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Essay on teaching a student who may never pass

Pride and Persistence
March 15, 2013

"Mike" is a student in my developmental English course. He was born in Argentina and calls himself Argentine, but he came here with his parents and older sister when he was 5 and he’s now 26. His family members speak Spanish at home, but Mike is of course perfectly fluent in English, having gone to public schools. He has been at our community college for two years; his only class this semester is developmental English. He has taken this very course four times, and his choice of other content courses is limited until he passes this class.

He has a round, bright face, dark hair, bushy brows, wire-frame glasses, small features and a neatly trimmed goatee. He is usually smiling broadly or grinning nervously. He is always anxious about directions. Today he is anxious about finding words with which to describe "The Rules of Friendship." I have written those four words on the board, and told the class, "Go ahead. List the rules … or laws or duties … of friendship."

"Friendship’s a duty?" Mike asks.

I address the class, "Is it a duty?"

"No," says Adam. “It’s more like … friendship has duties. That means if you’re gonna be a friend, you gotta do this or that."

"Right! So list — just list — what you think the duties or rules of friendship are."

This assignment never works.

I mean to draw them out, to get them to commit themselves to some ideas and then I imagine complicating those "laws" they’ve proscribed by having them read William Carlos Williams’s "The Knife of the Times," a very short story about Maura, a married woman, whose friend from childhood, Ethel, also a married woman, has realized she is passionately in love with her. Then, having read that story with my students, I imagine saying to them, "Well, why can’t a friend fall in love with you? What control do we have over that? Why shouldn’t we be sympathetic, as the flattered but confused heroine is?"

Just describing that assignment, it fools me again! It sounds so good!

It never works! It’s not Williams’s plot that throws them; even the most agile writers in the class get angry at their thoughts or annoyed with me for having tricked them in contemplating discomfiting possibilities; my queries in the margin are ignored or hastily answered.

Mike, in any case, is stuck. He raises his hand. Mike sits in the front row by, whenever possible, patient Joyce, who knows from her own difficult experiences in education what it is to be an outcast. Though smart and hardworking, Joyce has difficulties with fine motor skills that have hampered her social acceptance and made her handwriting appear — though it’s not — illiterate. (She refused to accept the services of a scribe, though she had used one in high school, she told me.) Mike, in a panicky hushed voice, says something to her. Joyce whispers something in reply. Mike shakes his head and keeps his hand raised.

"Mike?"

“So, professor, is it O.K. if I say … if I say the duty of friendship is to be a friend?”

Joyce covers her eyes and bows her head.

Especially in developmental English, I really try not to be sarcastic. So I pause, but several students in that pause tilt their heads in wonder. It’s only the second week of class and Mike has become already the touchstone of incomprehension. Everyone understands better than Mike. If they don’t, they know they just weren’t listening. Mike’s presence is reassuring ("I’m not that confused!"), but it’s also worrying ("If I’m in the same place as this guy …"). I don’t want the other students to feel misplaced. They are in the right place — but they will make progress and Mike never ever will.

If you’re a serious teacher, you should indignantly ask, "How could you know that?" Or, trying to be kind, "How did you resign yourself to accepting that?" I’ve asked myself those questions, too, because I’m quite accustomed to being wrong about students — so how could I have faith in (resignation to) Mike’s failure?

By the end of the second week, I have guessed that Mike is probably a student who uses the outstanding special services program at our college. He and I are veterans of this course; I have taught it 22 times; he has taken it or the class immediately below this one four times.

He has told me his previous instructors here were nice but they didn’t know how to help him. He says it’s very good that I know some Spanish ("Some?" I wonder — I thought my Spanish was pretty good!), and that he has appreciated a few of the explanations I’ve been able to give him in Spanish, but he says my vocabulary is poor. "It’s O.K.," he says, encouragingly, patronizingly, in the same way I realize I sometimes address the students. "People think Spanish is easy, but it’s not."

One morning at the end of our third week, he waits for me after class. I have announced the date for the departmental midterm, and he tells me, "You know I have a few problems and I get to have extra time on my exams?"

"No, I didn’t know that."

He pulls out a form from the special services program that does not explain in any particulars why he’s to be allowed extra time, and he notes the date of the midterm. "And you have to sign here so I can be allowed to do that."

"Of course."

"I don’t really need it, but it’s nice to have extra time sometimes. It’s hard for me to think when there’s lots and lots and lots … and lots of pressure. When there’s a lot of pressure, I don’t really care for that, you know?"

"I know there’s a lot of pressure with exams. It’s fine, Mike."

The next week, Mike asks, a few chapters into our crawl through To Kill a Mockingbird, "Why is Scout angry with his brother?"

"But … Scout?"

"He’s mad at his brother."

