Tag Archives: Student

The Last Day of Class

Sharpened Palomino Blackwing Pencil, April 25,...

Sharpened Palomino Blackwing Pencil, April 25, 2012 (Photo credit: Maggie Osterberg)

Today, my students met me in the computer lab to revise their work for the end of semester portfolio.  It was that strange course session when I run out the door after arming each student with a number 2 pencil and a scan tron sheet for my evaluation.

Evaluations are awkward.  I always try to guess what my scores will be when they come back a few weeks later.  I never guess right.

I always feel a sense of relief when it is over, when a student retrieves me to come back to the class, the evaluation time having elapsed and, my god, does the air always feel clearer after, the barrier lifted.

Today was the first day my four-year-old begged and cried and fought not to go to preschool.  Usually, he asks many times each morning when it will be time for school, but today, I arrived home from teaching just before I had to drop him off at the Ginther school to another scenario.

First, he wanted to wear his black shorts to school with the Spiderman shirt he’d slept in.

It might have been near 70 yesterday, but today, I had been caught off-guard, walking to my car from class, pulling my sweater tight and cupping it against my elbows.   Flakes drifted around me.  “It’s God’s dry scalp,” my father had said to me many times.

In front of the Christmas tree, I argued with my son to get him to put on his pants for school.  I said all the things that would make him insecure, horrible things that give me  nightmares, let alone Johnny, a little man in the making, a mind probably sculpted in ways I won’t realize until it’s done, until I will find myself, wrenched with anxiety and sleeplessness, fielding calls from my sweet boy, then a man, eyes peeled at 3:30 a.m., too, waiting for some terror that will never come.

What did I say?  I told him this:  I could not send him to school in shorts on a 30-degree day, that I would get in trouble for not taking care of him, that they would take him away from me, that his legs would not be protected by pants from the white-hard air and would go numb, they would turn black, and finally, that we’d have to take his legs off.  This sounds worse as I type it than it did at 11:45 when he had to be at school by noon.

No wonder he wanted to stay home.

When I was in college, I lived next door to my parents in the college house my father owned.  I’d call my mom at 3 a.m., crying because my then-boyfriend had disappeared in some drunken stupor and had ignored my phone call.  I pictured my mother, who was only next door (where I could have seen her from my landing window, through her kitchen window), smoking a cigarette and drinking rewarmed coffee in the yellow glow of the old wall sconce, while she told me, “I know, Sarah.  Just breathe.” And then she’d ask, “Do you want to come home?”

Though I laughed then, it would be two more years of these late-night calls.  During one call, I would tell my mother, “It’s okay.  He finally answered and he told me he is with lesbians, so I have nothing to worry about.”   Many nights passed before I learned my lesson, before I sobered to the clench in my jaw, the spite in my muscles, the sigh from my mother’s tired throat.

How many times had she tried to protect me from my will?

Today, my students were perplexed by the computers in the lab.  The computers sit below the desks, peering from beneath plexiglass windows, and then, shielded from above, still, by black plastic cubes.

“It’s to prevent cheating,” I told my students.  I only kind of knew this.

It took at least five or ten minutes for the students to adjust, to look down at the computer and all its words so far away, while refining what they had held so deep inside them that I had to pry it out.

I’m guessing they forgave me the non sequitur, when I admitted this:  “I get a strange separation anxiety at the end of every semester.  I spend more uninterrupted time talking with you guys than I get to with my family.”

When I looked up, they were all typing.

By the time I pulled into the parking lot at Johnny’s school, he had jeans on, and a coat, and he wanted to be in school, as usual.  On the two-minute drive from our house to his school, he asked me why he had to go.

I’d told him all the practical things–about going to work, living in our warm, pine-filled house with applesauce and hot chocolate and warm jeans and a selection of superhero t-shirts, how all of these would be impossible one day if he didn’t go to school to learn.

I wanted to tell him what he won’t learn for years now, but is as true as anything I know:  that he will never stop learning, that when he least expects it, he will learn, whether or not he’s at school.  He will learn from his little brother during a food fight or wrestling match where they tumble like puppies.  He will learn from me, incorrectly, being over-protective and rash, but he will learn it anyway.  He will learn from his father, the texture of his voice, the ease in his step.   I wanted to tell him that the fact that there is more to know, that there is something out there he hasn’t discovered, some person he’s never met, a book unread, a game unplayed–that will keep him living.  He will reach and push and urge his way forward until he will have learned everything there is to know, which is never.  And then he will stop.

