Sunday, February 27, 2011

Shake Them Alive

I have two full-time jobs, one as a writer and the other as a teacher. Here's a post I wrote after a particularly bad day of teaching, one I worked on after the semester was over and I could reflect a little bit about why I teach at all.

Shake Them Alive

Students aren’t behaving as they used to. No, the world is going to hell in a hand basket, taking students with it. As I walk around my college campus, my inner curmudgeon thinks evil thoughts about poor fashion choices and bad behavior. Their pants are falling down around their ankles and they spit on the pavement, and that’s the women. All of them smoke in front of open classroom doors and listen to their MP3 players during lectures. I stomp around in my high heels on my way to class, a black cloud over my head, a storm brewing.

Teacher meltdown happens once a year, maybe once every two years, if my students and I are lucky. Perhaps, if I practiced all the Zen, Eastern, and psychological techniques I've studied, this day would never happen at all. I would be the calm, cool, collected teacher, full of patience and understanding and love. I would let go, relax into the what is, use my higher mind, my greater purpose, my one eye above and beyond all this earthly stuff. My pain body wouldn't come out--a round, hard, pointy steel creature with fangs--and let loose like a wild, murderous kickball.

Instead of turning into a wild, savage teacher woman, I would waft through my teaching day like so many clouds, free and full of nothing but air. I would contemplate nature, the essence of god or God or the divine.

But I'm not a cloudlike person.

During a semester not long ago, at two in the afternoon every Tuesday and Thursday, I taught a freshman composition class. Teaching at two pm is deadly--students are either hungry or full, tired or wired. The day of the apocryphal meltdown, the class slogged in wet from a late winter rain. Student X came in as he had every single day of the long semester, sweatshirt hood on, earphones jammed into his ears, bookless, paperless, penless. Student Y came in along with him, his ear phones on as well. They were both slightly late, but there in enough time to take the pop quiz, which I had announced the class before, the pop not have much fizz at this point but always still a surprise.

After the quiz and while we were grading and then talking about it, I realized that Student Y was still listening to his music, and I could hear the beat well enough to do some middle-aged dance stuff, but I resisted. I asked him to remove the earphones. Then as I was talking again, Student X started to talk to his BFF, Student Q, who sat next to him. They were kicking around a piece of shiny garbage, laughing. I looked at Student X and Student Y--and at Student A and Student B, who were laughing and talking and joking with Student C, who is dating one of them, A or B, it was hard to tell.

Students # and $ and % and * (all international students and all who had passed the quiz; Students X, Y, A, B, and C had gotten 0 out of 10 points) were paying attention. Student P, my re-entry student, was probably wondering what he'd gotten himself into by coming back to school in the first place. Clearly, managing the employees at Best Buy was looking a lot better than this.

As I asked a few questions about the stories that the pop quiz was based on, it became apparent that none of the above alphabetized students had managed to buy the short story collection we had been reading for over a week, even though the title had been on the syllabus since January. I stopped talking, staring out at this group of students that was just like all the groups of students I had seen in every classroom since I began teaching over twenty years before. There were those who cared, those who didn’t, and those who just prayed every single day for an orange “Class Cancelled” sign to be on the door.

That semester, no teaching technique I tossed out hit wood. The students who could speak English didn’t want to, and the ones who wanted to, could not. The hopelessness and despair and pissed-off-ness moved through me, the heat rising from my feet, the air growing hot in my lungs.

Oh, no, I thought. Here it comes.

I hadn’t had a meltdown in a while, but I remember my first one, years before in an introduction to literature class after a deadly and silent and horrible discussion about some important piece of literature. When no one bothered to answer my questions about character or plot or theme, I put down the book, looked up and said, "Who has done the homework?"

Five students raised their hands.

I said, "The rest of you, get out! Go read. Don't come back to class until you do."

Stunned and disbelieving, they staggered to their feet, horrified by what had just happened, and left.

The five students and I had a great time after that. Well, no, it really wasn't great. But a we had a real discussion. No one was listening to surreptitious headphones. No one was asleep at the back of the classroom. No one drooling or doodling or texting (probably back then paging) his friends.

So as I stared at this current class, I focused on Student X, trying to remember the prime directive of teaching, which is to not get fired. I breathed. After the kicking garbage thing, I had asked Student X to move to another desk, and he had. We started writing, and I looked up, realizing that he was doing some other class's homework and was rocking out to his tunes again.

I said, "Student X, why are you here?"


"Why are you here? You could listen to music and do your homework in the cafeteria."

“I don’t have my book.”

“So why are you here in this class? Because it’s dry?”

"Huh? Well, uh . . . ."

“Don’t you realize that school is just a metaphor for who you are in the real world? About who you are in your life outside of school? This, as they say, is just a test!”

Student X stared at me, not blinking, not saying a word.

“You sit here and listen and suck in everything everyone else has to say without giving back,” I said. “You are a vampire.”

I went on a little about personal responsibility and respect for oneself. I pointed, I walked, I paced. I was righteously indignant.

Now the entire class was staring at me, watching me, waiting. But uttering true words about Student X calmed me. I breathed again, and looked at him carefully.

“If you don’t have what you need to participate in this class, you need to leave.”

