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Learning from My Students

Posted: 2005-03-14

This teacher did what so many teachers seem incapable of doing: she admitted to her own frailty, ignorance, even failure.


Chuck wanted to know the number of words in the English language. That was just one of the many questions that I, his writing instructor, couldn't answer. Chuck went so far as to ask a college librarian, who forwarded the question to the associate editor of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries.



Chuck's question was answered, but perhaps not to his satisfaction. "It has been estimated," wrote the editor, "that the vocabulary of English includes roughly 1 million words (an estimate to be taken with a grain of salt) and this includes the myriad names of chemicals and other scientific entities. No matter which way you slice it, the English language is big." And while our language is large, it seems small when trying to capture the spirit of a life lived richly.



I recounted all of that in my eulogy for Chuck. When I heard that he had passed away, I wasn't surprised. Chuck was just the first in a bevy of blue-collar workers in my developmental-writing class who had come to college with weak livers, lungs, hearts, or backs. Men who felt that forever was too long to be lifting furniture, laying floors, or perching on the roofs of other people's homes.



I admit I have a special fondness for such students. My grandfather was a union painter. My uncle is an electrician, my brother a carpenter. And although my parents are both educators, I was raised outside of Cleveland where from the tallest hill in the neighborhood we could see the balls of fire from steel-mill smokestacks.



Chuck was a student in the very first course I taught at a Massachusetts community college. I was 25 years old then, and he was 44. I had no previous teaching experience. My former job included typesetting manuals for a pharmaceutical-training company, a job I hated.



But I had a master's degree in writing. So when the instructor scheduled to teach the course -- an integrated reading and writing class designed to prepare students to take freshman English -- backed out, I was the desperate choice of a community-college dean.



On my first day, I asked a young female student to put away her math homework. When she told me that, in college, students could do whatever they wanted, I was speechless. I had flashbacks of the junior-high bullying I'd endured. It took a minute, but when I remembered that I was the teacher, I repeated my request. "I can't stand you and I'm never coming back!" she screamed.



Chuck approached me after class, arms crossed in front of his chest, rocking back and forth on his boots like a metronome trying to find its center. He wanted me to know he was there to learn. It was all I needed to come back the next day.



Well, that isn't entirely true. After reading the results of the timed writing assignment I'd given to gauge where my students were starting, I was sure that I wasn't up for the job. But as I no longer wished to create tables showing the efficacy of drugs preventing Ggastroesophageal reflux disease, I pressed on.



Because some of my students had never read an entire book before, and because many of them were suspicious of authority, particularly of the educational bent, I thought The Catcher in the Rye seemed like a good choice for our first book. Only one student had read it, the one who had sworn never to come back (after a week of cooling off, she plopped herself back in the front row).



For their essays on the book, I asked the students to contemplate whether there was any way to grow up and not be a phony. Like most of my students, Chuck concluded there was not. He, and other students like him, prized authenticity. Academic writing seemed, to many of them, artificial and insincere. Cynthia Ozick's idea of the "essay as a warm body," as something electric or even animate, seemed preposterous to them.



So there I was, teaching something my students thought was bogus. I knew what I couldn't do to get their interest in the classroom. I couldn't resort to antics. You know the kind: Think Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.



I've never been comfortable as the center of attention, so I opted for honesty. I decided to bring in a copy of my master's thesis, a project at which I had initially failed and had to redraft. I plunked it down on the lectern, all 200 pages of it, and announced that I'd flunked the most important paper of my life.



It made an impression. "You failed at writing?" they asked. "Royally," I answered. For the first time, I was just like them, and it shocked the heck out of us all.



At Chuck's funeral, one of the eulogies referred to his hard times, another to his unpolished edges. And while I didn't know the extent of his problems, it was always clear that Chuck was unhealthy. Underneath the manufactured tan he kept through a New England fall, his skin was jaundiced. He was not just slender, but thin in the way a worn blanket can be.



He was desperate to do well in my class. Every handout I gave, he kept. Chuck had known failure, and it motivated him, it made him compassionate and giving. He met often with another student, a young man who barely spoke the entire semester and was having some trouble in class. In a bar, probably over a beer, they worked on their papers. Between you and me, I rather like that image; it seems terribly writerly.



Chuck did well in my class. He won the developmental-writing category of a collegewide essay contest. The next semester, he visited me in the writing lab and showed me every paper he wrote. Then he got into a motorcycle accident. He visited the campus once he had mended, and after that I never heard from him again.



It wasn't like I missed him. In some ways it was a relief to read one less paper from a former student. As a developmental-writing instructor, I have always felt some responsibility to make sure that all of my students succeed after they leave my course and move on to others. I've read and reviewed essays for hundreds of students who are no longer officially my own.



To some degree I think I finally understand those young mothers in the mall who look down at their children hanging on their legs and yell, "Leave me alone!" I found myself needing to push students away, both for my sake and theirs. And the longer I taught, the more I found myself pushing.



I would pray for a foot of snow, for plumbing failures, for a fire that wouldn't hurt anyone -- anything to cancel class. All of those things happened, but class, like the light at a Motel 6, was always on. My teaching career was like a stale marriage, where even on the edge of an argument there is only apathy. I couldn't write; I barely read. I rewarded myself for grading a stack of papers with a glass of wine. It's probably safe to say that when one has fantasies about becoming a migrant worker, something has to change.



Then I got a call about Chuck.



His funeral was packed. I remember the thick snowflakes that speckled the dark coats of mourners. I remember Chuck's sister slumped over in her seat as I spoke. I remember best an arrangement of photos and mementos. Among the pictures of Chuck before his health began to fail was the framed certificate he had won years earlier in that essay contest.



When I started teaching I was idealistic. I was 25. I wasn't sure whether I knew everything or nothing. I taught my students that writing represents an opportunity to make a contribution to the human conversation. But after seven years in the classroom, I had stopped contributing to that conversation. I no longer wrote or read for pleasure. I didn't read my students' essays, I graded them.



I could say that Chuck's death reminded me that my work touches lives, but I suppose I always knew that. What I'd failed to remember was the reciprocity of teaching, that indeed my students can and should teach me something. As a writing teacher, I am expected to help students find and use their voices. But I am supposed to get something out of it, too, something more than a thanks or the satisfaction of a job well done. I am one of the beneficiaries of those voices, and they inform and contribute to my own.



Now, in the midst of another semester, I'm reminded of a piece of advice from Mr. Antolini, Holden Caufield's teacher: "Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them -- if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."



Laurel Santini is a reading and writing specialist at a Massachusetts community college.

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