The Gospel of Basic Writing Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

H475_luke(Written July 1998)

The first class of my new semester begins Monday morning at eleven on the dot. English 51, Basic Writing, one hour three days a week for the next eighteen weeks. Big breath to calm myself, then entering with composure, distinction and, I hope, curiosity, walking the gauntlet between two long rows, a good forty-five students swarmed before me, some slouching, some sitting upright in the little brown desks of this unadorned beige-walled classroom.

I sit on the veneered metal desk, touch a finger to my lips. They hush; this is college. I don’t write my name on the board, but introduce myself and say, "I would like to get a sample of your writing ability, so if you would, please take out paper and pen and we’ll get started writing an essay."

"Man, I knew it! What I tell ya, man," from the back corner. A hand slaps another hand, a head exaggerates its frustration.

I say, "O.K. Anybody need paper? Ask somebody beside you, if you didn’t bring any."

Looks like a typical group, ages nineteen to fifty, most seem willing and ready, a few swarthy stares, a few lost gazes. I’ve been wondering all morning what to ask this, my "remedial" class, to write about. "Remedial" is, of course, a punitive-sounding failure-oriented word the community college district no longer uses. Instead, it’s basic, as in bottom, low, back-to and, in this case, probably never-left. Passing this class qualifies one for college-level English.

Now I announce the topic: "Write about a time when you learned a valuable lesson from someone you usually never listened to."

More gripes and whining. "You mean like a teacher?" someone says. Then another, "But I’ve never learned anything, that’s why I’m here, man."

One way to get started, I tell them, is to make a list of different people you may have ignored or taken advantage of in your life but who taught you something nevertheless. Choose one of those people and write the lesson down in one sentence, then tell me about it. Write whatever comes to your head. You’ve got forty-five minutes.

The class underway, more wander in. "Can I add?" Sorry, no room, I say, all the chairs are taken.

For much of the period, I pace and observe or speak quietly with them if they appear stuck. A few hold their heads up with one finger, wrestle two or three sentences total onto the page.

Class over, they hustle up their papers, apologize for spelling, complain that they could have done so much better given the time, then a few bow at me, showering compliments: "Wow! This is going to be the best class ever!" A few humph, smirk, turn in a paper with mostly scratched-out words and phrases, then use a finger like a knife to slowly slice their throat.

That night I read Darlene’s essay, whose voice and style at this level are typical: "I have learned many things in life which are coming from my family who are saying to me I better be a better person. A better person is a person who is making the right decision about their future. My lesson coming from my uncle who told me to get off of my rear end and go for it, to college to be someone. By going here at San Diego City College, I will be the someone who I am dreaming of."

And, forty-odd minutes to get that out is pretty good for Basic. Her handwriting is quite lovely—elaborate curlicues much like a thank-you note. Yet there’s a person buried under the generalizations who I hope will come out and show herself, show me who she is.

Always on the first day there’s a remarkable piece of writing. Here is Melina’s essay. "I myself learned an important lesson about dropping out of school. When I was 17 years old I didn’t know what to listen to my parents. I thought my parents was old and didn’t know what they was talking about when they said that a education will get you started in life. I went on doing my same old things, cutting classes, hanging out with the boys and girls. I eventfully dropped out of high school and got pregnant with my first child. That’s when I realize that a education will get me further into a job but I didn’t have no kind of skill to support my child. She found out that I was pregnant with my first child and thru me out the house. She passed me two bags which had my clothes in it. I didn’t have a place to go so I perseeded over to the boyfriend house who got me pregnant. I stayed there until I had my baby but he abused me. I began to realize what my mother said was true. It took me a long time to ask for her forgiveness but eventfully I did. I got so tired of being abused. She told me if I wanted to stay in her house that I will have to attend somebody school. I did because I didn’t have no other choices."

Though I can barely decipher her penmanship, though her problems with standard written English, particularly verb tense, are serious, Melina trusts the question as well as her disclosure. She trusts me, too, the one who will listen and respond positively to her honesty. I’m excited for her. What a curious phrase, "somebody school."

One of my strategies is to guide students into self-revelation as Melina has shown. However, it is not always easy for them to open up. Nor does mere self-disclosure mean they’ll improve. Many students don’t want to be reminded of their personal catastrophes or inadequacies, which is what they think I’m asking them to write. Some revel in describing experiences with crime and jail, with chaos at home, no steady job, no child care, a too-often hostile world of privilege, whiteness, clear English. Some, fewer still, see their lives with abandon and joy: dance parties, shopping second-hand, dressing to kill for Saturday night, raising brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, playing soccer or basketball, charging that VISA card to the hilt.

The danger—both good and bad—is that too much personal writing may make students hyper-conscious of where they are academically and where they need to get to. It’s too much, sometimes, to dote on a future they do not have, they may not even want, let alone ever achieve. But most professional writers assert from their experience that writing begets and improves writing. Getting students to feel comfortable with such a discipline means that teachers need to draw students out, have them practice the very self-expression they believe is less valuable than academic tasks, help them feel that the "somebody"s in this "school" are them.


The first few weeks there’s no homework. Instead, we write in every class; I join them, writing in my journal. Time enough later to discover what they don’t know, haven’t learned or just plain forgot.

Instead, I begin by engaging their lives as stories, hoping their confidence as learners will grow from writing about what they know. I also remind them regularly to speak up about difficulties with making this class work or talk with me privately about problems getting here on time. Don’t wait for me to come after you with a progress report.

I first notice things about them as groups—race, class, age. About half are black, half are white. Of the whites, half are Hispanic. I learn most are poor, hold low-wage jobs. Most are the first generation in their family to start college. Half the African-American students like to kibitz with one another about personal matters—boyfriends, girlfriends, finances, jobs, babies. A few wrongly self-placed foreign students leaf dictionaries or else grimace in pain when they write. (This class is only for native speakers, though, legally, I can’t push out anyone pre-enrolled. Their performance must do that.) Some pupils exhaust themselves after forty-five minutes of writing; others reach a sort of voluptuous immersion in the self on the page. I notice two women—one is feathery pretty, smartly groomed, self-conscious, the other, haggard-looking, seasoned, hard—who write vigorously, fiercely, who appear redeemed by the pen when class is done.

"Do you want what we wrote?" the seasoned woman asks.

"No. It’s for you," I say.

"What do we do with it?" the smartly groomed one asks, waving the paper.

"Admire it, repeat it," I say. The two look at each other and shrug.

The final day we "just write," I ask them to describe where they live, tell me what it looks like, the house, yard, street, neighborhood, as though you’re writing to someone who’s never visited your corner of the world.

As we go, this writing feels quite intense, focused, with clear recognition. I sense many describe the TV-VCR unit in the living room, a good view to the back yard, the athletic trophies, the smells of greasy fried chicken or baked pineapple ham emanating from the kitchen.

Then I ask them to dream up a place they would, in a perfect world, like to live. Have fun, use your imaginations.

This writing feels unfocused, trying, blocked. Audible sighs, blank looks, video-glazed expressions. C’mon folks, be free, I won’t collect your papers, I remind them. It’s for you, personally. But why do so many balk? Is it that no alternative exists for them, so why even imagine something new? Are some actively opposing me, in Herbert Kohl’s phrase, fully capable not-learners who refuse to assent to the question because it implies setting themselves apart? To move to another neighborhood might mean deserting a culture or a community that cannot be deserted despite the middle-class license—a college education—which one day they may possess.

Their chagrin is palpable and it reminds me to change direction. I know there’s value to writing about experience. But when I sense that what they write seems to instruct them more about what they don’t know than what they do, it’s time to move on. Besides, when they’re belligerent, I’m cast as the commandant, the punisher. And perhaps that’s the teacher they want me to be because that’s the teacher they’re used to.


Homework assignments begin. Rather than turn homework in, I get them into groups of four and ask them to correct their work together. These are your study buddies, I say. Exchange phone numbers in case you miss class. And if on occasion—not all the time—you get bogged down and can’t get to the homework, then come to class anyway and your group members will help catch you up.

