far,” she told me once when I announced that we’d be meeting in the library (a pretty good hike across campus) next session. “…it’s my arthritis. But if I know ahead of time, I can get someone to help me.”

I was sort of awed by Franny’s frankness. She wasn’t the slightest bit shy about asking someone to give her a push to her next class or boost her up to her chair or get a book from a shelf. And why should she have been? Her stature was not an infirmity, it was a physical fact that she dealt with matter-of-factly.

Until the research project, that is.

For their term papers, I encourage students to research something that has some sort of personal relevance. If you have a kid with autism, learn more about it. If you lie awake at night worrying about global warming, read up on it. If you want to legalize marijuana, shut up already, I’ve heard it all. Franny, not surprisingly, decided to write about dwarfism. It was a little shocking to me that she had never done any research about it, but in retrospect, I suppose it makes sense. She did not think of her stature as a medical condition any more than I think of my eye color as being one.

About two weeks into the research project, she approached me after class.

“I’m not sure I can do this topic,” she said quietly.

“What do you mean, Franny? There has to be plenty of information out there. Maybe you’re not looking in the right places.”

“Oh, it’s not that. I’m finding plenty of articles. I’m just having a hard time reading them.”

“Oh, right. Those scholarly journal articles can be pretty dense. Have you tried some other sources?”

She was quiet for a second. Then she explained to me than that it wasn’t the jargon she was struggling with; it was that most of what she was finding in the medical literature regarding dwarfism was about how to fix it. How to correct deformities. How to conduct gene therapies that would eliminate the “risk” of this “defect.” How to ensure that people like her would never be born.

I didn’t quite know what to say to that.

Franny wound up writing a very different paper than she had planned. She used what she had found to show the biases of the medical community. She researched technologies that little people could use to adapt to their challenges. She wrote about intolerance and acceptance.

In the end, her paper was about the beautiful variety and infinite adaptability of human beings. I’m not sure she would have summed it up that way, but it seemed crystal clear to me.


Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at