The Gift of Words

Today I met my students for our last class at a coffee and bagel place downtown. We didn’t have much business to attend to, having wrapped up the “teaching” part of the semester earlier in the week. So today was just for gathering and banter, and reminding them to get their final bit of work in by the deadline. I treated them to bagels and cream cheese and they slurped sleepily at their coffees. (oh, woe is thee, 8 am class!)

As has become my custom, I had arranged for them to deliver unto one another a Gift of Words. Last week, they each pulled the name of a classmate from a hat, and were then tasked with creating a gift in language with that person in mind. The parameters are simple: 1. Spend no money, 2. It must be comprised only of language, 3. It must attempt to reflect both gifter and giftee.

They come up with great stuff for each other. Poems both original and famous, bits of inspirational advice, Harry Potter quotes up the whazoo, recipes, how-to lists, song lyrics and, my favorite, hand-written letters and personal compliments. I love to watch them open their gifts and coo over each other before taking their leave for the break. Sometimes, real friendships form in my classes between students who hadn’t known each other before. This is one of my favorite things to see, especially when I can watch them post on each other’s Facebook walls in subsequent semesters (and years!) and remember that I got to witness the beginning of it. That’s really gratifying.

This is also the part of the semester when, as a teacher, I worry that I’ve not actually taught them enough. I worry that I’ve been too easy, too scattered, not rigorous enough. I worry that the reason they like my class (if they do) is not because they have learned how to be better writers, but because I positioned myself as their surrogate mom or aunt or something. Because I extended their paper deadlines and bought them bagels. Because I am nice.

Well, I am nice. But I have also been feeling pretty burnt out on teaching of late. Or, really, I don’t know how to characterize this feeling, exactly. More of a malaise, maybe. And a curiosity regarding whether this is truly what I am supposed to be doing with my life.  My teaching evaluations are solid. Students give me high marks. But I keep having these doubts about my ability to really reach them in a meaningful way…

And now I stop myself and ponder that word, “meaningful.”  And I can hear my friend Judy yelling at me to stop deriding myself. She has a radar that picks up any trace of self-loathing or doubt I might float into the universe and she applies the loving but instant smack-down. Judy was my student when 9/11 happened. I was a graduate student and she was my mother’s age. Maybe I taught her some stuff about poetry, which was on the syllabus, but she taught me just as much about the value of connection and compassion, which was not. Not explicitly, anyway.

Hi, Judy. I hear you and I love you!

The class that ended this morning was not only a composition class. It was also supposed to function as a freshman seminar, orienting students and helping them to make a comfortable transition into college life. We’ve had a rough time here at Penn State this semester, as I’m sure everyone knows. And while it’s true (no, really, it’s true) that I’m not sure my students necessarily learned how to successfully employ topic sentences or integrate research seamlessly, I think they did find in my classroom a safe and welcoming space to learn a bit about how to be a college student. And I think some of them might remain friends.

And actually, that’s not so bad for a semester’s work. On the contrary, it’s pretty damn good.



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