His name was Bobby. He sat in the front row. He paid attention and asked smart questions; he engaged his classmates in debate. He wrote his first paper about pistol-whipping another 20-something in his trailer park over a drug deal. Bobby had so many stories. He wrote about rescuing a woman after she had been raped by a neighbor. He wrote about being homeless after he left gang life. He rode a beat-up bicycle five miles one way to the college in all types of Minnesota weather, then sat wet and shivering in the front row, his hoodie pulled over his head. In late November his girlfriend gave birth, and all we had left to remind us of Bobby was that empty front-row seat.
Next came TJ. He dressed like Eminem and sported white sneakers, floppy and unlaced. He smelled funny, an overpowering bodily odor that I would learn to recognize as meth recovery. His classmates avoided being put into groups with him; they gave him space around the table. Between classes, he chain-smoked in the courtyard. When he visited me during office hours, his hands shook from nicotine.
TJ wrote about dropping out of school to join a circus. He had worked as a carnie and developed a nasty addiction. TJ wrote intoxicatingly about his past; he wrote convincingly about his new, sober life. He had no license, so his grandmother drove him to and from campus. But she was afraid to drive in snow or sleet, so TJ missed a lot of class.
TJ brought me an early draft of his essay to read. He also brought along his notebook from last semester’s remedial writing course, in which he had taken copious notes. He referred to those notes as he explained what he knew about paragraph structure, thesis placement, and the use of examples. We discussed voice shifts, tense shifts, and where to break up paragraphs. I encouraged him to visit the writing center, which I direct, and a tutor discussed his second draft with him.
The day I handed back these papers, he walked in late and slid into the back row. I walked to the rear of the room, still talking, and handed him a paper with a large blue A- circled at the top. I was already back at my teaching console, showing items on the course website, when TJ approached shyly and stopped me in mid-sentence by holding up his paper.
“Is this my grade?” he asked.
“Yes, TJ, that’s your grade,” I replied.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes, TJ, you earned that grade through hard work and good revision,” I said, loud enough for the class to hear.
We all watched TJ walk, beaming, back down the aisle to his seat. TJ was my model developmental writing student. But three weeks later, he vanished from my class.
I have 60 to 80 developmental writing students in my classes each term; many of them lead precarious lives. They come to me, to college, to the hope of a brighter future, but they are wounded and vulnerable and unprepared. They lack self-confidence in general; they lack academic confidence in particular. And if one thing tips the scale out of balance in their precarious lives, they will disappear.
I lie awake at night, worrying about them. Not them collectively, as one-third are doing fine and another third are squeaking by. It’s the final third, the vulnerable ones, that rob me of sleep.
As a lifelong educator, I used to worry about paper-grading burnout. Now that my teaching load is largely remedial English, I worry more about emotional burnout: the accumulated psychological toll of caring for so many.
Because the more I care about my students, the more they break my heart.
I wish that I knew less about them, that they could simply be students to me. But the best subject matter for fledgling writers is their own lives, and my students love to tell their stories. While my colleagues in other departments are feeding multiple choice bubble sheets into Scantron machines or ticking off points for math equations, I am scribbling comments in the margins of my students’ papers. I am writing things like, “Do you know how to get a restraining order? Please ask me; I will help you” and “Here’s the counseling #. Ask for Robert.”
I am also writing letters and emails, to both these students and their advisers. I am seeking student services and support agencies for them. I am trying to put a finger in every hole in the dikes of their lives so that they can stay in my class, they can learn, they can move on to college level English and the rest of their lives.
I am teaching the disciplinary material which I was trained to teach, but I am also serving as a life coach, student success skills instructor, and amateur therapist, and I have no training in these areas.
Jeff is my latest heartbreak. The last day he came to my class was a much-publicized workshop day, and I was unhappy with him for arriving without his draft. When I asked him to retrieve it from his car, he stood up and nearly keeled over. He told us he felt funny, he felt tired; he slurred his words and the sentences trailed off. His classmates looked frightened. I told him to forget about the writing assignment and go see the school nurse. I wish so badly that I had walked him to the nurse’s office myself. He never went there. But she followed up, on my request, and has since told me that he is “under the care of mental health professionals.”
I will never forget the shock on TJ’s face, followed by intense pleasure, when I confirmed his A-.
Am I the only person to ever recognize TJ’s academic aptitude, to ever tell him that he did a good job? I hope not. But so many of my remedial students hover on the brink of “I can’t do this” that I work mightily to find qualities to praise, to point out aptitudes, even as I tough-love them with sentence structure, journaling, grammar quizzes.
I cannot say that these students disappear from the world; rather, they cease to attend my class. They are still members of my community. I saw Bobby in Walmart last spring, looking as happy-go-lucky as ever, as his friends shoplifted.
TJ may be the man putting my child on a carnival ride at next summer’s county fair. Even if my female student does get that restraining order I mentioned in the margin of her last draft, she could still become a city statistic, another assault victim or death.
I live with my students perpetually on my mind. I worry about the stories that they’re not telling me. Sometimes, teaching them how to write college essays seems trite in comparison with the other challenges of their daily lives. I wish I could pour the knowledge into their brains, test them on it, and go home. I wish I could see them simply as students.
I know the way out of my dilemma. I could go back to teaching courses with names like Writing Poetry and Women’s Perspectives.
I could teach the students who are college-ready, who passed that arbitrary, high-stakes placement test, or who have already schlepped their way through a remedial course like mine.
But then who would encourage John to get tested for dyslexia? Who would ask my Hmong student about her pregnancy, or my Somali student about her father’s heart surgery? Who would watch the 30-year-old veteran’s face for signs of anxiety and reassure him?
When I was a graduate student, teaching freshman comp, I used to walk home each day, asking myself one question: “Did I do a good job?”
At the end of a day teaching remedial English, I still ask myself one question, and it’s always the same one: “Did I do enough?”
Pam Whitfield is an English and equine science instructor and writing coordinator at Rochester Community and Technical College, in Minnesota.