by Jocelyn Pihlaja
The wooden floors creak under my footsteps. A newly-minted graduate assistant, I am searching for the classroom where 25 freshman composition students shift nervously, wondering if their English teacher will suck. I examine the numbers printed on the wavy glass of each door and try to swallow my fear, also hoping their English teacher doesn’t suck. My arms are loaded with purple-inked syllabi, grading explanations, and an icebreaker activity, all fresh off the ditto machine.
When I find the room, I balance the stack of papers and use my hip to push the door open. Heads swivel. I smile and inch to the front of the room. After checking my detailed script for the period, I inhale—wishing air were confidence—and turn my back to the room. Picking up a piece of chalk, I write my name on the board, pressing elbow close to body, hiding the patch of sweat soaked into the fabric of my dress.
Two weeks later, the mustachioed student who sits in the middle of the room—a man whose first paper relates the story of both his children dying from reactions to their “baby shots”—lingers after class, paternal still, to advise me I shouldn’t have set him apart in my feedback by writing “Your work is head and shoulders above that of your classmates.”
I don’t quite know what to do with his words. For a quick beat, I stare at him, flummoxed. He stares back at me. Trying to acknowledge his desire to be helpful, I steady myself and thank the student, unaware that this ad hoc strategy will guide the next decades of my life.
Before every class, I spend time in the bathroom, my body expelling anxiety. I still refer to scripted lessons, but I am more effective when I lift my eyes from instructions and connect with individuals in the room, when I create assignments that keep their eyes from glazing over.
Sweating, always sweating, I carry my boom box to classes, play Enya, Shawn Colvin, Alice in Chains, and ask students to describe what they hear and the impact it has on the listening audience. Acting as DJ, I survey the bent heads: the exquisite young woman recently returned from modeling in Japan; the good-natured, often-drunk frat boy; the mom who regales me with her five-year-old’s adventures in “kinniegarden”; the 18-year-old who submits a three-page essay devoid of punctuation. When I ask him to revise, urging him to add periods at the ends of sentences to indicate boundaries, he responds with piercingly sweet bewilderment, “I have no idea what you mean.”
Graduate school completed, I teach writing full time, laughing when a former professor, hearing of my job, comments, “Ah, composition: the armpit of the university.”
One semester, puffed with ego, a curly-haired young man storms into my cubicle during office hours, accusing me of “nickel and diming” him into a poor grade. Loudly, he demands, “That assignment was worth ten points. You gave me an eight. Where did my two points go?”
Reeling, I ask him to justify the eight points he did receive, noting that grades don’t start at perfection and then get whittled down but, rather, start at zero and accrue upward. Snarling, he asks, “Where did you go to college anyhow?” When I tell him, he snipes, “What’s that? A junior college?”
After he stomps out, I slump in my cubicle, wondering how I will continue to walk into the classroom each day with anything resembling confidence, knowing he will be hate-watching my every move. A colleague enters our communal office, and since my desperation is palpable, we are soon conversing about difficult students. Having been in the classroom for much longer than my few years, she provides wise counsel. She notes that such conflicts invariably occur between male students and female instructors. “You know how, if you see a bear on the path when you’re hiking, you’re supposed to get big?” She throws her arms straight above her head, extending her height to eight feet. “That’s what I do with aggressive students. I GET BIG.”
After missing weeks of class and multiple assignments, the angry student barely squeaks through. His end-of-term evaluation is scathing, a direct hit to my heart. Later, while reviewing my evaluations with the Director of Writing, she soothes, “If there aren’t a few negatives in every class, I question what was going on in the room. When someone is upset, it means you were really in there.”
The department’s end-of-term portfolio grading makes my jaw ache, but having two objective colleagues assign Pass or Fail to a folder containing my students’ revised work feels clean and honest. I sleep very little during the three days of portfolio assessment. As I scan students’ final results, I forget to breathe. For special cases, I lodge an appeal with the hope that providing the “big picture” of a student’s story will inform the teachers on how to read the writing.
When final grades are filed with the registrar, I celebrate with a shopping spree. Checking out, I am surprised to see one of my students standing behind the cash register. Smiling, she says, “I’m glad to see you here. I kept meaning to tell you that you might like our store. In class, I always admired your clothes.”
Her portfolio barely passed the departmental assessment, but her kindness gets an A.
