because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

A Surprise Response

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Yesterday I wrote about a student who surprised me by withdrawing himself late in the semester. I am not one to take student disappearances personally, but this one spooked me because he was doing so well. And it is so very late in the semester.

During the course of the day I received a response.

No, it was not from him.

But it was from a former student, someone I have not seen with my own eyes for decades.

This person gave me permission to share.

So I am.

That's a lot of boxes!

When my parents moved from my hometown, I wasn’t able to go home to look through my room, so they threw everything I owned in bags and boxes (mostly just opening the drawers and dumping the stuff in). They said I could look through it later.

That was almost ten years ago.

When I went to visit a few months ago, they told me I should look through everything and either move it or lose it. I spent hours looking through all the papers from preschool through high school. I found drawings I had made, essays I had written, and report cards.

And in the mix, I also found a very sad poem I had written.

And a note from you.

Since I work with teenagers, I worry all the time I will miss the signs — and hope that they feel as comfortable coming to me as I did to you.

It is scary when someone you know commits suicide; it can feel like you missed something.

But I cannot be the only person you have taught to say you have also caught the signs.

As a teen it would not have been easy, or even in my realm of thought, to say thank you.

But it is now.

And so I wanted to write and say thank you for caring, thank you for seeing signs that things were not right and especially thank you for simply taking the time to listen.

I cannot tell you what I might would have done in high school because I really don’t know, but I do know that I am grateful to you for being there.

The campaign says: “It gets better”. Well it does, and I am so grateful to be here to prove that saying true.

Much gratitude to the person who authored this letter.

It meant the world to me.

So much of teaching is about delayed gratification.

We teachers spend our days with these people — some of whom we come to care about — and then we set them free, and cross our fingers that everyone will land on his or her feet.

I’m so happy to know this person has.

@Tweet this Twit @rasjacobson

Call Me Relentless

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Since I didn’t teach this semester, I am a little out of the loop. Okay, a lot out of the loop. It’s amazing how quickly one can fall right out of the loop. So I am a little loopy. And even though Fall 2010 was a tough one, filled with cheaters plagiarism issues and unintentional falls down staircases, and confrontations in elevators, I am pleased to report that I no longer feel like a three-legged table. I am 100% centered again. In my 100% always off-kilter way.

Back in March, I received an email from The Scheduler at the community college where I have taught as an adjunct for the last four years, stating that it was time to start thinking about courses for the fall.

Let’s just say I was a little geeked up excited when The Scheduler’s email arrived, so I tapped out a quick reply. Upon reflection, I see that if I had myself as a student, I think I would kill me. I am one positively relentless human being.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, March 02, 2011 9:30 PM

To: The Scheduler

Dear Scheduler:

Is this form for Fall 2011? Even though it says “Spring 2011 Scheduling Preferences,” in the subject line?

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, March 03, 2011 10:49 AM

To: Me

It should have been Fall 2011!

Thanks for the good eyes!

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, March 04, 2011 9:30 PM

To: The Scheduler

I just don’t want to miss my big chance.

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Tuesday, March 08, 2011 9:36 AM

To: The Entire English & Philosophy Departments

Um….  Mr. Perfect Here.

I realize I didn’t name the Fall 2011 schedule request form correctly.

So, even though the form says “Spring 2011” let’s just pretend it said “Fall 2011.”

And if you’re super picky, here’s the attachment.

Whoops.

• • •

Call me crazy, but I am 97.3% sure that The Scheduler was talking specifically to me when he used the words “super picky.” I decided that the best thing to do was to lay low.

I did.

For 27 hours.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, March 09, 2011 12:07 PM

To: The Scheduler

Dear Mr. Perfect:

Mrs. Anal-Retentive here.

Was that form just for full-timers? Or were adjuncts supposed to respond, too? (*holding my head*) I’m sooooo confused. Anyway, I’m shooting you my response via attached email since I am off-campus because I don’t want to blow my big chance. I hope that is not too much of a pain.

I’ve got a lot of Mrs. Anal-Retentive with a side order of Li’l Pain in the Arse goin’ on.

Either way, I hope you get the gist of what I’m hoping for with regard to Fall 2011.

Any questions, feel free to call me or just berate me via email.

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, March 09, 2011 12:09 PM

To: Me

Hi, Renee!

Yes, you’ll get another form specifically for adjuncts in the next day or so.

It’s less complicated, and it has more information regarding late starts.

Thanks for your patience.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 2:22 PM

To: The Scheduler

So I filled in that first form. You know, the one that I wasn’t supposed to?

Can I consider myself in the cyber pile? Or do I need to redo and put a hard copy in your mailbox?

