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L’il Miss Attitude

Every year, I study my new class rosters and practice saying the names aloud so I don’t sound like a total dork on the first day.

One year, I was feeling pretty good until I came to one particular name.

T-a.

I didn’t know what to do with it.

I mean, I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. I tried a lot of different combinations.

Tee-ah? Tee-ay? Tah? Tay?

I had no idea. I figured the best thing to do would be to just admit defeat and ask the student to pronounce his or her name in class.

The first day of class came.

New students filed in and gravitated to the seats they liked the best. Some near the front, others farther back.

I introduced myself and began taking attendance, reading down the list, changing “James” to “Jim” and “Richard” to “Rick.” I even had the foresight to ask the student whose last name was Montague what he liked to be called. A good-looking chap in a baseball cap smiled at me and said, “Adam.” His name had appeared as “Bartholomew” on the roster. I didn’t want to embarrass him because his parents had made a bad choice 19 years earlier. Turns out, he went by his middle name.

Finally, I hit the dreaded name.

“Okay,” I said, “I am not sure how to properly pronounce this name, so I’m wondering if there is a person with the last name of Dinkens here today.”

The room was silent.

“Nobody here with the last name of Dinkens?” I repeated.

Someone clucked her tongue. “That’s me,” said a girl with her chin tilted up at a hard angle.

“I wasn’t sure how to pronounce your name, so I thought you could help me out,” I said.

“Why don’tchu try it?” L’il Miss Attitude asked, crossing her arms across her black and white striped tee shirt.

“Okay,” I said, “Is it Tee-ah?”

The girl made a sound like she had been annoyed with me since the moment I was born.

“Lord,” she said, “Don’t you know the dash ain’t silent? It’s TaDASHa.”

Silence swirled around me noisily. It was the first day of class. I had to set the tone, properly. I wasn’t mad at this girl, but I could not allow her to disrespect me, not right out of the gate. Seventeen billion thoughts on how to handle the situation occurred to me simultaneously ranging in severity.

While I was leaning toward a good old-fashioned paddling, I chose a stern voice.

“Are you a first year student here, Tadasha?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Tadasha said, chewing on her thumbnail.

“And is this your very first class on campus today?”

“Yeah.”

“And do you have a full-time schedule?”

“Yeah.”

“And how many other classes do you have today?”

“Three,” Tadasha snipped.

“And you are telling me no one has ever mispronounced or struggled with the pronunciation of your name in your entire life?”

“Bitch, where I live people know me.”

I thought my head was going to blow off my shoulders. Did I hear wrong or did a student in my classroom just call me a bitch? I felt like I was on some kind of bad reality TV show, you know the type where someone eventually jumps out as things escalate and tells the unsuspecting victim that he’s been punked? Except the clock kept ticking and no one seemed to be coming to my rescue, and I didn’t see any cameras. I had to do something.

Everyone was staring at me.

“Okay Tadasha,” I started, while moving to sit on top of my large iron desk. “Here are a few things for you to consider as you move through the rest of your day. First, I predict that this exact interaction is going to happen to you three more times today. And when you address the person who mispronounces your name — because it will be mispronounced — it would be wise for you to not address that person with profanity.” I looked my student in the eye: “Calling someone a ‘bitch’ is rarely the appropriate way to address another person whether in a classroom on a college campus or in life.”

Tadasha was silent.

Everyone turned to look at her.

Suddenly I realized I was playing a weird verbal tennis match, and I had obviously smacked the ball over to her side of the net.

Everyone was waiting to see if she was going to make a mad dash to return it.

She didn’t, so I kept going.

Full. Court. Press.

“Also, just so you know, you have an unusual name. The hyphen — or dash — as you called it, is generally silent. We don’t usually pronounce it. People may know you in the part of the world where you have lived for the last 18 or so years, but no one knows you on this campus, so if you want to have positive interactions today I recommend that you be kind. Try to have a sense of humor. No one wants to hurt you. On the first day, your teachers are just trying to figure out who is who. That’s all I was trying to do.”

Tadasha was glaring at me.

“Last, we have not started off well today, so I would suggest that you head down to the Registrar right now and get yourself enrolled in another section of Comp-101.”