I’m teaching in a new town, a place where livelihoods are dependent upon a factory where a significant strike took place more than a decade earlier. A few weeks into my first semester, I stand at the front of the room, pointing at chairs, calling out names, putting students in groups for peer reviewing of rough drafts. I may be in a long-distance relationship, without any connections in this new community, living in a wood-paneled relic from the 1960s—but I know how to get students into groups.
When I urge, “Grab your bags and move to the corner of the room where your group will convene,” I am surprised. A few students move. Quite a few don’t. “Is there a problem?” I ask two stone-faced girls in the front row.
“Yea,” one of them growls. “We’re labor kids. Our dads lost their jobs. Those guys you put us with are management kids. We don’t work with them. We need a new group.”
With her long blonde hair and lucent blue eyes, much has come easily for her, including a husband, baby, and second pregnancy by age nineteen. Family is all she ever wanted, but suddenly, in the college classroom, she is realizing how big the world is and how small her life feels in comparison. One day, while completing an activity that asks her to analyze her relationships, she becomes uncharacteristically quiet and still. She writes an epiphany, the first step toward eventual divorce: “My husband plays World of Warcraft sixteen hours a day, and I’m alone in my marriage. I don’t know what I think about this.”
Her revelation resonates. My relationship of six years has ended, leaving me shattered. I stand in the back of the classroom, leaning against the wall, weeping silently while oblivious students free-write. At the end of the allocated ten minutes, I wipe my eyes, and we move into an activity about understanding the needs of specific audiences, a skill that my ex-boyfriend refused to master.
As I describe a hypothetical audience member, detailing the portrait of a woman with her hair in rollers, living in a trailer, wearing a mu-mu, and feeding her six cats, a student—the wiseacre with a shaved head and a fanaticism for the band Korn—calls from the back of the room, with timing so perfect it pulverizes, “Hey, stop describing yourself.”
I am pointing to a sentence on the whiteboard and explaining subject-verb agreement when a tall boy in the second row stands up and heads for the door. He announces, “I’ll be back in a few. Just running to the bathroom to lay down some tracks.” A few weeks later, an 18-year-old writes in his journal that he is “hung like a donkey.” A month after that, I read a student’s account of waking up with “morning wood.”
The entire semester is a startling lesson in dicey boundaries. I am trying to find love, dating a new man. Although I don’t discuss my personal life, this fragile single state must be transmitting in the classroom. I have to deflect overtures from a student named Randy who proposes we go out for drinks after our night class.
I hustle down the long corridor between the classroom and my office, tugging shirt away from chest, hoping students will focus on the group activity until I return. Ten minutes. I just need ten minutes. Having married the man I’d been dating, we enjoyed four months of honeymoon before I gave birth. Now, our baby is five months old, and I teach three back-to-back classes, a schedule oblivious to the demands of my breasts. Halfway through the second hour, my milk lets down, and the thick pads stuffed into my bra soak through, leaking quarter-size spots onto my shirt. Mortified, I cross my arms and announce too sternly to students that they need to get to work. A minute later, I sit at my office desk, frantically dabbing at my shirt, the swishing sound of the pump a soothing counterpoint. Under my ministrations, the spots become more prominent. Exasperated, I grab the sweater hanging from the hook on the door and trot back to class.
A single mother, she always sits in the front row, her desk a foot away from mine. When the class takes a five-minute break, she remains in her seat. Leaning toward me, she confides that she has one rule in life: her belt, shoes, and purse must always match. On the days she opts for white accessories, she blazes with points of light. Eventually, I learn she rents an apartment around the corner from the house my young family bought when we moved to this new city.
When I spot her outside one day, I realize that, though we may be neighbors, we are miles apart. Her outfit is stridently coordinated, as usual, but her son dashes around her in circles, hurling clods of mud at the car while she heaves bags of groceries out of the trunk. My outfit ranges from remnant maternity pants to clearance-rack shirt, and my daughter leans against my leg, placidly peering at the spectacle through a hole in a leaf. When my student looks up and sees us, she calls out a friendly greeting at the exact moment a mudball hits her white jeans. Big-eyed, my daughter and I stand, paralyzed, as she snatches her son by the neck of his t-shirt and repeatedly smacks her designer purse against his behind.
