At the beginning of each school year my mind turns to memories of gifted student writers I recall with joy, and the others: the earnest failures, the silly childish ones and the few nervy dishonest ones who plagiarized; they live in my head.
For more than half a century I’ve worked, with pleasure, teaching English, most of those years in Manhattan’s only community college. Our student body is probably the most cosmopolitan in the country.
Thus I woke today thinking about my favorite all-time shnook, the freshman in my remedial English class in the 1950’s who began the term by overcutting – four absences were allowed and he had taken eleven. When challenged he’d forthwith appeared with his “doctor’s note” (handwritten and not on letterhead) which asked earnestly that I excuse his patient who was being treated for “newmonia.” The student erred in being so grand; he should have stuck with what he could spell – a “cold.” He did not go quietly. He kept protesting to the end that his doctor was the poor speller.
However, not all bad beginnings are lost causes. One term I taught a young Indian man who’d emigrated with his large family. He often mentioned his respected and venerable elder brother. Then, in his autobiographical first paper, the writer handed in a badly told sloppy tale of witnessing a purse snatching in a grocery store as a small child and determined to go to the Police Academy! Laudable motivation, except I had marked that very same paper a year earlier and noted its many grammatical weaknesses which had not been corrected!
“I know this paper. I’ve marked it before.” I said handing it back.
He blushed and was silent.
“An autobiographical paper is about your own life. If you have no autobiography then you are not alive,” My words were sharp. “Whose life is this?”
There was a long silence.
“My elder brother’s. I couldn’t think of anything so he kindly offered it. Nothing ever happened to me, Professor.”
“You emigrated,” I suggested.
“Oh – I didn’t think of that. When I couldn’t come up with something my brother showed his great kindness.”
“He really didn’t,” I said. “The paper only earned a C-, barely passing. And he was dishonest. He should not go to the Police Academy. And you should drop this course. Why take a writing course if you don’t think you can write a single thing about your own life?”
He looked truly miserable. “Please let me try again,” he pleaded. “Let me stay in the class and do one more paper.”
I considered it. “Only if you promise not to discuss your writing with your elder brother,” I decided. “This is YOUR course.”
His next paper was a neat, carefully detailed description of a modest house in Queens he’d bought for his family (retired parents and five siblings). His elder brother was marrying and could not take on such a burden. I let him stay and he earned a solid honest “B”. It might have been an “A” but for the “kindness” of his elder brother.
I hope he remembers he too is entitled to have a life!
My long-time most hopeless student was an exceedingly pious and sanctimonious fellow in the 1960’s who let us know that he was a regular churchgoer and he NEVER used obscenity. Early on he volunteered to read and then brought a girl up front with him. “She will read the words I wrote but can’t say,” he explained, smiling.
“Wait – you thought them,” I stopped him. “You wrote them. Isn’t that more dangerous than just saying them?”
“No.” He really couldn’t see it. We had this recurrent conversation throughout the term. He wrote several brutal vicious violent stories – scary stuff – I insisted that he read what he wrote and he never understood why I wanted him to say dirty words.
He was hurt when he didn’t get an “A”. I failed with him; I just never got through. And there was no staff psychiatric help available then.
I’ve wondered many times since then about who is saying what he thinks – now.
Sheila – wow – that final story got me. The power of words. The power of teaching. Thanks so much for sharing this!