Issue (Autumn 2007)
classroom has no color. Pale walls pocked with craters
where someone removed posters, desks dull under fluorescent
lights, windows nonexistent. The carpet is drab and the
corners are spotted with dust. It’s like a sad
painting. But today, students compensate. They stop
whispering as you walk in and turn to face them from the front of
the room. Their faces shine, prepared to express heartfelt
Southern respect. You introduce yourself, unzip your
shoulder bag (not a backpack, as if you’re an
undergraduate), pull out the English Department’s First Day
of Class Checklist, and write a prompt on the blackboard: for the
rest of the period, the students, all freshmen, will write about
their life experiences with reading and writing. They flip
open notebooks, mostly spirals, and begin.
down one of the aisles in an attempt to be teacherly. You
hear the slow snaps of pens swirling on paper. Your lucky
dress swishes around your calves. You turn and notice your
handwriting on the blackboard. Your letters and words are
unevenly spaced; from left to right, each line droops and seems
to shrink. You feel suddenly weird and distressed.
Then you don’t.
Time runs out and they bring
you their essays, a few students at a time: a lipsticked girl
with a mole on her chin and a tiny pocketbook, an
African-American girl with lanky arms and a clean gleaming
notebook, a boy with bleached hair and dirty tennis shoes.
As you neaten the stack of papers—upper-left corners folded
together, spiraled chads torn off—the last student left in
the classroom asks to speak with you. She is a large
African-American woman with a high, provincial voice.
you taught before?” she asks, her accent thick as syrup.
Her name is Joreatha. She looks older than the other
“No,” you say. “This is
my first year.” And you’re grateful for it.
You were lucky to get a course. Lucky to have made it into
graduate school at all. You’re honestly kind of a
“Good.” She pulls her purse
further up her shoulder. Her slip is hanging below the hem
of her skirt. One of her pupils is off center. “Then
maybe we won’t have problems.”
suddenly aware of the papers in your hand. Sweat warms your
She drops her voice.
“I’ve had some trouble with the professors
You want to be respectful and open. You
want to be her friend. “May I ask
“Prejudice,” she says.
The word comes out fragmented, with the stress on the wrong
“Are you saying that professors
have discriminated against you?”
“Wow.” You put your hand
to your chin. You’re twenty-seven; Joreatha is
older. She’s black and Southern. You’re
neither, you’re in the South, and it is your first day
teaching. You have no idea what to say, so you say the
wrong thing: “I can assure you that I would never,
ever, do anything like that.”
you gone to the English Office to report this?” She
didn’t say trouble with English professors specifically,
but that’s what you heard. You’re a graduate
student in English. English is often all you
“No,” she says.
You tell her where the office is located and to whom she should
speak. She pulls an envelope from her purse, holds it on
her thigh, and writes down the information, her large hand
slanted strangely. You think she must be hurting her
wrist. She is sweating.
class, you walk into the courtyard between buildings, buy an
orange juice, sit at one of the round tables bolted into the
brick, and read Joreatha’s essay. She is thirty-five
years old, with two teenaged sons, and she ends her narrative in
praise of God. Her work is jammed with sentence fragments
and errors; in many places, meaning is unintelligible. You
put the essay down and lean back, feeling the sun on your arms,
cold after the air-conditioned classroom. Is what she said
possible? Could any professor be so ignorant? You
wonder what might happen if you were accused of racism. You
see yourself facing some kind of judicial review board,
explaining how you love African-American literature, how you
petitioned your undergraduate administration to require a
minority literature course for completion of the English major,
how reading Roots and Zora Neal Hurston and listening to Etta
James and Sister Souljah brought about what you deem an
awakening. Then why were you so uncomfortable with
Joreatha? Have you missed something? What is it that
you don’t understand?
You put Joreatha’s essay
away (in your shoulder bag) and go to Writing Workshop, a
tutoring program for the hundreds of students who will need extra
help to pass Freshman English. The day before, you finished
a training session on assessing these first-day essays, and you
want to get some advice on Joreatha. When you arrive, the
Writing Workshop Director, Sharon, is talking to a student.
