Teaching and Learning

Dell pulls onto the highway, past the one-lane wait where the long stretch of road is being re-paved, and she steps on the gas. The car moves forward, smooth and free, and she turns on NPR. What’s interesting this morning? she wonders.

“…they were locked in the hold?” asks the commentator.

The guest, identified as some kind of government inspector, demurs. They are not sure yet, he says; and they are still looking for survivors.

“The five they found,” the commentator presses, “are all crew members?”

“Yes…” says the guest reluctantly.

And Dell realizes only slowly that the others, the ones locked in the boat, were trapped in a fire.

A picture flares into her mind…of people stuck and terrified, of flames and screams and pounding pleadings at a locked door.

She turns off the radio and rides in silence.

She feels gut-punched.

******************

Her first class is on the main campus in a little industrial city. Today is a grammar refresher, and the students sigh and roll their eyes.

“I know,” she always says, “that this is basic and that you know this stuff. But going through it gives us a common language. Then I won’t confuse you when I write comments on your papers.”

She reviews parts of a sentence. What a noun is. Verbs and tenses. Subjects and objects. When to use “I” and when to use “me.”

They groan and shift and they write down every word she puts on the white board.

Because they don’t all know this stuff: they have gaps and empty knowledge spaces, some of them. They guard their borders fiercely, but every once in a while, a student will sit back with that look on her face—the look that says, “Now I get it. Now I know how THAT works.”

She puts them in small groups—it’s an English class after all,–and they come up with nouns and verbs and create sentences. They add ridiculous strings of adjectives and adverbs, words and phrases; they craft sentences a whole page long. They forget their coolth, and they get silly.

They work so hard, and they finish so much, that she lets them loose ten minutes early.

On the way out, one of the young women, one of the most languid and bored of all the students, stops and shows Dell pictures on her smart phone. Her dog has just had its first litter. She’s thinking, this student is, how hard it’s going to be to give the puppies up. She’s talking to her mom about maybe keeping one, the little one with the white spot on its nose.

Dell comments on the sweetness of the puppies, and the student smiles. Then the veneer slides back into place, and she nonchalantly says goodbye and saunters away.

********************

Dell’s next class is on a satellite campus, thirty miles away. She’ll drive on the four lane partway, veer off onto country roads, wind up on a four-lane again just as she gets to the satellite.

It’s a beautiful sunny day. The tires thrum. She decides to see if there’s anything uplifting on the radio.

She turns it on to hear about another mass shooting. Semi-automatic rifle; seven people dead, including the shooter, who had lost his job that afternoon.

*******************

The students at the satellite campus are unabashedly NOT city kids. They are enthusiastic and cheerful. Dell starts going through the grammar review. “I know you know this, but…” she begins.

She writes the definition of a sentence on the board. They talk about subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs.

“Wait, wait!” says one student in back, busily taking notes, so Dell pauses. In the quiet, one of the students slaps her hand on the table in front of her. She is a senior in high school, taking college courses through a special program the state offers.

She says, “I am SO GLAD we’re doing this! I forgot all this stuff!”

“Exactly,” says the young man next to her.

The students eagerly break into groups. They work up until the very minute class is over, and they stop on the way out to tell her what they’re doing on the weekend. One, an older student, waits until the others are gone.

“I think,” she says to Dell, hesitant and nervous, “I might want to be a writer.”

Dell can see how hard that was for the student to say, and they talk for a bit about some of the joys and the challenges of a writing life.

********************

The next morning, Dell heads—a true Road Scholar—to another satellite campus, this one in a suburb of the large city. The radio is filled with news of a devastating hurricane, of the dead and the missing, of whole cities flattened, of people stranded with no food or fresh water.

Dell grips the wheel, white-knuckled, feeling sick. So much pain. So much tragedy. Chaos reigns, and she is helpless. People suffer, and she is powerless and sickened.

*********************

Many of the students in this class were born in other countries. They wear, some of them, ethnic dress, and they talk with various lilts and inflections, and they are, many of them, very, very anxious about succeeding in this class.

This is a lab session and they work at computers, answering questions about Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” essay. The students have many questions, both about the content of the assignment and about the computer, and Dell works her way as quickly as she can through the raised hands, directing and reassuring. She smiles at Nadja, a tiny young woman with a gauzy head wrap and a soft, soft voice.

Before she answers Nadja’s question, Dell rolls her head and stretches, and she realizes that Edwina, the tall, elegant Ghanaian with the warm British accent, is working with the students in the front row. As Dell cracks her neck, Edwina shows Deanna how to access the submission portal on the class website. Deanna sees it; her eyes light and she sits back and grins.

Dell bends down to listen to Nadja’s question. She explains how to complete the assignment, and she helps the student open a Word document.

“But I don’t know,” Nadja says, “when I am done, how to get it to you.”

Dell tells her not to worry. Just concentrate on getting the work done. Then they’ll submit it together.

