Monday, July 26, 2004

life of buddy don, chaptur 124: teachin my furst class

in the summer of 1981, i gut to teach a english class all by myself fer the furst time. i had dun parts of classes with the hep of reglar instructers durin my furst year of grad skool, but they dint allow ye to teach a class all on yer own till ye had made it thru the furst year. me n emily dint wonta go find no minimum wage entry level jobs fer the summer n we luved skool, so twuz only natcherul how we wood take classes n all. thats how i cum to have a summer class.

as ye know ifn ye been payin much tenchun to whut amurka valus on the basis of whut tiz willin to pay, ye know that teachin is bout at the level of takin orders at mack donalds. i reckun that could be on a counta how tiz a reeward all by its ownself. ye wurk long hours n take wurk home with ye n give up a day or two of ever weekend to gradin papers n makin lessun plans, but whenever ye walk back tords yer home at the end of a day, ye git a grate feelin that ye dun sumthin good fer the worl. ifn twernt fer that, we wood probly have to cum up with a way of payin our teachurs a lil bettern we do. but as they say, we gut other priorties.

the way they wurked it back in the 80s at utk, ever freshman had to take three english classes, witch they wuz organized thisaway: furst quarter, ye teach em basick composishun -- how to rite 500 wurd essays using the followin forms: deescripshun, narrative, classification, compar n contrast, process or how to do sumthin, argument, n so forth. the idee wuz to teach yung riters how to put together evidents to prove sum kinda point, witch they name that point the thesis.  i lacked teachin this class on a counta ye had a chants to teach folks how to make good arguments based on bleevabull evidents. ye dint teach em whut to thank, but ye had to teach em how, lease to sum extent.

once they gut past that class, they tuck a class on literchur, witch the mane point of thatn wuz to teach em how to back thar arguments with quotayshuns frum books. finely in the thurd quarter, they had to do em a research paper, witch that meant cummin up with a thesis n then doin research in the liberry to proov whut ye claimed wuz true.

whenever we gut started in teachin, twuz splaind how we wood grade em on a scale that had a 'a' fer eggcellent, a 'b' fer above avridge, a c' fer avridge, n a 'nc' fer not good a nuff to pass, witch 'nc' stands fer no credit. they dint lack to say folks had failed or flunked fer sum reason. mayhap on a counta how sum students had to take them english classes two or three times to git thru em all.

n since everbidy had to git thru them three classes, ye had ye steddy supply of folk needin teechurs of english n since it tuck summa them students two or three tries to git thru inny one of them classes n since thay wuznt near a nuff ackshul perfessers round to teach em all, all us grad students had us a way to pay fer our educayshun. sum folks lacked to thank twuz sum kinda racket. virgil dint much care fer havin to larn english composishun on a counta how all he wonted to do wuz becum a injuneer n he couldnt see whar he wood need to know how to write no 500 wurd essay.

thang is, i have noticed how valuabull ritin is out in the 'real worl,' witch the real worl is whut ye threaten yer students with whenever theys in class. whutever ye wuz teachin em, ye wood kindly justify it by claimin they wuz a'gonna need it once they gut out in life, witch thats the real worl n verr differnt frum the artifishul worl of skoolin.

inny who, i been a'wurkin all my life one way or a nuther, mosly teachin or wurkin with cumputers n heres sumthin i have noticed bout skoolin. ye gut ye two big sides of campus, witch thays yer librul arts n yer hard sciences. virgil wuz in the hard sciences n i wuz in the librul arts. he lacked to make fun of the librul arts or fer that matter, innythang with the wurd librul in it, but whenever i finished teechin, witch i dun that fer a few years befor i gut the idee i had to go to new york city, i found out a odd thang bout wurk: seemed lack everwhar i went thay wuz sum librul arts majur bein boss of a bunch of hard sciences majurs.

thays a simple reason why: the person who knows why will always be the boss of the person who knows how.

i dun found this to be true over n over agin. fer instunts, my furst tech job in new york, the manjer wuz a woman who majurd in scandinavian histry. then my next job, the boss wuz a french majur. i made boss, n i wuz a flossofy n english majur fer my two degrees. my nex boss dint have no degree but he did have his own cumpny, witch he luvd to read n figgerd cumputers wuz a good racket to make money but he dint have no speshul educayshun in computers. even my boss now aint no cumputer science majur, witch he majurd in japanese.

