At a table in the library, I had been reading student journals.
We start class each day with a writing prompt, and the students write for about ten minutes. The first week of class they moan and complain about the task, by the second week they are falling into a groove, by the third week if we skip the journal entry writing due to other priorities, they say “What, no journal today?” and give me a letdown scowl. They miss not having their journal time.
I collect the journals after they have about ten entries accumulated. I read them, assigning a grade mostly based on how sincerely they have attempted to respond to the prompt using specific examples, sensory description, and details.
Students are instructed to keep the journals PG-13, and I remind them not to tell me things they wouldn’t tell their pastor, psychiatrist, or parole officer. But still, the students have a clear need to unburden themselves. They tell me a lot, even though they don’t have to.
One tall young man who sits in the front row has read a couple of his journals out loud to the class, so I already know he has a gift for writing. As I read the other entries in his journal, I sigh. No matter how many times I read the story about how an individual student has come to be in a college composition class, I am not prepared.
Since I don’t go into detail about students who are currently enrolled with me, I’ll just say that “Jim” grew up in an incredibly tough urban environment, enlisted in the Marines as a last chance way out, and was in multiple overseas deployments. He’s in college full-time now, is intensely focused and motivated. His writing is incredibly elegant; his journal grade is an A.
Walking across campus to my office, piles of papers in my arms, I mull over Jim’s journal. I look up, and there’s Jim walking toward me.
“Jim! I just read your journal! What a good writer you are!” I say, sure that anyone who can write as well as he would be well aware of the fact, and so will probably brush off my praise with a ho-hum reaction.
Jim appears stunned. He really doesn’t know he’s got a way with words. How is this possible?
“You must submit some of your work to the student anthology,” I say. “The deadline for submissions is coming up in a couple of weeks.”
We chat for a few more minutes, and as he walks away, Jim looks over his shoulder. “Someone believes in me,” he says, incredulously.
That smile on his face? That’s why I’m a teacher.