Where does Basic begin academically? Learning how to make a point, learning the difference between a point and a fact, learning thesis. Then on to paragraphs, topic sentences and, most important, writing detailed, concrete examples from their experience, observation and reading to back up their points.

In two weeks I discover, while walking through class to see how they’re doing, that many of the students’ book pages are blank. They conceal the page with a well-placed hand or begin flipping through the text self-consciously. I intrude, ask to see what’s finished. I check off those who do the work, those who don’t.

"Ah, Mr. Larson," Jermaine says one day, when he sees that I see how squeaky clean his textbook is. He wears those tiny flat-oval sunglasses all the time, so I can never quite gauge what he’s thinking—except No Fear. He leans way back in his seat and with both hands pulses out rhymes in the air like a rap singer. "I got bogged down, you see, and my buddies here, these ladies, all three, are gonna make me get it there." The girls in his group snap their fingers; they double over, put their heads on their books and laugh wildly.

Jermaine, however, despite his cuteness, is among the first wave of drops. In four weeks the class has fallen from forty-five to twenty-five. Next, undone homework and absences for another half-dozen give way to testier student-teacher opposition.

Gualberto cannot buy the book (no money), cannot get to class on time (no car), has several no shows (I was sick, man), doesn’t do the homework even though the class text is on library reserve (where’s the library?). Wishing to put all that aside, he tells me that he’s a volunteer counselor for at-risk kids in the afternoons. Excuse me? his eyes soften. Then, one day, after I’ve warned him twice about getting here on time, after I’ve had him sign a contract saying he will do his homework, I see him out the window strolling toward class, fifteen minutes late again, his face puffy from sleep, and I rush outside to tell him I had to drop him. He asks why, and I recite the reasons, and when he opens his mouth to defend himself, I say, I don’t want to go over it again.

Keren keeps a notebook of vocabulary words, which she alphabetizes, defines and cross-references with synonyms. The words I assume come from one of those severely spine-creased paperback fantasy novels that, in nervous accompaniment, shakes in her hand while she chews on her nails and reads. Each class I must ask—tell—her to put the lists and the novel away and get out the textbook. "Ohhh, O.K.," she says, vacantly.

Gena, who hopes to be a nurse, lavishes compliments on my dark purple shirts, my pleated Dockers. She Eddie-Haskell’s me with "What a nice haircut, Mr. Larson." Sometimes during class, she’s incorrigible. No, she says, I didn’t do any homework because—Gena, not now. But I want to explain why—Gena, be quiet. But you don’t understand—Gena, please! Gena, I don’t need to understand. I’m the teacher.

And from Anada, who sits up front and sports the feint dangling lines of a Fu Manchu mustache, "That’s right, man. You the teacher."

Robert is a mystery. He is buck-private tall and straight, wears cowboy boots, black jeans with stovepipe legs, silver-studded black Levi jacket. He has that sinister glare at, and deep admiration for, authority. Some days, he strolls in a minute or two after Gualberto, his cocky, measured step daring me to confront him. I don’t.

One day he confides to me that the subject of "family," which they’re writing a paper about, makes him ill. "Can I write about a Marine buddy of mine?" he asks.

"‘Friends,’" I say, "is the topic of another paper down the road, but sure, why not, if family makes you wince."

"You know when I think of family there’s just too much," and he looks at the red-brick wall of the classroom building, measures the distance and Boom! a little incendiary goes off in his eyes. His lucid gaze shifts back to me and he smiles with that congenial belligerence of the Secret Service man, and says, "Mr. Larson, that’s good. That’s real good. You made my day." He walks on, and I never see him again.

And then, it never fails, the Real Life I’ve been urging them to write about intrudes and a few lives begin to unravel. One day, in late February, at lunch time and in plain view, there is an alleged gang fight across the street from campus, at McDonalds, and one of our students—a young black male—is murdered.

The crime spreads a quick, numbing horror through the school. For me the victim is a stranger, until I discover that two students in Basic Writing, Renee and Anthony, whose absences have been noticeable the week of the murder, are family. Neither Renee nor Anthony speak to me about his death until the funeral gets close. For a student with lots of missed class, a funeral is an undeniably excusable absence.

Renee finally does call. "I don’t know if you heard about it, Mr. Larson," she says, "but that boy what got stabbed was my . . . relation."

A long stony silence and I wait for her to say more. Her silence seems to stare at me; she’s admitting no emotion on the phone.

"He was your brother?" I guess.

"Marlon be best friends with Anthony and Anthony, he be the brother to my children’s father. Monday’s the funeral."

Marlon is the one who’s been stabbed. I see. "I’m sorry Renee."

Then she says, "What’s the assignment for class?"

I describe the first essay we are at work on—a self-portrait, in which they must choose three characteristics (for example, happy, stubborn, shy), define each and then illustrate with an anecdote.

That said, I offer that she need not worry about homework: "This is a time to be with your family."

"Uh-huh," she intones, distractedly. Already, Renee has several absences, due to problems she says she has with securing child care for her daughter. One day she got up to go ten minutes early, to get her son at the bus stop, and I asked her to wait until 11:50. She said, in response, "Shit, man." Then, "I cuss too much, don’t I?"

Such fixation on children seems to affect many of the young women—black, white, Hispanic—in this class. Their plastic-covered notebooks, which the mothers proudly pass around, are cramped with photos of swaddled babies or camera-surprised toddlers. It’s their babies they long for. Or maybe time to themselves. Not writing.

On the phone, Renee continues. "Uh-huh. I don’t know what I’ll feel like doin’ for school." She thanks me flatly and hangs up.

Later, after a spirited class in which we sit in a circle and describe our personal traits, then free-write our stories, Anthony stays after and announces that he’ll be at Marlon’s funeral on Friday. In class Anthony either complains about the assignment or acts daffy, especially when I tease him. Right now he’s abashed.

I ask, "How are you doing with all this?"

He looks away from me, out the classroom door. His buddies are waiting, backs turned to us. In trouble with the teacher. I can see the corner of Anthony’s eye, though. The lash is fluttering.

"I’m doin’ all right," he lies.

I ask if he has someone to talk with, family, sisters, brothers.

He says, also directing it to the open door, "I had one brother got shot, another stabbed. Both’re dead." Though for me it seems the hardest thing imaginable to say, it flits from his lips like a fly.

"Oh Christ, Anthony, I’m sorry." How useless and cloying I must be, a white man of forty-five, having him admit past sorrows in the midst of present loss. I feel I should give him a good ol’ boy tap on the back, saucer a bromide or two his way like coaches do—"Buck up, kid, there’s lots in this world left to live for." I take an easier way out. I tell him—as I often tell distressed students—that we have counselors available on campus for students’ personal problems. I mention one, an African-American man, ex-military, with a son of his own, with whom he (Anthony’s nodding in agreement) can relate, I hope. I ask if he’ll let me walk him up to the office, right now, make an appointment, get some help. (I had done the same a week earlier for a young woman in another class who confided, terrified and in tears, and only because I asked, that she may have cancer).

"I know where the counselor is," he says, meeting my eye, my belabored concern. One of his friends, staring in, cocks his head sharply. "I give him a call. Right now I gotta go, pick up somebody," and he’s out the door. The next round of students begin trickling in.

Such pulling away reminds me that sometimes I occupy the faintest geography in my student’s lives. Neither friend, family, therapist, I only lecture, listen, forgive, assign, refer. Make my demands, on occasion praise. What I fear is that under the pressure of so many unresolved emotional needs students flip from seeking help to feeling shut out. The psychology is strange indeed: When I’m there, they wish I weren’t bugging them; when I pull back myself, they look to me as though they’re begging for help.


The week following Marlon’s funeral, Renee returns and I interrogate her briefly by the drinking fountain before class.

"Did they ever find the killer?"

"Nah," she says. "They know who done it but they don’t arrest them. Everybody know who they is but ain’t nobody’s gonna say who they is. You gotta understand that’s the way they be about this shit. They rather die than squeal."

"But surely the police can get one of them to talk."

"Nah, this be initiation, Mr. Larson. You know, like ‘smoke ‘im’? This be like ‘stick ‘im."

