Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Parallel Tears

Once, a hundred-billion years ago, I was a long-term sub in our local high school.  They needed a teacher to take a class for a "few days" while they found/got/hired the teacher.  At about three weeks into the semester of me posing like I was their teacher, living the tiny lie in order to keep control of the classroom, one young man started acting out.  Dealt with. Then I was late one day to get in line at the copy machine, not finishing up my copies until the bell was ringing.  I heard the secretary's voice behind me asking me how things were going--not a friendly voice. I was grading five periods, prepping three classes of all ages, pretending I was having a good time at 80 bucks per day, while the secretary would take my freebie "prep" period away and have me teach another class somewhere.  I was staying up late, getting up early, and the papers to be graded stacked up like planes over LaGuardia on a foggy day.  I mentioned this state of affairs--plus the fact that it had pretty much killed any sex drive--to the librarian and she simply said "Welcome to my life."  Yuch.

The next day that same acting-out student threw a stink bomb into our portable classroom, and I called security, who never came.  So I marched the entire class down to the only available space--the auditorium--read them the riot act, had them each write a note about what they saw/knew/did.  Security arrived and wondered what the heck we were doing in there; all they cared about was that we were not in our classroom--not the fact that our classroom was uninhabitable.  I let the students out 10 minutes early.  I didn't care a bit where they went, or if I were to be canned, or anything.  I took the notes down to the principal's secretary, wordlessly handed them to her and sat down in the chair beside her desk and burst into tears.

This semester has had some similarities to that ill-fated five-week sojourn in high school.  The first similarity is the caliber of student.  One class I'm teaching is a remedial English class (oops, now we called it Developmental English) and many of those students are just now--13 weeks into the 18 week semester--figuring out that this really is college and that 43% grade is all theirs.  They earned it all by themselves.  They can't blame mom, the principal, the evil PE teacher, the bus driver, whatever or whoever.   They can only blame their lack of preparation, realizing that all that goofing around in high school has penalized their performance now in college, even at the lowest level of English that we offer.

The other class is a lovely, divine, brilliantly delightful Introduction to Literature class where I really get to talk about stories and poems and all those things I studied in grad school.  However.  It would really be all those things in the above sentence if I had half a clue what I was doing.  I feel like I'm about 20 minutes ahead of them, all the while maintaining that subtle lie that I Do Know What I'm Talking About.  I do, sort of.  But this week they hit the first of their assignments on their literary research paper and I feel like I've thrown my students into the swamp and left the rescue equipment back at the house.  Really, I'm in the swamp with them, surfing "Literary Research Papers" on the web at night, hoping to find something to guide me that will help me guide them.  There's no mentoring at this level--we're that Budget-Cut Community College you read about, where most of the teaching is done by adjuncts (80% at our school) and there's no money for anything.

Especially literary databases that will help the students with their research papers. We went to the library for some help, and while it was a fine presentation, it was painfully obvious that our little college was set up for English Comp research papers, not the more critically-intense areas of literature.  After the librarian left, I clued them all into the Big U down the freeway and suggested they head over there for database access.  But I realize I don't even have a clue how to tell them to find what they need. It's a painful realization.  Add that feeling of failure to the lack of sleep, the constant prepping, constant grading, and the realization that if I stop the machine to have a night off--like I did for Quilt Night last week--I'll just be more behind the next day.  (Hence, the dearth of posts on this blog.)

So, today in office hours, when a student started crying over her Fiction Essay, I handed her a tissue, coached her into re-evaluating her thesis, and then talked to her for another 30 minutes past office hours time about her application to Big U, her self-statement, her parents' divorce, the fact that she'd just now gotten her textbook (!), I have to admit feeling a little of the same pile-up in my own life.

When I got home, my saintly mother sent me an email with a video link to a flash culture mob of 650 choral artists gathering at Macy's in Philadelphia for a flashmob of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.  (She does things like that to keep me in the human race, I think.)  I watched the people sing this glorious song, line by line, tenor, bass, alto, soprano and I joined in and then wept, letting the good feelings, the smiles, the happy faces of those people wash over me.  Parallel tears to my student's.  Tears for my own inadequacy.  Tears for my students' frustration. Tears for me, for the writing I don't do because I let everything else take precedence. Tears celebrating that it will soon be time to pull Handel up to the top of the playlist--tears to signify the end of this very long semester.


Liz said...

that you tube clip is crazy cool!! thanks for posting the link :-)

Artax said...

We are leading parallel lives. Well, my students are probably better, but this semester is dragging for me, too. Today I had pure brilliance planned for class, but I noticed at least 1/3 of these *honors* students were staring at their computers, completely tuning me out. Why did they come? Do I need to explain the point of class to them? Later I got an email from an attentive student, thanking me for the extra clues I gave in class today -- she finished her homework in record time because she was paying attention. So there, laptops!

And then my graduate class. I was only a few weeks ahead at the beginning of the semester. Now I'm not even a full lecture ahead. I have a vague idea of where we are going, but mostly I'm up there pretending I know more than they do, while just trying to keep up.

But I see a light at the end of the tunnel. And very recently I am remembering that teaching evals are important, but won't get me tenure. So back to research projects. Who cares if the students find out I know half a lecture more than they do?

Judy said...

Beautifully written post. Your students are lucky to have you, and I don't believe a word you are saying about your so-called flaws. I know better.
And that "Hallelujah Chorus" video--I started crying a minute into it and wept until the end. It affects me that way even when sung in a crowded Macy's store. I wish I could have been there.