I arrived at my empty classroom and started rehearsing. It was my first day teaching a college class, and I felt the need for a dramatic opening line. I waited until my English 101 students had all filed in and sat down. I probably cleared my throat. "Ladies and gentleman, from this room you can go anywhere." So an hour into my new career, and I had already walked away with the Full-of-Yourself Award.
For the first few weeks, my classes hummed along, and I believed my own hype. Then in the second month, several students dropped out. Then a few more disappeared. I liked the word "attrition" because it made it easier to forget their faces: The quiet, studious kid, who took copious notes but never came back when the paper was due. The young man who worked the night shift and 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.
I blamed myself. A colleague, who had long since stopped taking it personally, took me aside and said, "Look, this is community college. Lots of kids bail."
It didn't help.
When I added tutoring in the college's Writing Center a few hours a week, it became a panacea. I no longer got involved in students' lives. In and out they filed, wanting an hour of my time, just a little slice of my expertise. "Can you help me fix this paper?" they'd say, and I would, and then the next person would sit down.
On the morning I met Annie, I spotted her leaning against the doorway, deciding if she should enter. Her head was shaved on one side, showing off dozens of piercings on her left ear. She wore army fatigue pants and thick black boots. A tee shirt tight across her chest bore the name and logo of a rock band I'd never heard of, for good reason. As she sat down, I realized she was anxious. She pushed three sheets of paper across the table and said nothing.
I started reading. Sometimes students plagiarized and made it easy for me. I could just hand it back to them and say something like, "Uh...William Faulkner wrote this," and they would feign disgust and storm out.
But Annie's essay didn't have the telltale hints that it had been lifted from someone else. It was her work, and (okay, by community college standards) it was brilliant. Not only had she written this little gem, but she wanted to make it better. I didn't want to fix everything. I wanted her to come back. The next week she showed up early.
Annie was a "re-admit," someone who had dropped out years ago, and was now giving it another try. Tutoring was bumpy in those first few weeks. At times she seemed so frustrated with herself that I was afraid she'd give up and be sucked back into her old life. I lost track of how often I reached for clichés about Rome being built. But every Tuesday and every Thursday, there she'd be at the door. And then she'd step in and get to work.
After a few months, she was still coming to the Writing Center, but I was running out of things to teach her. One day the Director of the Center, a woman who'd been teaching community college students for thirty years, sat at the next table waiting for her appointment to show (or not). Annie and I were working on her latest paper. I leaned over, and, as casually as I could muster, said to the director, "Would you mind looking at this?"
I watched her eyes get bigger as she read. She looked at Annie and asked, "Did you write this?" Annie nodded.
She smiled. "Then we need to find you a better college."
That would come, and when it did, it would be on a full scholarship. From there she was accepted into an English PhD program at a university. If she cared -- and I'm not sure she did -- she now had all the trailing ivy and Gothic towers she could ever want. She kept in touch. I was no longer qualified to give her advice on anything she was writing. That elated me.
When her dissertation was finished, she landed the only teaching position she wanted. Every fall, I picture the first day of the semester there, her nervous students waiting for their professor, in a classroom two doors down from the Writing Center. No grand and bloated opening line for Annie. All she has to say is, "I have a story to tell you." And I bet that's just the way it happens.