Sunday, February 10, 2008

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

Yesterday Diana called me in the middle of the afternoon because she'd just read my blog and wanted to give me a pep-talk. It was one of those soothing Diana talks--the kind where she called me cookie and told me everything was going to be okay. (Incidentally, those kind of pep-talks were probably the only thing that got me through my last year of graduate school, my two years of job searches, and my not getting the first job I interviewed for in Nebraska. Those talks are just that good.) And yesterday, she told me to keep the students out of my head. She told me to stop them from messing around in there and taking up too much of my precious time. She told me to give up caring about the ones who didn't care enough to learn.

And I think that's good advice--all of it. Still, I wish it were that simple. With the week I had last week, her advice could only help me out to a certain extent. I will certainly do my best to breathe deep and resist trying to make model students out of each of the boys in that class, and that will probably do me good. But that class--and the students' behavior--wasn't the only thing I had to deal with last week. Even if I was living by Diana's advice, I would've still had a wretched week last week, and here's why: students do some pretty unbelievable things to break into your head, to keep you thinking things like, Oh my God and I can't believe you. I really can't.

At the end of last week, I was sitting in my office and catching up on some e-mails. There were ten minutes before I had to go teach. And that's precisely when my afternoon went from mildly annoying--we hadn't gotten a snow day, and I'd really wanted one--to pretty awful.

Someone knocked on my door but didn't wait for the invitation to come inside. A woman--frantic, mussed--bustled in. She was red-nosed from the cold, and her hair was wild. She looked like one of those mothers who smoked and drank a lot, who watched a lot of soap operas, who vacuumed the living room in a ratty pair of slippers and with a cigarette dangling from her lips.

"Are you the English teacher?" she asked.

"I'm an English teacher," I said. "There are a few of us."

Then someone else trudged into the room. It was one of my students. He had his head bowed, and he was staring the floor. No matter what, he would not make eye contact with me.

Oh Jesus, I thought. He's brought his mother to complain about something!

Dealing with parents is--again--not something I signed up for. I leave that to my friends who are elementary, middle, and high school teachers. They're the ones who have to spend too many hours coordinating meetings with the parents of students who don't care, won't care, and are failing. They're the ones who have to stomach the cramps and nausea that come along with hosting open houses. Not me. I never wanted anything to do with that. Never. I think my friends who teach kids are beyond saintly. They deserve to wake up one morning with a check for a cool million in their mailboxes--guilt money from the government, from everyone who realizes they do a service the rest of us would rather not think about.

The closest I ever came to having to deal with a parent during my five years of teaching was during my second semester in Minnesota. I had a high school student who was taking college credit as a PSEO in my composition class, and she had a slew of problems, the biggest of which was that she had an eating disorder. And this was no casual eating disorder. It was staggering in its scope. This girl would allow herself to eat only one thing: grapes. Four grapes, in fact. She drank plenty of water and ate four grapes a day. That was it. I know this because she wrote about it in her first essay. She talked about how she'd been admitted to the hospital and was getting better, but each day was a struggle. And I watched her struggle for the rest of the semester. Her head became too big for body as she wasted away again. Her skin turned grey. Her eyes sunk back in her head. Halfway through the semester, her mother took her out of school and planted her back in the hospital.

The girl wrote to me and asked if she could finish out the course through e-mail--doing the assignments at the hospital and sending them back to me in packets. I said sure. I told her I would put all our assignments up online so she could get them that way, could return them when she was ready. Well, it turns out that her mother was the one to get her assignments for her. And one day her mother read something on there she didn't like.

One of our readings had some bad language and violent imagery in it. This made the mother very angry. But she didn't come to discuss this with me. She didn't go to my boss, the composition director, either. She didn't go to the chair of the department. She chose to go to the dean. And that's when I--a first-year teaching assistant--was informed that the dean had been made aware of something that was going on in my classroom. The mother had told the dean that the reading was lewd and disgusting, that it had absolutely no value whatsoever. She was enraged that her daughter was being forced to read this. Luckily for me, the dean thought the mother was crazy. The dean told the angry mother that her daughter was enrolled in a college course that had college-level readings. If her daughter wasn't ready for college-level readings, then she had no business being in college classes. I never got called in to defend myself. The dean just shooed the mother out of the room and that was the last I heard of it. But even back then I was stunned that I'd had to even worry about a student's parent.

So you can imagine how stunned I was when I had a mother actually standing in my office last week, demanding to know if I was her son's English teacher. I knew this wasn't going anywhere good. I knew this mother wasn't there to extend her thanks or hand me box of cookies she'd made because she so appreciated all the hard work I did to teach her son and other students just like him.

I wished for the cookies, but I knew that was a long shot.

And it was.

"You're my son's teacher?" she demanded.

"Yes," I said. "I had him last semester, too."

She collapsed into the chair next to my desk. Her son hovered near the door. He looked ready to bolt.

"Why don't you take that chair over there?" I suggested to him. He wasn't going to bolt on my watch. There was no way he was leaving me there with his mother and whatever had her whipped into her frenzy. No way. He was going to sit down next to me and listen to whatever was going to be said.

"Well, listen," the mother said. "My son came to me this morning, all upset and saying he was falling behind in his classes. He said he has an essay due today. He said he doesn't know what to write about, that he doesn't understand the assignment. I guess he also is behind on all the homework that was due last week because he didn't understand that either. Do you know all this?"

