If you read my stuff, you know I’m a delicate flower—exquisitely sensitive—and a lover, not a fighter. But a self-reflective teacher has to be aware of his or her vibe in the classroom.
I’m not a tiny or pretty man. I have a shaved head, and the thousand-yard stare of fatherhood. On days after I stay up late to grade or write, my eyes point just far enough in different directions that students across the room can’t tell who I’m looking at. And when I think hard, my brow furrows and I look more intense than I should when thinking about pork chops with applesauce. For me, managing teaching persona means trying not to intimidate students, and using my powers for good. A freshman told me this week that my endless requests for revision reminded her of that scene in the movie version of A River Runs Through It, where the father, played by Tom Skerritt, does the same thing to his son, until the writing is perfect. I’ll take it.
It’s not the worst problem to have. Several of my officemates are only a year or two older than some of the undergrads they teach. One very bright young woman has golden curls and a guileless face that subtract five years from her age. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked in to find some sullen student or another, wearing his backwards ball cap and Trophy Wives and Billionaires Mixer t-shirt, looming over her as she sat quietly at her desk. They seem to think that vaguely threatening demeanors will intimidate her enough that she’ll give them whatever grade they’re after. Since I keep seeing it happen, maybe they do, or maybe she’s impervious or oblivious to them. I say hi to her, overloud and stupidly cheery, to let the guys know she’s not alone.
I’ve never felt threatened by them. Among other reasons, I know they’re bluffing: Everything about them is intended to fit in, including their versions of wildness, like vomiting green beer and breakfast sausages on the sidewalk on Unofficial St. Patty’s Day. They’d never—ever—do anything genuinely risky, like hit a teacher. No, the only time I think students might be individually dangerous is when they have nothing left to lose. And since my job is to help them succeed, not to turn them away like some gatekeeper of academe, I rarely see students who’ve lost hope.
That’s why, as I held my own individual conferences with rhetoric students this week, I didn’t at first sense anything wrong with Tom (not his name). He’s a thick, heavy kid, mostly muscle, with a head like a chopping block. It makes his eyes a little piggish, and the bridge of his nose has folds. Both his first and last names are strongly Polish, and since his teeth aren’t very good and he doesn’t seem comfortable here, I figured he was working class and/or a first-generation college attendee. He never spoke in class until I called on him, and then he hid behind a pillar so I couldn’t easily do that.
Tom hadn’t done two bibliographies I’d asked for. At the conference, I was willing to keep it light, work out his difficulties, and extend his deadline, but when I asked why he didn’t do the work, he just shrugged at me angrily. I tried to get at the cause of his resistance, and he talked about the demands of being a nuclear engineering major. No one, he said, had to work like he did, and all his time went into those classes, so he had no time for mine, or to search periodicals databases and card catalogs for source materials.
I joked about how deeply he’d hurt my feelings by suggesting my class wasn’t a real class, and he scowled. Students often want to, need to, pull this stuff out of themselves, like poison arrows, and then they feel better. But in Tom’s case, he got madder and more hostile. He spoke of his “hatred” for English classes and previous English teachers. His brother, he said, was the artistic one. His great forearms flexed like pythons, and his meaty knuckles beat a tempo on my side table to his words. At a certain point, the first time in my career, maybe, I began to think a student might strike me. I don’t think I misjudged. We were also alone.
Well, he can kill me but he can’t eat me, I reminded myself. I sharpened and deepened my gaze, looking directly in his eyes with the tiniest hint of amused malice, and began to talk. Never mind, I said, that the most brilliant people I’ve met, from any field, are multi-talented and are almost always articulate and good writers to boot. Never mind that language is probably the software that runs our minds, and it might be a good idea to refine and de-bug that software. Fact is, this is a required course, and no student can graduate from Hinterland without being able to conduct the most basic library research. (This is not true, but it was no time to discuss educational malpractice.)
When I had his attention, I began to use the diction of violence to discuss his standing in the class. “I don’t want you to feel sucker- punched when I have to fail you,” I said, hitting the plosive P pretty hard. He flinched, and I felt I’d guessed correctly. Then he sagged, and I knew I could turn it back to him and let him talk about whether he wanted to be in college at all. Other than to become a nuclear engineer, he didn’t, really. It was a relief to admit it. We shared mutual scorn for any course, like “Physics for Poets,” that pretended to educate within a field without using the methods of that field. I suggested that library research was a necessary rigor for both our fields.
I don’t know if he’ll do the work, but he seemed grateful when he left. And I still have my face.
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