"Remember, everyone, Scout is a girl — Mike, you mean her brother."

"Scout’s gotta be a boy," insists Mike.

"But she’s not."

"Because she plays with boys."

"Yes."

"But she’s a girl?"

“Is it the term ‘tomboy’ that’s confusing, Mike?”

"Yeah, maybe that’s it."

Mike makes progress in moments, but those moments are piles of leaves on a windy day. They don’t stay where we pile them. They blow every which way, and the next day there’s no sign of them.

"Scout was a boy but now she’s a girl," he announces.

"No, she’s always been a girl. She is a girl. 'Tomboy' is a term people used to use to describe a girl who plays with boys and prefers their company to other girls."

"So ‘tomboy’ doesn’t have to be a boy?"

"It’s never a boy — it’s always a girl."

"That doesn’t make sense."

"It’s an expression, but that’s really what it means."

"It’s very confused — that word is confused, you know that?"

He writes draft after draft of an essay on a scene from the novel, and I cross out and query his logic or his bewildering accounts of the book. I return draft after draft to him. He is proud of his persistence. This rare quality, which I aspire to and always admire in others, is finally the quality that convinces me Mike’s hopes for educational progress are hopeless. If he weren’t trying so hard, I could keep thinking of ways to try to motivate him. But he is trying so hard. I’m stumped.

"I worked on the revision you gave me back yesterday, because that’s all I really have to do. I don’t have a job, and so I like to sit at my computer and I do my work really fast. I think you’ll like this new one I did. It has everything you said I should say.”

Because he can’t do much with the queries I make (e. g., "Where do you see this in the chapter?" "Is this you or the author making this observation?"), I have been crossing out and rewriting his phrases into sense and instructing him to simply type up what he sees there on the page. Copying what I have written or copying sentences by Harper Lee, it turns out, is quite enough of a challenge. After four or five weeks, we have built an essay about To Kill a Mockingbird. If you don’t look too closely, the essay seems to make sense.

"But this is good, right, professor?"

"Well, it’s getting clearer.”

“But it’s good?"

"Not yet."

"Really?”

“Yeah.”

“But better?”

“Clearer. So, yes, clearer is better, Mike."

During revision time in the computer lab, I have him read new drafts or paragraphs aloud to me and I, holding my own copy, stop him if he doesn’t hear his frantic wandering circlings or missed words. He misreads his own writing and I check him: " 'She seen me,' you wrote."

He’s continually reading my face — I am perplexed by his confusion. "Oh, oh!" he says. He starts his random guessing: "'She didn’t seen me'? …" He studies me. "That’s not right," he concludes. "I can tell!"

"Right. So …"

"Oh! She saw me!"

"Right — and you read it aloud as 'saw' — but you wrote it as 'seen.'"

"Why did I do that?" he asks grinning. He turns and looks over his hunched shoulder at his classmates. He is smiling in embarrassment, though no one else — they’re all typing away -- has witnessed his mistake. "I know what I mean, but I don’t write it. It’s confused. It’s confusing. What’s the difference, confused and confusing? You say both things on my papers sometimes."

"Sometimes I’m confused; sometimes what you write is confusing — producing … making confusion. So, Mike, let’s try to get you to use your ear to check. Go on, we’ll continue, but you can do this on your own, too."

The next day, another draft.

"So this is my sixth draft, professor. You think this’ll pass me?"

"Do I think this will get your portfolio to pass? … No, probably not."

He grins. Had he heard right? "You’re teasing, right, professor? You like to tease."

"I do tease too much … but, no, I wasn’t teasing — Mike, the main thing is to make progress. Your writing is very confusing — even to you! We have to work on that.”

"But I could still pass the class, right?"

"You could — but you don’t need to think about that." He cannot pass! Why am I lying? He will never, ever pass the exams.

“So you think I could pass?” he says quickly, eagerly.

"Right now …" I pause and reflect.

What is encouragement but the faith in progress? I cannot and will not encourage him. I’m going to take back my lie. I’m going to tell him no, never, he’ll never get out of this class and this course. I’m going to be teaching this course until I die and he’ll still be taking it. "Right now, Mike … it doesn’t look likely."

"But if I work real hard …"

"If, somehow, the confusion disappears, then it’s possible."

"It is possible," says Mike. "I can write not so confused, right, professor? And then I’ll pass for sure."

"Let’s get back to work. But I can’t see any more drafts of this because I need time to look at everyone else’s third drafts."

"I have faith in me and you have faith in me, too, right, professor?"

"I know, Mike, that you’re going to work hard. That’s my faith."

He takes a long look over his shoulder, as if to refute his doubters, Pyotr, Adam, and Beatrice, and announces, "I’ll work hard and professor says I’ll climb out of this class!"

