Friday, February 8, 2008

It's Going to Be One of Those Semesters: Notes on Students, Part One

I don't think it's a stretch to say that everyone has weeks like the week I just had. The week I just had was the type that makes you wonder why you even bother to get up in the morning. The week I just had was the type that makes you realize there isn't enough liquor, hot fudge, or loud music in the world that could soothe away the things you have seen, experienced, and done.
I just came back from vacation and already I need another one. And here's why:

In one of my classes, I have two students who insist on bringing laptops to class. They'd rather use their own computers than the computers supplied by the school--and I suppose I understand that. There's less fiddling around, less transferring work from one computer to another, and if they paid good money for the laptop, why not use it?

In theory, I have no problem with that. Except that theory is crap. Those students want to bring their laptops to class because they want to sit at their desks--that do not face toward me, like the computer stations do--and they want to use that to their advantage. I have caught them IMing, looking at MySpace and Facebook, and watching videos on You Tube.

They think I'm stupid, these students. They think that I somehow won't notice the blinking IM box minimized on their screens. They think I won't see their task bar littered with social networking pages of slutty girls whose profile pictures feature them wearing only a bikini and a pout. Don't they see who I am? Don't they stop to think, Hmm, this instructor isn't eighty years old. She has lived her entire life in a world where computers were available. I bet she knows a trick or two about what we're doing back here. Or maybe they do think that but they just don't care. That would be worse. I'd prefer stupidity to disregard for me and my teaching and the lessons I'm trying to cram into their brains that are already full with cars and beer, girls and farts.

But it's not stupidity. It's disregard. It's disrespect. They don't give a shit about me, my class, or the effort I'm putting into the attempt to make them good writers. This drives me crazy.

What else drives me crazy is this: these two boys, the ones with the laptops, don't listen. Last week, after catching them--again--doing exactly what I'd told them not to on their computers, I'd had it. I told them to put the computers away, to get on the ones the college provided, and to not bring the laptops to class ever again.

Next class, those two boys walked in the class, sat at their desk, and cracked open their laptops like nothing had happened, like they had the memory of some dopey goldfish. Needless to say, I lost my mind. There was a hot flash of anger that bloomed deep in my middle. Still, I managed to keep my voice level and low.

"Gentlemen?" I said. "Are we forgetting something?"

They looked up at me with blank eyes.

"The laptops," I said.

They looked back down at the screen, uninterested in what I was saying.

"Put them away," I said.

One of them sighed and started to pack his laptop away, and I turned because one of the other students was calling my name, asking me for help. I walked over to him and helped him with the in-class assignment for a few minutes, and then I continued on down the row of students on that side of the room. When I got over to the side where the laptop students were, there was one of them--still on his computer, still typing away, ignoring my stare.

And that's all I could do for a minute: stare. I crossed my arms and stared at him.

Finally, he stopped typing and rolled his eyes, looked at me. "WHAT?" he asked.

"Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me," I said. "You're asking me what?"

"Yeah," he said. "WHAT?"

This was one of those moments where I thought about the classrooms in old frontier America, back when corporal punishment was permissable and expected. I thought of teachers in tiny one-room school houses pulling down from the walls their trusty willow switches. I thought of them flicking those switches in the direction of mouthy students, the ones who looked up at their teachers and said "No" after they'd been asked to recite that day's spelling lesson.

In that moment, I wished we were in some old Iowa or Dakota or Minnesota schoolhouse. I wished for the wind to be howling down the prairie so loudly, so strongly that it would drown out the students' cries as I reached for the switch and brought it down on hands and shoulders and heads.

But I would never do that, so I settled for telling him exactly what was what.

"Close that laptop now," I said. "I've asked you several times now, and I want you to do what I say. You will close it, move to a computer back here, and you will never bring that computer back to this class... do you hear me?"

He did. And what he heard didn't make him happy.

"You know what?" he said. "YOU buy me a flash drive then, okay? Then I'll be more than happy to use one of these computers and transfer all my shit from one place to the next." He rolled his eyes. "SO POINTLESS," he said, heaving out a big sigh that showed the whole class that, man, I was just so unfair and ridiculous with my demands.

