If you teach writing in Paragraph City, in the very shank of the semester, students sometimes take up residency in your head. They gain access without permission, in clandestine ways. They stay there on a stool in Noggin Central because you care and usually because you can’t do a thing for them.
They are not the students who tell excuses, which is to say saying whatever in order to get something from you. Just assuming the excuse is not true is easier than chasing down the real story, and it avoids the let down when you find out that lying to you is just what they do, just the game, just the excuse, and you, dear professor, look a lot like a patsy.
So excuses go into my refrigerated heart of not-caring. The real stories from student lives creep into the attic in other ways, ways that aren’t manipulation.
This semester the stories couch-surfing my head came in via blog entries and a chat about tension, normal class talk and an email explaining why one guy was 75 miles away from home. I’ll call them June and Greg, Maura and Mike.
As prep-writing for a reflection essay, I asked students to write a blog entry on what they’ve been thinking about in the last week. About being thankful for little things, Maura wrote. Like being married for two months and living in her parents’ basement and the family still being able to eat dinners together, while she and her husband and her father hold down seven part-time jobs between them, and two of them work at being full-time students. She wrote about her father’s worry about losing the house, and she wrote about being handed an envelope full of cash in church by someone she doesn’t really know. It’s the envelop I remember at odd times, months later: the church pews emptying and people shaking hands and the fat fold of paper there in her hands.
Mike sent me an email, asking for his oral presentation to be delayed, maybe a week. It’s according to my policy, since presentations haven’t begun yet, so I typed back an OK and ask for a specific day. That’s when I find out he doesn’t know exactly when he’ll be back. He’s seventy-five miles away at the region’s best cancer hospital where his mother is in her last days. I told him to take care of family and we would work out school later. Ten days later and one parent less, he was back in class.
“Can I have a minute before class starts?” June asked and looked out at the hallway. Out there she says she’s kind of fragile and she might leave class but she’s OK, she says. I ask, or maybe I just looked a question. I know her boyfriend, a student of mine from some years ago; she’s taking my class on his advice, she told me earlier, the same conversation when she said he’s had brain cancer in remission for two years. We’re in the hall now because remission is over and surgery is imminent.
In my writing class, we talk about proof-reading and revising. I urge them to find editors to work with, maybe people in the course, “Maybe your mom” I always say, “but someone patient enough to really read your words and give an opinion. How many have someone like that?” Some of them have a friend or an aunt or an older brother in grad school. Greg says his wife is a great writer. Then I ask who’s looking for an editor and start to pair them up and Greg’s there, too. He shrugs. “My wife’s losing her eye-sight pretty fast,” he says. “She’ll be blind soon,” and he pairs up with a quiet guy behind him.
I sometimes fume alone in my office about being ignored when I write comments in their papers or when I review in class yet again some strategy that is just not that hard to follow. But looking at their faces in the classroom, and at quiet moments away from campus, I wonder how they do college with lives that leave no room for it. Maura’s managing pretty well, with youthful energy and some fine natural talent. Mike’s major paper was a disaster; I don’t think he’s ready to be back, but he will be back, next semester, likely in that second seat in the third row. June is taking an incomplete, and hasn’t said how the surgery went. Greg’s grade is fine, and the quiet guy behind him turns out to be pretty helpful. I asked vaguely about his wife at the end of one class. He shrugged and looked somewhere where I wasn’t.