Sunday, September 8, 2013

Boxcar Child

It is a September weekend in Fairbanks, Alaska, 1990.  The rain has turned to snow.  I am twenty-two years old, a first-year graduate student at the university, about to grade my first set of student papers, all twenty of them.  I haven’t been taught to teach outside of being handed a book and a sample syllabus, both from the year 1913.

I don’t know what’s good as compared to what might be unacceptable.  I sit cross-legged on my bed and read all the papers, making minimal tick marks, using a pencil to make preliminary judgments.  I make a bowl of instant oatmeal and spoon some raspberry jam into the middle of it; I move to the floor with this snack and all twenty papers, determined to make some sense and create some order.  I know what A work is; it reminds me of my own.  But everything else is unknown: the potential B’s and C’s, and God help me, the failures.

I sit on the carpet in my apartment—already too fancy of a person for the cabins without running water that my classmates and professors live in—and begin by laying all twenty papers out on the floor, in order of best to worst, based on my childhood.  Any kind of ranking system is better than none.  Starting with five rows of four, it’s pretty easy to push the first three papers together to make the A’s.  This makes it easier to push the last two into “failing”.  

Only fifteen to go.


One year later, having transferred  from Alaska to Arizona before my life turned into The Shining,  I am standing at the front of a tiny stifling classroom on the third floor of the Engineering Building at Arizona State—an English graduate student assigned to teach English in the worst of places, the only room available on the entire campus.  It is no better than the wilderness of my first classroom in Alaska, worse than the bowels of ASU’s English Building, where we have department meetings in a cave, maybe because it’s cooler down there.  

It is long before my second life as a community college instructor, when I happily taught out of air-conditioned boxcars during times of construction because the pay was better.

Now I have twenty-five students, times two.  I have gotten worse at all things, not better.  No one has taught me anything about teaching or grading yet.  I waggle a graded paper in front of my students—a big F circled on the front—and ask, “Whose paper is this?  There’s no name on it!”—thus learning to turn an already unhappy crowd hostile.

It is only then, in that moment, that I realize why grades need to be located on the last page, not the first.  I also begin teaching how and why to put your name on things.


Twenty-three years into the business of teaching and learning and grading, I remain wild and untrained.  

No one as yet has taken me aside and said, “Pardon, you might want to stop doing that,” or even “Excusez-moi! Good job. Continuez.   As opposed to teaching the kids of Fairbanks, Alaska—where one taught me how to pronounce the names of national parks, what syllables to emphasize and when...why murdering your parents on the front porch is okay sometimes but might land you in Tutoring Services—now I just teach normal students who are back from other wars.


I stand in front of a classroom, all 45 years of me, and start a lesson on the use of tact.  In my mind, I am burying my head beneath my feet in a snowbank, because I realize my own limitations.  However, I feel that I have gotten the main point across, and confidently abandon the head of the classroom to mix and mingle with my students, who are critiquing each other’s papers.  Everyone works quietly with tact until one student who can’t help himself waves me down and shouts out, “THIS IS THE WORST ROUGH DRAFT I HAVE EVER SEEN!!!!!”

I don’t know what to do.  I want to throw myself on his fire.  Personally speaking, I’m discomfited and feeling a little harassed.  I have already done my good job and am only expecting the best.  I jettison this first reaction because I know it’s wrong; I scramble in my brain to remember what to do in circumstances such as these.  God rises from his throne, again, to personally stitch together the raggedy seams for me: Asperger, no reliable filter, weave it in, the crowd will understand.

As usual, there is no sound or perceivable reaction coming from the crowd.  They have already woven this child into the fabric of themselves and the class.  

God is knitting again when my knees crack, rising from the latest occasion.

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