Category Archives: Education

All day it snowed…

All day. I woke to five or six inches of white on the ground. Zeke’s school was delayed, and so were the home school district schools and a local university. I figured my institution would be delayed too, since it usually follows the home school district, and has done so ever since the then-new president canceled classes for 1/2 inch of snow, got into trouble, then didn’t cancel for 18 inches or the flood that followed a few weeks later! I kept waiting for the announcement that the first hour or two of classes had been canceled. I didn’t want to get up and go to work to find school was delayed or closed, so I kept an ear out in my warm comfy bed …. until I fell back asleep, and slept hard for two hours after a week of mild sleep deprivation.

When I woke, it was half an hour before my first class (conferences, actually, this week). I called a couple of colleagues to find out if I needed to go in, but got no answers. Were they in class? Or at home? There was no information ANYWHERE, about the status of my institution. All the local schools and the local university were delayed by two hours, so it made sense that my place of work would be too, but making sense and reality are not the same things where I work.

After 20 minutes, a colleague called back to tell me that, “Yes, classes are in session.” So I had to hustle and I arrived late to find my first two conference kids waiting.

“How was your drive?” I asked them.

“My little Honda slid all over the freeway,” one of them said. His words threw me back 16 years to the time I walked into a meeting on a dismally dark October day, and left an hour later to find four inches of snow on the ground. It was my first term at the college. It was my birthday. And I had a 35-mile drive home. It took me almost three hours, and I walked in the front door to tell my then-husband, “We’re moving!” My rear-wheel drive Toyota Starlet with the 3/4 bald graduate students tires had skated home like roller-blades on an ice rink. One guy in a 4X pick up tailgated me till he got tired of my slow speed and then zoomed past on the median of the freeway. Two miles later I saw his truck upside down in the median, and him standing by it, looking cold. I could hear sirens in the distance, heading to his truck perhaps, or to one of the other multiple accidents that littered that freeway that day.

Today I have a four-wheel drive car with top-of-the-line tires for my frequent drives over the mountain pass to my dad’s house. The anti-lock brakes kick on at the slightest sign of a skid, and the beast plows through six inches of snow as though it’s on a summer road. Still, I’m cautious. And when I hear my students talk of their hair-raising drives in their little cars with bald tires, of skidding into the ditch or fishtailing across intersections and praying that no one is coming,  I remember those days. “Don’t risk an accident trying to get to class on a day like today,” I tell them. “It’s not worth it.”

The snow has slowed down, and the temperature has lifted a little. Maybe tomorrow will be clear. But I’d prefer that it snows all night and we wake to five feet and wind-created snow sculptures like I did in Ireland in the winter of 1982. It’s unlikely, but I long for it anyway.

Changing the dream two

Continued from here:

None of this, of course, is a complaint against my mother. She simply did what everyone did back then, made an association between maths and Latin and getting into vet school. It’s false, at least in this country, at least now. But back then, if you wanted to get into vet school in Ireland, you got high grades in everything, including (especially) maths and Latin. She was saving me grief, saving me from a dream I could never have realized.

But her not believing in me, and my dad’s view of me as not too bright, colored everything. When I told Mum I won the English prize, she told me not to lie. It was impossible, in her world, for someone to get C’s in both the exams (composition and literature), and win the English prize. She only believed me when the picture came out in the Irish Times, me holding the certificate and the check, with two of my friends flanking me. Why didn’t I show her the certificate? Because by the time I had evidence, she had denounced me as a liar. It didn’t seem worth it.

But it’s not that bad, really. A few years later, when I was in college in America and made effortless As in every class I took except English 101 (hah! What irony…), I realized that she was just operating under perfectly reasonable assumptions. No one in the U.S. who got C’s in a class would win an award for that class. C’s aren’t very good grades. A B is OK. A’s, well, even those are often barely deserved. So it made all the sense in the world for her to assume that I couldn’t possibly, ever, under any circumstances, win an award when I’d received C’s in my exams. And when I realized that fact, everything else fell into place too. No wonder I was never good enough. My perfectly reasonable Irish grades looked like failures to her. And because I couldn’t please her, I gave up.

