My first year of teaching, a student I’ll call Emma was in my sixth grade language arts class. She must be in her early 40s now, I haven’t seen or talked to her in over twenty years, yet lately I’ve been thinking about her.
Emma was the quiet child who patiently watched classmates flail at question seventeen of last night’s homework in Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition then, assured no solution would arrive, calmly offered the correct response. Random homework checks or pop quizzes never caught Emma unprepared. She frowned when I fumbled over coming up with example sentences for subordinating conjunctions. Emma set every curve.
Knowing what I know now, I should have challenged her more. Not with the work—there was no doing that—but with reminders she didn’t need to be so demure or deferential. A first year teacher isn’t going to ask a student to challenge him, but that is what I needed to do. I worried I couldn’t teach her because she was smarter than I was. Emma had a fierceness I should have called out more.
Sentence diagramming told me so. Sometimes, on Friday, I put an extra-credit challenge on a bulletin board in my classroom. Several students rose to the bait at first, and eight or nine would receive credit. But soon, through preoccupation or boredom, the number dwindled to me and Emma. She didn’t need the points, but on Monday, while I was away from my desk, Emma left her always correct answer. We battled silently. Knowing no one but Emma would show up, I turned up the heat:
The last of the emperors and their attendants must have seen their days grow short.
Everyone who recognizes talent developing recognizes Ernie has a special capacity to dazzle on the dance floor.
So frequently did I drive from Cranston to Crilton that seldom did I look beyond the hood ornament.
I remember writing a sentence on a napkin in a bar some dissolute Thursday night with my equally young and equally strained colleagues howling at my bringing work to play. I didn’t want to let Emma down. I pictured her waiting. I imagined how disappointed she’d be if that spot on the bulletin board were empty.
By the end of the year, I might have posted the first sentence of The Declaration of Independence and expected the diagram on Monday morning.
Teaching is my passion. I like my students. I’m lucky to have found something that, most days, I can do, even luckier to have found a demanding task I like to do, that some days I’d do for free. Nonetheless, I have hours of despair and anguish. I prefer to believe my students need me, but I often doubt it. Though some students enjoy challenges, many set the standard at completing the work, getting good grades, and moving on.
I swing like Tarzan between the Emmas I encounter. I’m proud when I can train someone who shows little interest in schooling, but I love students who return my investment ten-fold. They keep me going. Whatever their abilities, they want to “take me on” in every sense of that expression. They are like Emma, ready and seeking.