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How to Talk to Students About What We, Ourselves, Don’t Understand

Vector version of Image:Color icon purple.png

Vector version of Image:Color icon purple.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Normally, I might make some joke that goes unnoticed and unresponded to by most of my students, but this morning, walking into class meant walking away from the comfort of small talk and abandoning the ability to smile without feeling guilty. It was, after the wholly unprecedented event on our campus this past weekend, like forgetting how to teach.

On Friday, Alexandra Kogut was in classes on SUNY Brockport‘s campus, would attend swimming practice on Monday, and had a planned visit from her boyfriend that night. Something went wrong, and Saturday morning, Alexandra’s friends and college community woke to an email from the campus that a female had been murdered in their dorm room earlier that morning.

What’s happened since on campus, I can’t know, but can only from read the news reports–the reports I’ve been glued to, trying to make sense of this while at the same time terrified, not knowing the identity until last night, that one of my students would not sit down in class on Monday morning, that I would have the dreadful task of addressing a class that had lost one of its members. What’s happened since, on campus, has been a visually beautiful display of the internal unrest and sadness felt by Alexandra’s loss. A pulling together of memorial services, impromptu vigils, swim-team members housing other female swimmers who could not face the dorm where their teammate and friend was murdered, a wide white sheet with a note to Alex hung over the siding of a college house. In class this morning, many of my students wore purple, a color bringing awareness to domestic violence.

On Saturday morning, an hour before any of the college community received an email about the tragedy, Alexandra’s killer, 21 year-old Clayton Whittemore, was hand-cuffed at a rest stop of the NYS Thruway. Before any of her classmates had even known she was gone, the murderer was captured. And had confessed.

I admit, after the news reports came out, the hungry side of me searched Facebook for his profile, looking for some explanation or warning, or something I knew I wouldn’t find. What I’d found was this: a very meaty shirtless young man, who looked as normal to me as students that sit in my class. And strong. His picture, because I knew in a very superficial way, what had happened, looked horrifying and violent because those arms and those fists had become accomplices.

A close friend of mine had gone to home to Minnesota to celebrate her new novel, but I couldn’t help ruining her weekend with texts about the tragedy, wishing she was here to see the community come together or simply to wander in this strange proximity, the feeling of wanting to hug, but not having the arms to do so.

Saturday night, I had a dream that I wandered to a house just off campus where an older woman lived. She had a lamp on the end table just in front of her window, and slept, sitting up, on her loveseat, with the remote in her hand and her TV on. I walked in as though the house were my own and lay down on the couch on the opposite wall, pulling the afghan over me. She opened one eye, and then took a second look, but didn’t say anything. And I said, “I’m sorry. I should have woken you up to tell you I had to stay here. I was too scared to stay at my house. I will leave when the sun comes up.”

But she got up and made me tea and talked with me about what had happened, the young college girl murdered, and I’d said to her that when I went back to class (and this is where it gets cloudy and strange) I would have to buy my students chewing gum.

As though I didn’t know what to do next. As though anything trivial that I could offer, even words, could address this loss, this permanent cloud, the absence of every version of Alexandra Kogut.

After talking to my husband, Cory, last night about how to address this with my students, he said, sarcastically, “What, are you going to turn it into a writing prompt?” He was right. How could I approach something as sensitive as the immediate loss of human life, the loss of an individual many of these students knew.

Then I talked to my mother, who runs the Hartwell Cafe on campus, in the building where Alexandra would have had her first class this morning. I asked, “What do I say to my students?” As though any answer could solve anything. She said, preparing a cup of tea for a customer, “Tell them you don’t know what to say.”

So I walked in, and, feeling my nose get sting-y as it does when I’m on the verge of tears, I said to my students, “I thought about it all night, but I just don’t know what to say to you.”

And that’s where it opened up.

Click here for information of domestic violence.


textbooks, vodka, and elvis impersonators:

Textbook Stack

Image by greenasian via Flickr

a nearly impossible dilemma.

you might not consider me a “textbook expert” (is there such a thing?), and you might consider me even less an expert because my post has no capital letters (forgive me, i’m a little tired).  in my defense, i’ve purchased textbooks, sold textbooks, and assigned textbooks.  after reading an uninformed editorial in the stylus, i was reminded of the issue.

here are the three people in the back of my mind when i think about textbooks, because i’ve been all three.