The student blinks at the sign-up schedules pinned to the wall,
backpack bulking, nearly stooping him over. Sharon speaks
to him in a low, warm tone as he digs his schedule from his jeans
pocket and holds it up, trying to figure out which workshop to
sign up for. Each one meets one hour per week, all semester
Over his head, Sharon smiles warmly to greet you.
She’s been at the university for over twenty years.
She wears loose, comfortable clothes, and she rarely seems
impatient or preoccupied when you speak to her. You trusted
After the student leaves, you tell
her what happened.
“I think you should write it all
down,” Sharon says, her earrings swinging as she
That distressed, grave feeling again.
You see suited members of the review board reading your teaching
documents, checking for traces of intolerance.
do you mean?” you ask.
“Narratives of exactly
what she said and what you said.” The computers that
line the wall behind her are old, about ten years out of date.
The Workshop budget is consistently cut. In a fiscal
crisis, Workshop will disappear, just like dozens of other
student services—learning and counseling centers, travel
programs, or language instruction for non-native English
speakers. Administrators—professors who teach either one
class per year or none at all—categorize such services as
“Just in case,” she says.
“You probably won’t use them, but it might be a good
idea to keep records of everything.”
she needs Workshop,” you say.
Sharon says. “It can be helpful for returning
students. I think she’ll really like it.”
A few students stand awkwardly at the door, holding their books
into themselves, and you watch as Sharon waves them in and
Your class turns out to be
responsive, lively, and interested. There is Keoji, who
writes a narrative about her illiterate grandmother, a cotton
farmer who insisted that Keoji go to college. She loves
Workshop. She’s proud of her ability to use her
thesis statement to generate transitions, to rely less on the
comma and more on finishing the thought. There is Kayla,
who knew how to cite sources from day one and writes about
fascinating topics—one of her essays debunks the notion
that Indians had romantic relationships with wild animals.
There is Kurt, the former high-school quarterback, who develops
an argument about how the half-day privilege he used as a senior
left him apathetic and unprepared for college.
you have reluctant students, too. Alicia skips classes and
tells you that the information you ask her to incorporate in her
essays is “already in there.” Elizabeth scowls
at you from the back of the room. Tom, the boy with the
bleached hair, tends to dominate discussions and you don’t
know how to change this dynamic. You think about your
students all the time. But you’re also taking an
Independent Study that requires hundreds of pages of reading and
five pages of writing per week, a course on modern drama, another
on the teaching of college composition. You’re
holding office hours, meeting with students, communicating with
Workshop tutors. You’re busy. You often feel
unhinged. You keep catching colds. But when the
mid-term passes, you begin to see progress—Yolanda and
Keoji are choosing their examples more precisely, Tom is
questioning his own ideas, Kurt is reflecting rather than
summarizing in his conclusions, and though Elizabeth still
scowls, she has learned to simplify her sentences rather than
load them up to “sound smart.” One idealistic
afternoon, as you sip a beer with a friend, you realize that
watching people contemplate and discover is like watching the
universe in motion, that a moment of learning is a moment of
pure, natural action.
then there is Joreatha. She misses nearly one class a
week. Since she’s late almost every day, she misses
quizzes. You don’t know how she can pass, but she’s
working hard, so you often remind her to meet with you, to come
to class, to be on time. You have an absence and a lateness
policy—you’ve told her about these. One day,
she calls you from the hospital and says her son has been beaten
up. You give her an extension on an essay that’s due
and ask if you can do anything to help. She says she
doesn’t think so. Her life is totally foreign to
you. You picture it often. You wonder where she might
live. In one of those tiny tract houses adjacent to the
downtown area, where other African-Americans live? Or maybe
in Shantytown, a huge spread of what appears to be concrete,
dust, and tiny square houses? (Shantytown backs right into
one of the poshest neighborhoods in the city; you know this
because you jog along the wall that separates them and it is an
actual wall, high and thick, made of stone and wood and vined in
ivy, forming a boundary just behind the backyards of the wealthy,
blocking them off.) You picture Joreatha’s kids—one
of whom might be involved with a gang, she’s told you—and
you see her cooking for them at an ancient stove, or walking with
them to a bus stop, or waiting for them to come home. You
think her apartment must be wrecked—packed with dusty and
grungy things. You think she probably uses food stamps.