Tadasha gathered her purse and her books and walked out of the class with her head held high.

She never came back, and I never saw her again.

I often wonder if Tadasha made it through the day. The week. The semester. If she graduated at all. I wonder about her hard edges. About how she had made it so far yet knew so little about how to interact with other people. Was she just scared? Did I blow it? Did I do her a favor? Or did I ruin her?

Who do you wonder about from your past? What do you imagine that person is doing now?

*names have been changed for obvious reasons

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Call Me Relentless

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Since I didn’t teach this semester, I am a little out of the loop. Okay, a lot out of the loop. It’s amazing how quickly one can fall right out of the loop. So I am a little loopy. And even though Fall 2010 was a tough one, filled with cheaters plagiarism issues and unintentional falls down staircases, and confrontations in elevators, I am pleased to report that I no longer feel like a three-legged table. I am 100% centered again. In my 100% always off-kilter way.

Back in March, I received an email from The Scheduler at the community college where I have taught as an adjunct for the last four years, stating that it was time to start thinking about courses for the fall.

Let’s just say I was a little geeked up excited when The Scheduler’s email arrived, so I tapped out a quick reply. Upon reflection, I see that if I had myself as a student, I think I would kill me. I am one positively relentless human being.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, March 02, 2011 9:30 PM

To: The Scheduler

Dear Scheduler:

Is this form for Fall 2011? Even though it says “Spring 2011 Scheduling Preferences,” in the subject line?

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, March 03, 2011 10:49 AM

To: Me

It should have been Fall 2011!

Thanks for the good eyes!

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, March 04, 2011 9:30 PM

To: The Scheduler

I just don’t want to miss my big chance.

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Tuesday, March 08, 2011 9:36 AM

To: The Entire English & Philosophy Departments

Um….  Mr. Perfect Here.

I realize I didn’t name the Fall 2011 schedule request form correctly.

So, even though the form says “Spring 2011” let’s just pretend it said “Fall 2011.”

And if you’re super picky, here’s the attachment.

Whoops.

• • •

Call me crazy, but I am 97.3% sure that The Scheduler was talking specifically to me when he used the words “super picky.” I decided that the best thing to do was to lay low.

I did.

For 27 hours.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, March 09, 2011 12:07 PM

To: The Scheduler

Dear Mr. Perfect:

Mrs. Anal-Retentive here.

Was that form just for full-timers? Or were adjuncts supposed to respond, too? (*holding my head*) I’m sooooo confused. Anyway, I’m shooting you my response via attached email since I am off-campus because I don’t want to blow my big chance. I hope that is not too much of a pain.

I’ve got a lot of Mrs. Anal-Retentive with a side order of Li’l Pain in the Arse goin’ on.

Either way, I hope you get the gist of what I’m hoping for with regard to Fall 2011.

Any questions, feel free to call me or just berate me via email.

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, March 09, 2011 12:09 PM

To: Me

Hi, Renee!

Yes, you’ll get another form specifically for adjuncts in the next day or so.

It’s less complicated, and it has more information regarding late starts.

Thanks for your patience.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 2:22 PM

To: The Scheduler

So I filled in that first form. You know, the one that I wasn’t supposed to?

Can I consider myself in the cyber pile? Or do I need to redo and put a hard copy in your mailbox?

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, March 25, 2011 7:15 PM

To: ENG/PHL adjuncts

Subject: 2011 Fall Adjunct Schedule Request Form

Please complete the form attached, and return it to my department mailbox by Friday, 8 April 2011.  A hard-copy has been placed into your department mail folder. If no form is returned, I will assume that you are unavailable in the Fall. Assignments will be distributed by late April.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, March 25, 2011 7:15 PM

To: The Scheduler

Hi Scheduler:

Okay, I’m re-submitting.

On the correct form.

Just to prove my uber-dedication.

I hope it is not a problem that I am submitting an attachment, as I am not on campus this semester.

I’m not usually a non-compliant, pain in the patootie.

Sometimes it just seeps out a little.

