Sunday, February 22, 2009


Listen: I want to tell you about a day in my life ...

Friday, 7:15 a.m.

There's a knock on my door. One of my neighbors with a thermos and something wrapped in paper. And a note:

Dear Mr. P,
We are really sorry! We will try to be better. Hope you get well soon. Hope you enjoy the soup and the garlic bread. Get some rest. Take care.
--Grade 12

"Who's this from?" I ask. My neighbor has been sworn to secrecy but tells me anyway. "Thanks," I say. Almost instantly I have two favorite students.

I unscrew the thermos, and as cold soup spills onto my hand, I flashback to yesterday:
I had one of those days that I'd rather forget, one of those days that the students won't soon forget. A little sick, a little cranky, and with scratchy 90-year-old lifetime smoker voice, I yelled at my twelfth graders for not caring about a word I had said all year long. "As a teacher, I have to reflect on everything I do," I croaked, "and I guess I've come to the conclusion that I'm not very effective."

I pulled out a stack of essays I had collected the other day, shook the stack at the class. I rambled on about some golden rules of writing about literature that I had tried to make clear, things I called "instant zero requirements." They were called "instant zero" because that was the grade I had threatened if the requirements weren't met. Stupid things like underlining titles of novels.

"Let's see," I said, examining the top paper. "This might be an excellent essay, might have some great points ... but is the title underlined? No! So I'll never read it!" With that, I crumpled up the paper and tossed it into the trash can. It went in.

"How about this one? Same thing!" I crumpled up that one too and tossed it. "Look, I made it," I said with a bright smile. "So that's two more points for me. But zero for you!"

And on it went. In a class of 21, only six survived. In my other class, eight survived. Whenever I missed the trash can, I said, "That's zero for both of us! But me, I don't care!"

Later, one of the kids came up to me. "That was the greatest English class of the year," he said. Sounded sincere. When I reminded him that his paper had ended up in the trash, he said, "Yeah, but I learned so much. Really."

When I told the story at lunch, the new guy at the table said, "I thought that kind of thing only happened in movies."

"Stick around," I said.

7:25 a.m.

I rush to school. I've promised to write a recommendation for another student. It's due today, and I've just started it. She shows up and admits she hasn't even started the essay she has to write, and she asks me for advice. I give her some, although really, I could use some myself.

8:10 a.m.

An eleventh grader walks into the office, asking if I can read the introduction to her essay, which is a narrative, for the third time. "Can you give me a minute?" I plead. "I've got to fill in this recommendation form first." She gives me a minute, then I give her essay a minute. The narrative still doesn't work, I tell her, and give her some more ideas. "More details. More conversation. More people talking. If you don't remember exactly what was said, make it up. No, don't make it up, but do your best. Write it the way you remember." Why can't students write realistic dialogue?

8:35 a.m.

Five minutes into class, there seem to be no hard feelings from my paper-crumbling episode yesterday. "I just hope you all know that I did that," I say, "because I care." I see some eyes roll upwards, but no one feels like challenging my display of caring. Halfway into class, nobody rebels when I ask the class to write the essay again. I walk around the room and notice that everybody has underlined the title.

10:00 a.m.

I tell my eleventh graders to open their textbooks to some random page I've selected. "See all the dialogue?" I ask. "What happens when a new person talks?"

"New paragraph," someone says.


I tell them that writing dialogue isn't necessarily a required skill, but it would be nice to be able to do it. I then talk about a class discussion we've been having on moodle. "Here's a request I have for you," I tell them. "Instead of writing, 'I disagree with Tom,' you should write, 'I disagree with Tom's idea.' Do you see how that's different?"

They promise to, from now on, attack each other's ideas, not each other.

They then read a short story called "Nobody Listens When I Talk" and respond to it in their journals.

"I hate sad stories," one guy says as he finishes it.

"Write down why," I tell him.

After everyone has written something, I ask if anyone would like to share.

"I think the girl is absolutely pathetic," a girl declares, and then goes into a rant about why the narrator is the most pathetic human being, ever.

"Wow," I said, "imagine if someone said he or she really identified with the character."

11:35 a.m.

My second section of twelfth graders is rewriting the essay. A girl calls me over. "I need TP," she says. "To blow my nose."

