Thursday, September 18, 2008

It Scares Me

There are some students that scare me. Honestly scare me. They scare me because I don't know what to do with them. I don't even know where to begin.

The other day I gave a quick introduction to run-on sentences. Run-on sentences that crop up in student work annoy me as much as unnecessary quotation marks and nouns that have been made into possessives when they are really supposed to be plural. (Certain members of my family can attest to just how much my eyes bug out every time I pass the store Trophy's! Trophy's! Trophy's! near my mother's house.)

This is exactly why I was doing an early-semester lesson on run-ons. It takes a long, long time to break students of their awful run-on habits, but eventually it will sink in, and at the end of the semester I see things that aren't so littered with all the things that bother me (and other lovers of the English language). Still, even I'm not so foolish to think that those lessons stay stuck in the heads of my students. After all, I am Facebook friends with an awful lot of my former students from MSU and the SUNY school where I taught in 2006 and 2007. There are days when my students' poorly punctuated and structured status sentences make me want to poke a pencil in the socket of my eye. But I've made a promise to myself that I will never, ever, ever send them a note or a comment that informs them they have a comma splice in their status statement, that I know they didn't mean it, that I think it would be good if they fixed it right quick. I don't send those comments because, well, I'd like it to appear as though I have important things going on in my life, and that I don't at all spend time worrying over the grammar choices they make on Facebook.

And despite all this--despite me knowing they can back-slide like that, despite me knowing the idea of them back-sliding drives me crazy--I still make it one of my semester missions to improve their grammar, even if it's just a smidge, even if it's just for a short period of time.

Thus the run-on lesson. Thus the twenty minutes of Look! This isn't hard! No, really! talk I spouted as I breezed through a very easy-to-grasp introduction to the types of run-ons and the ways they can be fixed.

After the lesson, I set my students into action. They had a worksheet to fill out--a worksheet that had them practicing identifying and fixing some pesky run-ons. Most of my students motored through that sucker like there was no tomorrow. I circled the room, ready to give help. When I got to the far side of the room, I stopped in my tracks because there was one student who was still on question one.

She looked up at me and smiled. She smiled so sweetly my heart broke and fell out of the cradle of my chest and ended up all the way down in my calf.

"Hi," she said slowly. Everything she says is said slowly. Last week when we were having class discussion about an essay we'd read, this girl raised her hand in response to a question I'd just asked and then gave an answer to the first question I'd asked fifteen minutes before. Some of her classmates laughed at her--and at this, my heart broke as I was shooting Looks of Death at the people who dared laugh at her--and she said, "Sorry, I go kinda slow."

That much has been evident since the first day of class. She's at least ten minutes behind everyone else, and nothing I do seems to help. I sit with her every class. I come by to see if she's okay, if she's got it, if she knows what she needs to be doing. She never does.

And when it came to the run-ons, she was a mess. "I don't get it," she told me.

"What part?" I asked. I pulled up a chair.

She smiled and shrugged. Even her shrug was slow, syrupy. "Uhm, fused sentences, maybe?"

"Okay," I said. I inched my chair closer so I could point to her notebook. "Let's look at your notes. That'll help you remember."

And that's when I saw them. I saw the notes. The notes were completely wrong. I looked behind me, back at the board. The notes on the board were just as they should be. Each step, each problem, each fix was specifically spelled out with examples. The notes filled up the whole board. The notes in her notebook took up three lines. No joke. No exaggeration. Three lines.

"Well," I said, trying to be very delicate, "it's just that your notes are a little different than what they are on the board. Do you see the difference?"

By that moment, I'd caught the attention of one of the twins. This twin--who has, like his brother, proved himself to be sharp, clever, and willing to participate--leaned forward to look around the girl's body, to look at her notes. The look on his face was the look that probably graced mine for a few seconds before I managed to blink it away. The look was wide-eyed and panicked. It was a look that said, Oh crap.

The girl looked up at the board and down at her notes. "I guess I forgot to copy down some things?" she said. It wasn't an admission; it was a question. She was seeing if that's what I meant, if that's what I expected her to say. She wasn't quite sure what had gone wrong.

And I felt my breath get sucked right out of my lungs. It was in that second that I realized I didn't know how to help this girl. I had an inkling that some of my friends--my best one, for example--would know what to do and how to go about it, but that's only because they've been trained in special education, because they've seen the way the brain can play its tricks, the way it can betray us. They know how to guide it back. I was almost certain no one had ever tried that with this girl, and that made me two things: awfully sad and awfully tired.

Sure, I could point her to the disabilities coordinator on campus, but that's not really going to address the problem. That will get her accommodations from her professors. That will get her more time when taking a test. That will get her someone to take notes for her. But that won't get me to understand how her brain works, why she can't look at what's on the board and copy that word for word into her notebook. That won't get me any closer to helping her learn the things she needs to learn in this class. Which means I'm left wishing more than anything else--wishing I could crack open the top of her head and crawl inside the gray folds of her brain, walk barefoot over the synapses and lobes; wishing I could take up a screwdriver or a hammer and turn or hit something--one tiny part of her brain--and have the whole world suddenly wind up, run by her at a speed so fast that everything chatters, so fast that she catches up, so fast that no one will ever laugh at her again.

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