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, March 25, 2011 7:15 PM

To: ENG/PHL adjuncts

Subject: 2011 Fall Adjunct Schedule Request Form

Please complete the form attached, and return it to my department mailbox by Friday, 8 April 2011.  A hard-copy has been placed into your department mail folder. If no form is returned, I will assume that you are unavailable in the Fall. Assignments will be distributed by late April.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, March 25, 2011 7:15 PM

To: The Scheduler

Hi Scheduler:

Okay, I’m re-submitting.

On the correct form.

Just to prove my uber-dedication.

I hope it is not a problem that I am submitting an attachment, as I am not on campus this semester.

I’m not usually a non-compliant, pain in the patootie.

Sometimes it just seeps out a little.

• • •

I experience what feels like an outrageous gap in time. During this three-week silent treatment period, I panic. I wonder how much The Scheduler hates my guts and how low I have slid down the adjunct totem pole. I decide that I will take anything he offers. I decide I will teach at a ridiculous hour, even if it requires hiring someone to drive my child to his after school activities. I consider sending The Scheduler a bouquet of flowers from Teleflora.com, just to show him how much I care.

Instead, I sent him another email.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, April 17, 2011 10:59 PM

To: The Scheduler

Um… Hi Scheduler:

I know you are on break, but – as I explained before – I have been a naughty girl, and I haven’t been checking my school email account as I’m not teaching this semester.

Have decisions been made about the fall semester?

Do I get to have even a single section? (*she asked hopefully*)

I saw Most Awesome Department Chair make a mention about book orders for the summer session, and I know Highly Muscled Book Store Dude likes fall orders to be in as soon as possible.

Let me know when you get a moment.

Thank you.

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, April 19, 2011 12:24 PM

To: Me

I’ll be sending out a fall scheduling notification by the end of April; none has been announced.

This will give you plenty of time to submit book orders for the fall, okay?

• • •

Okay, so I am supposed to wait until the end of April.

I can do that. I think I can. I mean, I will try.

Really. Hard.

• • •

From Me

Sent: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 11:16 AM

To: The Scheduler

Dear Sweet Scheduler:

You mentioned that scheduling should be done by the end of April.

And now it is May.

So I figured I’d just send a quick email to… you know: do what I do.

Hope you had a great Spring Break.

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, May 6, 2011 12:06 PM

To: All Adjuncts

Subject: Fall 2011 Scheduling Update: Adjuncts

Dear ENG/PHL adjuncts:

I ask for your patience regarding schedules that I had hoped to have complete by late yesterday.

Some schedules will be posted today, and the remainder will be completed by Monday.

Thanks, again, for your patience.

• • •

Clearly, my roiling anxiety has caused The Scheduler to send out another email. It is all my fault. He must think I am crazy. I start wondering if he has heard stories about me, if they are discussing me during faculty meetings. I wonder if my constant emailing could be construed as cyber-bullying.

The Scheduler requests patience.

I wait four days.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, May 10, 2011 10:02 AM

To: The Scheduler

Should I freak out yet?

Or are you still scheduling?

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, May 10, 2011 10:05 PM

To: Me

Don’t freak.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, May 10, 2011 10:10 AM

To: The Scheduler

Is it okay if I still freak?

I like to do that on Tuesdays.

But I’m glad I’m not “packing my knives” or “the weakest link,” and I’m glad “the tribe” hasn’t spoken.

You know what I mean.

Phew. (*wipes brow*)

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, May 10, 2011 10:12 PM

To: Me

You’re funny.  Have we met in person?

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 12:13 PM

To: The Scheduler

Dear Scheduler:

I am pretty sure we have met, but obviously my name didn’t stick.

I’m the cute one. 😉

Will this get me the class of my dreams?

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 1:46 PM

To: Me

Hi, Renee.  I have you down for classes X and Y on such and such days at such and such hours. Fabulous Secretary will enter the information into the evil computer system this afternoon.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 2:13 PM

To: The Scheduler

Thanks Scheduler!

You totally rock!

And thanks for bearing with me while I have nagged you.

For weeks.

Or has it been months?

I’m like the wife you never wanted.

• • •

At long last, this squeaky wheel knows she will have a place to roll. Come September, I will have people to call my own. Life is good. (It is also good that The Scheduler cannot see me doing my dance of joy right now.) Because we all know what happened the last time I went dancing.


End of Semester Gratitude

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thank you note for every language
Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr

The Fall-Winter 2010 semester is over for me. My grades have been reported. The contents of my unattractive yet functional wheelie bag have been dumped and placed with the rest of the luggage — in the nether regions of the basement. Today, I am getting my hair highlighted. It’s been fifteen weeks since my last highlight or cut. (The straightening thing doesn’t count.) Don’t even ask about the state of my fingernails at the moment. I have a way of letting certain things go during the semester. But now it is time to catch up.