Dad, on the other hand, knew better. Why did he never say anything to convince her differently? I suppose because he went to Trinity and Oxford and worked at CERN and found maths and science easy, because he truly believed “Anyone can do English. It’s a soft option.” Because he was scathing of what I loved. In the end, I gave up trying for him, too. Early on, oh so early on, I simply gave up dreaming.

It’s easy, looking back, to realize how own’s right-meaning and perfectly loving parents (and they were), were simply shaped by what they understood of the world. In Dad’s world, everyone knew that English was a soft option that any moron could do. There was no point being proud of getting a good grade on an English essay, of winning the prize for English. Anyone can do that. Splitting the atom. Probing the mystery of the nutrino. Those are worthy goals.

In Mum’s world, grades of C were tantamount to failure. It’s just the way things were. A “B” elicited, “Is that all?” She didn’t mean to be discouraging. It’s just what she knew of the world, in the same way that she knew me going to a little regional university for my MA in English was a waste of time because it wouldn’t “mean anything.” She had high expectations because she came from a world in which everyone overachieved. Just being normal wasn’t good enough. It didn’t mean she didn’t love me. In fact it was a mark of her love.

It’s easy to say, “Just change the dream.” It’s not easy to do it. Others have changed my dream for me all my life. When I did leave home at 17, and eventually came to the States and went to college, I pursued my own dream, such as it was. Now, in many ways, I have realized what is a perfectly reasonable dream. I have a job I like, my own place, a loving daughter. The dream I can’t change is my family. I love them. It’s true I want to be able to smash the walls down, to assert myself, to say, “Things will be different now.” Some days I make progress towards that vision. But some days I don’t. I can’t beat myself up for not changing the dream because part of the problem is that I’ve always beaten myself up for it. I just have to accept what happened, whatever failure I brought upon myself — once again — and try to move forward.

So I failed, on my birthday, to connect to dad. Norman is right. I’m sure he was thinking “Happy birthday.” He probably mumbled it. Even if he didn’t, we did celebrate my birthday the night before. He made me a chocolate cake using “Mum’s special recipe.” These things mean everything. It’s my own hopeless paralysis that kills me, time after time. But I shake free of it. I take another step. I commit to trying again. That’s what I’ve always done.

A’s in the U.S. don’t mean much to those raised in Ireland. But they mean a lot to me, because they got me here, to graduate school and beyond, to a tenure track job. OK, it’s “only” a community college, a real disappointment for my mother whose father was dean of the medical school at Vanderbilt, for my father who worked at CERN. But I love teaching community college students. I understand my students’ struggles, because they mirror mine — in some slantwise way.

Over the years, I’ve made my working life into my own dream, changed my parents’ dream to my own. It’s a start. Other dreams will follow, do follow, slow though the progress is.

Irish School-revisioned

The man in the motorized wheelchair had a devastatingly handsome face, a clear English complexion, a sudden easy smile, serious blue eyes.

“Well,” he asked. “Why are you here?”

“I’m showing my friend where I went to school.”

He nodded. He had spoken after I pointed out a small square spot of concrete on the ground and said, “The headmistress used to live there. I wonder why they knocked her house down?” It must have been obvious, with the guts of a towering steel-and-concrete structure right behind me, its shadow darkening what had been a sunny spot years ago. But I ignored the new building and looked instead for familiarities.

We were in a throng pushing down from the main school building to the road where we would catch the bus. Between the shorn steel pillars of the new building I could see the curve of the old driveway, the grass lawn sweeping up to the wall between my school and the one next door. Trees, yes. But no daffodils. It seemed supremely wrong to be here in a season without daffodils. All my dreams have been of running down the driveway past a blur of yellow on my way to freedom.

We had been in the school till the bell rang and we were flooded by all those escaping students, accept that they were old, or in wheelchairs, or male. They weren’t wearing uniforms. The man in the wheelchair wore a soft green suit, the color of shadowed moss, and a shirt as white as his teeth. “There’s the bus,” he said. I strained to see if it was the 44, my favorite bus, which would take us from Milltown to Enniskerry. It was, but it went the wrong way, up a new road, where the river should have been.