A week later, Anthony comes back for what will be his last class. He’s wearing a matching black hat and black T-shirt. On both, inscribed over a single red rose, are the words "Marty-Bo" and a commemorative "We Will Never Forget You." His friend’s memorial. Anthony sits in the back, glances out the window, says no, he hasn’t gotten any homework done. Not these days, he mumbles. He looks away, then back at me. "Talking," he says, "be much easier than writing."

Renee keeps coming to class, keeps talking to me about how behind she is, how she still hasn’t turned in her paper. If you got it, turn it in, I tell her. She won’t ask me, though. She lets me do the reminding.

Today I ask the class what sorts of time-order things do we do in our lives. Recipes, one volunteers. Right, I say. Going to school. Right. Watching TV, then eating dinner. Or, another student says, eating dinner, then watching TV.

Charisse, a black woman who identified one of her own traits in her "Self-Portrait" essay as "my mean and moody-like look," says that taking care of a baby is a process you do in time order. When I ask her to describe the process—what comes first, then second, and so on—she giggles a bit. She is, so she says, "Rusty. It’s been awhile since I had little ones."

Gweniece, who carries several pictures of her six-month old daughter which I’ve admired, says, "You get the baby up, you change her diaper, you feed the baby, you burp the baby, you play with the baby."

While Gweniece speaks, all the women in the class who I assume also have babies turn and smile, vibrate it seems with fuzzy-good feeling. Gweniece beams too, resting her head in the crook of her arm, a bit embarrassed, a bit proud, thinking about her baby, no doubt.

Renee, who’s twenty-three, watches, smiling stoically. Her expression seems to say, Babies are happiness, hope. Babies and children are to live for, be somebody for. Good, I say, let’s write our time-order essays about something we care about.

After class Renee comes up and lays her overdue paper, her "Self-Portrait," on the desk. I ask her about Anthony, whom I haven’t seen for a while.

"He gone," and she spirals her fingers away from her temples to indicate gone-in-the-head gone.

"I can imagine," I say. "I couldn’t face what you and he are facing and keep it together."

"Marty and Anthony be tight," she tells me once I start probing with a few questions. "All three of them be tight—Anthony, Marty and Tony. Tony, he also gone, dropped out. He can’t concentrate."

"You mean Anthony and Tony were with Marlon, I mean Marty, when he got—" and I point west toward McDonalds, the scene of the crime.

Renee nods. She looks at me grimly.

"You see, Mr. Larson, Anthony be Marty’s best friend, hangin’ out all the time together, cuttin’ loose, doin’ one for the other. And then Marty got killed, Anthony can’t take it no more because his brother, David, my fiancee and the father of my two children, he gone, too. That was before Marty got stabbed. So what’s Anthony got to live for, he’s sayin’. I don’t know. He gone. Just like my kids’s father gone."

Gone where? I ask.

"Murdered," she says. No change in her expression. Not an iota. Saucer-eyes hypnotic, a soft glaze.

"Renee—" I say. I’m stymied.

Suddenly I remember Anthony’s first-day writing sample, in which he struggled for fifty minutes to get a few sentences down. When I asked the class to write about learning that valuable lesson from someone, Anthony called me over and told me he didn’t know what to say. He looked lost, forlorn. I told him to write about anything, just make it you. I was amazed to read who you was: "First off I had the most fucked-upest life ever since my brother was shot dead."

I want to help Renee as I wanted to help Anthony. She’s here, now; I can do something for her, push her past self-revelation. I ask if she’s ever used our counseling office. "Do you want me to walk you up there?"

"I know where it’s at," she says. "I got to go there anyway, make an appointment for an Ed plan, figure out what the hell I’m gonna take."

"When you’re up there, make an appointment for yourself."

"I don’t talk about it to nobody," she says promptly. It, I conclude, means that tower of controlled grief which she’ll preserve within her forever, a heroism that will give her kids the iron hearts they too need to survive adolescence.

"Then do an Ed plan," I say, reminding her that summer classes fill up fast.

Our first try at connecting over, I wonder why is it that when I care, students assure me they’re O.K.? Why is it that they think I’m most effective when I’m most invisible? Why should I be invisible? Is it because they cannot see me for who I am, but can only see the audacious, in-your-face teacher, who ultimately has little more to offer than subject matter and a red pen?

Later, I read the opening paragraph of Renee’s "Self-Portrait." The way she speaks is nothing like the way she writes.

"I am a very kind person. I’m always there if you need me, or I will come to you and offer my help. Like one day not too long ago while crossing the school campus, I saw this lady wobbling like she could not walk so well. I got closer and noticed it was a disability. Then, I went to ask her could I help her get to where she was going because there were no more rails to hold on to. She said yes, and I ended up walking with her to the bus stop. We might have missed the first one, but we caught the next one. After that I noticed I was late for class. I explained to my teacher what had happened and she excused me. She must have been kind-hearted too."


At mid-semester, I hand out progress reports. Only one or two of the way-behind students are still here to receive theirs.

This form is to notify Rosalita Gonzalez that he or she has earned the grade of D+ in Basic Writing as of the midterm. Below are listed the reasons why the student has earned this grade and some suggestions for improvement.

Five latenesses; five absences; one of two papers turned in, grade of C.

Rosalita appears to understand the material but needs to do the assignments in order to make satisfactory academic progress with her writing. . . .

Also, halfway through, it becomes clear to me who will and who won’t pass. I’m usually right, about those I pick. Granted, I’ve seen enough of their work and taught enough classes to know their potential for passing. But mid-semester calls up my self-consciousness as a teacher, and I start to think who has received my favoritism to date. When I recognize my choices, I don’t kid myself: I know I’ve been leaning toward some and away from others. Can I define this any better? Are my allegiances solely to those who’ve been hit the hardest, who are most self-effacing, the perennial self-starters, the dolls of obedience? I’m not sure. But I am certain that I participate in their passing and failing with a guilelessness which eludes me—an idle supporting or judgmental glance, a marginal comment on an essay taken the wrong way, the degree to which I greet or ignore one in the cafeteria.


A guest speaker shows up, one I requested, to talk about our Mentoring program, which uses former at-risk students who’ve been successful in college to counsel current at-risk students. Mark is his name. Hat on backwards, a purple t-shirt with BOSS in big white letters on top of america in tiny white letters beneath it, slick jogger’s pants, hi-top shoes, a beeper clipped on his elastic waistband. He says, "I’ll only take, hell, a few minutes, O.K.?"

He begins talking about mentors and proteges, about "being there" for his proteges, but then stops and says he’d rather tell them his own story.

"Go for it," I say.

"I just got out of prison a year ago," he says. "I was in for ten years. And you don’t think there’s some brilliant mothers in the slammer, readin’ them law books, learnin’ their rights according to the law.

"Man, I tell you, it’s all about learnin’ this system, knowin’ what’s comin’ to you from the government or wherever. When I go down there to pick up my check, for me and my son, I got a xerox of the page from the law book that says I’m entitled. I am, me," he says, and he fingertip-pounds his chest twice, very hard.

"Man, what I’m doin’ I’m doin’ for me. And my little son who when I got out I got him away from his mother—his alcoholic mother, by the way; yes, ladies can be drunks, too—got him away full custody, so now he’s with me. He’s with me."

I ask, "So how long have you been a mentor?"

"I’ll get to that, I’ll get to that," he says. The class laughs. "Where was I. My son, yeah. I got to do something for that kid because, man, the other day, he was sittin’ at the kitchen table and playin’ with a knife, stickin’ it, like stabbin’ at people? you know, and he says, ‘Dad, I want to be just like you when I grow up.’ That shit—oops, pardon my language," and he looks at me, "but I got to tell it like it is."

"Tell it, brother," Sharon cheers, "tell it."

He is telling it, I think, right on the heels of Marlon Turner’s death. Oh God, not another knife story. This is just going to chill them into silence again.

But no, when I study their eyes as he talks, there is something liquid and loving there, especially in the women, the ones with the babies. They want him to speak because it seems here is a man who has claimed responsibility for the child, who loves his son, who provides. Who cares how he provides. He’s raising him, he’s paying his due.