1. the student:

i might stand in line for an hour to pay  $40, or $70, or $125 to read this thing.  the cashier, who cracks her gum, texts or talks to the person at the register next to her, will ask me, when the third week of class comes, if she can copy my notes or borrow my book.  my eyes will glaze over as i read the 3rd line of the 2nd paragraph forty times without an ounce of thought to show for it.  or, if my instructor doesn’t require me to read it, i will use it as a coaster or a hotplate–either way, it’s holding my beverage or my meal, two things way more enticing to me than anatomy and physiology.  then i’ll be graded.  once the end of the semester comes, i will sell the book back for either half of what i (or my parents, or my student loans/grants) paid, or less than that, if my professor isn’t using it next semester.

most importantly, i desperately want to celebrate the end of the semester. i want to get dressed up, wear stilettos in the snow, maybe a coat if it matches, and walk, drinking vodka straight from the clear bottle, until the christmas lights turn into strobe lights and i scream the lyrics to “livin on a prayer” in chorus with people who will disappear in a few days.  i want to stumble down to the bar and dance my face off, which i cannot do without the money i should get from selling my books back.  i am pissed.

this is me circa 2000-2006.  note that some responsible students desperately need that money for other things, like bills.  they are even more pissed.

2.  the textbook seller:

i work for an independent bookstore or a corporate bookstore.  i could work at either, or both, but probably not at the same time.  i manage this department.  people are never happy to walk in here and buy my merchandise.  textbooks are never christmas gifts or birthday presents.  could you imagine?

“be careful, it’s heavy and expensive,” #1 says, handing the candy cane-papered theory of modern algebra book to #2.

“ok.  ohh is it that painting i wanted?” #2 says.

“no.  but it’s enlightening, too.  and it’s glossy with a picture.” #1 says.

“a book?  please tell me it’s the history of rock from 1970-1990!” #2 says.

“can you just open it? it’s getting worse.”

no one wants to pay $100 for a western civ book, and i don’t blame them.  here’s my dilemma: the publisher charges x.  i charge roughly  x + .25(x), depending on the publisher (the better discount we get from the publisher, the better retail price the student pays).  this is not a secret.  just ask.  i will tell you all about it.  here’s what that cost does–pays x to the publisher, pays shipping costs, pays wages to every hand that touches the book from the back door to the shelf, pays for light so i can see to shelve them, and the heat in this store so i’m not out sick once the temperature dips below 30.

it also pays my salary, which is enough to feed my family and pay the mortgage.  i am not rich.   my job is a tough one.  i am a counselor, a shelver, a secretary, and extremely apologetic if i make a mistake.  i will give students $$ after they’ve used the book for the semester as long as i know i will be able to sell it again.  the more sell-able the book is, the more $$ they will get.  supply and demand.

i would address the issue of publishers, but i don’t want to make any enemies.  let’s just say that next year the book will be in a new edition because the 50th word on page 422 will be different than the last edition.  most of the time, that’s it. once the 4th edition is in print, the 3rd edition is doable, but only for so long.  the more time passes, the harder the 3rd is to find.  oh, and the new edition comes with a passcode that restricts it to one-time use.

i live by the philosophy that every time a student buys a used book, not only does an angel get its wings, but the student has more money in their pocket, which is good.  especially if my store offers some item (like a hoodie or cute journal) they might actually enjoy spending that money on.

lastly, if you can find it cheaper somewhere else, go for it.  i believe in the health of competition, how it forces me to do what i can to get used books in the store, how it urges me to fire the cashier who is texting her friend at the front counter.  just don’t ask me to copy the isbn numbers of all your textbooks so you can buy them from an online seller.  i’m busy.  email your instructor.

3. the instructor:

you don’t want to read a textbook, and i don’t want to teach from one.  they are boring and create horrible discussions, for the most part.  beware, these are the kind of generalizations i warn my students about.

luckily, i teach creative writing, where i can have discussion on craft, give small entertaining handouts to teach students what they need to know, and spend the rest of the time having each write a story with the following elements:

a homeless man

an elvis impersonator

an apple

the abstraction “ambition”

a city street

then we will dissect this as a group.  we will use “key terms,” not just memorize them.  they will have to say the term “third-person omniscient” in context and know what that means.  but we’ve talked about it, not just read about it, so they understand.

thankfully, i’m not a science or math instructor.  then i would be in trouble.  all of my ideas would be vapor, and i’d long to be the creative writing instructor with a light book bag, maybe even something stylish.

ultimately, i relearn one thing when the student, the bookseller, and the instructor argue, and it’s that education is both expensive and valuable.


Close Acquaintances

My son turned three the next day.

“The ‘Shake Shake Bridge,” my mother said.  “That’s what he needs to have.  Can you go get that for me?  I’ll watch the boys.”

