A slightly different version of this essay appears in the current issue of the journal College Composition and Communication. This is a little of what my professional life looks like.
Amy sits across from me and reads her paper aloud. Every five or six words she pauses and changes the ending of a verb or adds a missing article. She is slight and pretty and has an air of unhurried elegance that has something to do with the slow way she turns over her hands and closes her emotionless eyes when pressed about her ideas. A more casual observer might read her as coolly detached or uneasily impressed, but I have lived in this world. I know a medicated daze when I see one.
I don’t know Amy’s particular prescription cocktail, and I don’t know what it seeks to remedy. She has mentioned depression. She is registered with our Office for Students with Disabilities, but, again, I don’t know why. It could be the depression, but it could be learning disabilities. I see her struggle with memory retrieval and executive functioning. Then again, those could be side effects of the meds. It’s hard to say. All I know for sure is that she can have double time on her final and that, per our OSD office, I am not allowed to inquire further.
“Let’s talk about topic sentences. Topic sentences can help writers keep focus,” I say after she has read the entire draft and we confer on how to revise it.
“So I need a topic sentence,” says Amy.
“That might help. What are you trying to say in this paragraph?”
“That the last time I took this class, I thought I would pass, but I guess the professors didn’t think I should pass.”
“You mean the outside graders? The ones who evaluate the portfolios? But isn’t that what you said in your last paragraph?”
“Oh. Yeah. I already said that.”
The class Amy is taking with me is unique. It is the course alternative to our university-wide writing proficiency exam. In other words, if you fail that test you can take my class. Until you pass one or the other, you cannot graduate. The class is full of multilingual students, like Amy, who also speaks Chinese. But mastery of Edited American English is usually the least of my students’ problems: lack of audience, lack of thesis, lack of development, indecipherable wordiness, these are the writing demons that we focus on. The hope is that, over the course of one ten-week quarter, my students will learn enough about global revision strategies that they will be able to succeed in the required upper-division writing course that is the capstone for their major. This has not been the case for Amy. Amy is taking this class for the fourth time. I had her the first time. When she failed, she moved onto a second lecturer. When she failed again, she moved onto a third. When she failed a third time, I said, “Put her in my class. I will make sure she passes.” To that end, in addition to coming to class and keeping up with the syllabus, she visits my office hours twice a week.
Amy reads, “The last time I took the class it was with Evan. I thought I would pass, but I guess I did not make enough progress and I failed. I felt ashamed. I was sad it would affect my plan.”
“What do you mean when you say you were ashamed? What did that feel like in your body?”
Her eyes open and close with the stiffness of a baby doll’s. “I felt like my heart was breaking.”
Guilt settles over me. I remember her last portfolio. I was one of the reader’s who failed it. “So, shame…but that sounds also like you were discouraged.”
“Yes, I felt discouraged.”
As she speaks, I write down her words. “I felt discouraged…”
“Why did you feel discouraged?”
“My friend—it was my doctor—said that maybe I needed to make a new plan. She said maybe I should take the class one more time, but if I didn’t pass then that would mean college was too hard for me and that I needed to do something easier. Maybe I needed to get a job. I felt heartbroken. I thought, maybe my friend’s advice was good, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
I write it all down. Because my daughter has a learning disability, I know that dictation can be an appropriate accommodation for many LD students. But my class is offered by our writing center, and my director—whom I admire--winces whenever she sees a tutor holding a pen. Students need to own their work. It’s their right. It’s their obligation. I feel like everyone is watching me, although I know they are not. I feel like I am doing something wrong. In fact, I am. Although I try not to, I can’t help myself. I add articles. I change prepositions. I take over.
“You wanted to stay in college,” I say, and I write that down too.
“I wanted to say in college, and I thought if I didn’t pass this time maybe then I would take her advice.
“Professor, do you think I will pass?”
“Amy, you will pass.”
I think about this conversation often, and always with misgivings. Maybe college was too hard for Amy. Maybe it wasn’t the right place for her. Maybe her doctor was trying to help her move on, and maybe I messed that up by giving her a sense of false hope that is destined to postpone other, larger failures. But I can’t know that. Amy persevered through four versions of this class. She was willing to come to every office hour I offered. Doesn’t that mean something?
The truth is, only Amy can write her future. If I’m going to scribble in the margins, then let my scribbles open doors, not close them. Amy has enough gatekeepers. What she needs is someone to guide her pass the rubble in the road.