I attempt to treat my students of English 101 as if they wanted to be writers, as if they were concerned about the quality of their prose. I make that assumption when I plan my syllabus, when I grade their papers, when I open the door to the computer lab and say, “Good afternoon. It’s good to see you.”
I know the reality is it’s a required course for all those seeking a degree, and some of them will hardly write an essay after they leave, but I like to believe if I speak with the excitement of writing as if they are ready to hear it, they might get caught in the fun of composing a memorable sentence.
I’ve taught this class in the morning and at night, grueling 6:00 to 9:45 sessions. I thought a 4:00 class would bring the same bright-eyed and ambitious personalities as 10 a.m., but this group arrives with its a tepid, quiet personality thinking about supper, and most often, not with their homework done because, I suspect, they scrambled to finish assignments for their morning classes and drank Procrastination Ale for lunch.
Spring fever hit them March 1. Very early. On the Thursday before spring break, 9 out of 24 students showed up to discuss adjective clauses and get started on their research paper. I rewarded those nine with extra attendance points.
With spring break over and a week into “regularly scheduled programming,” I hoped we’d get back into writing bliss. But, instead, classes have continued to be holed with absences, and it’s starting to concern me. One student, let’s call him Nathan, caught me feeling grumpy about this. Lucky him.
Nathan informed me he wouldn’t be turning in his research paper on Thursday because he didn’t have his laptop. He had to leave it at the campus repair center, and he wouldn’t have it or any of his files back in time.
We live in a world of cloud this and mobile drive that. We live with portable storage devices the size of a Tootsie roll. Our campus has public computer labs in convenient locations. In the student union, rows of computers line the walls and are ready for anyone walking by to log in. With these options and all the tablets, smartphones, and laptops found in every dorm room, finding Microsoft Word and opening up a document is as easy as borrowing a friend’s sweatshirt for the hockey game.
I broke out the sarcasm. I said, “I would assume you’ve heard of those little things called a thumb drive.”
He nodded. I could see he was trying to keep a game face on as I spoke. He looked so … young. He wore a plaid shirt in autumn colors, and I could see he had freckles on his nose. I thought, stop this.
I said, “Aren’t you worried about the repair center accidentally losing your files?”
He said, “They are going to fix the broken glass on the screen, so …” He didn’t finish. I think he wanted to get away from me and go back to his seat. A reasonable response.
It is also reasonable to expect a nineteen-year-old to be savvy enough to find alternatives to meet a deadline.
I woke the next morning with that icky feeling in the back of my throat, the one that wishes for a do-over. Oh, I know I could’ve have been more supportive. What a bummer your laptop is broken. So sorry to hear that.
I could have been more professional and kept my thoughts to myself. Well, thanks for telling me. I’m sure you’ll get the paper done soon.
I could’ve been more neutral and less opinionated. What did I resolve by sharing my disapproval of his choices?
I won’t get a do over. And maybe, with one sentence, I destroyed any connection I had made with Nathan this semester. (But damn it, he deserves a little tough love, right?)
If I am to treat the students of English 101 as future writers, if I am to inspire these students to want, more than anything else, to write their words, I will need to lead with a little more compassion. And keep my mouth shut.
Inspired by the letter A in the A to Z Challenge for the month of April. Scroll past the social media buttons to share a your story about a writing class or working with students or to comment on this post.