Through twenty minutes of prison tales, fights, soured drug deals, Mark enthralls them with the magnanimity of his voice. Finally he describes the Mentoring program and how you can only sign up if you are committed, saying, "Hey, you got to want to do this, I mean, if you call me and you are serious about being my protégé, then when this little beeper rings, wakes me up at three, four in the morning, I will call you and if need be come bail your ass out of jail, excuse me sir, get your mother-fuckin’ head on right, get you to where you need to go, counselor, psychiatrist, financial aid, cup a coffee, whatever, but that’s only if you’re serious."

When he takes a breath to ask who’s interested, most of their hands trouble the air. Two-thirds of the class want brochures; half sign up to be proteges. Mark stays, keeps three conversations going at once, until the teacher of the next class kicks him and me and a few straggling students out. Outside he tells me that what students need to hear is that they too can make the system work with a lot less education than they’ve got. "It’s not hard, man," he says, shaking my hand.


Like Gualberto, another student stretches my tolerance too far. His name is Scott. He wears a pork-pie hat, sports a pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses, carries a very large, leather artist’s portfolio. And yet he’s always late—five, ten, fifteen minutes late, every class. Early on I warned him that so much lateness wouldn’t work; it’s too disruptive. He said he understood but his boss didn’t: "What can I do." Tell him to call me, I said. I’ll convince him. Scott said he’d discuss it with him again. But, now after more warnings from me and no change in him, I’ve had enough.

I suspend him for two classes. He’s shocked and says, "But you said you understood."

"No, Scott, I said I can understand your predicament, but I’m not willing to extend my understanding to you all semester long."

He seems crestfallen. "What do I do?"

"You keep saying that. I don’t know. You have to figure it out. I want you to go to the Dean of Students and with his advice maybe the two of you can come up with a plan to convince your employer to let you get to class on time. Otherwise, drop."

Nonplussed, he thanks me, as though all this appears to him to be more my problem than it is his.

Later that day in the faculty lounge, I join a colleague from my department on break. She’s a favorite of mine, one of those ageless older teachers (forty-five? fifty-five?) who epitomizes what’s good about the college largely because she’s unfazed by the cycles of institutional reconditioning—open admissions on one hand, back-to-basics on the other. She carries a dark magenta attache case, (always has one hand free), wears sun dresses and a touch of make-up, and is never out of breath. Something about her directness, her self-possession, that I admire. Plus she’s taught a few hundred more sections of basic courses than I have.

I ask if she has trouble with her empathy in the classroom.

"You mean how much I care about them personally or about their work."

"I mean rescuing them from the demands of the class."

"I care all the time. Almost all the time."

"Ever regret being too involved?"

"Hey, you know we can never be too involved," she says, laughing and offering to share a seam-opened bag of pretzels. I decline.

"You want to know what I think?" she continues. "I think we don’t credit ourselves enough for our involvement. And I don’t mean for policing their little butts with homework and attendance. I mean more for just who we are. Not all, but many of our students see us as actual models of success. In fact we’re the only real live successful people a lot of them ever see. Sure, there’s hard-working people in their families. But too often they’re just scrapping by, economically speaking. Students see something positive in us—well-paid with our degrees, dressing nicely, speaking clearly, usually, showing up on time, doing the work we’re supposed to do, being too empathetic." She winks at me. "It’s like we have what they want but they don’t trust themselves enough to think they can get it."

"I don’t know," I say. "If we’re the ones who’re supposed to help them pass, I think they hold it against us when they don’t. I mean, do they know how many of them do fail these remedial courses. Surely they talk with one another."

"They talk, but the numbers, even if they knew, don’t mean much. They’re adults, remember, and they know the difference between the teacher’s requirements and their doing the work. I know my daughter used to say in high school that it was the teacher’s fault she failed the class. ‘He had it in for me,’ she’d say. But our students don’t use that excuse."

"Even with a lousy teacher?" I ask.

"No. They know how far behind they are. They just drop the class. Sometimes, you’re right, they look for the easy teacher. They go around here talking about Larson, let’s see, now there’s a tough mother, he’s no easy A. Got to find somebody a little easier." She pokes my arm. I want to tell her that in Basic Writing I think I am an easy A.

"So, do you have trouble with your empathy?" she asks.

"I’m sure like me you assign a lot of personal experience writing. It’s a great vehicle to get them to write. But I wonder if by insisting that they write about their experience it’s not a, what, a set-up of some sort. I mean, when they do write or even tell me about some personal trauma, in graphic detail, their admission opens up all kinds of pandora’s boxes, which I really can’t do anything about. And by doing that I’m worried that I or we don’t construct with them a kind of open door/closed door system of trust. You’re encouraged to write about anything you want in this class, I say, but if it becomes too painful, don’t ask me to deal with it. But I feel I should deal with it. I can’t help but feel that."

"Tom, you can’t deal with their problems. You send them to counseling."

"Because ultimately we can’t save them."

"Maybe when they were in grade school, we could. But not now. We can’t save them because I’m not their mother and you’re not their father and we aren’t them. Give them credit. They’ve survived into college at least."

"But you don’t just switch your sympathy on and off?"

"No, I don’t turn it off. But"—she examines a pretzel momentarily, then plops it back on the pile—"maybe I do quiet down sometimes, temper my response, thinking where I’ve come from. I never had any trouble with English, and I used to be shocked that others did. I got strong reinforcement in the basics when I was young. I was told, early on, editing the high school yearbook and being associate editor of my college paper, that I had a great career ahead of me in journalism. But then one teacher came along, one of those with the blood-dripping correction pens, and trashed everything I wrote. After that my confidence vanished. There were other reasons I won’t go into. I didn’t think I could succeed or even wanted to in a mostly male world, so I quit college and became a secretary. Another all-male world. Years later, when I took a class in writing poetry, it wasn’t so much what the teacher did for me as it was what she didn’t do. She didn’t tell me what I needed, she didn’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. She had this incredible capacity just to listen to me talk in class, in my journal or in self-indulgent poems."

"How? How did she do that?"

"How? I suppose by being a survivor herself, surviving her return to college as an adult student, older than most, with kids, divorced. Sort of acknowledging me without saying so. A silent recognition. You know, hearing from the heart. I think the greatest ‘teachers’"—and here she mimes quotation marks in the air—"are those who were of me but just a little bit ahead of me on the same road."

This is far more profundity than I bargained for. Which I tell her.

"Did you ever think," she says, "that just by showing them who you are, warts and all, that that too is a form of instruction, maybe the only method which means anything to them."

"Like I said—"

"But please," she says, interrupting, getting up to leave, "don’t hold me to that standard. Besides, there isn’t any standard. There’s no right course of action. This isn’t war. We aren’t strategists, for Christ’s sake. We teach ourselves in the classroom. And I mean that both ways." She points at the pretzels. "Don’t bother with them," she says. "They’re as stale as yesterday’s assignment."


Monday of the eleventh week, Renee leaves a long phone message at 6:30 a.m. that her daughter has chicken pox, her sitter doesn’t want to come fearing she’ll catch it and pass it on to her daughter, so Renee is stuck at home for the whole week. Her essay on "Work" is due today, but she says the tag on her license plate is expired, so she won’t chance driving in. Would I please call?

When I do, we discuss her absences, ten now with this week’s problem, and whether or not she’ll pass the exit exam. I have my doubts yet she believes: "I know I pass it," she says.

"I wish I were as sure as you, Renee."

"I’m worried," she says instead, "that teacher drop me from Math. We at some such critical place right now, workin’ in groups, and she tell me, ‘No more absences,’ or I be dropped."

I ask if she knows that a man’s been arrested in El Cajon as a suspect in Marlon’s murder. Yes. Did she know him? No. Why is it, I want to know, that Marlon would have picked a fight with a rival gang?

"You got it all wrong, Mr. Larson," she says. "The guys at the paper did too. Marty was no gangbanger. There was no fight between two gangs. Him and Anthony, they be walkin’ on they way to school when those eight guys picked a fight with them. The paper got it all wrong."

