This I Believe

Teresa - Grand Rapids, Minnesota
Entered on February 11, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
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When I was in college, I had a roommate with a black spaniel named Namaste. Namaste, she told me, was a Buddhist saying meaning roughly, “May the light within you greet the light within me.” I confess to not seeing the “light” within the affectionate, slobbery dog, but the saying has stuck in my mind all these years, and I have adopted “May the light within you greet the light within me” as a teaching mantra in my work as an English instructor at a community college.

I shake each student’s hand on the first day of class, welcoming each individual to the world of college and to my class in particular. Regardless of the fact that I go up and down rows, each student responds warmly to the personal introduction. I point out sentences that dazzle and compliment students’ diligence and commitment to learning, for they light up with the acknowledgment. Sometimes it’s hard to see the light in a student; there is too much shadowing it. And sometimes students melt down before they light up. One young mother from Remer wept in my office, overwhelmed about how to integrate research material and cite sources. Two weeks later, she turned in a fantastic essay.

One retired Navy veteran would call me daily in jitters over even the smallest detail of an assignment, so much so that my husband took to calling him my “boyfriend.” “Paul” would call me to ask whether he should put today’s date on a draft, whether “the” should be capitalized in a title, or whether a one-credit homework assignment should be typed. At the beginning of the remedial writing class, Paul was one of the weakest writers. His penmanship looked like a third grader’s, and his spelling wasn’t much better. He wrote one big paragraph in response to an essay question, capital letters strewn haphazardly in blocky handwriting. But Paul mastered paragraphing and clear topic sentences; he stayed focused and wrote clearly with carefully chosen examples. His fragments assembled themselves into sentences; his run-ons were reined back with proper breaks.

In short, Paul learned to write, and as he did, he stood straighter and started cracking jokes. A trained rule-follower, he enjoyed understanding how a subordinating conjunction created a dependent clause. It was not surprising that Paul became the best student in that class. But then, in the college-level composition class he took next, he wrote the most compelling argumentive piece, the hardest essay by far for many students.

Paul wrote about how the Navy had made him a responsible man. He could just as easily have written about how college had allowed the light within him to shine, for that’s what the essay showed me. If, as he said, he missed being told what to do and having his life planned for him, he was finding out what he could do himself as he faced his fears of failure in each and every one of his college classes—and succeeded.

I was honored to work with Paul, and I am privileged every semester to walk into a new class of students, repeating the mantra silently to myself, “May the light within you greet the light within me.”