You think she probably has no friends. You think—
this point, you usually stop, feeling absurdly white and
liberal. You’re no longer sure what the latter is
supposed to mean or how you’re supposed to apply it to this
situation. And since neither race nor older students have
been subjects in your teacher training, you feel as unprepared
for Joreatha as a Southerner for a snowstorm. You go to Dr.
Stephenson, the Director of Freshman English and the professor of
your college composition course. He listens, his chin down,
his eyes attentive. He’s nodding. He was the
first one to observe you teach, and he said you were great.
A natural. He wants to nominate you for a teaching award.
But praise makes you dubious. Are you truly any good?
Are your skills real? You’re lucky just to be there,
really. Your undergrad GPA was a 2.8. And you can’t
explain grammar. And you still can’t use a comma
You very much want Joreatha to pass, you
say to Dr. Stephenson, your hands in your lap, sitting in his
office. And she could, with some more work. Her
writing has improved. But what about your policies?
Late essays are marked down. Absences will kill her.
She’s already got nine. She seldom makes it to her
Workshop. And she’s got so much going on, such a
hectic life, her son in the hospital, my god. Do you mark
down her late work as you would any other student’s?
Subtract absences from her grade? Do you take her life into
“This course is about text,” says Dr.
Stephenson. His jacket hangs on the back of his chair.
He’s loosened his tie—you don’t remember ever
seeing it in place around his neck.
me,” he says, leaning forward, his chair creaking.
It’s old and the green leather is cracked. “How
are you supposed to assess her work if you don’t have it?”
He lifts his thick, wiry eyebrows.
don’t know,” you say.
He leans back,
sips from a bottle of water. “You ever sit in on a
You shake your head.
if you do, you’ll see an disproportional number of black
students.” He shakes his head. “And I
mean the blackest of the black. The ones dark as this,”
he points to a textbook resting on his desk with a glossed ebony
cover. “Every year.” He shakes his head
again. “Now that says a lot more about their prior
education than it does about them. What’s implicated
are certain unconscious practices down here in the public school
system. What put them in there.”
exactly what I’m saying,” he says. “But
even so. This is a course about the text.” He
cups his hands to make a circle on his desk. “You’ve
got personal stuff over here—race, socio-economics,
problems.” He moves his hands to another spot on his
desk. “And over here, you’ve got the text.
The work. They can’t confound. You can’t
grade them on the stuff over there. Only on the
“Can I tell her that when she turns in
another paper late?”
You leave, thanking him and feeling directed.
Okay. You’ve now had guidance from a person you
respect. It’s time to take a hard line with
The next day, she does not come to class
to turn in an essay that she promised to get in on time, one that
you went out of your way to meet her about. You worked with
her on the idea for over an hour. You had to keep from
noticing her breathing, hard and heavy and loud. You drew
conjugation boxes, organizational maps, and outlines. You
helped her generate a thesis statement. Joreatha is
well-mannered—Southern to her crux. “I
understand,” she said in that high-pitch of uncertainty, in
that way that meant she probably didn’t. She seemed
to have trouble concentrating. The meeting required a lot
of mental maneuvering; by its end, you were exhausted.
when she doesn’t show up, you cannot believe it. You
are furious. After class, you go to your office and pull
her phone number from the class contact list and call her at
“You didn’t come to class today,”
you say. Flits and rustles litter the background—a
television, a voice, a shuffle.
“I have the paper,”
she says. “I just couldn’t come.”
She does not apologize. You’ve spent so much time on
her, worrying, consulting, directing, encouraging her to be more
articulate in class, managing the environment her statements
sometimes create. One day, she said that she preferred to
use the words “male” and “female” instead
of “man” and “woman” because they were
words—language—she’d inherited from her slave
“Interesting,” you had
said, nodding. A few girls giggled—you gave them a
hard glance—and other students looked as if they’d
been given a puzzle in a foreign language. “Can you
elaborate a little?”
