My Students, My Heroes

Christy was nine years old when she was sexually assaulted for the first time. While her tormentor had his way with her younger siblings, she was locked in a closet where she banged her head against the door until she passed out.

Christy spent the next 20 years hopelessly hitting her head against doors, including the closed door of educational opportunity. She came to AC in her 30s to make life different for herself, her children and grandchildren.

Christy graduated from a four-year university last December. Now, she is a graduate Social Work student. Someday, she will help battered children.

Jose also was nine years old when, because of gang-related activities, he was first arrested and incarcerated. He spent most of the next 20 years locked up in one facility or another. Three years ago Jose was released from the Texas penitentiary.

Naturally gifted in science and math, he came to Amarillo College to pursue a different career than the one chosen for him by a nine-year-old. Now he’s only three classes away from transferring to a four-year university as an engineering major.

Ameer and Monte came to AC from Iraq where, because they had supported U.S. troops against Saddam Hussein, their lives were in danger. Ameer graduated in December with a mechanical engineering degree from Texas Tech.

When her brother was murdered on the streets of Mogadishu, Zainab’s family came to the U. S. to start a new life. Often writing over five drafts for a single essay, she made an A in Comp I and II.

With no job opportunities in Cameroon, Chrystelle and her fiancée pursued degrees in other countries: her fiancée in France and Chrystelle at Amarillo College. Having completed her associate’s degree, Chrystelle now is applying for pharmacy school.

Last August Chrystelle became a U. S. citizen. The following September her now husband joined her in Amarillo. In June they will have a baby.

And I have dozens of similar stories. Dozens.

My students are my heroes.

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Overwhelmed. Before this week is over, I will grade 75 narrative essays, 50 annotated bibliographies, and I’ll read and comment on 300 student journal entries.

No, it’s not normal. It’s the most abnormal week of the semester, and somehow I survive it twice a year. I coax myself through with promises of future reward: spring break in Santa Fe, a summer vacation in Colorado.

But this year is different. For reasons entirely of my making, I have an inordinate amount of outside-of-school duties also demanding my time. Don’t ask.

That’s why I smile when—with concerned expressions on their faces—friends ask what I’m going to do when I retire. I want to tell them my problem always has been too much not too little activity, that, too often, I’ve mistaken busyness for meaningfulness.

Which highlights the self-promise getting me through this season of overwhelmingness. It’s the same reward that sent a young Henry David Thoreau to Walden Pond. Call it getting back to the essentials of life:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover I had not lived.”

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Syncing Passions

I call it “syncing passions,” combining activities I love, increasing both the effectiveness and enjoyment of each. Like hanging out with students and climbing mountains.

In the last four years, I’ve summited at least a half-dozen times with my favorite people. Plus, we’ve practiced for the higher peaks with a dozen or more excursions into Palo Duro Canyon.

Students know—if you’re going to hang out with Dr. B., you’re going to be hiking, eating, or both.

Wish I could put into words how much pleasure these experiences have given me (this video captures some of it), and I’m already thinking about how to sync passions in retirement.

Am considering travel writing, or maybe restaurant reviews. What do you think?

**Thank you Jill Gibson for editing our climbing video.

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Eschatology—it’s a theologian’s word meaning “last things.” Eschatologists study the events surrounding the end of the world.

Preretirement has its eschatology, its list of last things.

Just this week I took a class to the Writers Corner for the last time, I taught peer review of essays for the last time, and I filled in census forms for my last classes for the last time.

Some of these activities came with a sigh of relief—I won’t miss the paperwork—but others were bittersweet. I’ll miss the Writers Corner tutors.

It helps that I’ve done this before. Retired from one career in my 30s and another in my 40s. So I know there are more than “lasts” in my future; there, also, are “firsts.”

Like the first Monday I’ll sleep past 5:15 a.m. Or the first trip I’ll be able to make in the fall. And I’m looking forward to the first day I put aside my Day-Timer and let events unfold spontaneously, the way they did in childhood.

Finally, I’m encouraged by the things that won’t change after May 31—family, friends, and chatting with you in these blogs.

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I Wish Life Had First Drafts

I wish life had first drafts.

My students will bring theirs tomorrow. They’ll work in groups to make their compositions better before the teacher sees them.

Wish I could do the same in life—have several practice runs at something (like raising children or starting a new business) before it counted—before failure was permanent.

But then, maybe failure isn’t forever. It’s not in school (one can take classes again). Maybe life is a series of drafts, constantly being revised until we get it right.

And then, of course, it’s time for a new assignment.

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Her Best Friend Fred

We were talking about conclusions, and I told them that the last paragraph needs to be the climax of their essay, that it’s a good place for a well chosen quote, or an epiphany, or a surprise (all epiphanies are surprises, but not all surprises are epiphanies).

I said that I’m partial to surprises, and shared a couple of examples (The Toughest Man I Ever Met, and A Ghost Story). Then, I told them the highlights of Cindy’s narrative about her best friend, Fred.