This morning, I popped onto my faculty email account to make sure everything was in order, and I found two pieces of email waiting for me. The first indicated that my grades may have been inaccurately reported (are you $%#@! kidding me?) so I had to check another link to a list upon which — thankfully — my name did not appear. And then there was a second piece of mail. Here it is:

Dear Mrs. RASJ,

I would just like to say thank you for everything, Mrs. Renee Jacobson. I learned so much in your class and I am so glad I received an A! I know you’re probably going to write back, “You worked hard for that A and you deserve it,” but there is no way in hell I would have done it without you.

You just did so much to help, and you ARE a good teacher. You have amazing patience with students; you’re fair, and you’re always willing to help. You are very thoughtful and you really put your time in to teaching your students, and you do it all without babying us. That’s the way a teacher should be, and it is really hard to come by these days.

Thank you for putting up with my short temper at times, for sitting down with me to talk almost everyday, and for the donuts and wisdom pendant. You are very thoughtful.

It was nice to be educated by you. I wish you the bast (sic) of luck and times.

With love and sincerity.

Your favorite student ever,
Student X 🙂

This student knows me. Because I would absolutely have said that he earned his “A,” that it had little to do with me. An “A” in my class means he did his work and he did it well. It means he showed up and participated. It means he took advantage of extra credit opportunities. It means he was a good peer editor and gave solid feedback. It means he was respectful. It meant he asserted himself. If he didn’t understand how to do something, he made an appointment to meet with me to figure it out. It means he came prepared with all his materials: all his books, handouts, and writing utensils. Every day. He was on-time. When he contributed to the conversation, his comments were meaningful — and when he received criticism, he was not defensive. His writing often showed great depth, and he taught me something on more than one occasion. He was honest (in his writing) and open (as a human being).

I don’t give A’s. To me, an “A” means something akin to “amazing,” and very few people are. So I will share this letter with all the teachers out there who understand how much letters like these really mean. People so rarely write letters these days, typed or otherwise, it is always a bit of a thrill for me when I receive one. For an educator, a letter from a former student is a shot of fuel that helps fill up a near empty tank. Those little gestures keep us keepin’ on.

So thank you, Student X. You put a little bounce in my step today.

What put a bounce in your step today?

Contemplating Quitting The Classroom

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I have been thinking that this will be my last semester in the classroom. It’s been a hard year for a variety of reasons, but I have been thinking I just am not connecting with my students the way I used to. Part of it may be that I am getting older. I have somehow become an “old-fashioned teacher” who doesn’t show movies, rely on Smart Boards or Power Point presentations. In other words, I have always been able to “be my own show,” create my own bells and whistles, and that was enough. I was enough.

This year is different. I don’t like how my students seem less prepared each year. I don’t like having to repeatedly tell adults to put away their technology/toys. It’s exhausting. I haven’t lowered my expectations with regard to their assignments or how I grade them, but I have a lot of students with D’s and F’s. That doesn’t feel good to me. Part of it is the 15-week gig: It doesn’t feel long enough to get my students where they need to be. I don’t understand why some of my students come to class without full drafts of their papers when I tell them they need to come to class with completed papers. I don’t understand why they leave their books in their cars. I don’t understand why they come to English class without pens or paper, even though it is clearly stated as a basic expectation on my Course Information Sheet. I don’t understand their lateness, why they don’t recognize walking in late as a terrible act of rudeness and incivility. I don’t understand why they struggle so much with citation. Except I do: it requires meticulous attention to detail  – and, based on this last essay I collected – about 7 students out of about every 22 possess the ability to attend to detail. Here’s a newsflash: some students don’t attempt to write papers at all. They take zeros, and they seem fine with this.

Me? I’m not fine with any of this, so I’ve been feeling run-down.

There is a bit of ego in teaching, maybe more than teachers might care to admit. I can’t speak for all teachers, but I think it is fair to say we are willing to take the ridiculously low pay, work the long hours, plan our lessons, grade the papers into the wee morning hours – as long as we see progress. Positive change. Forward movement. Progression. I need to feel as though I am helping my students move from point A to point B: even better if I can take them from point A to point Z! That said, it’s been a little light on that this semester. So I’ve been thinking about jumping ship and hopping onto a different boat.

And then I received a poem from Niquette Kearney.