She eyes my jutting belly and asks, “Your baby’s gonna be all right when it comes out? I only ever seen babies born addicted.” She will become the most beloved student of my teaching career, this young woman who was brutalized by her parents and years on the streets, in gangs, moving through the ranks of guns and violence. Now, standing in front of me, all of 99 fidgety pounds and sporting a visor, she is fascinated by the baby I carry. With increasing frequency, she stays after class, revealing tidbits of her past, expressing her interest in my impending delivery.
The day I am induced, she—energetic and joyful—flies into the hospital room during a moment of crisis, when the baby is suffering decelerations, when I am wishing to die, when the narrative is nearing “emergency C-section.” Rattled by the glimpse of my form surrounded by a tense support team and my guttural moans keening for relief, she flees down the hall and vomits in the bathroom. The next day I call her, urging her to come visit and meet the baby. When she hears my voice, she asks, plaintively, “So you didn’t die?”
Her no-nonsense affect conveys a truth: she can handle anything. Her sense of humor conveys a second truth: it’s laughter that keeps people sane. She has served in Iraq and Bosnia, worked for Homeland Security. Now she’s in college, eager to become a firefighter, bringing energy and light to every class meeting. After I explain the Comparison/Contrast essay and beg students to strive for original topics, she writes about Legos versus Lincoln Logs. She argues the superiority of Lincoln Logs; her paper inspires debate.
Later, she will babysit my children. She will offer to build a path outside our house— wielding a mattock while wearing a 25-pound vest—and dismiss her hard work as “training” for the firefighting test. The day she takes the test, her mother is admitted to the hospital and never comes out. From then on, the dream of firefighting, fraught with sadness and rage, is ruined. She re-enlists and is sent to Afghanistan. Without family, without a dream, she is left with nothing but a college degree, and it takes her nowhere but back to danger.
Nearing fifty, fresh to college, Deb rolls around the computer lab in her chair, laughing, always laughing. She can’t believe she’s in the room, and she would rewrite every paper ten times if I let her, so strong is the desire to perfect her work. Toward the end of the semester, acknowledging my passion for dark chocolate, she hands me a few pieces, telling me, “Final exams are stressful for everyone.” Her solicitude is unprecedented; Deb sees me as a person in the room with needs and feelings rather than a dull instrument of prescriptivism.
The following term, she takes my Novels class online but shows up in person during office hours with a gift—a basket of seven items, each relating to one of the seven books on the reading list. That night, when I sift through the basket in front of my husband and kids, we laugh: her offering for Chaim Potok’s The Chosen is a massive bagel in a Ziploc bag.
The first day of class, she walks up to me, hand extended; balancing on her palm is a chocolate bar. “My mom told me we’d get off to a good start if I gave you this.” Deb’s daughter, savvy, wickedly funny, is as delightful as her mother. She caps off our first semester together with a box of gold foil-wrapped truffles.
Two years later, my office phone rings. It’s the delightful daughter. Although she is composed, her voice is thick as she relates that her mother, inexplicably, drove into a cement barrier on her way to work recently. Deb—with that infectious, bubbly laugh!—is dead.
At the memorial, Deb’s daughter is grace incarnate. In the flutter of hugs and retreats, I lose an earring, something I quickly forget but which the grieving daughter remembers for years. Later, she serves as a student mentor for me and remembers the earring. She re-enrolls in college, this time with the goal of becoming a nurse, and she remembers the earring. She graduates, and when she invites me to her pinning ceremony, she remembers the earring. Eight years after her mother’s death, as we discuss the joy that was Deb, the delightful nurse reminds me of the lost earring, noting, “I was consumed by it. Probably because it was a distraction. I still think about it to this day.”
My heart throws a letter to the sky, a letter addressed to Deb, and it shouts, “As one mother to another, I have to tell you: your girl down here? She has found love, is a complete side-splitter, and has channeled her compassion into a career. And now she is pregnant; I predict the baby will have a belly giggle that changes the energy of everyone in the room. This daughter of yours? This baby she carries? They confirm the meaning of your life.”
From a framed photo on the desk, my children gaze at the crumpled face of the man sitting across from me, a man who is choking out the end of an agonized sentence: “…and our son didn’t make it.” This burly student, filling a third of my office, wants to explain that he and his wife are struggling. They’d been addicted to meth, had gotten clean. One day, they were driving with their three-year-old, and there was an accident. Their son died. His wife started using again. My student didn’t. So they are struggling.
