The Personal Essay

My L.U. students are handing in their first essays.  The morning kids gave me theirs on Wednesday, and the evening kids’ papers are due on Monday.

I had high hopes for the quality of these essays.  I’d become so downtrodden and disenchanted by my TCC kids and the very nearly abysmal quality of their work that I was certain – certain, I tell you! – that the kids from Local U. would do significantly better.  After all, I reasoned, the kids from TCC don’t have to pass through any acceptance procedure – if they can pay their bills, they can come to class.  Local U. kids needed to have decent high school grades, needed to take the SAT tests, and needed to submit an application – along with an admissions essay – to be accepted into college.  That alone guaranteed a higher quality of student.  Didn’t it?

It turns out?  Not so much.

Here’s the assignment I gave them:

In your first essay, you will reflect on an experience that influenced your development as a reader, writer, scholar, or person; your understanding of your community and your place in it; or your views or attitude toward others or the world around you. Your task is to write a narrative about when, where, why, and how this change(s) occurred. In your narrative, you’ll want to clarify to your audience why this experience was significant. What happened is not enough; readers will want to know how this experience happened and why it was important to you. To make your change understandable and credible to your readers, you’ll need to show and possibly explain what you were like BEFORE and AFTER the experience.

I’ve only read seven essays so far.  Two of them were pretty good, three of them were okay, and two were just awful.  The students all excelled at choosing a moment that was significant in their development (one student wrote about being pulled over for speeding while smoking pot, for example, and one wrote about being diagnosed with a serious heart condition), but they all failed, to varying degrees, to really analyze how that moment was significant.

So, here’s what I’m offering up to you, Dear Readers; in the comments – or on your own sites with links in the comments – tell about an experience that was significant to your development as a teacher, a son or daughter, a parent, or just as a human being.  Tell a story that shows us who you were before, tell us the story of what happened to change you, then tell us a story that illustrates the kind of person you are now.  Somebody please give me a good example that I can bring to my students next semester as a model of a good personal narrative.



Filed under about writing, composition, failure, frustrations, General Griping, Learning, self-analysis, Teaching, writing, Yikes!

7 responses to “The Personal Essay

  1. Doesn’t perfectly fit the assignment but close. This post:

    Specifically these paras:
    Time is something we don’t have a lot of these days. Every instance someone spending even a little of it on you I think should noted as a privilege. Love isn’t something that always gets paid back kopek for kopek, franc for franc, or minute for minute. Sometimes it really shouldn’t be. It should, however, be appreciated when it is lavished on you in whatever increments.

    The second person I thought of when I read that phrase was Mrs. X. ChemE and I first got to know her because of the value she put on time. She hired ChemE, and later me, to babysit her daughters so that she and Mr. X could have a weekly date. They rarely did anything far out of the norm, sometimes they’d just walk long the river in the park but every week they spent time together, just the two of them. For years and years after that ChemE and I made a point to visit her and whatever bits of her family we could corral every time we went home. This was a tradition long before she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Our particular joy was the time we spent at Christmas, despite it also being the busiest and most visit of the year for each of us. Sappy as it sounds the scant hours we carved out each holiday season to sit on her living room floor and laugh were both the cheapest and most expensive gifts we both gave and received. Every time we started the scheduling process Mrs. X would say, “Oh I know you girls are busy, you don’t have to visit us if you can’t fit it in. We’ll see you next time.” She knew the value of that time and she didn’t require us to spend it on her but when we were there she enjoyed us fully and we her. By giving us the option she also helped us learn to value the time we gave and to prioritize accordingly.

  2. morgan

    A pool. It was as if I were stuck in a pool.

    I was back on campus, 3000 miles away from home. My mom had accompanied me, for which I was grateful. I had left school abruptly, about one week before finals, and it was time to wrap up my entire semester in four short days. Of course, I was aware of all the obvious stresses; I had five exams, the next semester’s registration, and lots of packing to do. Still, I was ready to focus and get everything done with my head held high. I may have been a forever changed student, but I was still a student and I had responsibilities.

    Then, I couldn’t breathe. I was under water, trapped somewhere I didn’t recognize. It seemed as though I was at the university, but the voices around me were distorted as if everyone was trying to communicate with me while playing in the deep end. My vision was blurred, from chlorine or too many tears, I don’t even know. I experienced the same panic that befalls one who is pulled toward the bottom, completely unsure of what the next 30 seconds will bring.

    My dad had died six days earlier and I knew I would never be the same. The difficulty did not surprise me. I just never expected to feel so strange.

    ***I wrote this rather quickly in response to your request, so it’s short and unrevised, but hopefully it something with which you can work

  3. WOW!

    See? This is a great – GREAT – first draft intro. Morgan, you probably pounded this out in ten minutes right off the top of your head, and it’s better than anything my kids have given me (so far – I’ve only been through 7 of 23 essays so far). Sigh.

    If I’m going to be fair, though, I have to remember that you – and most of my readers – have had the benefit of a pretty comprehensive education already and my students are brandy-new freshman, but I just get the feeling that most of my kids kinda phoned this in because I don’t see evidence of attention paid to the things that we worked on in class. They’re in for a pretty nasty shock when they get their papers back; college professors don’t grade like high school teachers do, and I’m considering putting in a 2 day waiting period on complaining about one’s grade…

    Sigh. I’m forcing promising myself to read at least five papers a day for the next three; I want to end the torture have these back to them on Monday.

  4. Kizz, I’m off to read the post. I think I remember this one, and I’m pretty sure it WOULD satisfy the prompt…

  5. Why? Why on earth did I make myself do this?

    Yet, there I was. 24 and entering high school again. The first few weeks of teacher training were great. I heard lectures about differentiated learning, about special didactic approaches to activate my students, and I became inspired.

    But on this first day in the field I felt like a freshman. Entering the schoolgate with my backpack, I realized that I didn’t feel -or look- much different than the students surrounding me. And then, suddenly, I heard a group of students yell at me: “Yo, chickie”.

    I froze. This wasn’t right. I was the teacher, and not some kind of classmate. This profoundly humiliating experience changed my approach to teaching. From then on, I dressed more professionally. I changed the way I looked around and the way I talked to students, and I got myself a leather briefcase in stead of my Eastpak.

    Could this provocative student even imagine how much his remarks affected me and my career?

  6. redroach

    This is going to take a couple of days. Can I turn it in late?


  7. i’m sure you’ve read it already, but:

    i wrote that in my teaching program, with very similar instructions to what you gave your kids. of course, that final draft is after a few rounds of editing and peer review.

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