This past week was one of the most difficult of my teaching career. Not only was I informed by my supervisor that several of my students have decided to take their displeasure for the poor grades they've earned (key word: earned), and for my positively ridiculous habit of enforcing published course polices straight to the top (in one case by visiting the assistant dean of liberal arts to complain,) but then I also learned that a very dear former student of mine died.
Billie Faye Baker took freshman composition with me way back when I was a teaching assistant. To tell you the truth, I don't remember much of her presence in the classroom. I remember thinking she was bright. I remember worrying about her. She missed several classes. And she turned in a paper in which she divulged a very scary and dramatic personal story.
I remember being surprised by her openness in that essay, but pleased that she managed to write about her life without falling into sentimental generalities tacked on to a overwrought conclusion. There was no, "I learned the importance of family," or "I will cherish every moment of my life from now on" in her conclusion. In fact, I think I remember her saying something along the lines of, "I really hope I don't do something that stupid again, but I probably will." It was an "earned" conclusion--one that genuinely reflected the content that came before it. She understood what it meant to develop an idea. She did well.
I didn't hear from Billie. I didn't think about her.
But then a year or so later, she sent me an email. In it, she reminded me that I had encouraged her to write outside of class, and she said that she'd been doing just that (I've just discovered that I saved our correspondence, so now of course I am crying...) She was feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to make a "masterpiece" out of everything she wrote, and she asked if it was normal. She said she felt so overwhelmed by the pressure she placed on herself that she ended up simply giving up.
God, now that I re-read her emails and my responses, my advice to her feels so foreign. Now, I see my own struggles and self-doubt in her emails. She wrote, "I don't want to give up on writing, I just want to be able to enjoy it again."
Billie published several good pieces in Anti-Gravity magazine. She became one of my friends on Myspace. I was proud of her, and I was so pleased to see that she seemed to be succeeding at producing work, even if its production wasn't always a pleasure. Hearing from her and reconnecting with her as a fellow writer--rather than as "just" her teacher--helped me feel better about the career path I'd chosen.
When I heard about her death this week, it was just before I was headed to teach a class that was being observed by one of our department's champion teaching all-stars. I'd felt good about the class I'd planned--confident that what I'd put together would produce some good discussion about the learning objectives I'd planned. I wanted to talk about the importance of context in reading Huck Finn. It was going to rock.
Instead, I found myself crying before class, and when I got there, I felt as if I couldn't remember why I was there. What did context have to do with Huck Finn? With anything? I wrote some important historical whatnots on the board. I couldn't remember how to spell "Separate" (as in "but Equal.") I turned to pages that I'd marked for discussion, but I looked at them and didn't know what the heck it was I wanted to cover. My lips stuck to my teeth. I left the room to get some water. They stuck again. One of my students took mercy on me and gave me a bottle of water. I wanted to cancel class, to hide.
After class, I went back to my office and lost it. Then I ate a banana and graded eight literature essays that celebrated the "incredible imaginations" that the authors they'd analyzed had "caused readers to have." I cried some more. I went home, made fish tacos, and cried while Simon consoled me. "It was your first bad class," he said. "You're lucky."
"I know, but Billie died."
On Friday, I was feeling puffy and wrecked and wholly unequipped to face the class that has decided I am The Worst Teacher Ever. I thought about telling them of Billie's death, but worried they'd see it as a ploy to win their sympathy, so I kept it to myself. I taught what I thought was a good class. Then I visited my supervisor to discuss our correspondence related to a student who'd come to see her. I learned that student was not alone.
So, I cried.
I think I have cried more in this past week than I had in all of last year. I could no longer be mad at my students for hating me, I was just sad. How could they see me as the demon? Me?
Well, if I was going to be able to pull it together enough to get through this next week (which promises to be another rough one,) I needed to either a) get unsad, or b) get mad again. I teach better when I'm mad than when I'm sad. When I'm sad I can't think. When I'm mad, I'm on a mission.
So thank goodness for this piece that arrived in my inbox via a weekly email from the NCTE. In it, Ken Flowerday writes about teacher-blaming. It captures my thoughts and feelings about the attitudes of the public--and many of my current students--towards my work as a teacher, and describes "America’s increasing willingness to target teachers." Flowerday writes:
"We are not completely alone, I suppose. Lawyers and dumb blonde jokes were in fashion a few years ago, but these criticisms at least were veiled in humor. I am unable to name another group that is as openly and frequently criticized by people with no experience in the profession. The public assumes that because they once, long ago sat in desks that they know better than we how to do our jobs. The public doesn’t try to tell firefighters how to do their jobs. Or CPAs or air-traffic controllers. It’s become increasingly clear that the public mistrusts what I do."
At some point, I hope to have the time to write about being the target of a particularly venomous case of teacher-blame this semester. But because I need to stay focused on the goal of helping my students, I've decided to send myself off to bed and on toward a new work-week by reading through a folder of saved emails filed under "Student Praise." This is a paragraph from one of my favorites, and I am so glad that I have it to read now, since Billie's death and this very mad, bad beginning to the month of March has made getting through it seem nearly impossible:
"I know that this e-mail seems to be late and you might not even remember me, but it’s never too late to show my appreciation. You’ve been such a wonderful example of a great professor to all of your students. You weren’t dealing with us as an instructor, but as a great friend and an older sister who always stood up for us. You’ve been always there to help every student improving his/her writing process. Even though you were reading tons of essays every week, you’ve never showed any tire and always welcomed all our questions and concerns. You’ve always remembered us on every break and sent every one an email wishing us a good time, and supporting and challenging us to always believe in our selves, and that everyone got the potentials to pass no matter how challenging their personal obstacles are. Even those who wanted to drop the class, you’ve helped them all to figure out ways on how to improve their situation without needing to drop. You’ve used unique techniques that made the class more fun and forced the students to believe in their abilities and get motivated to do their best. Your way of teaching was so much different than all my previous English instructors. "
Now, you might read that and say, "some English teacher! Check out those errors!" But had you seen the amount of improvement I did, you'd know that email was as good as grammar-gold for this student.
I feel better already.
This is liking writing. This is what Billie meant.
Sweet dreams, Billie Faye Baker. And good night to all of my students--haters and lovers, alike.