Niquette in 2010

I taught Niquette in New Orleans back in the mid-1990s at Metairie Park Country Day School, nearly twenty years ago. When I first met Niquette, she was in 10th grade Honors English while struggling with some big life stuff. Big. Life. Stuff. And she was floundering. Because it is hard to focus on writing papers when you are dealing with Big Life Stuff. I suggested Niquette drop out of her high-pressure Honors section (with me as her teacher) and pop into another section of Regular English, (also with me as her teacher.) Poor Niquette. There was no escaping me that year as I taught the entire 10th grade! Boy, was she pissed off! I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill me; instead, she agreed. (Really, though, what was the alternative?) And the Regular section was easier for her. She got her work done, earned stellar grades, and she was able to focus on herself.

From the beginning, I adored Niquette. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but Nikit (the nickname I began to scribble on her papers) was beautiful and smart and funny and strong. How can you not love that? She was the whole package. She just didn’t seem to realize she was the whole package. But then, honestly, in high school, who feels they are “all that”? Nikit and I spent lots of time on a beat-up old couch in the English Department. Sometimes we talked about papers, but lots of times, we didn’t. Sometimes I just listened to her talk about her life, her experiences. Sometimes she cried, but mostly she didn’t. Her voice always quavered a little, as if she lived right on the verge of tears. That year, Nikit found herself at a crossroads. Without sharing her secrets, let’s just say, because she is beautiful and smart and funny and strong, she has managed to survive this very difficult year – maybe even thrive despite the adversity.

So here I am thinking of leaving the teaching biz, and I get this piece of correspondence.

Niquette’s message read simply: “Here’s a poem I wrote recently and thought I’d share with you, as you were in my thoughts.”

In a moment bigger than I knew,
At a time which could have been many,
I glanced at myself

In the mirror of my own eyes,
As if greeting a stranger for the first time,
I introduced myself with wonder
At the amazing sight of me

After so long without looking,
I finally saw
What I thought they’d lied about
Suddenly, it covered my reflection, overcoming me
So bright, I shuddered, reaching out my hand,
Welcoming the newcomer,
The one I thought I’d seen before

It was then, that I saw myself
And what I’d never even looked for,
And I blushed when I knew
That it was there the whole time

What a rare sight,
To view myself that way,
As a stranger meets another pleasantly, then parts
This moment passed but was mine
I saw what I did, and it was precious; beautiful

It was me.

Niquette Kearney, 2010

I am pretty sure I am one of the ones who tried to convince Nikit about her strength, her smarts, her internal and external beauty. I’m pretty sure I’m one of the one’s she assumed lied to her about all her fabulousness. I’m just so happy to know that she saw it, felt it, if only for a moment. And I’m even happier to know that she sat down and recorded it – as if it had been an assignment for English class – so she can have it to hold on to. I love that, after all these years, she is still writing poetry.

And then, thanks to Nikit, I remember this is the reality for teachers, especially college educators. We do our stuff. We try to shimmer and shine and get our junk into our students’ heads in 15 short weeks – and then, if we are lucky — maybe — 10, 15, 20 years later, someone reminds us that we helped them along the way. Someone might send us a poem, or a card, or run into us in the grocery store and give us a giant hug and tell us how much we helped. Teaching is like parenting; it involves a lot of delayed gratification. Folks shuffle in; they shuffle out, sometimes without so much as a smile. Sometimes it’s really hard to wait for gratitude.

I am happy for my sweet Nikit. She is going places, that one.

Me? I’m not so sure if I’m jumping ship. Time will tell.

For now, my course is set, and I will continue to power ahead through these choppy waters, full throttle.

End of the Semester Blues

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I have one section of students that  hasn’t mastered the necessary skills to show they understand how to properly write a college essay, complete with proper citation. Their last batch of essays was pretty bad. With the exception of a few papers, most students bombed their Works Cited pages and their writing felt unpolished.

I asked a few other professors what to do.

“Tell them to suck it,” one said. “If they don’t have it by now, it’s not because you haven’t shown them; it’s because they haven’t taken the initiative to learn the material.

The other professors agreed.

But I didn’t want them to “suck it.” Why am I hesitating? I wondered. What has happened to me? As always, I want my students to master the material, so regardless of what my colleagues said, I decided to give them an option: I returned ungraded essays to them with extensive feedback and told them they could ask me for the grade they received on the essay and forfeit the right to revise, or they could revise their essays (with rough drafts attached) by Wednesday at the beginning of class. And by Wednesday, I mean tomorrow.

No one asked for his or her grade.

Now, I’m not crazy enough to believe that everyone will actually revise, but I am hopeful that some will. I am hoping that they will use their style books, the extra time along with my feedback, and give it one more try. Because after this, that’s it. There are only a few tiny assignments, 7-minute oral presentations, and self-evaluations.

