This week, the end of week four, one of my students turned in her first major assignment. In a quarter that lasts only four and a half weeks, her piece was two weeks late. I was delighted.
The first week of class was, I think, a shock to many of my students: they read every day & chose their own books; they wrote every day, too, in quickwrites, freewrites, prompted writes. The rhythm was unfamiliar, not least because of our compressed and off-kilter pandemic scheduling. By the end of the week, they had written a short memoir.
Not every student, of course, slides easily into memoir. She was one of these. No matter how many mentor texts or brainstorming sessions, no matter how many small group or large group discussions, when it came time to write something “important,” she shut down. I managed to finagle a 100-word mini-memoir out of her, but she steadfastly refused to consider the longer piece.
In a normal school year, I would have waited her out. Slow steady relationship building goes an awfully long ways, and I know how to use daily interactions to learn about students. This year, I don’t have time. Of course, the thing about trust is that it can’t be rushed; trust comes when it comes. The best I could offer this child was conversation and genuine curiosity, so I started talking to her during the walk breaks I’d built into our 4-hour-long classes. Every other day, every other week… and I didn’t realize there was a problem until near the end of week one.
But there is something about that memoir unit… I swear she wanted me to know her story. During week two she confessed: she had never – not once – submitted an essay for a high school English class. She shrugged, “My mark is always good enough that I can afford to take the hit.” The hit? The zero she would get for not writing the one assigned essay. I must have looked physically ill because the poor child rushed to reassure me, “It’s ok, Miss, my mark doesn’t go down that much.”
My mind reeled. Where to start? One essay? Just one? No other writing? “No,” she told me simply, almost quizzically, “not usually.”
“And no one said anything?”
“Well, I mean, they are definitely disappointed with me.”
I closed my eyes, and then, just to be sure, I repeated, “So you really haven’t written any long essays in all of high school? None?”
Something lurked under that word: fear? or hurt? defiance? anger? I didn’t know, but I had to ask. “Why not?”
The story came out over a few separate discussions – the teacher, the public reading of her work, the shaming; the demand that she re-write or take the zero; the twin feelings of impotent fury and mortification; the decision not to write again.
And now I wanted her to write. She told me, frankly, that she couldn’t do it. Oh, we brainstormed together on Google Meet; she acknowledged that ideas were not her problem. I did my trick of scribing what the student says and giving it back to them; she said it looked better than she’d expected. Still nothing. And the quarter raced forward. During our class walks, every other week, every other day, I made sure to chat with her. She completed an infographic and participated in book club discussions. I praised her liberally. Week two ended and still no essay, though she wrote happily in her journal.
Week three, I kept looking for strengths, but she was keeping her head down. She still was reading, freewriting, participating in class… It wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t a piece done from beginning to end.
Week four and the class working on another essay, this time analytical. And there she was. “Maybe,” she said, “you could help me with a checklist for the essay?”
I looked up, trying to keep my breathing even. “Sure. The analytical essay?”
“Oh,” she said, “yeah. I turned that other one in just now.”
I used all my strength not to open it right away. We made a checklist. Two steps at a time. She went back to her desk. I did not read her essay until after class.
It was excellent.
And then, suddenly, I am angry. I am angry that a teacher decided to humiliate this child. I am sure that the teacher didn’t *intend* to humiliate her, but it happened nonetheless. I want to scream. I want to yell at the universe. This child has missed three YEARS of writing. Three years. I imagine where she could be now if someone had said something kind instead of something hurtful.
Nothing I do in the classroom is magic. Nothing I do is shocking or wild or inexplicable. I look for their strengths. I try to help them see the possibilities that exist. I insist that all of the students are capable, even when they tell me they are not. That’s it.
She turned in an essay. I told her all the good things about it. Now maybe she can write again.
(For more on the power of a teacher’s words, consider reading Melanie White’s post Journals or Molly Hogan’s post Thank you, Mrs. Minzy!)