I had a student last term who for a week sat in the first row spitting diseased mucus into an empty Dr. Pepper bottle. This was my first class of the day, 9 am. He told me his mother would kill him if he didn’t come to class, even when he was so sick he could not raise his head up off the table. Boils developed on his nose, which was translucently red from being blown on the streamers of toilet paper he’d bring into class.
In the same class there was a young man, a member of the National Guard, who came in 24 minutes late regularly, carrying a gallon jug of water and reeking of pot. Puffy-eyed, he’d write a fairly decent in-class essay, showing good grammar skills, that had nothing to do with the topic, and then leave at 9:45.
When I went up to my office before the next class at 10:30, I felt nauseated. I lost any desire to ever drink a Dr. Pepper again, and I was concerned about what would happen if there was a need for the National Guard in my neighborhood.
There was a student in the 10:30 class, just turned 18, who never failed to say something amazing. His essays were publishable. I still remember his argument against assisted suicide, saying that when a life ended it was like a unique piece of art being destroyed, like the Mona Lisa being shredded. His politics were more conservative than mine, but he made me think.
At 1pm I got to deal with a middle-aged woman who looked like Beavis of “Beavis and Butthead,” with a long black wig on, who despised me. She and a G.Q. gorgeous young man with gelled hair sat in the last row and disdained everything I did; they talked constantly to each other about my lameness. “Miss,” said the guy, who never took his dark glasses off except to hang them under his chin for a moment, “I hate this class.” When I’d ask him to stop text messaging or to stop getting up and down during class he explained with a troubled, furrowed brow that he had a learning disability. “Miss, I don’t want to be here,” he’d say. And of course, I didn’t want him to be there either.
One day I asked him why, if he was so miserable, he was in the class. He explained that his parole officer made him go to school.
The students in that class were constantly talking to each other. I’d sometimes sink into blatant derision, calling them a bunch of adolescent addicts. Or I’d just stand there and mutter to the scrawny kid in the front row, “When did I lose control?”
There was a middle aged Korean businessman in that class. He had enrolled in order to improve his English skills while he was temporarily working with a high-tech computer company in town. Polite, nodding his head whenever I looked at him, he sat between three girls, who giggled about the good looking young man who was on parole, and an older woman who wore Tinkerbell t-shirts.
It was because of him, and his meticulously handwritten essays, that I felt any desire to walk into that classroom. But about nine weeks into the term, he wrote me an email saying something like, “With most honored gratitude I must to inform you that my obligations within business and the need to travel to several European capitals for a month require that I no longer attend class. When I go back to my country I will always remember you and the atmosphere of your class.”
No doubt! Somehow I can’t see a teacher in a classroom in Korea listening to her students explain why they don’t think they need to buy the textbooks.
Oh yeah, and then there was my cute creative writing student who came in late to the 6pm class and passed out in her desk, slowly sliding down until her neck was on the back of the chair and her mouth was gaping open. The subject line of her email the next day was “Class Drunk.” Several students in that class wrote a final exam essay about their own tragic flaws.
The guy who hawked up phlegm into a Dr. Pepper bottle actually passed that 9am class. The guy on parole (who’d attended a private high school, by the way) didn’t hand in a research paper or show up for the final exam and got an “F.” The woman in the Tinkerbell shirt and the guy who wrote the Mona Lisa metaphor both made an “A.”
I’m eligible for retirement. But I can’t leave this stuff.
JenniferJuly 1, 2009 at 6:42 am
We humans are fascinating, and it sounds like each semester for you is ultimate people watching, observing the classroom stage in a study of character. I did much the same thing as a university student (the observing, not any of these other antics), gathering clues to my fellow students, and befriending those with a similar work ethic or those who had a passion for learning and the subject matter of a lecture. It’s a shame that a four year degree is the new diploma, because the quality of student has changed accordingly. I’m sure as a professor those few students who show interest or make you think are the highlight of a given day. Here’s hoping you have many more little lights on that vast, empty sea.
Barbara LynchAugust 4, 2009 at 10:59 am
I just finished “Confessions of a Pagan Nun” and plan to read more of your storytelling. You may me feel Gwynneve’s plight, a much appreciated ability. Students are not always in college to learn. Too bad they are wasting the opportunity to learn from such a gifted writer. I would love to have had the opportunity to learn from you!
AndreaAugust 16, 2009 at 2:49 pm
There are so many times I felt discouraged coming to class, worried that I’d somehow lost control; but then there were students who made it worthwhile and then there were those who were just a sideshows at which I couldn’t stop gawking…couldn’t make some things up if I’d tried. You emailed me regarding your book Confessions of a Pagan Nun, which I’d assigned to my students. So many of them had positive comments about it. I want to again thank you for your kindness in responding to my emails! You are a wonderful person.
Alan SmitheeApril 19, 2011 at 9:07 pm
I just started teaching in fall of 2008, and I wish I could share this piece with my students. I’m only 25 and I once had a professor tell me, after my fifth absence of his American Lit. class and near tears over how I didn’t know why I was becoming an English major, “you have to be the change you want to see in your students.” I still don’t know if I can take his words and push myself to a level of confidence that I feel I must have in order to be a good instructor, let alone one who has never been strong with conventions and standardized tests. I overwrite and and never feel like my students understand the language I speak. Still, I show up each day and try to help them feel comfortable as writers. Reading your thoughts lets me know I’m not alone. And I thank you deeply.
ShelbyOctober 8, 2011 at 10:09 am
Well, it is reassuring to know that things would not have been any better had I been teaching at the university level.
My favorite student episode, eighth grade U.S. History, was when one of the girls wrote me a note telling me that she really loved my class, but she wished we didn’t spend so much time talking about the past.
Cynthia HigginsDecember 22, 2011 at 7:48 pm
Seventh grade language arts isn’t much better; I’m with you-while it’s frustrating most days, it’s interesting every day.