Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Just met with a student--I meet with all my students for one-on-one conferences before a paper is due; I just vastly prefer it to handed-in drafts, and the small sizes of my classes and the staggered schedule of due-dates make it a feasible practice.

The paper topic was a simple one, since this is the lower-level of the two required freshman composition courses--I like to make the first paper easy, so my kids don't A. vapor-lock on an assignment they can't wrap their terrified heads around, and B. totally screw up their GPAs and decide abruptly to quit college and join the service industry. Some of these kids are training to be nurses, and we need nurses, dammit--they have to stay here and learn.

The topic, as I say, was simple: Describe a moment in your life that changed your view of how you communicate with others. (I stress in class, by the way, that we need not get Lifetime Movie of the Week moments of death-bed conversations or jailhouse confessions--that these pieces can be light and funny--but in general, students seem to have no trouble telling me about how they finally worked up the courage to tell the school counsellor that Daddy was touching them in their 'bathing-suit parts.' Such openness is unnerving for all kinds of reasons, but it does make for a less-than-boring grading experience.)

Anyway--this student had not gone for such a moment--instead, he described the moment he spoke his first word. Which, and this touches my very soul, was "Book"--as he held up a Berenstein Bears tome for his mother to read to him. Love that. And it was a finely written piece--I've already drilled into their heads to keep their writing simple and straightforward--and they've taken happily to that advice, and as a result, very few of them are producing crap, which I consider a major triumph for freshmen.

I made my usual witty and incisive editorial comments, then told him, in summing up, that he should be pleased, that "It's a beautifully written piece." He took a long moment and couldn't look at me. "What?" I asked. He answered, "It's just that...I've never had an English teacher tell me something I wrote was beautiful--or even good." And I smiled and said, "Well, maybe they weren't paying attention." And he nodded, and looked slightly tearfully suprised and pleased, and left as quickly as possible, muttering "I really appreciate hearing that..."

I'm pissed. What the hell happened to this kid? Where were his teachers and what were they thinking? It was good--and good writing doesn't come out of nowhere. He must have done good work before--why wasn't he told this? This poor kid thinks he sucks, and he doesn't--and that's a piece of cruelty I'm angry about. Somewhere out there, there's an English teacher or two who needs a swift kick to the sack (or, if a woman, a cutting remark about, say, her weight.) My job should not have to include teaching kids that they're not dumb. And yet too much of it is just that. Grrrrrr...


Anonymous Katie said...

Look at you with the shaping of young minds! Lovely story. Beautifully written.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Flavia said...

Oh, I know just what you mean. I had a student last year in remedial comp who was a really talented writer (I don't know why she wasn't placed in regular comp--where she would still have gotten As on every paper), and who was so ashamed and embarrassed about her writing that she couldn't even sit in the same room with me when I read it.

I don't like to knock on high school English teachers, since they have a tough job and most of them work really hard and are committed to their students. . . but sometimes I really wonder what's going on in some of their classrooms.

(The problem, I think, is all the English majors *I* have who plan to teach high school English but who are not especially, er, gifted at the writing part. Or the analysis part. Or, uh, listening to other people talk.)

10:19 AM  
Anonymous Beatrice said...

High school English teachers are such a mixed bag--and it's really true, I think, that the kids who got great grades in their Honors English classes tend to be the ones that get to college and find out that they're just not as talented as they thought they were.

That might be my being bitter. My mother just ran into MY Honors English teacher, who spent two semesters making it clear precisely how untalented she thought I was--a massive rolling snowball of ugliness that culminated in a snarling match-off in front of the entire class. Mom couldn't resist telling her that I was going into grad school in the very same subject. Apparently, the brittle old crone could barely hide her shock.

Dryden, I know you're not nuts about teaching comp, but you did me SO much good as a freshman that I, for one, am glad to see you teaching it.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, too much sobbing estrogen in this entry and comments. . . How about I describe the moment when a nine year old Dryden came back to school from a family vacation and gleefully told ten of his pals, all with virgin ears, the cuss words that he had just learned. Perhaps a moment that not only changed how I communicate with others, but also perhaps when Dryden might have first gotten his appreciation for lecturing to an enthralled audience.

Off-topic, but still serving to counterpoint the beautiful sob story:
Hey, let's have some follow-up here!!! You arrive in God-knows-where, end your first blog entry with a newslink to a sick sick necrophilia story, and then you don't mention in any of your later entries that the charges against three sick f***s were dropped due to the fact that the state of Wisconsin has no law against necrophilia!!!!!!!!!!!

- the tall fella

2:10 PM  
Blogger Jehanus Bleak said...

People's performance often can depend on their environment, and authority figures of all sorts certainly fit into that category. This first statement can be considered a pat on the back. But, in my persistent role as gadfly, I am reminded of Prof D's view of sports that are scored by judges. How is it possible to determine whether a particular essay is appallingly bad, or just an experimental early effort by an as-yet-unrecognized transcendant genius whose life work will profoundly and permanently change the relationship of English-speakers with their language?

10:56 PM  

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