I need to be a little more conscientious about writing here, I think. I’m having a wonderful adventure as an adjunct at Local U., and I don’t want to let the experience pass by without having written – and thought – about it here. It’s very easy for 15 weeks to fly by; before we know it, it’ll be winter break – hell, we’re already a third of the way through it – so I’m making the commitment to post at least a couple of times a week from here on out. I don’t want to get to the end of the term and have nothing but memory to rely upon.
That being said, my classes are going wonderfully. There’s a lot going on, and I still have a bit of the sense that I’m just keeping up but that it’s getting better. Do you remember being a kid and running down a steep hill? Eventually, you weren’t so much running as you were just not falling; gravity was doing the moving for you, you were just trying to keep up. Yeah, that’s the feeling. It’s less now that I’ve had a month to settle into it, and I’ve not made any major stumbles, so I’m feeling pretty damned optimistic about the whole trip.
To refresh your memory (because I’ve been pretty lax about writing here, and because I don’t remember what I’ve told you when I DID write), I have two sections of Freshman Writing at Local U., which is a state school in my neighborhood. Each of my classes is full – 23 students in the morning (too early in the morning, if you ask them) and 24 in the evening – with a pretty even mix of males and females in each. I have no non-trad students; they’re all 18 or 19-year-olds in college for the first time. I’ve got one foreign student, a Chinese national whose spoken English is pretty good, but who still struggles with tenses and articles and sentence structure. I’ve got two genuine slackers who, I can tell already, likely won’t pass the course. I’ve got about a dozen kids for whom this class is going to be one of the best of their semester; they’re engaged, participatory, and enthusiastic about the work we’re doing. It’s a good set of classes I’ve got, and I’m grateful that my first experience as a teacher at a “real” school turned out to be as balanced and relatively easygoing as it is.
This post is about one student in particular, though. Chris is in my morning class. He’s a quiet kid; a big, imposing-looking young man whose exterior appearance belies the marshmallow within. He’s the kind of guy who would make women nervous if they found themselves encountering him on a dark street, but he’s also the kind of guy who would offer to walk those same women home. He doesn’t participate much in class – I think he’s still mostly asleep – but I suspect he does pay attention because, every time I look at him, he’s looking back at me, and not in that blank, half-asleep way that most of the other kids in that class do, either.
The students are working on their first papers – a personal narrative that documents some kind of change they’ve undergone as students, athletes, or human beings. Most of the kids knew right away what they were going to write about; I continue to be sadly amazed by how many of these children have experienced some sort of personal tragedy already in their short little lives. They’ve had parents go through brutal divorces, best friends have died in bloody car crashes, one student was diagnosed with a debilitating heart condition after passing out while mowing the lawn and lying there for about half an hour before someone found him. Crazy. Anyway, their job is to give the reader some sense of who they were; to discuss and reflect upon an event or series of events that precipitated an essential change in their attitude, outlook, or behavior; and to demonstrate how the person they are now is essentially different from the person they were before.
Chris told me, in our initial conference, that he was going to write about teaching a mentally disabled boy to swim at summer camp. He told me that he is a kinder, more patient person as a result of that experience, and that he came to the realization that putting oneself in another’s shoes is an important means of gaining perspective and clarity. Well, OKAY, then! That sounds like a GREAT topic! I told him that I was eagerly awaiting his story, and I sent him off to get started.
Yesterday, when the students were workshopping their third drafts – the last before the final paper is due – Chris came to me after class and seemed entirely crestfallen. “Mrs. Chili,” he said, “my paper sucks. I mean, it really sucks. I didn’t enjoy writing it, I didn’t get to the point I wanted to get to, and the whole thing… well, it just sucks.”
“Okay, Chris. What do you want to do about that?” I asked.
“I know it’s WICKED late and the paper’s due on Wednesday – can I just chuck the whole thing and start from scratch with a new topic?”
“Chris, Honey, ABSOLUTELY you may. Recognize that it’s going to be a tough thing to pull off because you won’t have had the benefit of workshops with your classmates, but if you feel that a from-scratch effort without peer review will be better than this one with it, then give it a shot.”
With that, my boy brightened up and left assuring me that he was going to knuckle down and get this paper done. Not only that, but he promised me that it WOULD be better than the one he’s been laboring under for the last two weeks, and to prove it, he’s going to include the paper he started with, just to show me how terrible it truly is.
I do worry about the fact that he’ll not have the chance to revise, but I also know that there are some students (I was one) for whom the revision process is little more than tweaking and copy editing; I was never one to make huge structural changes to my narratives, and perhaps Chris will be okay without that in this case. What’s most important to me here, though, is that Chris recognized that he wasn’t getting anywhere with the work he was doing and had the initiative to think up another topic (albeit very late in the process). I have every confidence that his paper will be decent; but more than that, I think that the bigger lesson that Chris got as a result of this experience is FAR more valuable than the paper itself.
I held the door open, and he walked right on through.