What the Teacher Learned

I have been teaching for nine years though it doesn’t seem that long to me. Most of the time, I feel like a novice, a teacher-in-training, which I suppose is true. In the course of those nine years, I estimate I’ve had about 1500 students in classes. That’s a lot of students, and I’m not even halfway through my career. Those students have taught me as much as I’ve taught them although they probably never knew it, and I’ve been thinking about that lately when I remember a student named “Mark.”*

Mark was in my class during spring semester of 2013. He enrolled in the lowest level developmental writing class as a nontraditional student. Trying to make a career change due to health issues, his goal was to eventually get a bachelor’s degree in engineering. I also was assigned as his academic advisor, so I got to know him pretty well.

An affable fellow not too tall but stocky, he reminded me of a teddy bear. I knew and worked with him during the next 2-1/2 years and never knew him to use a profanity, ever. He was kind of a burly man with decidedly masculine characteristics, not childlike or effeminate, but it seemed that he lived by some measured code of behavior. He was always polite, never rude or loud, and he was a consistent student in that he attended class regularly and completed most of the assigned work. Over the years, I noted that as the work became more difficult, he would procrastinate more, and sometimes the quality of the work was not what it should have been. Nonetheless, I enjoyed working with him.

Mark was easily entertained, and I remember when he got a new laptop. Unfamiliar with computer technology, he had great fun discovering games and noises and all manner of distractions that his computer could produce. He found some sort of game or app that had a bird, an icon or something that moved around on his screen. He was delighted with the bird, and I felt a little impatient with him when he would want me to look at it instead of focusing on his writing, but I was also amused by how he found joy in such a small thing.

He enrolled in the next writing class, with me, and I began to worry about his career goals. I could tell after only a few months that engineering was beyond his reach. He struggled in basic writing and low-level math. He took only two or three classes a semester but still seemed unable to stay ahead of the work. I broached the subject of his career goals and suggested that maybe something less ambitious would be more attainable; he balked. He had an image of himself as capable of the demands of an engineering education though he really didn’t comprehend how difficult it would be, nor did he seem to understand that his current work did not support the idea that he would be able to manage it. I began feeling exasperated because he seemed unwilling to accept the truth, but I also didn’t want to squelch his dreams. I consider myself a champion of the underdog after all.

It was the fall semester of 2013 about mid-semester; at the end of class one day, Mark came to me and asked for my help, and as he began booting up his computer, I moved to the next student in line (why do they always wait until the end of class to ask questions?), trying to multitask the list of things I have to do at the end of class to allow the next instructor access to the room. Suddenly, Mark slammed the top of his computer and said something to the effect of he didn’t appreciate the way I was treating him, and he stormed out of the room. I stood dumbfounded. Never had he exhibited any kind of anger or outburst before, and furthermore, I had not intended to ignore him; I was helping someone else as I waited for him to get his computer up.

I finished up with the other students and retreated to my office. Initially, I felt angry myself; he was the one who asked for help but wasn’t prepared! It wasn’t my fault that half the class needs my attention all at once! He had no right to feel offended! Of course, he did have a right to his feelings, and after I thought about it, I realized that I needed to talk to him and explain, maybe even apologize. I wandered the building, looking for him in his usual spots, and found him in the library sitting alone at a carrel, his computer running, and his head lowered. “Mark?” I said. He looked up at me, and suddenly I felt about three inches high. His eyes were red-rimmed and in them I saw profound pain. “Can we talk?” I asked him.

“You have no right to treat me like that,” he said. “You completely ignored me when I asked for your help. That’s not okay.”

“I wasn’t ignoring you; I was waiting for your computer to boot up, and I was just helping someone else in the meantime. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad, really. I’m so sorry, Mark.” I sensed, in that moment, that he had experienced a perfect storm of aggravation, probably a compilation of many things, and even though my part was completely unintentional, I suddenly understood the grave responsibility I bear in my interactions with students.

