Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Making Him Proud: A Letter From a Student

It's the second day of my English composition class at community college. The assignment for the first ten minutes is for students to write a letter of introduction to me.

They freak-out just a wee bit.

A letter? To you? Right now?

Some start writing almost immediately; some fret and chew their pens a bit. Almost all of them check the clock to see how long this agony? / delight? will last.

 I ask standard questions to prompt them: name, major, why this school, where they grew up, what they like to do for fun (specifying I only want the PG 13 stuff), what they want to do with their lives, what they like to read, favorite song lyrics and so on.

Since we are in a military town, I ask them to let me know, if they want to, if they have a loved one in harm’s way. I also give the caveat that they don’t need to tell me what they wouldn’t tell their priest, pastor, or psychiatrist.

They chuckle and relax a bit.

Some of them write slowly, carefully, with elegant handwriting. Some scribble and their words are borderline legible, even for an old pro at decoding handwriting.  Some noisily tap the letter out on a laptop, driving their eye-rolling tablemates (who are trying to concentrate) up the wall.

Some write half a page, some a page and a half. Some stop writing when I give the” times up;” some keep writing surreptitiously until I hold out my hand for the paper.

Some write lightheartedly, and I can hear their youthful, bubbly voices in my head as I read the letters later.

Some write sincerely, but awkwardly. An occasional student guiltily confesses to writing poetry, some to hatred of reading any genre (eek—but you’re a college student! I later write in the margin).

After the ten minutes are up, I ask who will be the first brave person to share what she wrote.

Today it was a smiling, brown-haired woman in the back row, in capris and a t-shirt. I’m terrible at guessing ages, but I’d say she was about 30. Her name is Calinda*.

“My wonderful husband always prodded me to go back to school,” she reads.

“Actually, he nagged.” The class giggles at this.

“But then he passed away a couple of months ago. I’m here in school to make him proud,” she continues, and she chokes a little on sudden, small sobs.

The class lets out a slow, sympathetic sigh.

 We are in a military town where death is no stranger.

The young girl next to Calinda is Sharon*. Sharon, whose husband is a Marine, hugs Calinda in spontaneous support.  I run to the back row and hug Calinda too. What else can I do?

Later, when I read Calinda’s full letter, she notes her favorite song lyrics.

“If heaven wasn’t so far away, I’d pick up the kids and come for a day,” by singer Justin Moore.

Now you can better understand what I mean when I say my students are uniquely motivated. 

A new semester begins:  second day of class.

*Names are always changed to protect student privacy.


  1. I had a picture on the wall of my classroom, which depicted a pile of luggage, outside a classroom door. Students haul around a lot of excess baggage. A teacher has no way of gauging the degree of this excess baggage. It's nice to find support, from within the classroom. I miss teaching.

    1. Mark - I learn from you every day :)

    2. The baggage is heavy, and how they carry it all, I don't know. Thanks, Mark!

  2. What a wonderful job you have - - and what a great assignment to be able to particpate in and get to know your students.

  3. Wonderful post, Melanie. It reminded me of a collection of short stories that I read last summer. It's called You Know When the Men Are Gone - poignant and real stories from life when you are part of the military via a spouse (

    You might enjoy it.

    1. I don't know why the above comment did that funny typo thing - I just wanted to make it easy for you to look at the book to which I was referring......goofy me

    2. I remember reading a review of that book a while ago-- thanks for reminding me! Definitely going to check it out.

  4. Your students are lucky to have a teacher who makes a real effort to get to know them as individuals. I'm sure it means a lot to many of them.

    1. Thanks, Masked Mom. I can't help it-- I tell them I'm incredibly nosy. But it does make for a better classroom atmosphere when we take a little time to get to know each other.

  5. “If heaven wasn’t so far away, I’d pick up the kids and come for a day,” made me choke up, Melanie. Few words but they pack a lot of heart. *Tearing!* I've said it before and I'll say it again, I so wish I'd had you as a teacher, back-in-the-day. Maybe, just maybe I could have done something different with my life. But now, of course, I make sure to leave NO ROOM for regrets. In spite of it all, all the hurdles we've had to go through, I am content. :)

    Melanie, it is a REAL privilege to read your posts. Thank you!

    Much love for you, Querida Amiga,

    1. Thanks, Virginia. When I read her favorite song lyric, I definitely lost it. But I was honored that she trusted us and told us a bit about her story.
      I think what you are doing with your life is important and matters. You are a blogging force to be reckoned with, lady. You have lived a life rich in experiences, and how we love to read and learn from you!

  6. When you write your book about your students, I'll need to make sure I'm snuggled up with a box of extra-soft Kleenex next to me while I read it. You get me every time.

  7. I'm with Jane- I teared up a bit as well. I always ask my (university)students, especially in the online courses, to write a brief intro about themselves. It affects the dynamic of the entire course, to understand the many different motivations at play.