"You mean it was random?"

"Well, not totally. It was like they’s one gang and they stopping people and messin’ with them and Marty say somethin’ like ‘you’all can’t whup me,’ and that’s when the oldest one come out and stabbed him."

Did Marty say anything to provoke him?

"I don’t know about that. But Anthony, he stood up too and say ‘yeah, you all can’t whip us both,’ and then that’s when the one guy stabbed him. But it wasn’t like Marty jumped up and got the knife ‘fore Anthony did or nothin’ like that."

"How’s Anthony doing?"

"He all right, I think. He never show what he feelin’, though. He stay with Marty’s family now, like his mom be Marty’s mom. I be over there every day."

I ask Renee what happened to David, the father of her children.

"He got shot in the back. Up in Fresno." This was in 1992 she tells me, when Renee and David’s kids were ten months and one year and ten months. Now they’re three and four. Was his killer caught?

"Oh yeah, they had a whole trial and everything. They give him twenty years to life."

So was that random, also?

"No, not as random as Marty. David had seen the person before and I guess he say somethin’ like he was ‘too little to be tough’ which was true, which was why he had a gun and shit. But the boy was still dumb and David shoulda never told him so."

In the background I hear her chicken-poxed daughter, climbing on her, whining for attention. At one point she puts the phone down and when she returns tells me that she had to run outside and get her son who just got dropped off from the bus.

I ask her again how she’s doing with this, finding the question as awkward as ever.

"I let it out this morning. In my way."

"How? If you don’t mind me asking."

"No, I don’t mind. I cry my eyes out is how."

"Renee, I know you said your family is in Fresno, but do you have someone down here who you can talk to about this?"

She says no. She says that’s not the way she is with it.

"But how are you going to get through all this, with two kids?"

"I be there for them," and at last I hear her sniffle. "I can’t let nothin’ go. I gotta be the way I am, there’s two kids here right now who need me." She pauses; the kids keep whining, Mommeeeee! "There’s this one man want to be with us. He say I act like we don’t want him, but I can’t do that bein’ in love and shit, not after what’s happened. You understand, Mr. Larson."

She tells me that Marty’s mother has adopted her, just as she has Anthony. "I be over there at Berniece’s every day. She introduce me to people now as her daughter, just like I be her own." And then, without skipping a beat, she says, "I know I be dropped outta Math. We at a point where everything’s important and we be doing groups and such and I know she gonna drop me. She say, to me, ‘No more absences.’ I know she will."

I tell her again that I won’t drop her from Basic Writing because I’m classifying this bout of chicken pox as an excusable absence, unavoidable. I can’t do anything about her losing her math class, though; she’ll have to discuss that with the teacher. I give Renee my address, tell her to mail me her paper. She says, finally, "I be back and write you another essay."


Anada, who has become one of my hardest working and best attending "Basic" students, stops by my office on his way to another class. He’s wondering if I’ve finished reading the "Work" essays, a time-order assignment on the process they go through at their jobs which, because of my other classes, I’m behind on grading.

I show him his paper, an O.K. piece of writing, if somewhat under-exampled, about working with animals at the San Diego Zoo. The essay got a B minus. He’s nodding approval at the grade, telling me he’s doing really well in what he calls "your class," getting B minuses on his papers. I ask him where he thinks he’s learned such confidence.

"Confidence for what? I’m gonna pass your class, ain’t I?"

"Anada, that’s up to you. What impresses me is that you seem so sure of yourself in the essay, that you’re confident you can work the animals and write about it. Where’s that come from?"

He starts rubbing his chin, then twists one strand of his Fu Manchu; his eyes are dark with subterfuge.

"How long have you been at the Zoo?" I ask.

"Uh, Mr. Larson," and a smile untroubles his face. One gold tooth gleams. "Uh, I actually never been workin’ at the zoo. I, uh, made it up. I try to write about those other chicken-ass jobs I had at Burger King and shit, but you didn’t want that. Yeah, man, you said it gotta be interesting, not to bore you. Remember?" He’s right, I had said above all don’t bore me. "Man, if’n I’da told you ‘bout Burger King I’da bored your ass silly. If’n I’da told you I never worked at the zoo, you woulda said no way to me writin’ it. So what do I do. I made it up, that’s what I do? I made it up ‘cause I knew that they was three qualities, feedin’ the animals, cleanin’ the cages, and bein’ a leader on the job that would be exactly the way I would handle myself there like that and nothin’ I ever done before would compare, so—"

"Why don’t you go apply?"

"Man, that’s what my mother said. ‘They be takin’ applications.’ But, you know, I’m just too damn lazy," and he laughs, I think at me for being so easily fooled by his creativity.

I tell him that even though he made it up, it still shows confidence, but now it’s the confidence of his imagination, that if he can think it, maybe it’ll happen. "Do you believe in destiny?" I ask.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah. Maybe I oughta head on over there."

"Man, I would," I say. Anada gets up, offers a hand to shake, and leaves. Like I’ve just given him some idea about himself which he’s always had.

Later I realize that I may have spoken too soon. Sure, I would go to the Zoo and apply, but it’s presumptuous to think that what I would do should activate Anada’s choice. Advice spills out of my mouth long before it’s ever asked for. If it ever is.


One morning I am terribly busy, moving from a curriculum meeting to grading papers, hustling to the copy machine, the cafeteria, the mail room. Seems like I’ve stupidly assigned and got papers to grade from all five of my classes at once.

Between 8:00 and 10:30 I pass the library three times, noticing Gweniece outside, shooting the breeze with a gaggle of girlfriends. She sees me, but avoids my stare. I want her to see me seeing her, though, because two days ago she missed class again (for the eighth time) and she should be getting the assignment, as she did in the first few weeks, when all this schooling mattered. Today, her disregard infuriates me.

I’m angry already when I enter, thinking, many of these students like Gweniece don’t study the material on their own. They come to class to be taught, to make me responsible for whether they learn it or not. Open head, insert thought. I can’t see how they’ll ever get any better. Leave it alone. No, don’t leave it alone. It may not be war, but a skirmish every now and then might wake them up.

"Form a circle," I say, then add, "please," and they do so, obediently. While the chatter continues I notice Gweniece, pretending I won’t call on her.

"Gweniece, what’s a compound subject? That was the homework for today."

"I don’t know."

"What do you think it is?" Remember, this is a pre-college college class in which I review subjects and verbs often, as in what’s a sentence. Yes, a writing class still needs to do periodic work on basic grammar. "This is . . . like sixth grade, Gweniece. What’s a compound subject?"

"A bunch of nouns?"

"Sandra," another sleepy head who often just sits and stares at me, rain or shine. "Sandra, what’s a compound subject?" My voice is rising.

"Two different verb tenses?"

"People!" and I slap the little brown desk top where I’m sitting. "What in the hell is going on here? Has anybody even looked at the book? Please wake up. This is college!" I feel mean and indulge it. "The only way you’re going to learn anything is to participate in your education and stop expecting me to come in here and explain it to you. Wake up!" I’m shouting now. "Does anyone know what a subject is? No, scratch that. Can anyone give me a sentence with a compound subject? Anada," who is waving, "yes," and he appears to pause and think a moment, for me, (his confidence?) before speaking.

"John and I are passing our English class," he says.

"Very funny. And yes, that’s it. Gweniece, what’s the subject of ‘John and I are passing our English class?’"

"Uh . . . English?"

"No," and I’m ready to leap at her throat.

"The subject is John and I and it’s compound," Deborah says, rescuing me from certain explosion.

"Right." Many students’ heads are down, like they’ve been bad. "Wait a minute. Am I being too hard here?" Patty, clearly the best writer in the class, shakes her head yes. "Patty thinks so," I say, realizing suddenly that she’s a flame (near perfect attendance) which I could easily extinguish. She seems as drowned as the rest.

Charisse, however, says, "No, you’re not," loudly. She likes teachers tough. Like her. I look over to see Criss, a woman as old as me, whose essays are wonderfully psychological and frantically over-written. She’s nodding agreement, too. I make a mental note: Both of these I have no doubts will pass this course.