innywho, frum the instunt i gut in frunt of my own class, i knew i had dun found the thang i could do bes in life. i wood be a'doin it today ifn it wood pay a livin wage, witch it dont cum close to the wages they pay fer janitors n seckataries n cumputer tecks. i larnt that a few years later when i wuz near broke n went up to new york city, a'thankin i could git better money fer teachin than i gut in tennessee, but twernt to be. thay wuz jobs fer folks who had good english n could type, so i gut a job as a secketary n made near twice the money i made fer teachin. aint that a good deal fur amurka?

corse, tiz one thang to say twuz sumthin i wuz good at doin, but tiz a nuther to proov it. my memries of it wood make it seem lack i wuz always a good teachur, that twuz whut i wuz born n made to do. i lack to member it thataway n fack is, i wood git awards fer teachin a lil later in life, but the evidents dont back up that thesis. i wood lack the thesis fer this chaptur to be sumthin lack 'i found whut i wuz born to do whenever i gut in frunt of a class n showd the worl whut a grate teachur i wuz.'

problem is, teachin a class is tiz all bout yer students, n whenever ye git dun readin this here lil deescripshun of whut my students wuz lack that furst class, wurkin my way round the class frum the feller that sat in the furst seat on the far left row of seats, witch that wood be mark bandy, yer likely to cum up with a cumpletely differnt thesis:
  1. Mark Bandy had a crooked nose and a nasty habit of speaking out of only one side of his mouth. This gave him a sarcastic or ironic look, even though he didn't have any talent for using or understanding irony at all. But his crooked nose was helpful in making him look intelligent. He chose ridiculous topics that were impossible to support, such as the differences between two gurls, one of whom he liked, the other he resented for not liking him. He had problems coming up with actual sentences since he didn't have any idea where one sentence ended and the next began. Mark got a "C" from me, a gift.
  2. Sitting directly behind Mark was Steve Adams, a roly-poly kid with a greasy face who knew plenty about cars and nothing about writing. He was one of my three "no-credits." The other two didn't even show up very often. Steve worked hard to no effect due to his refusal to face the fact that a complete sentence requires both a subject and a predicate.
  3. Another Steve, Steve Harrison, sat behind Steve Adams. He was a very tall, well-built fellow who wuz so muscled up he couldn't sit comfortably. He had intense brown eyes and the look of someone who might go over the deep end someday. He knew more about farming than I realized a person could know. He gut off to a rather slow start on due to being hampered by dialect interference, but he mastered most everything we went over in class and got to the point where he could write a "C" essay in class. In short, he earned his "C." It so happened that we had the same birthday, and I was a little surprised to learn he had a fiance and wanted to drop out of school to get married. I was smart enough for once to keep my mouth shut and let him make his own mistakes.
  4. In the front of the next row sat Jake Mitchell, Steve Adams' best friend. Jake was a solid "B" student. He had a vivid imagination though he chose difficult topics. He worked hard on his papers, but he couldn't get past a "B" due to his picking such poor topics. For example, one of his ideas for a paper was to use Coke vs. Pepsi for his compare and contrast essay, but he couldn't find anything to say about the two drinks other than that he liked coke better. Even with that, he couldn't say exactly why except that the taste was better. We had a long conference during which I tried to get him to define what it was about the taste he liked better, but he couldnt find anything more to say about it than "It tastes better."
  5. After Jake came another Steve, Steve Johnson, a tall lad with lank black hair and very blue eyes. Steve was an "A" student all the way: chose great topics, had a creative imagination and good espression, a great ear for dialogue, which he used to fine effect, and a competitive nature that made him want to make sure his essays were the very best in the class. He wrote at least four "readables." I liked giving attention to work that was well done, so I called some essays "readables," which meant they were worthy or reading to the class and using to show how one constructs a good essay. Steve Johnson called me up at home almost every day to discuss his paper, its organization, its approach, the exact wording of his thesis, you name it. He was the only student to attempt using irony. When the class ended, he sent me a note of thanks for working so hard with him.
  6. Perry Manor sat behind Steve Johnson. Perry was a broad shouldered man built a lot like a bull. He picked the most difficult possible topics to cover and wrote every essay on current events -- the rioting in England, the strength of the NATO pact, the abiliity of the US Navy to defend us in the Persian Gulf. He didn't want to research his topics and relied upon his father's view of the world to make his points, which suffered from lack of supporting evidence.
