Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jessica Barksdale Inclán: The First Class

Hi, Everyone!

I just finished teaching summer session at Diablo Valley College, and it was a wild go. This is my excuse for posting my blog late: the dog ate it!

But I started to ruminate about my teaching career, how far and not far I've come since 1988. All you teachers out there should relate.

After you read, I hope you'll go to my brand, spanking new web site. I'm very happy with it.


Jessica Barksdale

The First Class

The very first college class I taught was run by a community college but held in a building owned by a communications company in Livermore, California. This was 1988, and the company was growing or sputtering or both simultaneously, and they'd laid off and/or wanted their work force retrained for the coming boom or bust (the company was swallowed up some years ago Pac Man style by another communications firm). The English class I taught was part of the PACE program, which colleges developed especially for re-entry students. Classes are held at night and on the weekends, all general education requirements were offered in a timely fashion so that the working person can obtain his or her A.A. degree in 18 months.

I'd never taught a class before, impressing the interview committee not with my lengthy experience but with my small list of publications and exuberance. Before that interview, I'd only tutored international students while getting my B.A., the most memorable experience hearing my student from Hong Kong read these words aloud:

"Like a balloon explode suddenly, my heart was something empty."

He’d smelled like garlic and ginger and gave me a 1984 calendar before he graduated.

Except what I'd learned as a student, I knew nothing about teaching, having been a literature and not a composition major. No teacher training for me as I went through graduate school, stuck, instead, in the library reading microfiche and searching the stacks. All I knew was what had worked for me while sitting opposite teachers and could be boiled down to the following: Make whatever it is interesting, be clear and fair, provide good examples, don't use red pen.

Looking back, I knew nothing about just about everything, and I'm glad I didn't know that then.

So there I was, aged 26, wearing the new jacket and skirt my mother bought me, walking into the large boardroom on the 4th floor of the building that then stood alone at the edge of what looked liked former farmland. Sitting at the enormous table were a group of adult people who could have taught me a thing or two about life had they had the patience or the curriculum. If I'd passed out the coming 12 weeks as homework, I'm sure we would have learned about struggle and loss and achievement and children and marriage and faith. But this was an English class, and I was supposedly the expert.

But how could that be? I wasn't expert in anything, having done nothing really that well. I'd gotten my degrees, had my babies, but I lived in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Oakland, barely scraping by on my husband's teaching salary. He was trying to pull together the small business he ran on the side and was often gone from home, leaving me with two small children, not a lot of cash, and more anxiety. How could I teach these people anything that would help them save their jobs?

I tried to keep them from asking that question themselves, walking into the room every Wednesday evening and Saturday morning smiling, passing out readings, talking brightly. I focused on them, hearing about their lives, their dreams. I read their essays, correcting them all in blue ink.

As a novelist, I want to show you these characters, give them names and stories, creating lives for them that I cannot remember entirely. But what I can pull forth some basic details: The single African-American woman raising two boys, the twenty-eight-year old woman with blonde hair and despair that she would ever get a promotion, the couple who was taking the class together, the husband laid off weeks before, the wife still on the payroll. That’s it, though the room was full.

This class wasn't freshman composition, but the preparatory class below that, a very basic essay writing class, the type where one learns how to write a thesis statement, organize an argument, and conclude it. We were going to compare and contrast, show cause and effect, work deductive and inductive reasoning. The hope was that we were going to do this is relatively correct English.

On we went, the weeks passing, the last of summer turning into fall and then the first inklings of winter. I read their essays, I passed them back. I bought another suit. I spent a lot of time at Kinko's because driving out to the college campus to make copies was another 10 miles of gasoline, and I was already driving in from Oakland. My husband and I were thrilled with the extra money, and the college offered me another class, this time over at the Hayward campus, teaching in the PACE program, but no longer in the business park.

During the last week of class, I handed back the essays, my students reading the notes immediately, talking about their plans for the next quarter. All of them had passed the course, ready to move on to freshman composition and the courses that would push them toward their A.A. and their futures away from this company and their old jobs. I said goodbye, wished them luck, and we all went home to our lives and to our futures.

At that moment as we left the big building at the edge of the business park where there were once farms, would we have known what was coming? Would I have been able to tell them that in 23 years, I could finally teach them something worth listening to? That so much would happen to me, to them? That life was going to unfold in so many mysterious ways? If any of us could have paid a second of attention to the night sky, the hum of the freeway, the laughter as we walked to our cars, would we?

No. Probably not. There were dinners to make and families to tend to. There was the next day filled with more work, and there wasn’t that shift, that pause, that sometimes comes with change, that place where we can see where we’ve been and what we are headed into. But more often, we just slide into things without seeing the crevasse we just jumped over.

Now I wish I could go back to them all and thank them for staying in the class, for holding me up as much as I might have held them. I want to thank them for not laughing when I came in, so young and untried and in such an ugly suit, and attempted to show them something about life. I gave them sentences and ideas. They gave me the encouragement to keep trying, to go at it all again the next semester, to take this path, the one I am still on.

1 comment:

marybelle said...

God bless you for the blue pen & the ugly suit.