In her first paragraph, Cindy, an AC student on the Dumas campus, told of an injury she suffered as a senior in high school, one that ended both her season and career as a volleyball player. She couldn’t stand to attend afternoon practices with her teammates—was too painful—so she walked home alone.

That was until her friend Fred noticed and started walking with her. He didn’t give advice, just listened, which was what she needed most.

In the next paragraph, Cindy had moved from her hometown to attend college, and, in the spring semester, she received a Dear Jane letter. Her boyfriend, whom she talked with daily and dated most weekends, had found someone else.

Once again, Fred showed up to comfort her. That’s when she realized that boyfriends can come and go, but a best friend is forever.

I don’t remember the next two paragraphs, but they were equally convincing. Fred was amazing.

Finally, in her last paragraph, Cindy had finished the essay and decided to try it out on her best friend. So, trying to suppress her tears, she read it to Fred as he sat beside her on the couch.

“I know he likes it,” she concluded, “because he can’t stop licking my face.”

“My best friend is my Golden Lab Fred.”

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Wish I’d Tried Harder

“Don’t open it,” I warned myself.

Online student evaluations are not reliable because few students complete them. So what you get is outliers, folks who either hate you or love you.

She hated me. I was “unclear,” “unhelpful” and “uncaring.”

Of course, I knew from whom the words came.

My creative writing class had only 12 students, and all but two came to the restaurant where I held the final meeting. It gave me a chance to tell them in front of their peers what I liked best about their work.

The first no-show was a young man who had missed multiple classes. I wished the eval had come from him. But I knew better.

The second was a young lady, shy but engaging, who came every night and participated energetically in the exercises. She made B’s on most of her work, and I remember she often asked what else she could do.

Yep, she nailed it. I was unclear and unhelpful. Because it’s always been hard for me to tell a good creative writer what she can do to become a better-than-good creative writer.

Sentence structure, organization, point of view—I can teach these. Yet it’s difficult to explain creativity and what I call “authentic” writing.

Wish I’d tried harder. Wish I had another chance.

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Takes Faith to Write (and teach)

Takes faith to write. Also, to teach.

Facing a blank legal pad or computer screen, writers must see what isn’t there: the could be, might be, will be.

This morning I’m throwing words at the page hoping something will stick. Sometimes nothing does. For a long time.

When I do get a sentence that works, it’s like the first piece of a jigsaw puzzle. I have some direction, but there’s a long way to go.

As other pieces fall into place, the faith that kept me in my seat is rewarded. The “could” turns into “is.”

Teaching is the same. Students are like blank computer screens. My job is to see the writer in them, and, eventually, get them to see her too.

After many years of teaching, it’s not that hard. I’ve seen miracles before. When students tell me how much they suck at writing, I grin.

I know God has made humans to communicate. And with practice and some inspiration, these students will write. And they’ll do it well.

Faith will become sight.

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Happy Birthday, Sis!

Today would have been her 65th birthday. Would have been. My little sister left this world 12 years ago.

Next to Charlotte, D’Lynne was my best friend. It wasn’t always that way. As teens we fought constantly (my fault, not hers). But in adulthood things changed.

That’s why I wrote a newspaper piece honoring her. Didn’t realize at the time that in four years she would be gone, that the words I shared then would be my last, best chance to tell her how much she meant to me.

Today in class, along with some less dramatic and more fun articles, I shared the tribute to D’Lynne. Because I realized that, like me, some of my students have people in their lives who need to read similar words coming from them.

And past experience tells me many will do just that. Their essays will honor a grandparent, parent, sibling, teacher or friend.

And in so doing, my students will discover the power of written words to touch readers deeply. And, some day, they will see that written words have staying power. They can honor those who are now celebrating their birthdays in heaven.

Happy birthday, Sis.

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14 More Mondays

So I’m still at the beginning of my last semester, but already have some perceptions of retirement.

The first is relief (OK, and maybe some pride) in getting the job done. Like a climber who has the peak in view and realizes that his energy level is high and the weather is holding, it looks like I’m going to make it.

The second is anticipation. Folks keep asking what I’ll do. Not to worry, I have a lengthy list. There are things school teachers never get to do: like see the fall foliage in New England or surprise one’s spouse with a spontaneous midweek visit to Santa Fe.

And, ironically, writing teachers don’t get to write, not the long stuff. At least this writing teacher doesn’t. I like reading student essays, but the activity fills up that part of my brain needed for my own creativity.

And I am anticipating unstructured leisure, the kind children enjoy where they can plan their days spontaneously as they unfold. I once wrote a blog and column about it if you’re interested.

Anyway, I expect to spend my first summer purposefully without plans. And I know it will be fun but won’t last past August. I’m too much of a doer.

Finally, not all my preretirement feelings are positive. I’m also experiencing a creeping sadness, like the emotion one feels when his children grow out of childhood. I know I need to go. It’s time. But I’ll miss the students.

Facebook is a blessing, and I’ll keep up with you people I’ve already taught. But I’m haunted by the thought of those I’ll never meet.

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