“Oh yes,” I tell Nada. “Everything’s moved now.”

The main building was being remodeled. American girls were giving away candy in the lobby. I grabbed some chocolate and a handful of papers which turned out to be pictures one of them had drawn. They were crude but pretty. When I walked over to thank her, she turned her back on me, and I saw that the doors, which had been all-glass when I was there, were now steel, with only a tiny glass pane at the top, bisected by thick bars. “One of my friends ran through the glass,” I told Nada. “That’s why they changed it. But I don’t know why they put on the bars.”

The concourse was huge, way bigger than I remembered. The stage area, where the teachers had stood for prayers and announcements, was gone. The balcony above was dim and plush. I walked past classrooms filled with velvet and gold. The windows let in no light.

I tried to tell Nada what it was like here, being a heathen in a non-denominational but strictly religious school. My dad always got us to prayers late on purpose. Day after day we were humiliated, having to stand in the glassed-in lobby on show. Time after time we got black marks for missing prayers, and the headmistress glared at us. She called in my dad, too, to talk to him. “You girls are missing prayers, Mr. P,” she said. “It will not be good for their souls.”

“And…?” my dad responded.

“You must make sure they are on time for prayers,” the headmistress responded.

“Why would I do that?” my atheist father replied.

In the end the headmistress gave up on my father. Instead she called me in.

“You are disturbed psychologically,” she said. “You need a psychiatrist.” I didn’t know what I’d done, other than stand with my sisters in the glass lobby every day, stared at by 500 or so girls. Perhaps my face had flashed my father’s resistance at her when she mentioned my responsibility in converting my father to one who would ensure his children’s spiritual health by getting them to prayers on time. Finally she allowed us to stand on the balcony with the others who didn’t pray, the Jews, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the four Heathen girls.

But now, in my dream of this morning, the concourse stood vast and empty, the balcony unlit, the stage gone. When the bell rang, Nada and I found ourselves outside in a through being drawn down to the street, past the brick walls and onto the road. But the 44 went the wrong way and the river was gone.

“I used to mitch,” I told him. “I’d walk to the penny shop up the road and buy sweets for people who didn’t dare mitch themselves. All the teachers knew. I never got in trouble.” I didn’t need to tell him why. Once only my father had given me a black eye. I ran away from home and went to a friend’s birthday party, walking two miles in the pouring rain to Enniskerry and then taking the smokey 44 bus to Dundrum. When my friend’s mother asked about my eye, I told her I’d walked into a door. The universal excuse. She was the gym teacher. After that, everyone at school was kind to me. My parents were never notified when I went missing or got bad grades. Even the headmistress gave up her resolution to convert me.

I didn’t like to be touched. I didn’t like crowds. I’d had a black eye and had run away from home. None of these things told a story about me that was true. Still, people invented what wasn’t there.

I was friends with a girl who was regularly beaten by her big sister, and perhaps even her father. We mitched together. She smoked pot in the tiny flat owned our Malaysian schoolmate, who mitched also. As they smoked, I looked out the window onto the brick wall three feet away. The light filtered through smog and rain, slid across the window sill, and pressed through into the dim room, thick with pot smoke. It touched me. Maybe that’s why I never forgot God.

In my dream, the wall to the river is high and when I lean over it I see only houses. Everything has moved. My school is obscured by an unfinished skyscraper. The 44 bus goes down a road that doesn’t exist. The man in the wheelchair, in his mossy suit, smiles, GQ on wheels. And then I walk down the road a little, disconsolate, and lean over the wall again, and there is the river, falling over a series of carefully placed stones, trickling into a pool. The water is clear over the mossy growth on the stones. Everything is very still.

Sobering thought from AP lit leader

In the article found here, in which an AP reader interviews Jim Barkus, the head of AP reading for the literature section, are the following sobering statistics. They should give pause to those of us who use only objective tests to measure student learning. (I’m talking about non-comp faculty. We writing teachers have to assign and read multiple papers.) It should also give English departments that place writing students based entirely on a test like the Asset or the Compass something to think about.