"SHUT YOUR COMPUTER," I said, "AND MOVE. And I'm sick of your sass. So sick of it."

Someone across the room laughed at the word sass.

"Yeah, go ahead," I snapped over my shoulder. "Laugh at the word sass, but I hope you know that I'm sick of it--and you've all been giving it to me since the moment you stepped in this classroom. And I'm not going to take it anymore. Not at all."

And then I started moving away, back toward the front of the classroom. I was fuming. I was busy being angry at myself for not throwing the student out of the class for ignoring my commands more than once and then mouthing off. I was trying to clear my head and focus back on the task at hand--helping the other students with their in-class writing prompt--when I heard the one thing I never expected to hear.

I heard that student blow a raspberry at me. He blew a raspberry at me.

I was stunned. I almost fell over. Something white and hot flashed in front of my eyes. I thought it was very possible I was being swallowed by my own anger, eaten and digested alive, right there in front of all my students.

But before I even opened my mouth to yell, one of my other students--sensing the impending doom--raised his hand and waved it, frantic. "Help!" he said. "I need help! I'm having a lot of trouble with this!" The panic in his voice was so clear--he didn't need help. He didn't need anything except to distract me so I wouldn't march his friend outside and tell him to never come back.

And I went over to this frantic student because, really, I was glad for the distraction. I knew I needed a minute to breathe and come back down out of the really ugly place in myself that wanted to raise my voice high, keep raising it until I was shrieking things like Who do you think you are? and How dare you?

This student and his peers are in an all-male program at the school, and I know for a fact they would never DREAM of talking to their male instructors that way. Their instructors would have those boys backed into a corner and wetting their pants in a second flat if ever they made the mistake of mouthing off that way. Maybe these boys think it's okay to talk to me that way because I'm a girl, because I'm just some stupid English teacher they have to put up with so they can get their degree.

Last year I had a similar bunch of students from this program, and they were a dream. An absolute dream. They loved me. They thought I was funny, witty, and charming. They wanted to take me for rides in their cars. They wanted me to go shoot pool with them.

This new crop, however, would rather die than shoot pool with me. They would cut out their tongues before admitting I am funny or witty or charming. They just want to be comatose in my classroom for six hours a week and then be done with me. Very few of them care about what grade they get in the course.

Sometimes I think I don't get paid enough for this--with them, what I do is just glorified babysitting. I have to make circles around the room because it's a constant struggle to keep them on task. I have to tell them to stop talking, stop making lewd jokes, stop looking at videos when they are supposed to be working on their assignments. After the class is done, I am exhausted. It feels like I've just run six miles in the sand.

But it's not going to be like that anymore. No more. The next one who even dares mouth off is getting bounced out of my class before anyone can say anything in his defense, before anyone can try to cover for him. Forget it. I'm done playing nice. I won't stand for it anymore. I don't want to have to leave class fuming and spend the next three hours devising the world's tersest e-mail in my head--an e-mail that tells the student he is in violation of the student code of conduct, and the next time he acts up the dean is going to hear about it. I don't want to have to groan when I get a reply e-mail from this student--an e-mail that ignores all capitalization, spelling, and punctuation. It is one thick paragraph of rant, and it requests that I stop "hassling" him. I don't want to play this game anymore. I shouldn't have to. After all, these are eighteen, nineteen, and twenty year-old guys. I didn't sign up to teach fourth grade. And I'm through pretending like I did.


Jason said...

Preach on, sister. You're 100% in the right, and you know it.

Casey Sween said...

I'm just gonna say ditto. To everything. That's everything that I'm feeling right now. And if this is any indication of the future students that will grace the halls of our universities, I want no part of it.

Diana said...

Jess, I'm with you on this, but please don't let this kind of crap take up too much brain space--especially the space that's for your own writing. When teaching is great, it's really great, but when the students are turds, they are best off ignored. Some people cannot be educated; ignore them. It's not worth your time or energy or dignity to get into a pissing contest with an 18 year old.

Jason said...

Diana wins "Best Response to This Post" award. Well said.

I have a similar situation, and while I see the value in what you say, Diana, it's tough. But I'm sure you know that.