Friday, September 16, 2011

To Arizona, With Love

Click here, then read.

Normally, I don’t enjoy seeing students fail. I don’t like it that they can’t write well, and I feel bad when they end up not passing a paper, or the entire course. I tell my students very early in the semester that we are going to have to work extra hard because “Arizona is ranked 48th for reading and writing and math.”

Some guy called out last semester, all bold and snarky, “Yeah, but out of how many?”

It’s hard to know how to respond to students sometimes. You want to be nice and polite and helpful, your best self. But sometimes they stop you in your tracks with their total need for education, at every step of the way and in every area you can imagine.

Some of my students do pull on my heartstrings as they lower themselves back into the pit created by Arizona’s dismal public education system. Down down down they go, beyond my reach or capacity for saving them. No matter what the president of my college says, we can’t help everyone. It’s impossible.

However, other students I would just as soon push over the edge of the pit, doing unto them as they have done unto me all semester long. Teachers are not saints.

Such was the case with Damien, a man-child in one of my on-campus classes (many years ago in a galaxy far away, of course). All semester, he sat in the back row of the classroom wearing a skanky denim jacket and a pair of aviator sunglasses, always with about twelve whiskers poking out of his chin. Every week I resisted my urge to slip by him and wipe off his greasy smirk with Clearasil pads, or make him wear a wrestling singlet. I wanted to break him, but English 101 is not supposed to be a rodeo.

Damien annoyed me by talking to people around him when I was talking, and letting other students in his group do all the work. He would stare at me when he was supposed to be reading his book. Sometimes he’d just stare at the wall. He made me want to flick him, but I never did. It wouldn’t have been professional.

By God’s good grace, this burden was finally lifted from me. I had put the class to work on an in-class writing assignment, and was using that quiet time to grade essays up front. I decided to grade Damien’s first, because I knew if it failed, Damien would then be unable to pass the course: he would have failed one too many assignments, and I wouldn’t have to man-sit him anymore. I pulled his essay out of the stack and put it on top, then started reading.

I knew one page in that I had myself a loser. I was marking so many comma errors, ungrammatical sentences and fragments that my adrenaline kicked in. The more errors I found, the harder my chest thumped, and when I was finished—when I went back and checked to make sure that there were at least thirty stupid and glorious mistakes all the way through Damien’s essay, which was also a full page short of the minimum required length, making it the biggest prize-winning pile of crap I’d seen in long time—I sat back in my chair with a satisfied nod, like I had just identified scat from one of the lesser known desert weasels thought to be extinct.

I couldn’t wait to alert the endangered person.

I should say once again that usually, when a student can’t write well or for whatever reason is not passing the class, I do not revel in his failure. But my friends, every once in awhile there comes a student who does not have his own best interests in mind, let alone yours or anybody else’s. A student who would have made Mr. Rogers call security…a student who would pelt his best friend’s ex-girlfriend’s house with baggies full of shit and urine as a show of solidarity.

I know this happened because that was the topic of Damien’s essay for our unit: A Significant Event In My Life.

Goodbye, Damien. Go swiftly into your dark night.


  1. He had it comin'.

    No jury would fail to convict.

  2. All I can say, is that after reading a few teacher's blogs for a while, I've developed a much higher regard for them. Love how you write.

  3. It makes me wonder what his life had been like to that point, to make him do that and be that.

    I could never be a teacher. Kudos to those who can.