But I’m not finished. Sitting next to me is Scott, my perennially late student, who came back to class because the Dean said it was ultimately up to me to decide his fate. So I said O.K., you can stay. As usual, he’s slouching.

"Sit up, Scott, dammit, and let’s get busy."

He laughs a little, then in an amazed voice says, "Hell, no." He looks for support from his classmates. "You can’t tell me how to sit. I can slouch if I want to."

A few other students giggle with him; they know he’s right. I know he’s right. But I can convert it to wrong with a snap of my finger. Fuck it. It’s not worth it. Do they know I’m sitting here saying fuck it to myself? If they did, would they care? "O.K., forget it," I say. "You’re right. Turn to page three forty-one."

While I bristle my way through the homework, reading every word of it aloud, some part of me is shrinking from what’s transpired. I let my feelings escalate, get in the way of the lesson. I should have realized that subject-verb agreement is difficult to learn. It needs constant explanation, drill. I should have realized that none of them would take to grammar, let alone pursue me for the assignment unless they picked up by now how important grammar is to passing this course. But I’m not supposed to teach grammar. We have a separate course for that. This is a writing class. So it’s because I haven’t reminded them more often that they’ve got to review all their English skills in order to pass? Is that it?

When that part’s finished, another part begins to swell: You dimwits gotta realize the only way you learn is by recognizing how difficult it is to learn in the first place, admitting that you’re lost, admitting that you need to be found. You can’t get found unless you’re lost. Anyone ever heard that sage remark? It’s true. You can’t know how much verb errors are a problem in your own writing until you wake up to the fact that you are guessing which verb’s right and which verb’s wrong. Guessing is not knowledge; guessing is pleasure. Knowledge is pain. Ever heard of that one? It’s true, too. And guessing is the way you think, the way you respond to college-level material, the way you’ve responded to classroom education all of your lives. There’s nothing that says you need to know this stuff except that the school requires it. And as long as you can guess you can pass, right? Am I right? But that’s where you’re wrong. When you write that final exam and consistently mistake the verb tense, consistently miss subject-verb agreement, consistently make comma splices and run-ons and fragments in your writing, then you’ll fail. Is failing a good way to learn? You bet. That’s the paradox. To learn is to fail and I want you all to learn so therefore I want everyone to fail. Got it!

How good it feels to sharpen this dilemma at last, to allow the rescuer and the persecutor to co-exist. Why don’t I start off this way every semester, one day, Mr. Rogers, next day, Mr. Scrooge. Like the Phantom of the Opera, my disfigurement is my beauty. Passing is failing, failing is passing—all ye need ever know about school.


Less than four weeks till the final, I decide to engage this notion of failure more actively. Why are we so afraid to admit what we don’t know? Maybe it would be helpful to be struck hard with what they need to study for this exam.

I try a new tactic. I become a "testing" teacher in Basic, against my habit of assigning essays and checking homework in groups. Now, for a week, I’m interested only in right answers, reminding students (who know this congenitally) of the remarkable self-reflexiveness that tests possess: Let’s see what we’ve learned this semester. I’ll give you the pages in the text to review and you be sure to study. Once we know what we don’t know, we’ll know what we need to work on, correct?

Uh-huh, the class drowses.

The test covers sentence fragments, run-ons and verbs, which we’ve spottily worked on. Forty questions: identify, true/false, correct some. Most finish it in twenty minutes.

Half the class fails. Majorly. Several don’t reach fifty percent. Another several get D’s, low C’s. Two get B’s. One an A. This should teach them!

Who passed? Those who’ve been reading and writing much of their lives or who’ve learned their grammar long ago, those quiet ones in the class that I don’t often notice. Those who failed failed not because they didn’t learn it in my class over the last two months. They failed because they have little grasp of the analytic qualities of language, precious little practice with recognizing sentence and paragraph structure, mechanics, general and specific information in written texts. They are, perhaps, aware visually and auditorily from TV, movies, and radio, but they lack that print awareness which any English class requires.

Over the next week and a half I test them (giving them the pages to review) on topic sentences, introductions and conclusions, transitions, thesis statements, outlining, etc. Same results: half fail, several barely pass, several pass conclusively. Of those who pass, it is the same studious ones, for whom college success is geared.

Of course, we all agree, they should have learned this as part of the few thousand hours they spent in what we used to call grammar school or in junior high or in senior high. Why didn’t they? Teachers passed them when they shouldn’t have; parents provided no home environment for study; administrators failed to keep them safe from guns and drugs. So much educational success was expected but too little of it was ever modeled.

In my case, as quickly as these tests show me the potential of a new round of student self-discovery, the results are too devastating to continue the tack. What bothers me most is how many of these students will continue to internalize failure: Scores of shoulder-poised devils are whispering in their ears: You should have known this by now. What’s wrong with you.


We have begun our final descent, preparing for the final exam, an exit or proficiency test that is taken by all sections of Basic Writing throughout the community college district. A student can’t pass the course without passing the final, unless the instructor feels the student will succeed at the next level. For an instructor override, however, the student must come very close to passing.

The exam is prefaced with a reading, a discussion of its issues and ideas, and from the discussion a set of possible questions. One question is given at the beginning of the test, and they must answer it by writing a five-hundred-word essay in fifty minutes.

We are practicing by reading Isaac Asimov’s essay, "What is Intelligence, Anyway?" To discuss the relativity of intelligence, Asimov writes of his scoring very high on intelligent tests, asserting that his scores reveal only that he is "very good at answering the type of academic questions that are considered worthy of answers by the people who make up the intelligence tests—people with intellectual bents similar to mine[.]" The students are captivated when Asimov describes how his own genius, measured once over I.Q. 160, is helpless against the functional intelligence of an auto mechanic, whose common sense far exceeds Asimov’s when it comes to fixing the scientist’s car. Like the mechanic, functional smarts is what many students feel they possess.

I ask them to free write on whether or not they agree with Asimov’s main point and then come up with an example to support it.

They write for five minutes, then Scott raises his hand.

"Here’s the thing. It’s a question of authority. When you told me the other day to sit up in my chair, me, a thirty-year-old man, I thought, yeah, right, and I looked around and saw how every person in this room believed me and believed that you were out of line, I had to hold my ground in front of them. I couldn’t give in."

I am surprised, gratified by his honesty. I say, "Scott, you were right. I overstepped my boundary."

"Yes you did, and that was wrong. But," and he wagged a finger at me like I ought to know better. "Intelligence versus authority, man. This is your environment, this is the classroom, and I’m supposed to live by these rules. But I’m also supposed to do what I think is right, which is my intelligence. So I wasn’t about to sit up even though being right or wrong in here is totally your judgment, not ours."

What flashes through my mind is no doubt what is flashing through his: For once, a student who is not passing, who has had nearly a dozen latenesses, who’s missed five classes, who’s been sent to the Dean because of them, who’s failed all of the practice tests—for once that student gets to be right. Moreover, Scott’s explanation of student-teacher intelligence is remarkably subtle. He is saying that intelligence is authority, from the relativity of his experience. In fact, by suggesting that a teacher’s intelligence grows more authorial when students do not challenge it, he’s busy taking his shots against the empire.

Everyone’s staring at me. "I really got upset with you all, didn’t I. You guys know the difference between you and me is not that great. I get every bit as frustrated with you as you do with me." They’re still staring, as though I’m ready to start crying while I confess. "I’m sorry I take this job too seriously at times, wanting all of you to pass so badly that I’m worried you won’t, but then what can I do when you don’t come to class, you’re late, you don’t do the homework, and you expect me to teach you, or maybe even blame me when you fail. Do you see how," I pause, search for the word, "futile this all can get?"

"What’s that mean?" Renee asks.

"It means . . . useless," I say.

Admitting the worst, suddenly it’s all clear: Eddie, who usually mutters incessantly to the girls beside him and looks down at his book when I pose the question, is looking up, rapt or lost; Melina is studying everyone in the room it seems, measuring other student’s reaction to my words; Criss’s eyes are shining as if to say this—finally—matters. Grammar doesn’t matter like this. Never, when the subject is grammar, is there such clarity emanating from their faces, from Scott’s face in particular. I keep searching for the word to match what I see in his eyes. It’s close to sublime. Maybe it’s serenity.


