Sunday, August 19, 2012

My Freshmen

Click here, then read.

School starts tomorrow. For me, that means going back to teaching college freshmen: a group of beginners who have changed dramatically since I started teaching in 1990. One major difference is that my freshmen don’t mush their sled dogs to campus anymore. That was in Fairbanks, Alaska.

This is Phoenix, Arizona, where I’ve spent the last twenty plus years welcoming students to their first college classroom and then trying to keep them there as the pull of work, family, perhaps love, perhaps drugs—as the pull of real life tried to disrupt their studies. In the course of My Great Endeavor (otherwise known as “my career”), I’ve developed my own song and dance and my own personal jokes.

And I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes.

I remember my first major mistake in teaching, when I was still a student myself. It was at Arizona State University, in a tiny classroom in a tiny building where the air conditioning barely worked. My students were elbow-to-elbow and I was a caged ballerina up front. We were all hot, all the time. When the day came for me to return graded papers for the first time, I squeezed into the classroom and pushed through the crowd, my tutu hitting people in the face.

After I set down my book bag, my water bottle, and the seat of my bike because I still didn’t have a car, I turned to face my students. They were eager to see how they’d done on the first paper.

“WHOSE IS THIS?” I shouted, holding up a stapled-together piece of crap paper that had a big red F on top of the first page, but no name. I mean, I had to ask, right? The author of the paper raised his hand, scowled, and took the offending item.

“LISA!” I called out again, holding up another paper with a big red D on the first page. It wasn’t passing, but it was better than bozo’s. The people up front handed Lisa’s paper back to her as if it was a dead baby. The atmosphere in my classroom had turned dark, and it stayed that way all semester long.

In this way, I learned to put grades on the last page, not on the front.

Then there was the time I caught one of my students flirting with me. “Greg” was a little older than average, maybe 25—my age. I had put everyone into small groups to work together on some questions, but instead of working, Greg was winking at me. Winking and winking. I smiled back and made a mental note to stay far away from this one.

Suddenly there was a ruckus and I turned to see Greg waving his arms, then crashing to the floor, taking the desk with him. Greg was not flirting with me: Greg was having a grand mal seizure. The only other time I had dealt with this was back in high school at a mall: I was in a store when a woman grabbed my purse and wouldn’t let go. My girlfriend yelled out, “She’s trying to steal from you!” as mall security burst onto the scene. I remembered that they got the lady flat on the floor and put a bunched-up jacket under her head.

My other students pushed their desks away from Greg and stood against the classroom’s walls. I pulled Greg out from under his desk, sat next to him on the floor and put his head on my lap, the only soft surface I had. Nobody wore jackets in Arizona, and this was before cell phones.

“GO UPSTAIRS AND CALL 911!” I yelled, cradling Greg’s head. His eyes rolled back and he thrashed around. A few students dashed out while the rest stood back, unsure of what to do.

In this way, I learned that not all students are the same.

There have been other mini-disasters: An irate student blowing out of my classroom, slamming the door behind him. (I resumed speaking: “The person who needs to hear this isn’t here anymore, but…”). Making my standard reference to gazelles, as in “When you learn some of these basic rules, your writing will fly like a gazelle!” and finally getting told by a student one year, “Gazelles don’t fly.” I had to look that up and damn if she wasn’t right. Gazelles were antelopes, not birds. This particular experience totally changed my approach to teaching: I had to know what I was talking about.

When I was low man on the totem pole, I got sent to teach in classrooms so far away from the English Department that I took a cab once, unwilling to walk a quarter-mile in 115 degree heat. We would be assigned to these makeshift classrooms—trailers, actually, with one AC unit stuck in a window—while real buildings were built. I left my class once in the middle to find a bathroom—it must have been an emergency—and returned thirty minutes later, having found that the closest bathroom was in the English Department. All of my students were gone.

The only other time I ever left a classroom was to blow my nose. I couldn’t let my students see me engage in such a messy human act.

I was back in the classroom right after I had my gall bladder out, wearing my pajamas and teaching the art of persuasion, my mom waiting for me in the library. I was there when the third shooter at Columbine turned in a lengthy written confession: “Class, today we have a guest speaker from the F.B.I.” (That student took creative writing a little too far.)

When the desk in the middle of one classroom kept being empty instead of occupied by the nice B average girl who usually sat there, I started to worry. She'd been killed in a car wreck. I carried her homework in my bag for a long time.

I’m higher on the totem pole now, and my students are no longer parka-covered, frostbit kids like they were 22 years ago in Alaska. They are Arizona war veterans, grown adults laid off from work, mothers taking classes online, young people just graduated from one of the worst education systems in the country, and people whose first language is not English. I always tell this last group, “You should be proud that you have two languages! You’re fluent in the first one, and now you’ll get better in the second one. We’ll work on that together.”

A new school year starts tomorrow, and I’ll be there with bells on. When we’re twelve weeks along or so, I’ll tell my students like I always do, “We’re in our twelfth week already! Can you believe it? It’s almost time to start picking out names.”

Sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t, but I always think it’s funny, and that’s what counts.


  1. Thanks for a fascinating look into your teaching career - and good luck in the new school year.

  2. I hope you had a great first day of school.

  3. Very interesting and (hate to admit it) fun to hear what it's like in the trenches. Good luck with the year ahead!