After he tells me, my office falls silent. I want to hug him, but bodily contact is tricky; I want to cry, but that feels cheap in the face of his dignity; I want to speak, but the only phrases that come to me are weak, inappropriate. Words failing, we both turn our eyes to a photo of my son chewing on a drumstick.
Swaying in his chair, smelling of vodka and hopeful detoxification, he’s sporting a black eye. After taking an online class the previous semester during which he taxed my every nerve, the drunk registered for an on-campus class, having decided I’m the right teacher for him as he tries college again in his mid-thirties. Hands shaking, he explains his appearance. “I can’t believe I slipped on the ice the night before I finally get to meet you!”
As I walk around the room, handing out the syllabus, he tracks my proximity. When I near his seat, he grabs a photo off the four-inch stack he’s arranged on his desk and waves it in front of my moving body, whispering, “This is from when I went to Las Vegas in 1993. My dream is to be a piano player in a bar there.”
Even after I caution, “We can’t do this right now. You need to save personal conversation for after class,” he continues his photographic Show and Tell. Eventually I pause, interrupted in the middle of a sentence while addressing the class, and shove the tower of photos out of his reach, snapping “Not now!”
Wondering why the teacher is hissing at a guy in the front row, the other students in the room are baffled. Unabashed, the drunk picks up a book he’s brought and whispers, “This is a biography of Liberace. It’s got some pictures I want to show you.”
After an hour that lasts thirty years, the class period ends, yet he is unshakable, suctioning onto the podium, following me down the hall, quizzing me about the photos in Liberace’s biography. When I fail to identify a man in a hat, he yells, “What? You don’t know Harry Truman when you see him?”
As the weeks tick by, these behaviors continue, forcing me to revamp my plan for the course, eliminating full-class discussions since his participation is so wild it stampedes over everyone else in the room. I tighten, and I tighten, trying to rein him in; eventually he stops coming. Two weeks after his disappearance, I assign him the mandated Failure for Attendance grade, at which point he roars back into action—still drunk, always drunk. He stands in front of the Information Desk for 45 minutes, telling the switchboard operator how terrible I am. He calls the dean’s assistant and keeps him on the line for half an hour, dissecting the ways I refuse to be accommodating. He calls the Registrar, the Dean of Students, and the college president. After their initial interactions, all three wisely block future calls from him.
I had greeted him with hope, with the innocent notion that education can transform, but that idealism leaves me pacing in circles, shivering and clutching my stomach at 4 a.m. By the time my office phone finally stops ringing fourteen times a day with calls from his number, I have learned: with some students, I need to save myself, lest they pull me under.
The first day of the semester, a stocky man in the back row gestures to me. Although the class is working on a diagnostic writing sample, he wants to talk—to tell me he’s spent most of his life dealing drugs, he’s been arrested more than 100 times but has only had one felony come down, and he has six children mothered by five women. Street hard, he is nevertheless thunderstruck after the recent shooting death of one of his “comrades.” Determined to switch things up, he is starting college, hoping to become an example for his 11-year-old daughter, the only child in his custody.
After disclosing his history, he begins sitting in the front row. One time he catches me in the hall and asks me to look over the hastily scratched draft of his first essay. A few weeks later, he disappears. Both the back and front rows feel empty. Some months later, flanked by my children, I spot him in the lobby of a movie theater, chasing his daughter in a game of tag. As he runs, he flashes me a quick side-eye. He sees but does not acknowledge me. Our time in the classroom was incidental to his real life.
Her hand shoots into the air. Yes, she knows a greeting in another language: Ojibwe. Happily, she teaches the class a few phrases and then, suddenly, she’s sharing her story with the room. Her great-grandfather was a medicine man on the reservation, the person who gifted her with an unusual name. Sixteen years later, she birthed her first child. By twenty-six, she had six children. Then her mother died, and “I turned to the bottle to keep me numb.” Eventually, she “caught a case” and went to prison where she earned her GED. Upon release, she got pregnant again. At 31, she has seven children, all of whom have been removed from her custody.
Later, as she writes an introduction, she weeps quietly. When she brings her paper to the front of the room, she is still crying. I rub her back as she explains that her tears are good ones; she’s been writing about her life a lot lately so that she has something to share with her children once she gets them back, when they all move into a mansion. Although I am doubtful that rosy future exists, I refuse to quash her magical thinking. “Writing is the best therapy and the best gift,” I agree. “No matter what happens in your life, remember: if you’re writing, you’re not alone.”