• • •

I experience what feels like an outrageous gap in time. During this three-week silent treatment period, I panic. I wonder how much The Scheduler hates my guts and how low I have slid down the adjunct totem pole. I decide that I will take anything he offers. I decide I will teach at a ridiculous hour, even if it requires hiring someone to drive my child to his after school activities. I consider sending The Scheduler a bouquet of flowers from Teleflora.com, just to show him how much I care.

Instead, I sent him another email.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, April 17, 2011 10:59 PM

To: The Scheduler

Um… Hi Scheduler:

I know you are on break, but – as I explained before – I have been a naughty girl, and I haven’t been checking my school email account as I’m not teaching this semester.

Have decisions been made about the fall semester?

Do I get to have even a single section? (*she asked hopefully*)

I saw Most Awesome Department Chair make a mention about book orders for the summer session, and I know Highly Muscled Book Store Dude likes fall orders to be in as soon as possible.

Let me know when you get a moment.

Thank you.

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, April 19, 2011 12:24 PM

To: Me

I’ll be sending out a fall scheduling notification by the end of April; none has been announced.

This will give you plenty of time to submit book orders for the fall, okay?

• • •

Okay, so I am supposed to wait until the end of April.

I can do that. I think I can. I mean, I will try.

Really. Hard.

• • •

From Me

Sent: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 11:16 AM

To: The Scheduler

Dear Sweet Scheduler:

You mentioned that scheduling should be done by the end of April.

And now it is May.

So I figured I’d just send a quick email to… you know: do what I do.

Hope you had a great Spring Break.

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, May 6, 2011 12:06 PM

To: All Adjuncts

Subject: Fall 2011 Scheduling Update: Adjuncts

Dear ENG/PHL adjuncts:

I ask for your patience regarding schedules that I had hoped to have complete by late yesterday.

Some schedules will be posted today, and the remainder will be completed by Monday.

Thanks, again, for your patience.

• • •

Clearly, my roiling anxiety has caused The Scheduler to send out another email. It is all my fault. He must think I am crazy. I start wondering if he has heard stories about me, if they are discussing me during faculty meetings. I wonder if my constant emailing could be construed as cyber-bullying.

The Scheduler requests patience.

I wait four days.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, May 10, 2011 10:02 AM

To: The Scheduler

Should I freak out yet?

Or are you still scheduling?

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, May 10, 2011 10:05 PM

To: Me

Don’t freak.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, May 10, 2011 10:10 AM

To: The Scheduler

Is it okay if I still freak?

I like to do that on Tuesdays.

But I’m glad I’m not “packing my knives” or “the weakest link,” and I’m glad “the tribe” hasn’t spoken.

You know what I mean.

Phew. (*wipes brow*)

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, May 10, 2011 10:12 PM

To: Me

You’re funny.  Have we met in person?

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 12:13 PM

To: The Scheduler

Dear Scheduler:

I am pretty sure we have met, but obviously my name didn’t stick.

I’m the cute one. 😉

Will this get me the class of my dreams?

• • •

From: The Scheduler

Sent: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 1:46 PM

To: Me

Hi, Renee.  I have you down for classes X and Y on such and such days at such and such hours. Fabulous Secretary will enter the information into the evil computer system this afternoon.

• • •

From: Me

Sent: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 2:13 PM

To: The Scheduler

Thanks Scheduler!

You totally rock!

And thanks for bearing with me while I have nagged you.

For weeks.

Or has it been months?

I’m like the wife you never wanted.

• • •

At long last, this squeaky wheel knows she will have a place to roll. Come September, I will have people to call my own. Life is good. (It is also good that The Scheduler cannot see me doing my dance of joy right now.) Because we all know what happened the last time I went dancing.


Lessons on an Elevator

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In my last hour on campus during the fall-winter 2010 semester, during my last elevator ride down from the English/Philosophy Department, I experienced the most interesting confrontation/ conversation. Ever.

When the elevator “landed” at the 5th floor, several people got out and four faculty members — including myself — got in.

One woman was already on the elevator; her dark skin stood in sharp contrast to the knee-length, bright yellow coat she wore. She had long, false eyelashes and long, sparkly fingernails. It was pretty obvious that she was a student as most educators simply don’t have enough hours in the day to worry about simple hygiene let alone more advanced techniques like applying fingernails or eyelashes. She also carried a cute little backpack while we all had little, unattractive wheelie bags laden with books and papers.  She must have accidentally gone up when she meant to go down. Whatever. The five of us crammed into the teeny-tiny elevator.