Questioner: How would you describe the correlation between the objective portion of the test and the discursive essays?

Jim Barkus: Well, the correlation is what it is. We don’t have any ideal number there, because each year objective items change, and the free-response items change, and on any given set of questions the correlation may be higher or lower than another year. We think, however, that we ought to be somewhere around a 50% correlation. That is, if you just think about your classroom, about 50% of the time the good students who do well on the objective part of your examination will do well on your essays. And those students who are struggling will usually not perform well on either section. We have those other students who can’t take an objective exam. They really struggle, and yet, when they sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil, they write excellent essays. We don’t look for a one-to-one correlation. We’re more concerned about students’ performance.

Many faiths, one heart

Seen on a fountain in a garden at the Cathedral of the Assumption today. I’m frustrated I didn’t bring my camera. “Many faiths, one heart. Cathedral of the Assumption Foundation.”

I’m done…. Flying out of Louisville tomorrow early. It was a haul, exhausting and sometimes hilarious.

  • “I don’t know what syntax is, but that isn’t going to stop me talking about it.”
  • The characters in this story are really really complicated and so the writing is really complited and so is the syntix and the details.
  • The father is a simple man, and so he speaks in really short sentences.
  • The syntax is just a bunch of really long runon sentences that go on and on and signify how the father and son really are detached from each other and even hate each other.
  • The rod has really pretty letters on it, beautiful wingdings. (It’s meant to be windings.)
  • The rod is married. “The ‘beautiful weddings’ on the rod signify it’s singificance to the father and the son.

Gads.

But I’m done. I read over 1000 essays in seven days. I ate a lot of greasy overcooked food, so much that today I just stopped eating. My body said “enough already,” and now I’m hungry because it’s the next day and I’m finally winding down.

I met a postcolonialist from India too late to get a really good conversation going, and I’m sad because we had similar reactions to being expatriates. I’d like to know more about Calcutta.
Bed time.

AP funnies

Amendment:

The passage the students read for this year’s AP question in the prose section is a short piece where Joe (Johnny) from Dalton Trumbo’s Jonhhy Got his Gun is camping with his father and chooses for the first time in eight years to take off and go fishing with a friend rather than with his dad. His father, while clearly disappointed, gives Joe his treasured fishing rod to use, so Joe can give his own rod to his friend, who has none. The prompt asked them to consider what literary devices Dalton used to characterize the relationship between the Joe and his father, and gave as examples the use of details, point of view, and syntax. The responses were hilarious at times.

  • Joe from Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is “like a black widow spider, going from mate to mate.”
  • “It would have been better if there’d been a gun in it.”
  • The excerpt is written from the “third person limited omnipotent” perspective.
  • Or the “impotent” perspective.
  • Or from the second person to the third person to the first person and back again. (Which it is not. Trumbo eliminates quotation marks on dialogue, which I suppose leads inexperiences student writers to assume he’s flipping into first person.)
  • “There are lots of details. Good details. The details are overwhelming. That’s what makes them good.”
  • “In 1939 fishing was used for bondage a lot.”
  • “Trumbo’s syntax is reprehensible.”

There’s something else, something a bit disheartening. A run of essays, all with either ones (lowest score for someone at least making an attempt to address the prompt), or with dashes (page left blank). All from the same school. At lunch one of my colleagues told me that some states require all students to take AP English, and to take the exam. Some states use taxpayer money to pay the ($85?) reading fee for students who couldn’t otherwise afford it. “It makes Bush look good,” my colleague said. “He can cite the increasing numbers of students who are taking AP English. No child left behind, right?” I don’t know if he’s right, and I hope he’s not. If so, I think of those students, all from the same school, who will get dishearteningly low scores, who are being presented as success stories when they are in fact sinking, all for ideology.