Two weeks to go and I give them a reading about the meaning of the word macho. The writer, a Hispanic woman, defines macho in Mexico to mean the good side of masculine—brave, dignified, mature—while macho in the U.S. emphasizes the man’s bad side—oafish, insecure, sexually promiscuous. Time keeps the discussion short; they agree I will ask them on Friday’s practice test to define macho.

Test day, I throw a curve. On the board I print: Write an essay in which you define and give examples of the "ideal man."

Right off Juan asks if the guys can write about the ideal woman. I say no, we don’t have to think about an ideal man as a desired opposite but men can be seen or see themselves as ideal fathers, brothers, sons, selves, friends. I remind them to outline first, write the body paragraphs before they write an intro and a thesis.

Scott first, then Nakisha come in late. Nakisha is scowling—or pretending to. She refuses to look at me. Nakisha is a pouty and pretty girl who didn’t bother to do her first essay but in her third essay wrote about how happy she was to get an A minus on her second essay. Her hairdo changes weekly. Today big hoop curls are piled on her head, the hoops held with gold-ball-tipped bobby pins. One eight-inch swatch of hair hangs alongside her face and it’s colored a grayish mauve as are her curls. So too her lips. From her ear lobes swing gold hoop earrings, four inches wide.

The topic’s a good one. I hear fewer sighs of frustration, more stick-to-itiveness, although Frantzi, from Jamaica, who’s been out of school for a dozen years and knows his grammar is abysmal, asks if he can skip the writing today because, he says, "Nothin’s comin’ to my brain."

Most of the women in the class are writing furiously, including Nakisha. I learn from reading their essays later that many classify the ideal man as one who "supports his family," which means for several, children out of wedlock. But as they write I notice the women are all attractively made up, emphasizing their hair, seeking men still with their looks. Like Nakisha. Or like the white women who have long cascading hair, parted in the middle, movie-star mussy. Several black women have their do’s in curled minarets, hair piled up like Laotian Buddhist temples.

I’m a little in love with these women, their caring faces, their quiet beauty, even their motherly innocence. I suddenly want that innocence for myself, to be a student again, before the sanctimony of profession and age set in for good. (That urge usually dissolves when I read their essays.)

Renee is the last to stop writing. She has no special hair-do, but wears a three-colored Africa hat: yellow, red, green. Above its bill the word BLUNT is stitched with those same three colors and underneath it is another stitch, a marijuana leaf.

"The end," I tell her, the classroom empty.

"I know, I know," she says.

Anada comes back in, having finished his essay ten minutes before. He is twirling a licorice-red wrist chain, keys attached, waiting I assume for Renee.

Renee hands me her paper. I ask, "What’s blunt mean?"

Their eyes meet; they guffaw.

"That’s a Philly thing," she says, laughing again.

Anada says, "You know, man it’s like in your face, telling you what it is."

"I know the meaning of blunt, Anada."

"Oh yeah, I suppose you do," he says and they tee-hee together again.

"You two," I say, "you two, I have big hopes for on the final."

They’re moving to the door of the classroom, the noontime shuffle.

"Don’t let me down," I sing, in my best John Lennon voice.

"Oh, I pass, Mr. Larson," Renee says. "It’s if I got too many absences mean I get a C."

Anada says, backing out, "I’ll pass, won’t I?" He waits for his answer; I don’t give him one. I follow them out.

Anada’s moving toward the long steps down to the parking lot, his keys twirling on a finger. Renee stops at the water fountain. It’s been a month since we talked about her "tragedies," as she called them. How’s she doing, I wonder. But she’s turned away from me toward Anada, when I start pursuing her, wanting her to tell me how she’s managing homework and children and loss, and whatever happened to that Math class, did she get dropped? She hasn’t volunteered anything to me. Then she’s yelling to Anada "Wait, man, wait up," and I’m not sure why I want to talk to her, but I want her to stay because she’s important to me, important that she reward me with some update. I don’t want to lose touch with her, but now she’s moving away even faster, hollering to Anada again to wait and he’s lifting up his car keys and jingling them and then before me a hundred students converge at the row of red-door classrooms, going in, coming out, and I lose her in the noise, the confusion, the bodies.


We are studying the reading for the final exam. This is it folks, I say. Last week.

Nakisha is blunt. "I’m scared," she says.

I look from person to person. Deborah gulps as does Eddie, head down, no comment. Patty looks lost, Criss, too. Melina laughs coyly when I stare at her. Going around the room with my eyes only makes them more nervous.

Anada interrupts, begging—seriously, comically—for me to "Just give us the thesis you want us to write about."

Scattered laughs. Inside I feel the Advice Monster come alive. Maybe, too, I’m a little mad that he’s got Renee’s attention after every class.

"O.K., Anada, what I’ll do is give you what you want. Pry off the top of your head and, from my bucket of knowledge which I keep there in the desk, pour in the answers so you don’t have to think a thing. Fair enough?"

He looks miffed. More laughs come.

"Is that what education is supposed to be," I bark across their seated bodies.

"No, man," Anada says. "But you supposed to be giving us some direction, leading us how to do it right."

Sharon blurts in. "He right. He be telling us we got to—" but I don’t want anyone to spoil my last hurrah.

"How many times, Anada, have we talked this semester about who the teacher of this class really is?" No one will dare say it’s me because they know, perhaps memorized or learned by osmosis, the right answer to that question.

I hear an "ah," dismissing the idea. Then an "ah-men," endorsing it. "If I’m the teacher then that means you’re not learning."

"But man, this is hard!" Anada says. He’s right to complain. The article we’re reading is about the relative benefits of being spontaneous versus being cautious in life, ways of behaving that are not either/or. The topic is difficult to interpret, difficult for anyone to write about.

"Good," I say, as much to the air as to them. "How many times have we said, once you admit how hard it is to do something well that’s when you begin to learn it."

"That’s right," Charisse says. She’s my guardian because telepathically she knows I’ve decided she can make it—she will make it.

"There is so much to think about in this essay Anada, you’re right. There’s no right answer. Therefore the thesis could be any number of statements. All I can say is that the thesis for the final will ask you to think, make a choice, say something you may not have thought you could say. Folks we’re way beyond ‘write an essay about three friends.’ That topic, I guarantee it, is not on your final even though it was part of the course earlier. Why did we write that? I wanted you to get used to writing concretely about your experience because that is how you prove your points. I wanted you to write about what you know because so much of what you know you have yet to say."

"No, man, that can’t be," Anada says.

I’m nodding my head yes and letting it be, letting it reverberate, when Scott says, "No, Anada’s right. We have been saying what we know all damn semester. And now you tell us we have yet to say it. Man, I don’t buy that either, not for a minute," he continues, smiling at his own inspired certainty. "I’ve been saying it all my life. Maybe nobody’s ever bothered to listen. Including you."

The students are rapt, listening to his words; the room has unhinged itself from the college and is floating off, into space. Let it be, let it go.

Anada looks directly at Scott and says, "Man, you the teacher."


Let it go. I’ve done all I can, I tell myself. Two days before the final I ask them how they would feel about my writing an article about this class. What? You know, the struggle to learn, between teacher and student, between student and his or her own writing. Don’t make it all bad, man. I won’t, I say. Go for it, yeah, do it, they say. How we gonna read it? I tell them I’ll get their phone numbers from admissions. But what if we move? Then, you get in touch with me. I’ll be here.

The day of the final. Seventeen students remain.

Everyone’s here on time and we begin; they study the question I’ve put on the board, then launch their essays. Everyone’s here but Scott who comes in five minutes late. His freshly shaved head (he forgot the pork-pie hat) and wire-rimmed glasses stare at the board while the others work. Periodically one or two students glance up and re-read the question, which asks them to weigh the rewards in their own lives of being bold and spontaneous versus being cautious and obedient. The question asks them to make a personal judgment of their behavior based on the consequences of their choices. The behavior and the consequences must be written about. The question does not ask them to merely state examples of boldness and obedience and leave it at that. Without providing the question ahead of time, I tried to give students this much of a hint in our discussion of the reading.