The door closed.

Suddenly a loud, distorted male voice came from Ms. Yellow Puffy Coat’s hand, “Girl, you better fucking get back on them pills. I don’t want to be nobody’s baby-daddy.”

All of us “newcomers” noticed at the same moment that Puffy Coat was now holding a telephone in front of her mouth, that it was on speaker mode, and its volume was on full blast.

“Dashan,” Puffy Coat said, “Don’t fucking be telling me fucking nothing about what I need to do with my body. You so worried about getting me pregnant again, go buy some fucking condoms.”

We faculty members were silenced.

It was incredibly uncomfortable.

I looked around the elevator as Puffy Coat’s increasingly intimate conversation filled with obscenities continued. I caught one professor’s eye. He shrugged, then looked down. The filthy elevator floor was apparently very interesting as everyone else was looking down, too. The doors stopped at the 4th floor where another professor got in. I recognized her immediately as Professor Sanity.

Puffy Coat kept going.

“I’m not having another abortion…” said Puffy Coat.

“Bitch,” shouted the faceless Dashan, “don’t play fuckin’ games with me.”

I couldn’t take it. If no one was going to say anything, I would be that girl.

“Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could, “that sounds like a very personal conversation. Do you think you could wait to continue until we are off the elevator?”

Polite wasn’t going to work.

“Hold up, Dashan,” Puffy Coat declared. “Bitch in the elevator trying to tell me what to do.” She continued, “Fucking bitch. I don’t know who she is. Just ignore her. Go on.”

Suddenly, the elevator stopped moving. Professor Sanity had hit the kill switch.

“Excuse me,” said Professor Sanity to Puffy Coat. “That is a completely inappropriate way to speak to another person. Please apologize right now.”

Puffy Coat didn’t know what to do.

It was excellent.

“Dashan,” Puffy Coat said, “I got a situation in the elevator. I’m gonna have to call you back.” And with that she silenced her phone.

(Hello, that’s all I was asking for!)

Professor Sanity did not stop. She pointed over toward my way. “When that professor suggested you turn off your phone, she was speaking for all of us. Because when you are in an elevator, you are in a public space. This is a public space.” Professor Sanity gestured a tiny circle above her head. “It’s a really tight public space, so people need to be especially mindful of each other. The conversation that you were having was beyond personal. No one wants to hear about your sex life. No one wants to hear the language you were using. The swearing was inappropriate, and it made us all uncomfortable. This is a place of higher learning. This is your moment to learn something.”

“Is everything okay in there?” A voice from campus security interjected through the intercom.

“We’re fine,” said Professor Sanity with authority. “Just give us a few minutes.”

Gawd, I love Professor Sanity. I soooo want to be her when I grow up.

Puffy Coat was relentless. She would not back down.

“I have every right to talk on my phone whenever and wherever I want to,” she insisted. “I pay my bills. You can’t tell me what to do. This is racism. You all are just picking on me because I’m black.”

Professor Sanity kept her cool, “You know very well that this has absolutely nothing to do with the color of your skin. This has to do with your behavior. You were not acting respectfully toward the people around you. When someone asks you to do something, your first response should not be to call that person a ‘Bitch’ — but that was your very first response. You need to think about that.”

Feeling bolder now that we weren’t going anywhere, another professor weighed in. Skinny, bald, and sporting double-hearing aids, this man looked to be about 80 years old. “Your argument isn’t logical.” (He must have been a Philosophy Professor.) He continued, “Why do you think that because you pay your bills you have the right to do ‘whatever you want whenever you want’? Paying your bills merely gives you the service. This conversation has nothing to do with race. This conversation has everything to do with your attitude of entitlement.”

Puffy Coat was silent. I couldn’t tell if she understood one word that Elder Prof had just said. Or maybe she realized that she was like a punchline in a bad joke: Five tired professors are on an elevator at the end of the semester. A student walks in.

Maybe she figured if she was quiet, things would end more quickly.

