Archive | May, 2013

Loving My Students

24 May

 Sometimes, when I think about what it means to “love our kids,” I feel a kind of despair. I’m not even a parent. I don’t “have” any kids. (Isn’t that a strange word to use–“have”? And “had” is a weird one too.  People say “I had my first child when I. . . . ” or “We had our kids when. . . . ” I guess it’s the language that’s so peculiar.)

Maybe I want to use the word “raising”–as in “Raising kids is really a challenge.” That’s a funny word too. We can raise vegetables. We can raise a ruckus. We can raise a flag. And we can raise kids. Well, now, I’m SURE it’s our language that is giving us problems here.

I guess if kids live at our address for eighteen years and then move out, we must have raised them during that time.  We say, “Even though we were divorced, my ex and I both raised our children.” Now there’s a funny one.

Sometimes we say “I raised myself.” Now what could THAT mean? I guess it means that I lived with myself for eighteen years, and now I’m raised. I guess you don’t just keep raising yourself until death.

Now, most people’s children spend about eighteen years going to school Monday through Friday nine months out of the year, but we never say that schools and teachers raised our kids. Goodness no! 

So raising doesn’t mean spending time with or teaching or helping them “learn stuff.”

See what I mean?

I’m seventy now, and I’ve spent my entire life since about ninth grade doing my best to help other people’s kids “learn  stuff.”  I was referred to by people at my university, or universities, as “an English professor,” but I swear I never professed anything. Others called me a teacher, but even that word didn’t suit me very well. Mentor is a popular word now. Some would say I mentored kids. I “taught adults” too, though, a couple sections of them every semester for at least twenty-eight years. Sometimes those classes had teenagers in them too. So did I mentor all of them? Or some of them? Or none of them?  Who decides? How do they know? How do I know?

You see why it’s so hard for me to fall asleep at night. I lie awake thinking about these sorts of things.

Maybe what I believed I was doing didn’t happen. Or maybe what did happen can’t be put into words–or into English, at least. Maybe French could do better–or Vietnamese. (In Vietnamese, as I understand it, you can’t say “I raised three children.” No, you have to say the equivalent of  “I raise three children in the past.” Actually, I don’t know if you can say “in the past” in Vietnamese. All I know is that you use the verb we call present tense in English and then add something to show when whatever it is happened. So I would need to say For many years I help students learn.

This was part of my goal, thank goodness. But some of the things I helped and help people learn  aren’t as important to me–or to them–as other things. I distinctly remember telling and showing hundreds upon hundreds of students how to get a C or better in the course we referred to as “Comp. II” at my university–a course I wished could have been erased from the catalog–because it was what we labeled “a proficiency exam”–and, as it happened, a proficiency exam that many many failed or passed with a D, which did not go over well with them. It was a course in which, as we used to say, “nothing was taught.” So–I let it be known that I would hold review sessions for any students on campus who wanted to understand how to pass that course with a C or better.  Those sessions were packed! There wasn’t even standing room sometimes. I said Okay, now, this is how you do it. Suppose your topic is “Comp II should be abolished for three reasons: Reason A, blah blah, Reason B, blah blah, and Reason C, blah blah.” Now that is your thesis. To get higher than a D, no matter which professor is grading your paper, you must have a stated thesis. It is handy to have a three-part one, because you need at least a five-paragraph theme, and paragraphs one and five are the introduction and the conclusion.  In paragraph 2 you cover A and your reasons for it. In paragraph 3, you cover B and your reasons for it, and in paragraph 4 you cover C and your reasons for it. It is best to make your A a pretty good /interesting/important point, make B an even better, more interesting, more important point (and make it a little bit longer than your discussion of A), and make C your very best point (and a little longer than either A or B), because a reader usually prefers a crescendo to a decrescendo.  Build up. Don’t fade away. Etc.

 I elaborated on each of these deep insights, and we practiced making thesis statements for all sorts of other topics as well. We divided the world and the universe and everything in them or about them into three parts that crescendoed. I explained that the difference between a C and a B was  what our campus referred to as “development,”  and added that developing with “style”  and a kind of delight in words was kind of a bonus, like polishing your fingernails or swirling around the dance floor gracefully.

Students I didn’t even know came back, often,  to thank me for their B’s and C’s in Comp. II, and we all rejoiced when the president of the university ordered the department to come up with a second comp course that went beyond such minimalist proficiency. (The comp. II format, for what it’s worth, is very like the formula students now need to pass the No Child Left Behind proficiency  exams that leave a huge number of students in the dust every year.) 

But is that what my passion for teaching and learning, and for spending my life engaging the spirits, the hearts and minds of students,  is about? Goodness, no!

So maybe I can’t put those other things into words. Of course that won’t stop me from trying. English professors are known for at least trying to put everything they can into words (which is part of why I now refer to myself as an artist, working in paint and clay and other materials.)

What I tried hardest to do, in what I refer to now  as my “teaching years,” was, first, to be what I was with students–the playful, serious, nurturing,  learning, growing, struggling, empathizing, caring, reflecting one of a kind person I was–doing my best to engage students’ spirits in a mutually caring, attentive, learning, growing way , a way we both regarded as positive. Since we had to use grades, I said, I always aimed to do my best to help bring out the A and B potential in my students. It was kind of like inventing a ballet with them–a kind of ballet that celebrated our time together and celebrated living–in the deepest and most thoughtful way we knew, or could discover.

All I know for sure is that that’s what I tried my best to do–and , for sure, you can’t put a grade on that.Well, maybe some can. But they shouldn’t.