While they write, I notice several women who have on little gold or silver crosses that dangle from neck pendants, the cross casting hope over their words as those words fill the page. Most wear T-shirts, cotton sweats, a few keep jackets on. The room feels still; the tiny hum and a distant knock of a ventilator comes on then disappears. The paper I’ve given them to write on is very absorbent so there’s a soundlessness to their pens’ motion.

Sandra has put her head onto the crook of her arm to concentrate. Patty looks elegant in her grey, pin-stripe jump suit. Keren has her fantasy novel on her lap, hoping to finish five minutes early so she can go back to the Klingons. Myesha searches the reading, which they are allowed to refer to, for something more to say. Frantzi sometimes relaxes and balances his pencil on the brow of his glasses, then looks at me for what I have no clue.

Sometimes I watch as their eyes come up and search a sort of no-field of vision, a cloud of possibilities from which thoughts emerge, phrases entangle and words sentence themselves toward recognizable meaning.

I predicted ten of seventeen would pass. Only six of my ten actually do: the studious ones, Deborah, Patricia, Eddie, Juan, Sandra and Renee. I override Criss’s and Charisse’s failure because they are barely below the cutoff and because I sense they will do O.K. at the next level.

Nine fail, among them Nakisha, Melina, Anada and Scott. Of the nine, Anada and Scott should have passed, but their final essays merely described personal spontaneity, which both men preferred to being cautious, without highlighting spontaneity’s consequences.

In his essay, Scott talked about the fun of eating donuts and dancing to hip-hop music and, if this caused him problems, then he trusted God: "I’m so spontaneous," he wrote, "because . . . I know He’ll back me up somehow." Anada told, mostly in run-on sentences, of stealing clothes from a department store ("to impress my girlfriend") and being caught and sent to jail. Other "bold" moves included wolfing down his meals and partying in Tijuana. Anada’s conclusion stated the obvious: "We never know when to be spontaneous it just happens." Neither writer chose to say why their actions produced better or worse results in their lives. Did they know they weren’t answering the stipulated question? Did they believe a mere description of their experience would suffice? Where in their writing was that unmistakable self-criticism which each of the passing students exhibited?

Like a water witch, I scour Scott’s and Anada’s papers half a dozen times, hoping to find enough reasons to override their failing grade. I can’t. I can’t pass them. I’m the teacher.


Semesters end as quickly as they begin. The runaway train leaves the track, and the twisted rails shake for days in the loud, silent wake. The thirteenth century Persian poet Jelaluddin Rumi wrote that "the cure for the pain is in the pain." It is some consolation because I find myself brooding like never before over those who failed.

What intrigues me is that I know these students failed because they wrote about who they are—writers with poor grammar, with over general claims, with underdeveloped paragraphs, writing not about what the question asked them to write, but about the obviousness of themselves. (I should add here that we recommend students retake these preparatory courses. Despite the outcome, more practice usually helps them pass.)

What bothers me is the system of pass-fail we’ve devised, separating those who can write a fifty-minute in-class exam and those who cannot, a distinction which may be arbitrary and biased. Only those who can write under pressure can pass. There has never been in my recollection a Basic Writing class in which all passed or all failed. Our system of testing and ranking in my mind reflects some natural selection process which we’ve Darwinian-ly imposed to structure academic outcomes. College is hard enough, we keep telling them. Better to fail earlier than later—in school and not on the job.

Then it hits me: Is it their failure or is it my failing to clarify what we want from them and then teach to that goal, which is responsible? Is their failure my failure?

That which I said I wanted from them—their experience—was a beginning, but it was not enough in the end. Take, for example, this paragraph from a failing essay: "Being spontaneous

. . . can also be fun. Last November when my friend just got her license, we were so excited that someone in our group could drive. We decided to rent a car and drive to Magic Mountain. On the spare of the moment we packed up got in the car and drove for about six hours. When we arrived to Valencia area we had no where to stay. We slept in the car, washed up in Magic Mountain bathrooms. And put our things in their lockers. That weekend we had so much fun. We went on every single ride twice. . . ." And so on until the good time had by all supposedly stood for the reward itself.

Like this author, those who failed needed to write at a more critical and comprehending level, to be able to stand back from experience, after experience, and deduce a few things from it, come up to a level beyond the mere self.

Here’s a paragraph from a passing exam: "As I was growing up, my parents taught me to obey rules. I did obey their rules, but eventually I started to break them. I wanted to experience new ideas and to see if they were worth it. Now, I can say that rules are not always right for certain individuals, including myself. I have gained confidence, motivation, and a strong desire to succeed by not always following certain rules." With several examples we are shown in this essay how the writer’s desire to break rules has benefitted his character.

Thinking of Renee, I’m not sure how aware I was that she did possess the requisite understanding of her life experiences in her writing before she began Basic. How many times had she told me matter-of-factly, "I know I pass. I be a ‘A’ student weren’t for those absences." It should have been obvious, despite her ungrammatical speech, her swearing, her often obdurate reserve, that she could code-switch, write in the language of standard English that is other than the language in which she speaks. So could Criss and Charisse, Deborah, Patricia, Eddie, Juan, Sandra.

Scott and Anada, ebullient speakers usually with correct grammar, believed all it took to pass Basic was to write down their spoken words. Writing it down—the transcription—was not difficult, so they didn’t practice as much as the quieter ones did. Instead Scott and Anada performed language, their speech as supple as dance, as charismatic as oratory.

But, even though Anada’s and Scott’s intelligences were engaged by the class, often in vocal opposition or vocal deference to me, that intelligence did not transfer to the final essay. In a sense, by encouraging their gregariousness, I conspired with them: I thought their engagement in the class would transfer to their writing something critically facile.

It wasn’t only Anada’s and Scott’s writing that failed. It was also the failure of an assumption, namely that critical writing can be taught via the engagement of critical thinking in the context of class discussion or in the revelation of personal experience. Critical writing does not follow from dramatically rendered personal experience quack-quack-quack like ducks in a row. My assumption has been that it does follow and it—the transfer—is somehow learnable by virtue of enough quacking. No. No. No. I haven’t been listening! It has far less to do with my teaching than it does with an educable quality in the student, which the student brings with her pencils and erasers. I don’t know what to call it: a critical, reflective, writerly, readerly savvy, perhaps. However its defined, it is this savvy which college students must possess because teachers cannot engage it in them unless it’s already there, innate or inculcated does not matter. Furthermore, if we expect this savvy to issue from the academic rigors we demand of every student, we misjudge a whole level of students who are simply not teachable by our methods. In a writing class, we err significantly when we mistake that writerly sensibility for a speaking-and-thinking intelligence in the classroom. Scott and Anada displayed such intelligence but not in the place or the form that ultimately mattered to passing the course.

A final irony. My focus on Renee’s problems, which I thought would impede her success in Basic, caused very little change in her development as a writer. Her developmental vehicle was ready from the get-go, at the gate, motor running, lubed and oiled. Indeed this semester was a far less bumpy ride for her than past semesters were. I sensed something overwhelming and defeating in her life, what with murder, fatherless children and so much missed class. But Renee wasn’t at all defeated by such catastrophe. Perhaps—and this idea haunts me—she was supporting me the whole time; she was my rock, going along with the attentiveness I showered on her so that I would feel involved, feel a vital part of her learning.

I learn again my no-place place as a teacher. Someone once said to me in graduate school that the teacher is not in the classroom for the student’s benefit. Students—with their impassioned lives, full of idealism and dread, dignity and excuses—are in school for the teacher’s sake. This is one reason why so many of us say it’s a nurturing profession, that is, nurturing us, the teacher. Yet the profession can also burn us out because we too often fail to understand why the nurturing we experience does not produce better motivated and more successful learners.

What students teach us in any course is that ultimately they control their learning no matter how nobly, how blindly, how unconsciously, we teachers interfere.