And things did end. Puffy Coat did, in fact, apologize. When five educators are staring at you in a stopped elevator, what choice does a person have? I mean, her apology was totally coerced. Puffy mumbled something to the effect that she was sorry for cursing, adding that she had never considered that being on a speaker phone in public could be perceived as rude. It was Guantanamo Bay in there. And that poor girl was being detained by brutally civilized, intellectual savages.

Professor Sanity told campus security to start us back up again, and we silently rode down to the first floor.

What stuck with me after I made it outside was Puffy’s defensiveness and her utter lack of understanding with regard to how to communicate with people. I considered how Puffy spoke to her boyfriend, to me, to the others: I supposed “combative” was her default setting. I imagined a whole heckuva lot of people must have spoken to Puffy with that same hostile tone over her lifetime, so that is the way she approaches the world. Pissed off is a pretty good defense-mechanism, but it doesn’t serve a person well in college, in the working world, or in life.

I wondered how a person could get to be college-aged and not understand how to behave in a socially appropriate manner.

It’s a sad social comment.

I’d like to believe — given the season — that like the Grinch, maybe …

Puffy puzzled three hours, `till her puzzler was sore

and eventually she realized she could be so much more.

“Maybe,” she thought, “I don’t have to be rotten to the core”

“Maybe it’s good those professors blocked the door.”

Maybe Puffy’s small brain grew three sizes that day!

Do you think that it could?

That maybe Puffy actually “got it” — maybe she understood?

Wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t that be good?

It would be wonderful.

If that’s what she got.

Do you think that she got it?

Alas, probably not.

What have you witnessed recently that caused you to think: “What has happened to civility?”

End of the Semester Blues

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I have one section of students that  hasn’t mastered the necessary skills to show they understand how to properly write a college essay, complete with proper citation. Their last batch of essays was pretty bad. With the exception of a few papers, most students bombed their Works Cited pages and their writing felt unpolished.

I asked a few other professors what to do.

“Tell them to suck it,” one said. “If they don’t have it by now, it’s not because you haven’t shown them; it’s because they haven’t taken the initiative to learn the material.

The other professors agreed.

But I didn’t want them to “suck it.” Why am I hesitating? I wondered. What has happened to me? As always, I want my students to master the material, so regardless of what my colleagues said, I decided to give them an option: I returned ungraded essays to them with extensive feedback and told them they could ask me for the grade they received on the essay and forfeit the right to revise, or they could revise their essays (with rough drafts attached) by Wednesday at the beginning of class. And by Wednesday, I mean tomorrow.

No one asked for his or her grade.

Now, I’m not crazy enough to believe that everyone will actually revise, but I am hopeful that some will. I am hoping that they will use their style books, the extra time along with my feedback, and give it one more try. Because after this, that’s it. There are only a few tiny assignments, 7-minute oral presentations, and self-evaluations.

I know students have other classes, but mine is required. English Composition-101 is required. Required. So if a student fails, he or she will have to take it again. It’s expensive to fail classes, but some students don’t seem concerned about the debt they are piling up.

At this point of the semester (with 6 classes remaining before the end of the term), certain students wake up and realize they have been doing poorly (for most of the semester), and act shocked by this revelation. They ask about extra credit and want to be passed because they need to keep an athletic scholarship, and/or avoid parental wrath. Requests for points for nothing or for passing grades are easy to handle. I offer a “no” along with my sympathy, plus advice about how to retake the class.

Today, as we began week 14 of 15, I had a student with an overall average of 54.4% ask me what he could do to bring up his grade. I shrugged. He shrugged. Later, I saw this video. I’d send him the link, but I don’t think he’d get it.

*Note: This little ditty was made by Clay Morgan at Educlaytion.com*

In reality, it is kind of hard to fail my class. I offer a lot of help to students to want it. I make myself available to conference. I allow students who show initiative to revise their papers. I offer extra credit opportunities throughout the semester – just not as an “emergency out” at the end.

I hate watching students unravel at the end of the semester but – the reality is – there are always some who come unstitched.

It’s reality, but I don’t have to like it.

Seriously though, why am I more upset about my students’ failing grades than they are?