She is the eldest of eight, from a poor family in East Timor. After high school, stymied by the lack of opportunity for those who could not afford university, she volunteered at a Red Cross clinic and began learning about tuberculosis. A year later, the director offered her a salary and, “At that moment, my life changed.” With this income, her family finally had enough to eat, and she could pay her siblings’ tuitions and keep them in school. At the clinic, a doctor from the United States noticed the promise of this extraordinary 24-year-old and secured financing for her education in America. In the classroom, I, too, am made breathless by the beauty of her soul and nominate her for a scholarship.
Shortly before she returns to East Timor with her degree as a laboratory technician, we run into each other at a cocktail party. My husband and I have left the kids home while we bike across the city to enjoy drinks and friends. When I spot this former student’s face cracking into a grin of recognition, my joy is bigger than the cheese platter. Hugging me, she turns to my husband and exclaims, “This is the best teacher ever!” as though she isn’t the inspiration.
He has taken the same online class from me three times in the course of a year: spring, summer, and fall. When I search his name in my email, 81 messages pop up: a frenzy of excuses for work submitted late, or not at all, a parade of negotiations as to why my policies shouldn’t apply to him, a litany of rationales that reframe failure.
In 81 breathless dispatches, I learn: he suffers from ADHD; can no longer take his medicine because of heart problems; is going through a stressful divorce; “foolishly” tried to end his life; has three other classes; travels repeatedly to his mother’s house on the East Coast and back to the Midwest; forgot to do the discussion posts I told him he could submit late; is plagued by court dates; was told by the librarian he had to leave because they were closing in ten minutes; had his mountain bike stolen; forgot to take the quiz I re-opened for him; hopes to take an Incomplete for the course; is besieged by agonies heaped upon him by his ex-wife; can’t write his paper because he has partial custody of his young daughter; would like me to review his late rough draft “after Christmas”; has been up since the day before and will not get to bed for another 36 hours; has just gotten back to town after an emergency; feels his house and child are at stake; believes he easily could have had an A in the class; feels it is a shame to have an F on his academic record when he didn’t really fail; explains he is having a rough patch; advises his weekly assignment will be about 45 minutes late; asks if he can use all of his scores from the last time he took the class since he already did the work; has been up all night trying to get his draft done; wonders what I suggest he should do because his power is out, and therefore he has a dead laptop, a near-dead cellphone, and no internet; can’t concentrate when he has custody of his daughter for a day because she’s bored; despairs that his ex-wife inherited millions of dollars when her grandfather died but is forcing him to sell his house because she wants her half up front, in full; will be placed on academic suspension if he does not pass my class; did not see that quiz he was supposed to take; is paralyzed by OCD; gets up at 4:30 a.m. for work; was beaten by his dad when he was young; maintains “God never gives us more than we can handle”; went to the writing center, but left because they were busy with someone else; logged in to the take the final exam but noticed that it was already closed; is confused as to why he would get an F; is hoping his grade is a mistake because if not he will be suspended.
I am wary and exhausted, empathizing heavily with his ex-wife, wishing for a bumper sticker that reads “College is best attempted by those not hacking through the weeds of a rough patch.” Over the course of a year, his needs have eaten into my Spring Break, a summer trip with my family, and attempts to toggle wrapping holiday gifts with grading stacks of essays from his peers who met the deadlines. I have 130 students each semester, and he alone outweighs their collective demands.
Thus, in one of my final replies to this student, I roll my eyes at the precious clap-trap of God not giving us more than we can handle. He is more than I can handle. My reply to him is clipped, a Jesus wept lament: “I’m done.”
Her ex-husband had her stand on a white towel in the bedroom each week so he could spray tan her body.
Divorced, 52 years old, she attacks her college assignments like someone released from decades of captivity. Witnessing her work ethic, I draft her as student mentor. In supporting her peers, she gains clarity. Just as she is no longer obliged to be bronzed, she is no longer obliged to defer her ambitions. Excavating her passion for reading and writing, she envisions an audacious future.
What she wants is to embrace, coach, foster, connect—to edge into a classroom, syllabi and stapler clutched to her chest, smiling tremulously as heads swivel. Moving from back to front of the room, she will write her name on the white board, inhale deeply, throw her shoulders back, and, turning to face the class, meet the stories that will tell her own.