I know students have other classes, but mine is required. English Composition-101 is required. Required. So if a student fails, he or she will have to take it again. It’s expensive to fail classes, but some students don’t seem concerned about the debt they are piling up.

At this point of the semester (with 6 classes remaining before the end of the term), certain students wake up and realize they have been doing poorly (for most of the semester), and act shocked by this revelation. They ask about extra credit and want to be passed because they need to keep an athletic scholarship, and/or avoid parental wrath. Requests for points for nothing or for passing grades are easy to handle. I offer a “no” along with my sympathy, plus advice about how to retake the class.

Today, as we began week 14 of 15, I had a student with an overall average of 54.4% ask me what he could do to bring up his grade. I shrugged. He shrugged. Later, I saw this video. I’d send him the link, but I don’t think he’d get it.

*Note: This little ditty was made by Clay Morgan at Educlaytion.com*

In reality, it is kind of hard to fail my class. I offer a lot of help to students to want it. I make myself available to conference. I allow students who show initiative to revise their papers. I offer extra credit opportunities throughout the semester – just not as an “emergency out” at the end.

I hate watching students unravel at the end of the semester but – the reality is – there are always some who come unstitched.

It’s reality, but I don’t have to like it.

Seriously though, why am I more upset about my students’ failing grades than they are?

The Empty Blue Desk

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Fall Semester 2009. Last year. He sat in the back row. In the only blue desk in a room filled with brown desks. He wore a button up shirt every day. He was quiet. Kept to himself. Initially, he was studious and handed in each assignment. His grammar was impeccable, his writing strong. He had a wry sense of humor and wrote about a time when he had worked in a Styrofoam factory. How the white stuff stuck to him, went up his nose, in his mouth, made him sneeze and sputter. He learned quickly he didn’t want to ever work in a Styrofoam factory. We all laughed when he read his piece aloud. Not at him: at his material. He was funny.

I expected great things. In fact, I was so sure he was going to produce great things, he kind of fell off my radar.

About six weeks into the semester, we hit the argumentative research paper unit, and he started to fall apart. He didn’t hand in his intentions for his topic, thus he never had a topic approved. I worried because he didn’t seem to be moving forward. While other students worked on paraphrasing and interview questions for their “experts,” he sat still in his blue chair, looking stiff and uncomfortable.

Finally, I asked him to stay after class. I went to his desk. I asked him if he had started the research paper. No. Did he have a topic? No. Did he need help selecting one, I implored. It was not too late. No. Could I help him? No. Would he let me know if I could help him? No. That was the one that stopped me. Chilled me, actually. No? I tried to look into his face, his eyes for something, but he was looking down, angry at being detained, at the questioning.

“You won’t contact me if you need help?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

I tried to explain to him that up until the research paper, he had an A — the only A grade in the class! He shrugged, underwhelmed. I told him he could still save his grade, the semester, but without the research paper, it would be impossible to pass, especially since he had not met any of the deadlines during the process. I told him I was worried about him.

“Thank you,” he said quietly. “I understand what I’m doing.”

The next day I received an email from Records and Registration that read:

We regret to inform you that we have been notified of the death of one of your current students (name here, and student number). We have noted this in the student information system so that all parties reviewing the student’s record will be informed.

Please make the appropriate notation in your records.

I was stunned. The appropriate notation? Was there a code I was supposed to put in my book? “D” for deceased? “S” for suicide? I knew I had to have been among the last to speak with my student. I replayed our conversation in my head endlessly. “I understand what I am doing” suddenly sounded much more ominous. I had missed it. I had missed a strong student’s decline from excellence into despair. Something was going on with him, and I had missed it. Maybe the better notation was “IF”: I. Failed. Or IF I had only known.

Later, I learned that my former student’s chosen method was to wrap his car around a telephone pole. He had been driving very fast. Very intentionally. He understood what he was doing.

Meanwhile, I was devastated. None of my students noticed the sudden absence of their classmate because students come and go all the time at community college. People drop out for many reasons: job or family obligations, financial issues, poor grades, poor attendance.  I spent the remaining weeks of the semester staring at that lone blue desk amidst the sea of brown desks and felt desperate.

I have had former students die – through illnesses, accidents, even at their own hand — just not during the semesters I taught them. Last year’s experience was a first for me. I have long known that I cannot transform them all into English teachers (nor would I want to), but I guess I always thought out of all their teachers, I would be the one they might come to if they needed help. I would be the one they would choose.

Last year, I learned that was a ridiculous idea, and that I cannot save them all.