One of my least favorite days of the quarter is when I pass back the last paper before finals. Expectations run high, because my students' cumulative course grade lies in the balance, and I see it on their faces as they walk into the classroom. Over these past eight weeks, I've come to know their writing. I've come to know them, and I link each face with each name on my roster, penciling in attendance as they find their seats.
The way I grade here is different, I imagine, than at an Ivy League school. I've been teaching advanced composition for four years, and while some of my students are just past typical college age, many are far older than my 35 years. In my class, I've decided, their experience will count.
As always, Joseph sits in the first row. Wearing a brown-and-beige sweater, matching trousers and tasseled shoes, he is dressed for church, dressed in what he wears beneath his minister's black robe.
"Good afternoon, Professor P.," he says. Professor P. is what most of my students call me to avoid the mouthful of my title plus my Greek name.
The stack of graded research essays on my desk catches Joseph's attention. It catches everyone's attention, because this paper counts the most toward their overall grade. Knowing some of my students will be disappointed, I've made it a rule not to return papers until right before the end of the class, so I don't lose their attention.
I turn to today's lesson, on a satirical piece by Mark Twain titled "Advice to Youth." I chose this essay with care, knowing my students and the sage insight they might bring to the discussion. I start reading, pausing after Twain's first point, in which he instructs, "Always obey your parents, when they are present." This gets a laugh.
Charlene is the first to speak up. She is a divorcee, a mother of three and a grandmother of five. The reason she's in my class is a fluke, a welcome one because not only are her papers grammatically perfect, she also makes intelligent use of her life experience. She is a graduate student with plans to teach English literature at the college level, but because her prerequisite grade from a community college didn't transfer, she has to take my advanced composition class to satisfy her degree requirements.
"Most parents are lulled into a false sense of security when their children are doing what's expected of them," Charlene says. "When their grades are high and they're not breaking curfew, that's when you need to worry."
Her remarks have an ominous tone, her son having died from a heroin overdose. She has written about him for class, a thoughtful study of grief, regret, remorse and guilt. Where at one time she condemned herself for somehow failing her son, now she is not so quick to judge herself or others. Like Charlene, I, too, have a child, an 11-year-old stepson. Recently, his mother died, and sometimes I wonder if I understand everything I need to about his grief at such a young age. How much, as parents, do we really know about our children? How can we know that what happened to Charlene will not happen to us?
We move on, and I read from Twain's long and hysterical diatribe on mastering the art of lying: "For the history of our race, and each individual's experience, are sown thick with evidence that a truth is not hard to kill, and that a lie told well is immortal." As proof, Twain refers to a Boston monument to a man who had supposedly invented anesthesia, but in fact had stolen the formula from another.
"In this case, the lie holds more truth, more history," I say. "It's now a tangible thing." I take this point a little further. Is withholding the truth, I ask the class, "the same as lying?"
Rosina, a single mother in her early 20s, shakes her head. I think of her research essay about the importance of revamping bilingual education in public schools. The essay has a strong voice with solid statistics, but it falls short of adequately addressing and refuting the opposition. She is an English as a second language student, and it appears she is still too angry at the educational system for having failed her, too angry about having to learn grammar in college, to reason objectively on the subject. Beneath her anger, I see an incredible sense of perseverance. That Rosina is also a single mother only hardens her resolve to succeed.