Student X stood up and looked at his fellow classmates. He looked at me. For the first time the entire semester, I realized that I was finally looking at him fully, no sunglasses, earphones, sweatshirt hood. His hair was curly, his eyes brown. Who knew?

“Should I go?” he asked.

“What do you want to do?” I asked.

He blinked, looked at his desk. “I want to stay.”

“Then stay,” I said.

He sat down. He put away his biology book or whatever it was. He wrote.
After class, he scooted out with his BFF, not meeting my gaze. Student A and B and C came to apologize, to tell me that things were going to change.

“We are going to do our best,” Student A said.

I nodded, and said, "Wonderful."

Was it wonderful? At that time, I hoped things would change. I hoped Student X would take himself seriously, enough to buy the book at least. I just wanted them to all pay attention and learn something, anything. one useful thing.

By May and the end of finals, Students #, $, %, and * all received A’s, even though most of them still couldn’t string together a sentence in grammatically correct English. Student X and Y received B’s, pulling it out in the end despite the early semester burp. Headed to a state college and away from Best Buy, Student P received an A and corrected my pronunciation on a few things as payback for having to be there at all. Students A and B received B’s, but Student C ended up with a C, and he emailed me about ten times to ask me to change it.

I didn’t.

It would be nice to tell you that there was a miracle in this class, a cascade of good grades, better behavior, and major feats of intellectual achievement. I would love to tell you that Student X didn’t walk into the classroom the next class meeting and sit in the back row with Student Q and start talking, laughing when he shouldn’t, participating when he felt like it. Sure he whispered a bit more and he didn’t listen to music, but he pulled down his hood and put on his shades. He did, however, buy the book.

Despite my failure with Student X, I can’t stop trying. I can’t stop getting mad when they don’t see this class, short story, pop quiz as a chance because I’ve seen some pretty amazing changes happen in a class. All at once, a student studies hard and applies to Brown. Before I know it, a student is accepted into the Coast Guard. They go off into lives that they wanted, lives they now have. I've watched students go from apathetic to actually realizing that this work in the community college is a metaphor for who they can be in the "real" and "more important" parts of the world. An A in a community college English class can pull a student out of one life and toward another. Just ask Students # $ % and *, all of whom arrived from countries on the other side of the world to study in a place far away from everything they understood. These students know about change.

Once I was a horrible student, majoring in boys and hoping the world would stop so I could screw up longer. I hoped that all my doing nothing wouldn’t count against me. But then my friends started leaving home for four-year colleges, for lives I didn’t know how to dream about. There I was, smoking pot, working in retail and then insurance, and dying my hair as blonde as possible, so white it almost snapped in two and floated away on the breeze. I dropped out of more classes than I finished at the same community college I was later hired at, understanding the shape of the quad better than my own life.

One sad, spring day after deciding to drop all my classes, I took a short cut through the cafeteria on my way to the parking lot. I walked by a college faire and stopped to pick up a flyer for the state college I would go later to. Right then, I learned to hope. If I hadn’t stopped to talk with the recruiter named Jesse, asking him questions about a school I’d never heard of, I wouldn’t have been in a freshman composition class the following fall, listening to a teacher who I knew could save me if I let him. I let him. I let myself be saved, and then I saved myself.

None of my students walk in and say, “I want to major in burnout and disease and despair and a low paying job. Your class is first on the requirement list. I’m ready to ignore you.”

But despite whatever hope they have, I often see them list away, drop out, ignore me, the syllabus, and their desires. And often, that’s when I throw chalk, call students vampires, and generally do things that keep me up at night.

I want to shake them alive. I want to show them that they’ve come to my class and learned something. They've learned something about literature and writing and expression of feeling. Yes, few of my students will contemplate the short stories by Ann Beattie or TC Boyle, the authors we were talking about the day of my meltdown.

And yet, maybe they will; they will remember how the one character looks back on her life and realizes she doesn't want to think about it at all because it is too painful. Maybe one of my students will see for the first time that she doesn’t want to have a life like that, one of aborted desires and hopes. She can’t stand her life of loss and secrecy.

What she wants if the life she can’t see yet but can feel, finally, for the first time, because she’s done something for herself. She read the story, studied for the not-pop pop quiz, and received 9/10. She comes to class, ready to be open to whatever comes next. She’s shown herself the respect she deserves. She’s tried. She’s reached. And her reach goes on.

Jessica Barksdale Inclan


Nas Dean said...

Hi, I'm the mum of a teenage daughter in High school. So I get to listen to the school politics and drama everyday!

These students just don't know yet what they are missing.

I love the cover of BEING WITH HIM!

Jessica Barksdale Inclan said...

Thanks, Nas!

Michele L. said...

Hi Jessica,

After reading your blog, I just can't believe how some students just want to drift through life, never making an effort. You tried your best with those students, and I am sure many went on and found good careers. It sure would be nice to found out if your words changed the life of that one student for the better. Maybe one day he will bump into you, and tell you how you changed his life.

Just to let you know, that your books always leave an indelible impression on me after I read them. So, through your written words I am sure you have touched many lives. Love your books Jessica!

Mary said...

I love your books, I read them enthusiastically and hope for the next one soon. :)

I could not be a teacher. I remember high school much too well. There were those of us who wanted to learn and those who had to come to class or their parents would kick their a$$, but they didn't try while there.

I commend teachers who are able to get through to their class, I know I don't have the patience for that job.