That’s how they talked about the slaves.”
classroom was quiet as a war memorial.
fascinating,” you said. “How have you inherited
More quiet. You felt the white
to black student ratio: four to one.
politely. “I’m not sure.”
you said, turning back to the board. “Maybe we can
come back to you later.”
Classes like that make you
doubt yourself. You replay the ways you directed class
discussion and worry that you might have done something wrong,
just like you always do whenever something happens with
Joreatha. She is draining your confidence, making you
acutely aware of whatever you do. And now, on the phone,
she won’t even apologize, or concede, or anything.
She just lets her life pull her down. And, you realize, she
actually sounds annoyed that you’ve called.
you’ll see her next class and hang up. You sit on
your desk and look out the window, down into the courtyard where
students sit at tables beneath umbrellas. Then one of your
two office-mates comes in. It’s Harriet. She’s
about 29, getting a doctorate in post-colonial literature.
She served in the Peace Corps. She speaks Arabic. You
know her fiancé.
“Hi,” she says,
putting a stack of papers on her desk. She wears jeans and
a clean sweater.
“Hey.” Your arms
are crossed and you’re breathing like Joreatha, heavy and
just…” your eyes begin to tear. You can’t
believe it, your anger. “Okay, this student, right?
She’s 35, she’s African-American, she’s got two
kids. I’m trying to help her but she…”
you pick up a pencil. “Today she didn’t even
come to class!” You break the pencil. You have
a twenty-page paper to write about Lillian Hellmann and Arthur
Miller; twenty-five Cause and Effect papers to grade; one hundred
pages of Peter Elbow (whose sensitive approach to writing
instruction annoys you) to read; an inductive/deductive lesson to
plan for class the following morning; a sink full of moldy
dishes; a cat in need of shots; a car in need of replacement; and
you’re down to $15 in your checking account.
was an essay due today,” you say. Tears are not
dripping onto your cheeks, but they are blurring your vision.
You are bewildered. You don’t know how you got to
“Anna,” Harriet says. Her
voice is calm, laid back, and rational like all those Peace Corps
people. “I think you’re taking this situation a
little too seriously.”
You exhale, possibly for the
first time in hours. The computer screen is gray and
lifeless on the desk behind her. “Really?”
nods. “She’s older?”
The tears recede as you blink. You’re conscious of
“Non-traditional students are
Different? You remember Dr.
“Yeah, they have
kids, jobs, a lot going on. They require a…”
she thinks about it for a second, lightly squeezes her chin with
her thumb and index finger. “A particular
“Uh-huh.” Your voice is
“Think about it.
You walk into this class, having been out of school for years,
and here’s this young person that tells you what to do,
who’s seen as smarter than you. It can be
intimidating. Even threatening.”
You feel your
shoulders relax. You’re almost floaty.
back off a little. If she fails, she fails. Just do
the best you can.”
“I called her at
that stupid?” You’re facing the review board
again. You called her at home? They look up from your
“Not stupid, but not really necessary.
That’s just a line that you probably shouldn’t
cross. But don’t worry about it. It’s not
a big deal.”
Harriet’s words make a lot of
sense. You thank her. “Sure,” she says.
“No problem.” She turns to the
Relief settles your stomach. You
stare at the picture of Flannery O’Connor you tacked to
your wall. From what you know, detachment was part of her
nature. A friend of yours, a writer in her 60s, once had
O’Connor as a master class instructor. She collected
the stories her students had brought into a pile and skimmed
first pages. “Slight,” she said. She
picked up another. “Slight.” And
another. “Slight.” Her students watched,
silent. She finally read one up to page two: “At
least it isn’t slight.”
Much as you
might wish, you are not Flannery O’Connor. Your
writing is not succinct. Your vocabulary is repetitive; you
often include scenes simply because you like them; your
descriptions sound the same, your similes flat; and some clichés
(damn it) cannot be made concrete. And you worry far too
much about the opinions of others. Just write, you tell
yourself. Just write.
teaching? Teaching requires more detachment than you think
you can muster.