  7. Behind him sat a puzzle of a young woman named Carol Chivas. She had huge dirty blue eyes and messy hair that seemed to have been oiled. Maybe she just never washed it much. Carol probably had a lot of ability, but she didn't want to share it with the class, perhaps due to being a little on the lazy side. Her dream in life was to become an air traffic controller, and that was her topic for several essays. She was a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan and figured his firing the Air Traffic Controllers Union gave her a chance at a good career. She was wise for her age in many ways, hated being treated as if she were younger than I, and the liked to spend our student conferences proving to me that she saw through the pretensions of her fellow students. She was the very difinition of your no-nonsense person and she got a "B" from me though both she and I knew she could have earned an "A" if she had been willing to push herself even the least little bit.
  8. Wilkie Martin, from Seymour, Tennessee, sat in the first seat of the next row. He worked very hard, struggled against a thick accent and the fact that he looked as if he were just about to experience puberty. He was a little immature, but he knew his grammar and he was willing to play the game of school. That was good enough for him to earn a "B."
  9. Rose Edmunds was a wild looking blonde student with dark brown eyes, about three inches of extra padding, and too much makeup. She sat behind Wilkie for the first half of the class and then just disappeared. I never learned what happened to her. He father was a dentist and her description essay was a good one describing in gory detail the look on the faces of patients who were getting root canal surgery. She received an "NC."
  10. Peter Barinson was a golfer, an older student with stiff brown hair and bright blue eyes. If he showed up at all, he sat behind Rose. He was always dressed as if he were about to play eighteen holes every time he came to class, complete with his sun visor. He wrote only about sports and could call me at home after he had disappeared for a couple of classes. He required a lot of help to come through with a "C."
  11. Right in the middle of the class sat a rich young girl named Wanda Jeffries. She had very long legs, her best feature. She liked to display them in such a way as nearly to cause me to lose my place in class. It was no surprise to learn she planned to become a dancer someday. She would wear the latest fashions, smile a lot, and flirt with me. It even seemed as if she wanted to tease me by crossing and recrossing her legs. I hated how programmed I was. I didn't seem able to keep from trying to get a peek when she would sit with her legs spread or go through her elaborate leg-crossing routein. She was one of the worst writers in the class, though I think she could have written well. She had freckles and hated them, so she wore too much makeup. The same was true of her writing. She seemed to think that if she wore out her thesaurus, she would come up with good writing. Instead, it was ridiculous. Just as her makeup hid how beautiful she might have been, her odd use of words ruined her writing. Yet she worked as hard as anyone in the class. I had a policy that a student could rewrite any paper that had received an "NC," so she rewrote all of hers. I must have read three of her papers for every one that was assigned. She really earned her "C," which made me wonder what all the flirting was about.
  12. Behind her sat her best friend, Nancy Thomas. Nancy was one of the best students in the class. She was poised and wrote polished prose with perfect grammar and no real point. She was like her friend Wanda in her overuse of makeup. She had a boyfriend and would stand outside the class door hugging and kissing him till the last possible minute. Then whe would rush in wearing a contented smile and apologizing for being late. She and I had a major problem during the class due to my catching her plagiarising, but she confessed and rewrote the paper. She got a "C" and considered it charity, but the truth was, she could easily have received an "A."
  13. My biggest problem sat behind Nancy, a student named Paul Richardson. He was very white skinned, almost an albino. He sweated a lot and couldn't keep his oily hair out of his jet black eyes. His main problem was that he refused to follow the assignment. He wanted to experiment with language and that led to pages without predicates, verb forms without precedents. He worked very hard on terrible topics such as whether green appeared green to everyone or looked different to different people. The problem was that he had no way to determine any of the evidence since he could only see the green he saw and couldn't write anything valid about what he assumed others saw. He also cheated once. I caught a comma splice -- two sentences glued together with a simple comma -- and circled it, but he put an period on top of the comma to make it into a semicolon and then challenged my grading. I shamed him to his face after that, in private, but I promised I would be happy to read his work to the class to demonstrate what a person should avoid, and that shut him up. He was angry when I gave him a "C," but from my point of view, it was a gift.