In contrast, I got a run of essays from the same area (different schools, same area or district, I think). All high-scoring essays, ranging from 6-8. Is it just the quality of the teaching that makes the difference, or students coming from privilege where all aspects of their lives are shaped towards success?

Discombobulated

I left work early today, frustrated by my 5-year-old computer, which grunts and ticks as it works, too slowly, freezing up occasionally in the middle of something I’m doing. I have a brand new computer in my brand new office, but I can’t move there until the formaldehyde has offgassed, probably in September. Yesterday I had to move to a new, temporary office, and my files are in boxes or lined up on an otherwise empty bookshelf. I went looking for a handout and couldn’t find it. I must have boxed up that file folder. The stack of 101 papers on my desk looks formidable. My students comment on my crankiness. “I’m discombobulated,” I tell them. “Do you know there are 96 steps I have to take between my old office and my temporary one?” I counted the steps because I was bored, yesterday, making countless trips between offices with a single box as my vehicle of transport. No carts. They’re all being used for other moves. I carried plant pots (I have a lot of plants in my office) two at a time. I carried armfuls of books and folders. My coat rack and recycling box, and gifts that students have given me over the years. My poster of Irish writers, all male, of course. My new office, with its small window looking out on a brick wall, looked sparse and gray. I shifted stapler and tape dispenser and pen mug about on my desk till I found a configuration I liked. My computer, ticking and groaning at me, slowed and froze again. I tried to force quit, but that, as usual, wasn’t working.

I want to curse my lungs, with their damaged bronchial tubes. Why can’t I just move into the new building like everyone else? But every time I walk into the front door, I start coughing. The familiar chest tightening squeezes a band of warning around me. I end up outside again, in the sunshine and the foreshadow of heat, knowing I need to be careful.

I taught here for seven years in an office without windows, one the size of a closet, smaller than my not-expansive bathroom. Then I moved into the “luxury” office of the old building, with an extra eight square feet or so, and window that looked out onto bricks. If I craned my neck I could see a few leaves from the tree outside. Still, there was enough light there, between the seeping window and my plant light, for plants to grow, and I surrounded myself in green, getting a reputation for one who could save dying house plants. When my lungs clogged and sputtered three years ago, and I was forced by allergies to move into an office in Decker, my new office was huge, with a window looking out to the hills on the outskirts of town. I never got completely unpacked, though. I knew it was temporary, and several shelves of belongings from the previous occupant remained through my stay. It felt like a place to perch between long flights. I sat in my chair and stared out the window, absorbing a view I knew I would soon lose.

Now I’ve lost it, to a smaller office, with a smaller window, but still luxurious compared to my closet of the first seven years, and still better than the windowed office where I worked in the old building till two years ago. And the fact is, I have my own office. I can set my own temperature for my own little space. I can line up my books as I want, and ask for more bookshelves on the authority of being faculty. I can fill my world with plants, hang a plant light, if I need it, and lock the door to the world while I work. Even in my first office, I could arrange my space as I wanted to and close the door. It’s a pretty easy life. This temporary transitional office, and the discomfort of not knowing where things are, will pass, as everything does.

And if all else fails, I can leave my groaning, moaning, deathbed computer and come home to work.

Teaching troubled students

My retired colleague Sidso sent me a link to an article about Cho and his creative writing teacher. I read it and thought of all the troubled students I’ve had over 16 years of community college teaching. Most of the time my students are wonderful, hard-working and dedicated, often with families and jobs that make it hard for them to put their all into my classes, but usually willing to do their best. Occasionally I’ve encountered difficult students though, like the young man last quarter who sent me a veiled email threat that turned out to be a gesture of frustration with no real bite to it. Once a Russian mail order bride (no joke — there are too many of these tragic women in my area) with a history of mental illness attacked me in my office. It was laughable in some ways. She was tiny, barely five foot and probably less than 100 pounds. I could have knocked her over, could have shoved her against the wall with one hand and called security with the other. But still, had she had a gun, in her enrage state, where would I be now? She was angry about her grade, vituperative. In class she burst out in unseemly and inappropriate attacks on me and the other students. She refused to leave, to wait her turn to have her questions answered, to be patient and listen to my response to her angry queries. After her second explosion, I called the dean, who then was brand new and didn’t know me. She told me nicely enough that she was sure I could handle it, and hung up.