And like that, I was in my car, alone, trekking to Wal-Mart, where I bought the Thomas the Train Bridge as yet another one of Johnny’s birthday presents.  On my way, I passed the make-shift markers, a wooden cross, a bundle of flowers, on the intersection where my friend’s mother died four months ago, her car trampled over by a construction vehicle.  I made the sign of the cross with my hand hovering over my forehead, heart or shoulders, as though it could bring her peace.

Wal-Mart’s parking lot was next to the scene of the accident, where my friend’s mother gained peace despite the revving engines, soaring plastic bags, rolling carts.  In my rearview, I saw a panoramic view of my boys’ empty car seats, the line of blazing autumn trees, and the disappearing road.

At the discount store that sprawled its aisles far past its boundaries, it was the treacherous beginning to lay-away season, the clearance of Halloween paraphernalia, and the early welcome of Christmas trees.  It was more chaotic than being at home with my son, and less enjoyable.  To survive in such commotion, I zoomed in on singular objects directly in front of me, keeping a precise target.  The stockings on the girl in front of me were cute black netting in a herringbone pattern, and I had the same pair.  The girl was my former student.

In a college town, those things happen.  I felt I knew most people, but couldn’t place them all.  Often, I would walk by a mother pushing a cart, and my son would point to the child inside, and say, “Look, there’s Maddox,” or another kid from his old daycare. Us mothers would smile at each other, and rarely spoke, though we might become Facebook friends some day.  I think of random people I haven’t seen in years, and wonder how they are rounding up at night, in the routine of baths, of birthdays, of storytelling.

At the self-checkout line, I scanned my son’s toy, and also a bag of gummy bears on impulse.  He would press them between his tongue and roof of his mouth where they would release their taste in shocks of color.  “The dirt,” he said one time, “smells like green.”   I rang myself up, and though anyone could do it, I prided myself on being especially efficient, having sold textbooks to students when I was in college.  I stood behind those registers and rang student after student, parents, and instructors, those people who piled one behind another in lines for hours.

That night we were celebrating Johnny’s birthday at my mother’s with cake and presents.  It was 2:30, the first day of Daylight Savings Time.  My car clock still read 3:30 pm.  We were supposed to eat before my brothers and sisters arrived for cake.  I traveled down the back road, wondering if my mother had started the prime rib yet, hoping I hadn’t taken too long at the store.

I slowed, as I can only imagine I would have, and checked an empty State Street in front of me, decelerating the way my father taught me more than ten years before.  The November sun was surprisingly warm, and maybe glared through my windshield, I didn’t know.  I pushed on my blinker to signal left.

There was a smack, a loud crunch that released aggression, bludgeoned front end to front end.  The man I saw out my passenger’s side window was one of those people I rarely thought about, but had remembered sometime the week before.  A college student in the eighties, immobilized in a drunk-driving crash, he returned when I was in college, around 2001.  In a jam-packed auditorium on campus, in broken sentences that struggled for coherence, he pleaded for college students not to drink and drive.  I wondered about him the week before the accident— where he had been, if he had graduated, if he absorbed all that knowledge from the textbooks I sold him.

I saw him then, through two window panes, wide-eyed, grimacing, and I shook to my bones.  Where had he been?

College students gathered on their porches, and I hoped none were my students.  Neighbors watched from their battered wooden porches as we both, that man and I, struggled in our own ways to say we were okay, that the metal around us had done its job.

The Wal-Mart bags had fallen down on the floor of my car.  Thomas the Train was tucked safely in his box, and Johnny’s car seat flopped diagonally against the upholstery.


Trading Confessions

Last week, a student flopped herself in a swivel chair in my office just before class, to tell me she plagiarized her poem. Her eyes were so charged and black that it was as though she surprised herself when she told me.

I wanted to hug her, to show her that the pressure isn’t that much, that I don’t mean to place an anvil on her, that I won’t check beneath her heavy hands to see if she pressed out the right words.

Three weeks ago, a student told me she was nearly three months pregnant, though I never would have known to look at her. I gave her pickles, decaf chai, unsolicited advice.

I wanted to know what it was to be a pregnant student, to touch my stomach and feel the knowledge growing from behind my belly button.  When I got home, I hugged my boys tighter, wishing I could give my student some definition, some synonym to memorize.

Today, I read a poem from a student, revealing that she was diagnosed with cancer last month. I read it and re-read it and nearly cried. I checked her attendance for the past two months: she had not missed one class. She had lost her hair in the midst of discussions about the concrete, caesuras, diction, imagery.

In my mind, I contrasted my MS diagnosis, attempted comparison, but couldn’t, the only notes I had on the experience were at home, scribbled in a journal given to me by a friend. We will discuss her poem in class, and I will sit hushed, with guilt heavy as fatigue.

How can I grade life as it is just-lived?