  14. Next was Havery Nichols, an older student, veteran of the Navy. He usually came in late, carrying his motocycle helmet. He had life long acne troubles and wanted to grow a moustache so much that he'd let his ten or twelve whiskers get long enough that he could suck them into his mouth or twirl them together to make them look thicker. It seemed an odd thing for such a smart, aware, honest fellow to do. He earned a "B" and could have done a lot better. He wrote about motorcycles in every essay except one about being fleeced at a Memphis strip joint.
  15. In the front seat of the next row say Karen Williams, a chubby girl with a perpetual smile on her face. She sat chewing and sucking on her pen, gazing wide-eyed at me. She barely made a "C." She was cute and lovable, but she suffered from having been raised in a very sheltered environment. Her funniest line was writing that a car was a necessity for "youth."
  16. Behind her sat Morton Benjamin, a tall, dark-skinned dummy with a terrible case of pimples and greasy black hair cut in bangs. He was one of those guys who is always working on some electronic gadget and who loved to play practical jokes on people. He didn't have any imagination to speak of and had to use Sharee Jefferson's (student #19 in this list) topics in order to get a "C."
  17. Rusty Roberts sat behind Mort. He was a fat one with bright red cheeks, clear blue eyes and curly brown hair. He worked at TV 26. Every paper he wrote was about TV. He earned a "B."
  18. The most interesting student in the class was a woman from Lebanon named Juliana Abdul. She was older than the other students by about ten or twelve years. She seemed to be in a state of steady, burning anger at the injustice of the world. She lived at the YWCA, wore tattered shoes and raggedy clothing. She kept as quiet as a mouse during most of the class, until we neared the end of the quarter, when we discussed Jonathan Swift's essay, "A Modest Proposal." Suddenly she came to life and helped me show the rest of the class how that little essay had significance even in modern America. She was married to an Arab she hadn't met, the only reason being to help him get his green card. She got trips to Greece and Palestine out of the deal. She got a "B" in the class and worked very hard on her writing, which was worth doing since she had a lot to say and a unique point of view.
  19. Next was Sharee Jefferson, a very skinny, brown-eyed girl with mousy brown hair and the common problem of using too much makeup. She had no imagination, but she had the rules of grammar down cold. She was the classic "B" student. When I apologized for allowing Morton Benjamin to use her topics, she laughed and said, "Oh that Mort! He's so crazy.'
  20. My last "A" student was a girl named Neely Lawrence. She was a very shy woman who was a little on the plump side. She hadn't ever written an essay before taking my class, but she had read Gone with the Wind twelve times and dozens of other books, which explains why she could write so well.
  21. Cam Russell came next. He was a lifeguard who looked like a surfer with dry blond hair, freckles and darl blue eyes. He had the best intentions but was too lazy to do much about them. He loved to preach the gospel and tried to convert me through his essays. He used fine examples in his efforts and earned a "B," even if he couldn't write a 500 word essay in class.
  22. Finally, there was Mindy Crouse, a beautiful but brainless girl with honey blonde hair, brown eyes and a mouth she kept half open all the time, giving her a gaping, stupid espression. She wrote so many long, boring essays that it makes me a little sleepy to think back on it. She conquered her pernicious problems with subject-verb agreement, so I gave her a "C."

once that class wuz over, i had me a real good feelin. i felt lack i had dun sum good, even ifn these kids wuz more spoild than i could know till i had been out teachin a lil more. twuz my furst class, n ifn me n miz bd has the money whenever tiz time to reetire frum wall street, i plan to teach a class or two. i wisht i could afford to doot now.

but now that i look back on whut i writ bout them students, i kin see i wuznt no differnt frum all tuther grad stoodents. i had that know-it-all poitn of view n nuthin but contemp fer my students. i couldnt see it then, couldnt see how much i had to larn. fer that matter, i dint larn my stoodents much of nuthin bout ritin but jes pointed out who alreddy knew how to doot. ifn they dint know, i dint know how to get em thar, with sum minor eggcepshuns. ifn i wuz givin a grade on my teachin after all these years, i wood probly give myself a 'c' . . . but twood be a gift.

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