Let's face it: it's not my business to know that. I assign essays, give lectures, help students become better writers. If they don't understand something and if they keep it to themselves, it is not my business to know that. I am not a mind reader. I am not a den mother. I am not supposed to follow these students back to their dorms and stand over their shoulder while they do their homework--just to make sure they don't furrow their brows in confusion over an assignment I've given. If they have a problem, they need to work it out on their own. If they still can't, then they need to make an appointment to come talk to me. They can e-mail me. They can call me. They can find me any number of ways. But I am not supposed to follow each one around, asking, "How are you understanding everything, Bobby? You getting this? How do you feel about the assignment? Think you can do it on your own? Think you can be a big boy on this?"

I smiled at the mother. "Well," I said, "let me first put everyone at ease. There's no essay due today, and I don't know why your son thinks that."

The mother sent the boy a searing look. "Why do you think that?" she asked.

He studied his knees. He picked at his jeans. "I don't know," he said.

I turned back to the mother. "I have an extensive course calendar online. It tells students what assignments and readings are due on each day. It's extremely clear. It says that the essay is due next week." I turned to the son. "Did you check on there?" I asked.

He didn't look up. "No," he said.

"But you know it's there, right?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said.

"And you know the assignment sheet is there, too. You can look at it any time you need to. It tells you exactly what the paper should be on and what things I will be looking for when I grade. You know that's all there, right?"

"Yeah," he said.

"And you can log in from home? I mean, I've seen you on the website in class, so I know you've got your user name and password."

"Yeah, I have all that," he said. He shifted his gaze from the floor to the ceiling. "I just don't get it."

The mother nodded. "Exactly. He doesn't get it." She looked at me expectantly. Her look said Fix it. Do something. Make him get it.

Suddenly, I felt very, very tired. I wished they would both leave so I could put my head down on my desk for the remaining two minutes I had before I needed to go into the room where my auto mechanics were waiting to spend three hours not listening to me.

I didn't know what to say to the mother. What I really wanted to do was explain to her that the phrase I don't get it actually means I am lazy and unengaged, and I want someone to do my work for me. I wanted to tell her that I never imagined I'd grow so sick of a phrase over a span of five years. I don't get it! I don't get it! Students chirp those words any chance they get, and when you ask them if they read the directions, they will say no, no, they did not. Then they will ask if you can just tell them what to do.

I was still trying to figure out what to say--because I knew I couldn't say that--when the mother started talking again.

"Listen," she said again, like there was even the smallest chance I had some other option. "I don't know if you know this, but my son is on academic probation. He did really bad last semester. Failed almost everything. He cannot fail anything this semester. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Oh, I understood what she was saying. She was saying, "PASS MY SON. YOU HAVE TO PASS MY SON."

"Well," I said, "he needs to start reading the homework schedule online. I can't do anything about his late work. It's right there in big, bold letters. No one else had problems with it. Everyone else handed in their work on time."

"You don't understand," she said. "My son has problem with steps. He's just not good with anything complicated."

Oh, how I wanted to scream, to jump out the window, to run down the hall and away from them. Here she was, this mother, sitting in my office and making me late for my class and telling me that her son wasn't so great with steps. He couldn't log in to our website--an action I'd seen him do every day during class--and read the calendar, which was the very first thing the students saw when they were logged in. He didn't even have to click on any specials buttons to get at it. I'd purposely made it that way. It was RIGHT THERE. It said ESSAY #1 DUE ON MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11th. But apparently that wasn't enough. This mother was sitting across from me, telling me I needed to do more, and do it now.

The rest of our conversation was more of the same--her insisting her son needed to be babied, to be held by the hand and told exactly what to do and how. I told her there was only so much I could do. After a certain point--a point I felt we'd already reached--her son had to take responsibility for his education. I was not paid to be his babysitter, his nanny, his tutor. I was his teacher, and I was doing everything in my ability to teach him a little something. If he chose to learn it, fine. If he chose to ignore it and let everything pile up until he was so frustrated and panicked that he called his mother and cried to her over the phone--so much so that she got in her car and drove to get him, then drove to the college, then came into my room demanding I tell her what was what--then there was nothing else I could do. I was not going to stop everything to go sit next to him, pat him on the back, and say, "You doing okay, champ? Do you want me to read this out loud to you so you don't have to do it yourself?"

I'm not sure if the mother left satisfied or not. I do know the student left still not looking at me--clearly ashamed. But I didn't feel even the littlest bit sorry for him. If he was mortified at the events that just took place, it was no one's fault but his own. And he'd have to live with that for the rest of the semester.

After they left, I walked down to the bathroom to wash my hands, fix my hair, and put a little color on my lips. While I stood there, staring at my reflection in the mirror, I tried to convince myself that, yes, I could make it through the rest of the day without being really, really angry, but I knew that was a lie. And it was. And the day? It would only get worse.


Anskov said...

Wow. I can't believe the mom came and talked to you! I hope I get a teaching job soon so I can contribute my teaching horror stories too!

Looks like NYC was a blast, tho'.

Jess said...

GACK, Matt. GACK. Seriously.

I want you to get a teaching job, too. That way I can hear all the sweet and silly things MN students do.

NYC was great--those cupcakes from Magnolia were amazing.

Kristin said...

I want to scream. Seriously. That makes me want to scream. I know you handled it fantastically...I can hear your calm voice and see your emotionless face.

Me? God only knows what would have happened. Okay I probably wouldn't have screamed....I do deal with student issues occasionally...but seriously I would have laughed in that mother's face.

You are my hero.