This many years later, I don’t recall what happened next, so humbled was I by his pain and my part in it. I hope I helped him with the paper; I want to remember it that way. I do remember feeling ashamed and disappointed in myself. I was the teacher, the one with the power. I knew the outcome of my life’s goals, but he did not know his. Whether I intended to treat him cavalierly or not made no difference because that was how he experienced it. And he had trusted me. He did complete the class, and he did submit his final essay for publication in the book of student essays that I publish, so it seems he forgave me if I haven’t completely forgiven myself. However, he continued to struggle academically in all subjects and last fall he withdrew from school to try to figure out his life.

Mark died last January. The obituary in the newspaper listed no cause of death and no services. It seems fundamentally wrong, to me, that a person dies and the universe doesn’t even register a blip. I read Mark’s essay to students in my classes, as I sometimes do, noting that he had passed on, and I’ve thought about him many times over the last few months. I know I will never forget him or the way I made him feel that day. I am forever chastised to pay close attention to my words and actions.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I have learned this, too.

*I have changed his name to protect his privacy.

When I Was at the Prison…

I was cleaning out folders today and came upon a piece I wrote a few years ago when I lived in Billings and taught at the Montana Women’s Prison and Passages Pre-release Center. I think it has merit, and it’s not had an audience yet. At one time, I had toyed with the idea of a book-length story of my experiences as a nontraditional college student, and this might have gone in that, and maybe will one day. I hope you enjoy it.

The card said “You are an excellent teacher and it’s been an honor to spend this four weeks with you.” I read it again, sighed, and looked out my windshield at the traffic flowing by on South 27th Street. Few experiences humble a person like this one humbled me: one of my students at Passages, the pre-release center for women, was thanking me for teaching a class we called “Engaging with Literature.” Teaching English, writing, and reading at the Montana Women’s Prison and at Passages had been one of the most rewarding, satisfying, exciting adventures of my life, an experience that helped me feel like my time in the world had not been completely wasted. And I was fairly well-paid to do it. Grant money, through my university’s College of Professional Studies and Lifelong Learning, compensated me very fairly, and I enjoyed tremendous freedom with creating curriculum, schedules, and goals for my classes. Not only did I love the work, but I also came to care deeply about my students, those women on the fringes of society who have not learned how to coexist peaceably with the rest of us, usually due to abuse issues: physical, mental, emotional, sexual, and substance. I focused on their humanity and their dignity as sisters to me in the human family, and I avoided thinking too much about the crimes that brought them into the institution of corrections and, ultimately, my class.

Even though I understood that a certain professional distance is necessary when working with offenders and others in institutional settings, I allowed myself to care about my students to a degree that threatened my own emotional safety; scorn, indifference, or disdain could shake my confidence and my morale, making me question every facet of my teaching. But likewise, a card, comment, smile or tear would strengthen my resolve that teaching consists of much more than channeling information from the teacher to the student: teaching is about relationships and seeing the value in the content being taught. That card confirmed for me that I was doing that; I was building relationships, explaining and showing the relevance of language and communications to my students and doing it with enthusiasm and joyfulness. I reveled in the moment, blinking back the tears of happiness that tried to ski down my cheeks, knowing that my day was just only halfway over, and I had more responsibilities to face. No time, right now, for just basking in the moment. I started my Subaru and pulled out of the parking lot, thinking about the afternoon ahead of me. As I drove home, mulling lesson plans and my crazy schedule, I couldn’t help but smile and think to myself the two words that had lately become my mantra: Who knew?

The path to teaching at Montana State University—Billings and, through the university, at the prison and pre-release center was not a direct route for me. In fact, my path to becoming a professional educator was circuitous and long, and until the last few years, I had no idea I was even heading that direction. For me, the likelihood of becoming a teacher—a university instructor, no less—was pretty close to the likelihood that Johnny Depp would call me for a date: zero and none.

Like a rowboat with a missing oar, at the mercy of currents, gravity, winds of chance, and large rocks, my life had drifted along. Occasionally I’d attempt to steer with the remaining oar and end up backward, looking at where I’d been with even less idea of where I was headed, my destiny determined for me by winds of chance. For a long time, I accepted that, yet I managed to keep an open mind to all possibilities, and when the opportunity presented itself, I took stock of my life and the goals I had for myself and decided it was time for me and the little boat called my life to take a new, determined direction. It was time to get another oar.