Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Just a few kind words

Weathermen and women are predicting our first big snow this weekend, but I've been in a blizzard for months already. With three writing classes and more than sixty writing students, I spend most of my life these days reading papers.

But we're comin' around the last turn, and the finish line is in sight. It's been one long haul this semester; not in thirty-plus years at this institution have I had three writing classes. I'm bushed, and, if the truth be known, I've got to push myself into the basement every night to keep on trucking through that blasted blizzard.

And then last night, a note from a reader--a man whose judgment I value deeply because he gave his entire working life, a preacher, to inner-city missions. He and his wife, both of them now retired, had been reading through a manuscript of my meditations, "normally one every noontime after our usual dinner meal," he wrote, "a relaxed, thoughtful, meditative, serious-often-with-a-humorous-topping helping of dessert," he called them. And then he asked for more. I'm not kidding.
Thereafter, I spent two hours reading student papers. Not once did I cry in my beer or in any other way bewail my hapless fate.

Just a few kind words. Sometimes--and more often, as I get older--I'm just flummoxed at how incredibly gospel-like just a few nice words can be to a parched soul. That short note sent me through the storm. I'm serious. Just a few kind words.

Here's another. After a class that, sadly enough, went true-to-form a few days ago, I felt like a dishrag. When my students didn't show much enthusiasm for Henry David Thoreau, I talked. I lectured. I yakked on and on and on. I do that to cover the hole in my heart. When my students show little joy, I just yap. Call it a defense mechanism or avoidance/avoidance--call it what you will, it's what I do. I won't take a hit from their boredom, so I just fire words at them. It's dumb, I know--but sometimes it's a matter of life and death.

By today's ace pedagogical theory, nothing is as verboten as a prof yakking away in a classroom. Students today are almost impossibly experiential--if they can't do it themselves, they don't learn squat. Only neanderthals lecture. Only old farts.

So when it's over, this old fart walks out of class, depressed, confident he could just as well walk directly into a grave. And then I get even more defensive: "Ah, what do you expect?" I tell myself. "Yer tossing pearls before swine."

I've been at this gig for a long time. I know how to keep my pride intact.

Later that night, I make my sad way downstairs to correct papers, and I find a note in my e-mail, a note from "the team" at Facebook because Emily, the team says, has left a note on my wall. Facebook. Okay, I'm on Facebook. So I go there, check my wall, and sure enough, Emily sends some definition we didn't get in class and then says something to this effect--I'm not kidding--"loved class today."

At that moment, I swear I could have won the Iowa Caucuses, both parties. Just like that I'm telling myself that I've got a 14-horse John Deere snow blower that's going to clean up this blizzard as if the snow of papers were little more than an inch of billowy-ness.

Just a few kind words. That's all it took. Just a few sweet words. I've made it through two blizzards on just a few kind words. Some people never get 'em. That's a crime. Honestly, I'd freeze to death out here in the snow.

Good night, are we fragile, Lord. Good night, are we needy. I'll send Emily and the retired preacher and his wife this url. I'm not alone in the basement. We all need a few kind words.

Then I got papers to read.


Satchel Pooch said...

Amen from a fellow in neediness and fragility!

Ramblin' Dan said...

I loved your description, Jim. Not only is this personally helpful but I know my wife will appreciate it. She a teacher and in the blizzard herself.

Mark Goodyear said...

I'm not teaching AP English today precisely because I couldn't handle the reading load.

With five classes of 30 students, I couldn't assign a 2 page poetry analysis without taking home 300 pages of work for myself.

I remember one time I was teaching Ode on a Grecian Urn. One of my favorite favorite poems. The students response that year was so apathetic, I turned on my righteous indignation.

The next day, a girl brought me a cartoon. It showed me the center shouting "POETRY!" to the students in their desks. Each student had a different thought bubble: Parents! College! Job! Future! Boyfriend! Girlfriend! The dialogue bubble of my barbaric yawp was the same size as their thoughts.

She had a good point. But darn it, I really love Keats.