Teaching can be a thankless job. I have done it for thirty years and sometimes it feels like it’s getting more thankless all the time. I teach freshman comp at a local college. Last semester was one of the worst. A student who wrote one paper out of five and missed the last month and a half of class claimed I flunked him because he refused me when I came on to him. I’ve been happily married for over thirty years, and I’m no longer crazy about getting naked in front of my husband, let alone some eighteen-year-old boy. This semester is somewhat better. I’ve got one who sleeps so much in class I’ve begun writing the dates in my grade book. Don’t ask why this comforts me. Two have turned in papers from high school, one can hardly write a complete sentence but argues fearlessly with me about every grade, and a bunch seem to hate me for reasons I can’t discern. Angela has been the most puzzling of the haters.
She missed the whole second week of the semester and when she returned I asked her if she was sick. She just nodded and went rifling through her backpack to warn me about getting more personal. Most students like to give me a graphic blow by blow description of their ailments hoping to gain my sympathy for future absences. One young man told me he had become severely constipated due to some medication he was on and ripped something during a bowel movement. He was trembling with fear and embarrassment, and I honestly thought of excusing him for the semester. Angela clearly had no interest in gaining my sympathy or even my attention.
So I was surprised the next day when she invited me to read the rough draft of her personal narrative, which was a paper describing the effect a good friend’s suicide had on her. Embedded in the essay was one sentence remarking that the experience was worse for her because her mother was in and out of the hospital at the time.
“Angela,” I said, “What was the matter with your mother?”
“She had cancer.” Angela said this impassively like some people might say their car broke down.
“How is she doing now?” I asked.
“She died.” (My car broke down and it may cost a bundle to get it out of the shop.)
“Your mother died? When?” My eyes locked into hers.
“Your mother died last week and you didn’t even tell me?” Don’t you think that is kind of big?” Angela nodded unemotionally and went back to reading someone’s paper. “How long was she sick?”
She looked up at me with a warning in her eyes. “Two years.”
“I’m so sorry, Angela.” I tried to say it before she returned to the paper. “I’m so sorry,” I repeated helplessly.
When I graded Angela’s personal narrative, which was beautifully written, I wrote a long comment on the back of the paper telling her how good the essay was, adding a paragraph to let her know how sorry I was again about her mother, and giving her the address of the counseling center in case she needed someone to talk to. I even offered to take her over myself. I did this because every time I tried to talk to her she blew me off. The kid was locked up like a safe or thought I was nosy and intrusive or both.
Most days went like this. Angela walked into class. I tried to make eye contact with her while she went through her backpack, looked out the window, or at her shoes. She finally would give up and look at me. I would ask how she was doing and she would say, impassively, that she was “hangin in” and go back to searching the backpack. I can take a hint, maybe not speedily, but eventually.
Angela’s first three papers were creative, fresh, delightful; the kind I forget I’m paid to read. All A’s. Her fourth, though, was weak, unfocused, repetitive . I gave it a D. It would have been a C, but she turned it in late so I marked it down. I might have felt guilty, but truly, the kid clearly didn’t like me and she was such a pill anyway, I didn’t lose any sleep over it.
I was surprised when she asked me to read the fifth and final rough draft of the semester. Usually when I give someone a D on a paper, they try to stay away from me. As long as she had initiated the interaction, I thought I could ask why the last paper was so uncharacteristically bad.
For once she looked directly at me. I thought she might chastise me for giving her such a bad grade. “I was testing you. I thought you were giving me A’s because you felt sorry for me because my mother died. I had to find out.”
“Are you nuts? I knew you never trusted me.” My voice was angry. I was so sick of all the crazy kids, of all the thankless crazy stupid sick kids playing mind games with me. “I was a good teacher to you. This whole awful semester I cared about you, and you treated me like some kind of enemy. Now it’s over, the semester is over and you missed it. So big deal. I passed your stupid test. Now I can average a nice big D into your grade and you can definitely trust me to do that. Do you trust anyone? I there anyone you trust?”
And now for once, I heard emotion in her voice, anger. She was angry. “I trusted my mother.” She glared at me. “I trusted her to be there for me. And look what I got? Now I don’t trust anyone. Not now.” Her voice rose and then, suddenly, I saw the first tear roll down her cheek. It came quickly and was followed by another and another and another, a torrent of tears. I sat silently next to her for what felt like a long time, many minutes.
And I knew she lied. She didn’t know it, but I did. She trusted me with a great and sacred gift. She had begun the work and she had not begun it alone.
“You have started to mourn for your mother,” I finally said. “Good for you.”
When I left the classroom I had forgotten about the sleeper and the two papers from high school and all the fighting about grades and even the ones that hated me for unknowable reasons. I have a friend who is an excellent teacher, and she tells me when I’m feeling like a failure that I change the life of at least one student every year. But it is not the student I think it is, and I will never know who it is. Sometimes, I think there may be more than one. Sometimes I have to think there are two. Because sometimes I do know the first one. And then I still get the pleasure of fantasizing about the second.