A lot happens in the springtime. For example, the twisting, sweet perfection of wisteria blossoms along exactly four fence lines in various places in a square block around where I live. I stop, to gleefully put my whole face in each one. The best example is on Sycamore Street where someone has trained it into a near wall just down from the tumble of a community garden. This is its time to shine; a few brief days where it nonchalantly announces a perfect presence of perfume and undulating crème and lavender color draped over an earthen spinal structure. And don’t get me started on the lilacs, and the apple blossoms. This neighborhood is a riot of color and scent and things coming alive after a winter that lasted too long to seem fair. February was despair; May is perfection. So it goes. Now, that we are in the perfection part, I’d have it no other way.
And I have been closing shop on a long, frankly horrific year at work and in my personal life. However, I have in the last two weeks, had moments of real happiness. You know, the kind that comes out of nowhere and leaves you smiling, feeling like this is your true self. What a long time it’s been. And I LOVE my new apartment. This place is a perfection too—one of asylum, and of sunny corners and of new beginnings. I often sit in the west windows in the afternoon and watch clouds smooth themselves over the horizon and the outline of the house next door and just, marvel. After three years in a cold, somewhat dark little house on Willow Street, where I found love, and then was devastated, I’m finally happy with my home. It’s warm, and spacious, and simple and as one friend said to me, “it’s the right size for you.” I languor in my bathtub and examine my own shape in long mirrors and walk its hardwood floors in the dark, becoming familiar with myself again. This is all unexpected and ready for my embrace.
And, I’m saying goodbye to another round of students. I’ve had some of the best classes this semester. It wasn’t their brilliance per se, but the way we all became a part of one another by the end, the way they owned the classroom. There is something magical about the way that strangers become important pieces of your existence that I think only teaching offers in particular ways. A classroom is a space with potential for anything and being an agent of that possibility is intoxicating, it does not, in fact, seem to wane measurably with the years, though it changes always. At the end of this term I asked my students as I always do, to reflect on their progress through freshman year and through the class. And then I ask them to transform that reflection in some way. This hopefully is one more attempt at getting them to become rhetorically flexible and aware and perhaps even have some (gasp) fun in the process. The parameters are pretty open, though they must keep an eye on meaning even when it changes form. What I ask is this: they write a reflective essay and then they “intervene” in the text or translate it in some way. Every semester, students choose inventive ways to translate content in a new form. This time I had a few groups write songs and perform them, some enacted skits that showcased their knowledge of the classroom content, several students wrote poems, some enacted Socratic dialogues, one translated a portion of her work into another language, one composed a montage of snap chats of her day-to-day life.
Their responses, though wide in variety, yielded some common threads this time that really stood out. And if I had to write my own summary comment about them, this is what I would offer: Netflix, caffeine, naps. My students work so hard. They want to have fun; they are tired; they need a break. Nearly every group expressed a need for balance between school and social life, hence Netflix, and parties. They laughingly joke about how partying is both a distraction and a saving grace, how social media both deters them from their work and keeps them connected to who they really feel they are. They procrastinate and procrastinate and then, they submit and end up spending hours and hours in the library, jacked on caffeine, or caffeine pills, or Adderall in order to get their work done. They mostly never sleep before 1AM or through the night, hence, naps. They are earnest and constantly adjusting to a new environment and looking for routine. They all talk about how their families are the reason they are here, how they want to make them proud. They make me proud, even the slackers. It’s a good thing even they don’t know how much they are constantly accomplishing and overcoming just to get to class and get the work done because if they did, they would likely throw their hands up in protest. They have classes that are nearly impossible to pass, reams of information to memorize, problems like the ones in my class that take their best risk-taking and leaping away from a focus on “fixing” sentence level errors and into self-reflection, inquiry and analysis. The world of ideas.
Being so far out of your comfort zone, where no one can really, exactly tell you how to succeed is taxing work. And it is exciting. I have quietly watched so many of them flail over the semester and watched many of them eventually find trajectories that work for them. They are minnows weaving in and out of sleep or sleeplessness, figuring out how to survive on terrible food and sustaining the expansion of their own brains. And it is their earnestness to that process that always lights my heart up. I try my best to return it with my own honest, supportive, engagement with them. I try, and don’t always manage to not take them for granted. I want them feel seen and known and challenged and believed in. I don’t always succeed. As any teacher will tell you, you can’t win them all. But I will say that in reading their reflections this time, I was taken off guard by a few students in particular. One was a returning veteran student who spent the entire semester making sure I knew how he didn’t like the work, didn’t see the value and was pretty sure he couldn’t do it. He hinted that he actually hated college and that he didn’t know if he’d stay. The other was a student whose attendance was, let’s say, intermittent. And he didn’t even do a final project because he was so painfully shy that he likely couldn’t bring himself to ever stand there in front of the whole class to talk about anything. But, in their reflections both students talked about how much they felt they gained from their own work and from their peers during the semester. They clearly expressed knowledge of their own growth in specific ways. One ended his letter by saying, “me and my family are so grateful.” Yes, I cried a little. I had no idea, truly, no idea.
This is the magic, like springtime. It is unexpected; it comes from so many directions; it is a gift. It is right on time. Is there still more to come? Yes. Does my own heart still ache after this year? Of course. Will my students forget much of what they’ve built? Probably. Nothing, no one, is perfect. Winter will come again. There will be moments of sleeplessness, and despair. There will be Netflix, and caffeine and naps to get us all through. But for now: wisteria, lilacs, perfect clouds.