The next day the student, I’ll call her Maria, followed me to my office, blocked the doorway and tried to grab papers out of my hand to see the other students’ grades. I asked her to leave until she was calm enough to talk rationally, told her I’d call security if she didn’t. She launched herself at me. I had the phone in my hand, and I dialed security while I held out my hand to fend her off. She left as they arrived, and they took her off for questioning.

The next day, she was back in class, duly warned. She exploded again in the middle of a presentation by her classmates. I asked her to leave. She refused. We had no phones in the classroom in that building, and I had to leave to walk a couple of hundred yards to the nearest phone so I could call security again. She walked behind me, screaming obscenities. A couple of my other students came with me; they told me afterwards they feared for my safety.

After VTech, our college administration is discussing ways to get phones in all the classrooms, even the aging ones. I wonder at the changes since I began, at a time when there were few computers on campus, and only one phone for the entire English and speech departments. In the morning, I’d answer the secretary’s phone by running out from my office to take messages before she arrived an hour later than I did. I’d write them on the triplicate message book that sat by the phone, and tape them to doors. No one wondered what would happen if a student went berserk in the classroom. It just wasn’t something that entered our minds.

After Maria attacked me in my office, she was told she had to talk to the vice-president before she returned to my classroom. I heard later she went after him, too. He was six foot five and at least 200 pounds. The security officer who told me chuckled at the image of that tiny woman pummeling the chest of a man twice her size, and at the time, so did I. It never struck us that she could be dangerous in any but the most metaphorical of ways. Even so her violence garnered her a restraining order. Despite the orders from the administration of the college, she returned after class a day or two later and tried to push other students aside to talk to me. When I told her she’d have to wait her turn, she wrote obscenities on the board about me, speaking in vehement Russian invectives the whole time. In the end I, and the handful of students who had been waiting to question me about their papers, all accompanied me — and her — to the department office, where once again I dialed security while she screamed at me in Russian in the background.

This time the police came. This time she was expelled not only from my class but from campus. I never saw her again. Sometimes I imagine the squalor in which she lived, her hopeless pre-teen son struggling in poverty with a mother whose condition verged on dangerous. I felt for him, for her, knew that she’d come from Russia into a marriage with an abusive man that she’d never met before the arrangements were made, knew that she was desperate to stay in the States because what she had in Russia was worse than what she had here, knew that I had seen gentleness and kindness in her, under the rage. What drove her to such blind fury? What had she seen, experienced, to unleash in her such uncontrolled venom? I wished there were a way to understand her, to have helped her transition to college. I want to have helped her the way Cho’s teacher, Lucinda Roy, who tutored him independently after he was expelled from a creative writing class for taking pictures of women’s underwear under the desk, wanted to help Cho. In the end, Roy did what she could for Cho and it wasn’t enough. I did what I could for Maria and it wasn’t enough. She just left the country, I think, went back to the darkness and poverty of her life in Russia. At least she didn’t have a gun during those days in which her taut anger fueled her.

More people are dying in Iraq. More kids bring guns to school, or call in bomb warnings. Four years ago, the president of this country met an imagined threat from Iraq with “shock and awe,” an attack campaign birthed in arrogance and folly, and gone terribly wrong, one based on unimaginable violence towards others. No wonder so many citizens and non-citizens here think threats and pain need be met with violence in return. When I started teaching in 1991, we thought of angry students as disruptive, as minimally physically violent at times, but never as a threat to life. Today I can image a scenario where a student turns on me and fellow students with a gun in hand, reacting to a perceived threat in the way the leaders of this country have acted — with absolute violence towards the Other.

Still, I like teaching. Maybe in 16 years my awareness of the possibilities inherent in every classroom situation will be different again. I just hope I never lose my fundamental belief that most people are good, that when I walk into the classroom, it really is a safe place, even if, once in a while, a student gets frustrated.