By Dorinda Fox
“Actors understand the infinite vastness hiding inside each human being, the characters not played, the characteristics not revealed. Schoolteachers can see every day that, given the chance, the sullen pupil in the back row can sing, dance, juggle, do mathematics, paint, and think.”—Wallace Shawn of My Dinner With Andre fame in his nonfiction collection Essays.
I tell students on the first day of class that rule number one is as of day two anyone sitting in the back row will be called on first. If I see students back there, then they really, really want to talk to me. Some move up front, and then have to interact with other students. Some test me by continuing to sit in the back and we get to know each other well.
I am four weeks into a class in which I am getting to know that particular sullen student. Sullen is an understatement for the resentment and anger that seeped out of her pores on day one. What I did not get on day one or until recently is how afraid this woman is of failing publicly.
I teach as an adjunct at a community college near the theme parks in Orlando. Most people who go to these theme parks for dream vacations do not realize an army of immigrants live in Orlando to make that dream vacation a reality. These immigrants work for very low wages washing the sheets in hotels, staffing the restaurants, where Cokes are $3.00, and cleaning the rides each evening so the funk of one million other butts that sat in the seat during steaming summer heat does not spoil the fun of the ride. One perk these immigrants get from such joyful employment is a chance to earn a degree at the local community college. The students may lack the skill-level of other students I have taught, but few of them are just passing time. They realize that education matters and may change their life.
There are students from 24 countries in the three classes that I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Many of them are taking the composition course for the second or third time. I taught composition in Miami for ten years, where every composition course is an ESL course, so I understand how to work with and learn from that student population. I use “work with and learn from” quite purposefully. These students bring a wide variety of life experiences to class and there is more than one teacher in the room. If the class size is 25, then there are 26 teachers in the room. Women in burkas sit next to boys from the Jersey Shore who recently moved to Orlando for fun and excitement.
Sullen wears inappropriate clothing for her age and too much make-up that makes her look older than younger. She is abrasive with other students. She challenges every instruction. She laughs and rolls her eyes when she finds something I say to be ignorant. Apparently I am often ignorant.
The sullen woman tried to turn in a paper late and ran into my rule number two. Students cannot sit in class if they are unprepared for the day’s work. Instead they must go to the computer lab, review the syllabus, and write a formal memo to me detailing:
1. Syllabus policy concerning the assignment in particular and the late policy in general.
2. Their particular situation.
3. An explanation minus emotional appeals of why the rule that applies to 24 other people should not apply in their particular situation.
Only then can students turn in late work which I may or may not grade based on that memo. Not many students want to go through this process twice so most begin to turn in work on time.
The sullen woman tried to turn in the paper late and asked her to go to the computer lab to write the memo. She refused and said I could not ask her to do that. I asked her to look around the room and to see if there was anyone there telling me what I could or could not ask students to do. She left angrily but she came back with the memo and with her paper by the end of the class session.
Yesterday, the students were working in small groups analyzing the structure of arguments in sample textbook essays to help them in writing their own social commentaries over the next few weeks. Each student has to serve as discussion leader once each semester and to report back to me at the end of the class session what the group discovered. One of the textbook essays is rather badly written—lacking much substantive support for claims made. If students notice this, most of them do not report that back to me. They simply assume that such an essay must be good if it was assigned reading.
Sullen is not into telling me what she thinks I want to hear. So she spent a full fifteen minutes deconstructing an essay which is really akin to Gertrude Stein’s view of Oakland. There is no there there. The sullen woman just kept repeating, “I just don’t see any evidence here at all.”
When the sullen woman finished I told her that was the best analysis of that essay presented by any student in ten years. I thanked her for really paying attention to the words she was reading. She replied, “I am glad that I could teach you something.” Then she smiled for the first time this semester.
The sullen woman had taught me something. She was no longer afraid. I had been too focused on dealing with her anger to try to understand why she was angry. I let her be afraid for four weeks because I could not see her fear. I need to pay even more attention to the back row.