A couple of weeks after the midterm, one of my kindly colleagues returns to me my students’ exams. (In our developmental courses we instructors evaluate one another’s students’ exams and portfolios; I’ve come to like this system, as we can all take comfort that the judgments the students receive don’t wholly depend on our personal biases.) "I think I missed on one," says Luisa, with perplexity. "There was something going on and I couldn’t follow it. Miguel, I think it was."

"Mike — yes." That day I hand back the midterms and the other professor’s responses and then meet for a few minutes with each student about the exam. Mike tells me, "I did pretty good!"

"Which part did your reader like, Mike?”"

"None of them really — but she said I could probably do better. I could probably be more clear. So that means I’m doing better."

I will hear, a year later, from Mike’s teacher in the same course, that when Mike showed up to her classroom to take the midterm, she expressed her surprise. "Mike, you want to be here?"

"Yes, here. I know my rights."

“I mean … that’s fine.”

“I can take it here. You can’t stop me.”

“That’s fine, Mike! But you won’t be able to have extra time if you take it here.”

"I know that! I just want to be like everyone else, that’s all."

"Oh." (My colleague: "That’s what got me. After all, his goal’s pretty humble. It’s just … I don’t want to admit it even to myself, but I don’t think I can help him get there.")

                                                                                                  *****

The last day of the semester usually seems anticlimactic. The last day used to mean so much to me when I first started teaching. Now the goodbyes are less regretful, less complicated. It’s a cycle rather than an end, I tell myself.

For the developmental class, it’s results day: the students receive their portfolios and their reading scores. If they pass both, they can take the systemwide writing exam and graduate to Freshman English, where they can finally see their time and money paying off in their pursuit of an associate degree. In my office, I gather their portfolios — cross-graded by my colleagues — and leave early for the classroom. I want to see Mike, who is always early, before his classmates arrive. When I arrive he and Adam are there. I have also brought two boxes of doughnuts. I lay the cartons on a desk to the side and open them. "Have one."

"I’m going to wait," says Mike. "I want to see first if I passed."

"Adam?" I say, nodding at the doughnuts.

"Don’t mind if I do!"

I sit at my desk with the stack of student portfolios before me. “Who’s first?”

"We were on the same elevator," says Adam. "Go ahead, Mikey."

Before he approaches, I feel Mike’s eyes trying to read me. Hope? Hope? Hope!

I feel stone-faced, like a judge. How can Mike possibly think he can pass? How?

He sits at the chair to my right beside my desk.

"I passed, right?"

From the stack of portfolios I take his and push it across to him.

"This is my portfolio," he says.

"Yes."

"I should read it?"

I nod.

“Should I?” he asks. He is desperate to read congratulations in my expression.

As I watch him hesitate, his fingers rubbing at the portfolio cover, his body slowly rocking in the chair, I groan, "You didn’t pass, Mike!"

His mouth goes tight; his round, mobile features go numb. He has never been at a loss for rambling, panicked, anxious words.

The portfolio before him remains unopened. I reach over, he pulls his hand off, and I open the cover.

Imagine a sawn tree just before it’s pushed over. Is it wobbling? Is it unnaturally still because it’s about to topple? I see that stillness in Mike.

I extract the evaluation sheet from the portfolio. "Now look — your revised essay, the one on To Kill a Mockingbird, the one you worked hard on, that’s ‘Satisfactory-minus.’ The professor who read it liked it, for the most part. … See?" I read aloud her comment.

Mike isn’t responding. He is looking at me, not reproachfully, as far as I can tell, or angrily, but as if he has been sentenced to life in prison for a parking ticket. Then I realize he is doing all he can in order not to cry. I am his executioner and in the absence of his voice I am the one babbling. I encourage him!

"You made progress with that essay, Mike. You made some progress. It’s O.K. … it’s not a failure," I lie. "Are you O.K.?"

He doesn’t answer. I close the portfolio.

"Mikey," Adam’s voice calls out from the back of the classroom, "it’s cool. You’ll make it next time."

Mike doesn’t turn. His reproachful eyes land on mine. His eyes are watery but he does not cry. I look down in shame. I see his hand take the folder and when I look up he is lifting his backpack as he rises from the chair.

I say, "Take a doughnut, Mike."

He turns and walks out the door.

I want to lay my head on my desk, but I hear the chatter of voices in the hallway.

Adam says, "I told him before you got here that it might take like two semesters."

For Mike it might be "like forever." He will be here forever, and I will be here forever in that purgatory of non-progress.

I sigh. "You passed, though, Adam. Congratulations."

"I know — anyway, I thought I would. I didn’t want to get too cocky or be too happy while Mike was still here."

The other students are arriving and someday Mike will be back.

Bio

Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.

 

 

 

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