Everyone is quiet. Working. I walk out of the room, jog upstairs to the boys bathroom. Of course, no toilet paper. "I can't believe this," I mumble as I walk towards the girls bathroom. "Hello?!" I yell. "Anyone in there? I'm coming in."

I run back into my classroom with a roll of toilet paper. The girl who asked for it already has some on her desk. Someone had some. I should've asked.

12:15 p.m.

I stop by the library. Recommendation girl is in there and asks me to read over her application letter so far. The first two paragraphs--about how writing is her passion--are good. I tell her. "But what do I write after this?" she asks.

I have no idea. "I don't know," I say. "What's your major going to be? Tie it in with that. How the business world needs passionate writers or something."

2:35 p.m.

My least favorite part of my weekly schedule: exploration block. It's a hole on our schedules filled with random students to explore some non-academic topic. No one signed up for my poetry idea, so instead I run something called Rock 'n' Roll Appreciation. I thought I'd get a bunch of cool kids talking about and exchanging cool music. Underground Bhutanese techno maybe. Or Indian indie rock. But no, I've got a bunch of kids who don't even bring in their iPods and just sit around sulking when I try to introduce them to bands like The Velvet Underground and The Clash.

"How about some Girl Talk?" I ask.

"Oh, I downloaded that album," one of the kids says.

"Really? You did?" I ask. "How did you hear about it?"

"You played that one song last week," he says.

And I'm finally like, wow, one of these guys actually got turned on to something cool. The new Girl Talk, by the way, is definitely cool. And at pay-what-you-want, the price is right.

3:35 p.m.

Right after school, application girl rushes up with her finished copy. It's good. I mean, she basically followed my suggestions, but somehow made it sound really good. "Thank you so much," she says, racing to the counselor's office, where she'll fax her essay and mine. I hope mine is good enough.

3:50 p.m.

Seven of my advisory kids are hanging out in the English office. I've bought them some amazing cheesecake from a new cafe in town, my apology to them for canceling our dinner tonight. Once or twice a quarter, I invite them over to my place, but I haven't been feeling well, so I canceled.

One of the girls, who is in my English class, is telling another one about what happened in class yesterday.

"Why did he throw away your papers?" her friend asks.

"Because he cares about us," she deadpans. She's Japanese, and her English isn't perfect, but I think she's got sarcasm down.

4:15 p.m.

As my advisees leave, an eleventh grader walks in to see if I'll read over her essay. It's quite good, even though the narrative isn't the best. I blab on about details, about showing not telling, all those things English teachers blab on about. Still, I'm captivated by her story.

"Even back home in Nepal, people call me 'Chinky,'" she says. In India--and Nepal I learn--people with East Asian features are called "Chinky," something the bullies maybe wouldn't get away with in the U.S.

I get lost in parts of her essay because it looks like she's been abusing a thesaurus. I accuse her of that.

"It's just that I'm not very confident with my English vocabulary," she says in perfectly pronounced, perfectly articulated English.

"From now on, I want you to only use words you know," I say. "I mean, half these big words you use have, you know, different connotations. Yes, they mean something like the word you're thinking of, but they're different."

She tells me about an SAT course she took over winter break in Nepal. She was considered the best writer in class, but still, she didn't know most of the words on the test.

"All right, let's work on your vocabulary," I say, "but when you're writing, only use the words you know well."

She leaves. I pack up. As I walk out the door, I see another eleventh grader, the one from this morning.

"Fine," I say as she walks up with her essay. "But only 10 minutes."

Twenty minutes later, I realize I've created a monster. Her narrative is much improved. But now it's way too long. Who wants to read this much? With almost too much dialogue. Still, her story is almost heartbreaking for some reason, and with every sentence I learn something new about traditional Indian values.

I start to warn her about the dangers of the thesaurus.

"I know," she says, and informs me that her friend filled her in after leaving the office. How did they do that in two minutes, I wonder. They must have met in the hallway, and one told the other, "He said not to use the thesaurus."

The two of them, it turns out, are now roommates. They chose each other because both are hard-working. They read each other's drafts, talk about teacher comments, and learn new words together. And instantly they become my favorite students this year. And this time it's for real.

5:45 p.m.

As I walk home, tired but oddly rejuvenated, I realize something, and if I were writing an essay for my class, this would be my thesis statement: Kids listen. They may look like they're not. They may pretend like they're not. They may be bored or sarcastic or mean. They may drive you crazy with their apathy or their questions. But they listen.

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