I assigned my English composition students one final reflection. As we had practiced with each of their writing assignments, they were challenged to look back at their process, effort, knowledge, and overall feelings about their own work. This final assignment was to encompass the entire semester. Before Thanksgiving break seemed like a great time to take a step back and be real.
Reflection is a strategy I use in my own life. I reflect on my anxiety management, parenting choices, writing projects, and teaching abilities. I constantly question if I make the best choices, and if not, what would have been better. I see myself evolve in this way. As I roll through life, I collect the best bits of myself. And I realize that those choices that didn’t work out so great were also highly relevant.
I sat down to grade my students’ reflections in much the same way I do most grading. I put on my favorite reality show on Hulu. I chose a time that is quiet, when it is just me on the couch and my pug snorting on the floor.
Most students’ class assignments don’t make me cry. I swear. I often feel gooey-hearted when they declare their newfound love for writing, or when they discover that an English class isn’t as scary as they thought. I feel proud when they describe the progress they felt they made over the semester, and how the in-class activities helped them learn.
But today, I cried. I had to pause “Married at First Sight” on my TV, walk away from the computer, and got a glass of water. Because, you know, the pug may be suspicious that something is wrong with his human if he saw me cry.
When a student goes deep and pulls out a truth that takes courage to admit to his English instructor, I cry. When a student says that no English teacher has ever complimented his writing before, I cry. When that student then goes on to say he finds that writing is a way to release the emotions he has built up from having grown up in a low-income, crime-riddled neighborhood, I cry. When he says he can’t rap, but he wants to write to help others, I cry.
I can teach students to use rhetorical appeals. I can teach them to use Rogerian argument to structure their research papers and to become more accepting of other viewpoints. I can teach them the value of peer review, creating drafts, and revision. But I cannot teach them to put such soul into their work. Not like this student consistently has.
It broke my heart when I read that I was the first to ever compliment his writing. His grammar isn’t perfect, his sentence structure is challenging to follow at times. But I never looked for those to be hallmarks of a good writer. He instinctively writes honestly, openly, and with compassion. That is something I cannot teach.
But, at least I could be the one person who let him know his writing matters. His voice matters. And I can only hope he remembers that going into next semester, and the next. I won’t be there anymore to leave a comment when he tells a personal story so well, or when he lets the reader into a revealing snapshot of his life, but maybe my voice will stay with him, just as his voice will stay with me.
After I got my water, I grabbed a tissue. I wiped my eyes. I took a deep breath. And I continued grading. To me, the whole semester has been worth it. I may never get that experience again–one that lets me know that on some deep level I changed a life–and that’s okay.
He was bold enough to tell me about his feelings. Maybe there are others who feel similarly, but wouldn’t dare say that to me, even through the computer screen. But that makes every long day of grading worth it. Every class I had to plan, every peer review I had to facilitate, every draft I had to comment on was worth my time.