You Can Get There From Here

Linda - Timonium, Maryland
Entered on November 4, 2009
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On the first day of the semester, I always began my college English classes with the same words: “Ladies and gentleman, from this room you can go anywhere.”

And then every semester, in the weeks that followed, I would have my heart broken five or six times. The quiet, studious kid, who scribbled copious notes but disappeared when the paper was due. The young man who worked the night shift and found he just couldn’t get out of bed for class. The ones who ran out of money or succumbed to their addictions or didn’t want to be there in the first place.

A colleague took me aside during my first year and said, “Look, this is community college. Lots of kids bail. It’s not your fault.”

I encountered less heartbreak when I added some hours tutoring in the college’s Writing Center. If too many of my “real” students disappointed me by giving up, maybe this assembly-line approach would save me. In and out students came, wanting only an hour of my time, just a little slice of my expertise. “Can you help me fix this?” they would say, and I would, and then the next person would sit down.

Emily appeared at the center doorway one morning, approached me cautiously, and–barely audible–asked me to read her essay. “It needs help,” she said. She was right. It did. But just below the surface, it was unmistakable to me: here was a talented writer waiting for her moment. The next week she showed up early.

Our first months working together were often bumpy. She could be too easily frustrated at her pace. She railed at time wasted, and how much she had to learn. I danced between challenging her and not overwhelming her. Every week, there she’d be at the door. And then she’d step in and get to work.

First, she nailed English 101, then 102. Only later did she tell me that when we met, her entire college transcript consisted of five F’s, a vestige from her first try at being a student, a semester she fled in frustration or fear or back to demons I didn’t know. Professors started taking an interest in her now. They came bearing advice and resources, and Emily kept getting up in the morning and coming to school. She made the honors program the next year and graduated. She earned a scholarship to a four-year college and there she thrived. No one was surprised when she was accepted into an English PhD program at an esteemed university.

Every once in a while she would send a note about her progress, her sentences leaping across the page, breathless. She landed the only teaching job she wanted– at the community college where it all came to life for her.

I believe you can get there from here. And I bet that’s just how Emily begins every semester with her students.