You’re sitting on your
bed, reading through student work. The semester is over.
Graded portfolios are stacked on your right; ungraded ones are
strewn into a sort of circle on your left. Your cat is on
the roof catching palmetto bugs—you hear her scratching
Keoji managed a B. She’ll be
pleased. Tom earned a B+; so did Kurt. Elizabeth and
Alicia scraped by with Cs. You’re glad they passed,
but you think you might have been too easy on them. You’re
not sure. Grading is more difficult than you thought.
The day before, your Independent Study professor had said, with a
supportive smile, “Just be honest.” So
you’re trying, comparing early drafts to final drafts,
reviewing additions and deletions, using a calculator to total up
their points. You’re frequently impressed by what the
students have managed to learn and use in one
Joreatha falls into this category—her
grammar has improved tremendously. She is now a coherent
writer. But her ideas are one-sided, something that
Freshman English pedagogy discourages. Students need to see
all the possible solutions to problems, the complexity of the
topics they write about, the fallacies inherent in absolutes.
Joreatha’s argument essay supports passing the Three
Strikes law, but her evidence is merely a series of quotes from
the partisan advertisement currently running on television.
Then there’s her review. (A badly constructed
assignment, unfortunately, one you’ll have to re-write,
since students review their favorite movies as positively as they
can. You cringe at sentences like, “Braveheart is the
best movie ever,” and “Armageddon is arguably one of
the most well-acted movies produced in the last ten years.”)
Joreatha has reviewed Independence Day and her paper is awful, as
bad as the movie. She must not have had the time to
proofread, because the grammar in this essay is markedly
worse—vague pronouns, incorrect verb tenses, comma splices
and fragments in every paragraph.
You sigh. Your cat
jumps in through the window and mews. You pet her.
You remember those mid-term evaluations. You had asked the
students to assess their grades thus far, and you picture what
Joreatha wrote, the ink blue, her letters small between the
lines: “I know I’m not getting an A now, but I will!
I know I can do it!” A week ago, the department
secretary pulled up Joreatha’s grades the previous semester
so you could see if your class was an exception. It
wasn’t. Joreatha had all Fs and Ds. You became
very, very, sad. Here’s this woman doing the best she
can. You know this. Joreatha is doing the best she
can. Her improvement makes this clear. But if
Joreatha believes that she’s doing her best, then she must
feel like her best is a D. Or that she’s being
Is she? You wonder.
Certainly not by you. Any review board would see this.
You’ve given her a lot of breaks. And this is
permissible? Malleable course policies? You look at
your gradebook. Joreatha has twelve absences, around twenty
tardies, and a quiz average of 30%. There is no way she can
pass, and if you do pass her, which means a C or better, you
wouldn’t be helping her out, since her future professors
might fail her and then blame Freshman English on the poor
quality of her work. Despite the fact that no professors of
any rank teach the course, “How did this student pass
Freshman English?” is their most frequent maxim. You
do not understand how the most educated group of people in the
country could demonstrate such ignorance. Freshman English
is marginalized: its instructors, its students, its content and
context. Freshman English is a microcosm: it embodies every
form of oppression in our culture.
Joreatha receiving her grades in the mail and crying, sitting
heavily down on a concrete front stoop, or starting a grade
appeal, or petitioning that review board that keeps you awake and
makes sure you know that you’re not really qualified to be
doing this. You have Impostor Syndrome. You
constantly navigate self-doubt. You were never qualified.
Maybe your own sub-standard performance as an undergraduate was
truth. And you’re so self-centered! If a
student doesn’t do well, you’re to blame. You
stare at the grade sheet. You have failed Joreatha.
Maybe everything has failed Joreatha. She’s trying to
move herself and her family out of her socio-economic class, but
she can’t. You wonder what will happen to her.
It’s not all your fault: it’s racism and poverty.
But who can see truth in such broad terms? People in all
these victims? And they’re your students. They
are everybodys' students.
Just be honest, you think.
And you feel that you are when you give Joreatha a D. The D
that conveys everything, that changes nothing.