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The Secret Life of Teaching: Gingerly Revising

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Ginger has come to see me to talk about her latest essay. This is a meeting neither one of us particularly wants to have -- she’s surely dreads it; I’m knee-deep in the middle of recalibrating my spring semester syllabus when she arrives. But now that our unplanned encounter, largely orchestrated by others, is happening, we’re both doing our best to make it worthwhile.

I’ve known for weeks now that Ginger is a weak student. Utterly silent in class, she never handed in her first essay of the new semester, and when I asked her about it a couple days after it was due, she said that she had a bad Internet connection. That’s fine, I said. Just give me a hard copy tomorrow. When that didn’t happen, she said she was having printer problems, and would drop it off later that day. When that didn’t happen, I sent an email to her parents. The essay materialized the next day, along with apologies for the delays from them and her. Minimally acceptable in terms of content and structure, I decided that this was not a good time to tell her to do it again -- I inferred I’d already caused some tumult in her household, and establishing a reputation as a remorseless academic stalker would not be the best way to promote a working relationship. But clearly, I was going to have to keep an eye on her.

Her next essay, handed in on time, was even weaker. In my comments, I beat around the bush a bit, commending her for her evident engagement and willingness to grapple with the question, but finally confessed that I found it -- hesitating to use the word, but deciding it was best -- “incoherent.” I asked her to come and see me so that we could plot a course for revision. I felt both justified and guilty for this approach. Justified, because I felt it important to both be willing to help as well as ask her to take responsibility for her work, and guilty because I was asking her to demonstrate a level of maturity she’d already shown she lacked. I always feel a tug between trying to nudge my students along and protecting my time, and at some level I knew that if I wasn’t more proactive with Ginger, she’d slip my mind. As indeed she did.

It was her parents who pushed the process along, sending around group emails to her teachers asking for feedback about her work a couple weeks later. A flurry of email exchanges with her advisor followed, which culminated in a phone call from the school learning specialist telling me that she happened to be with Ginger as we spoke and wondering if she could send her my way. Yes, I said, turning back to my work with the added fervor of knowing it was going to be interrupted momentarily.

Now she’s here at my desk, backpack at her feet, awaiting her fate. Dark hair, dark eyes, she’s pretty, maybe even striking, but her sense of vulnerability is so palpable that it overrides any other attribute. I try to set her at her ease. Where do you live, Ginger (uptown), what do you your folks do (they’re both on the business side of the television industry), do you have any siblings (an older half-sister from her father's previous marriage). Her answers are direct, earnest, and dead ends. This is not a conversation.

“What do you do for fun, Ginger?”

“I dunno,” she replies. “Nothing, really.” Then, brightly, as if she’s suddenly realized the solution to an algebra problem that’s been posed to her: “I decided this week to work on sets for the spring musical!”

“That’s great,” I say, wishing I could make that ember flare. But I don’t have the presence of mind to ask her what she’s making, how the show is going, or something to keep the momentum going. The only thought that comes to mind is that she'll have one more reason to put off grappling with her academic difficulties. And I think, not for the first time, that I have a worse track record with girls than boys when it comes to dealing with struggling students.

We proceed to talk about her course work. Usually math and science are harder than history and English, but this year it seems to be the other way around. Last semester’s history teacher was different, she tells me. More facts and dates and smaller, more manageable, assignments. From another kid, this would be barely veiled criticism. I don’t think she means it that way, though perhaps she should. But we need to get down to the business at hand.

“So what did you understand my message to you to be in my comments?” I ask. This is a standard gambit of mine; it’s helpful for students to interpret what I said in their own words, and for me to be prompted, dozens of essays and days later, about what I said to one kid in particular.

“That I was incoherent,” she replies. Ugh. She got that message, all right.

I prompt her to tell me what she was thinking about when she was writing the essay, and once she gets launched on a little soliloquy, things get easier. I jot down some notes as she talks, structuring her various points into a simple outline. The essay she’s narrating is rudimentary, and doesn’t quite answer the question I ask. But if she can actually execute what she’s saying on paper, we’ll be making a discrete step forward.

I show her the outline. “Does this make sense to you?”

She looks at it intently. “Yes,” she says. “I had a pretty clear idea when I sat down, but I felt like I had so many ideas in my head, and I have attention deficit issues, and I dunno . . . .” her voice trails off. I don’t think she wanted to surrender the fact of a learning disability to me. But this is apparently what she’s supposed to do, and she’s going to play her part.

“I sort of understand,” I tell her. “I have a kid with learning disabilities. I won’t tell you I know what that’s like, but I think I have some notion of the issues.” She looks me in the eye for the first time. She understands my gesture for what it is, and her acknowledgment feels like one in its own right.

My problem now is that I don’t know where to go with this. I know it’s very easy to say the wrong thing -- promise too much, offer too little. Our silence is awkward. Ginger pulls together the two sides of the unzipped hoodie she’s wearing over her scoop-necked shirt, something she’ll do repeatedly in the remainder of our meeting. This saddens me.

Back to the task at hand. She’s going to work off this blueprint. She asks when I want the revised version. I ask when’s good for her. She tells me to tell her. How’s Friday. All right, then. We agree to meet again before an upcoming test. “This is going to work out fine,” I tell her. “I know it’s hard -- it’s hard for everyone, no one writes effortlessly -- but it’s going to be fine.” She smiles at me, hopefully and doubtfully, as she returns her papers to her backpack and zips it up. Our meeting is over.

Mom will follow up with an email; I promise to read multiple drafts. But it's been a few weeks now, and nothing has happened. Ginger avoids eye contact again whenever possible. Maybe she'll pull things together on my watch, or someone else's. She has the good fortune -- if at times she surely regards it as a mixed blessing -- of people looking after her. But for me the whole encounter is a reminder of the limited ability of teachers generally, and this teacher in particular, to fill the unaccountable holes that riddle our lives.