The recent discussion on failure reminded me of one of those weirdly unpleasant-but-interesting teaching events, one which was outdone only by the curiousness of my reaction.
Since Tempest couldn’t reach my partner by phone but she could reach me, she did. She was enraged, so much so she almost couldn’t speak — and yet I heard other people talking in the background and since this was during regular school hours and the chatter had that familiar break-room sound, I had the peculiar feeling she was calling from a teacher’s lounge. She berated me for her failing grade, “You never fail a student, never, never, never, never!” and the phone did that little electronic sizzle that indicates it’s being overwhelmed by volume. “To get an F! An F! I am a teacher and I know what that does to a child. You never fail a student!”
I had fleeting thoughts of giving a rationale for a failing grade, particularly when the option for revision looms large, but this was clearly not a time for reasonable remarks. This, I thought, is a time to ride out the storm and see what happens, the telephone gave me a detachment I wouldn’t normally have.
“An F – I know what that stands for! An F stands for Fuck, an F stands for Fuck!” I expected violence next, though I wasn’t sure how she would assault me over a land line, but she had climaxed and began to spiral down toward sanity. “Of course I know I should be talking to T**** but I couldn’t reach her, and you’re my teacher too. And I don’t even know if you read my paper, because it was T****’s assignment and I understand T**** gave me this grade…”
By this time, other than “hello” I had only responded with a few innocuous “yes” or “oh, I see” remarks, and I was preparing to formulate a sentence when the word “grade” set off a fresh rocket.
“But to turn in a paper and receive an F! An F! I know it wasn’t perfect, but an F!” and the phone sizzled again. Suddenly her voice dropped to the level one would use to threaten cockroaches with – “You never give a student an F! Never, never give a student an F.”
Well, the ride was about over and I don’t exactly remember how it ended. She spiraled back down a bit and threatened to drop the course and I suggested that might be a good idea. So she did.
If I’d known what was going to happen ahead of time, I would have predicted that I would get angry, but that wasn’t at all what I felt. Her words echoed around in me for the rest of the day and more than anything I wondered what kind of world she lived in, who she thought we were that would pass every student paper no matter what. Perhaps she teaches elementary school, where every Crayola alphabet drawing is the best she’s ever seen…..yet she has her Bachelors and is working on a Masters. Has she never encountered….. But I gave up that line of thinking. Who is crazier, afterall: the person who raises high the flag of her madness, or the observer who tries to make sense of it?
Yet that’s what I found interesting (as opposed to infuriating or astonishing or humorous) about this encounter. Every student lives in a different world from mine, and we need some bridge, some common ground, some (I’m lacking the right metaphor) shared language before I can teach. I had assumed some similarity with Tempest because we shared (remotely it appears) the same profession, and yet that was exactly where we had our greatest disconnect.
So with my students, who apparently are startlingly different from me in so many ways, how am I to know what common language we speak?