Nadja nods, troubled, but she peers at the screen, pauses, and begins, slowly, to type.

All heads are bent over keyboards, all fingers flying. Dell gives Edwina a thumbs up thank you, then retreats back to the instructor’s space. She keeps an eye out for raised hands as she grades discussion board posts.

Just before class ends, Nadja raises her hand. “I am done,” she whispers, and she asks Dell to check her work. Her answers are thorough and thoughtful, and she has nailed the MLA format.

Dell tells her that, and Nadja smiles.

Then, together, they save the file and close it, open the college website and click onto the class page. Dell shows her how to open the assignment submission link, and suddenly Nadja brightens. Her fingers fly; she attaches the documents; she hits submit.

The class packs up to go, and she waves them off, reminding them of Monday’s work, and wishing them a restful weekend. They say goodbye and hurry out the door.

Dell turns to gather her things, and then she realizes that Nadja has turned back. She is standing, uncertain, in the classroom doorway, and Dell hurries over.

“What is it, Nadja?” she asks. “Can I help?”

But the girl is not troubled. She turns her face to Dell, and it’s illuminated, glowing, kindled with hope.

“The computer,” whispers Nadja. “I understand now. Teacher! Thank you.”

And she bows just a little, a head-nod really, and hurries off.

Dells watches as Nadja wrestles the big door open, a tiny woman in beautiful flowing clothes, a strong, determined woman who is going to succeed. And then Dell turns and hurries to the instructor’s desk, her back to the door as she packs up her things.

She climbs into the car for the forty mile trip home. It is a sunny day, and she cracks the windows open just a little, letting a breeze dance as she drives. She leaves the radio off.

She is not in denial. Dell’s eyes are open; she knows what’s out there. But just for today, she’ll ride home on the power of hope.

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The Bad Thing and the Thing With Feathers

Definition of hope (Entry 2 of 6)

2a : desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment

***********

She came stomping into the house; she didn’t pause to look at us. I have the sense-memory that I was playing on the floor, maybe building something with blocks, and I jumped up to follow my mother, who hadn’t even said hello to us, upstairs.

“Leave your mother BE,” my father said gruffly, and he grabbed me by the arm. “Her best friend just died.”

Upstairs the bedroom door slammed, and the house hushed.

Now, with hindsight sharpening vision, I realize it wasn’t the first time the Bad Thing happened for my mother.

So it was hard for her to teach us how to hope.

*************

In the photo, my mother is three years old, held tightly in the arms of her impossibly handsome brother, Jim. They are with their sister Annie, whose cloche hat shadows her eyes. Annie holds a sheaf of flowers. My mother, dark-haired and taut and leggy, scowls into the camera.

It is 1925. They are standing at the graveside of their mother.

The Bad Thing has happened. Life for these children, and for their four siblings, will never, ever be the same.

**************

Another picture; another graveside. My mother stands, face washed of color, in a dark coat, a trowel dangling loosely from her hand. It is, maybe, 1944; her beloved baby, her firstborn, Sharon, lies beneath the flowers she’s just planted.

My mother is twenty-two, and she knows this: if you are not careful, if you abandon caution for joy, the Bad Thing is going to happen. And there is nothing then, she thinks, with a sickening, dread-filled knowledge, that I can do to stop it.

***************

It was only slowly that she learned to trust again, to hope, to reach out and make a forever friend.

Who loved her back.

And died.

As if the Bad Thing waited to pop out, taunting, every twenty years.

**************

I was a dreamer. I would do something wonderful, something amazing, I thought; I would live a thoroughly unconventional life. I would…. paint pictures. Write books. I would read words, and find words, that changed everything. I would go away to school and I would learn to travel by myself, and I would see the Eiffel Tower and the sun setting on African fields, and poems would well up in me. I would stand in the setting sun with my watercolors and I would capture that exact glow of amber sky, capture it on paper, capture it in words; take it home to keep forever.

I would experience a million daring things and chronicle them. Teachers fed my dreams. My hopes were like living things. I could feel them fluttering, in my chest, in my mind…anxious, growing, forming, getting ready to emerge and take flight.

My mother snorted. She sat on a different side of the fence, teetering in a rickety chair on a slope that gave her a crystal view of dashed and dying hopes. She could hear the groans.

“You can’t afford to go away to school,” she’d say. “Be happy you can walk to the branch. And get a trade. Have something to fall back on. You’ll need it.”

I’d need it, she meant, when, as she knew it would, the Bad Thing happened. Steady work, she said often, with benefits. Wouldn’t, she said, taking tolls on the Thruway be a grand job? When no one was there, you could read. Just sit in your booth and read.

She was so sure, so implacably sure, of what I needed to do.

I grew frightened. I went to the branch. I learned to work at jobs I hated, and I became proud of my ability to adapt.

Hope stopped fluttering so much, and finally settled, mostly still.

I think my mother must have relaxed a little then, glad that I wasn’t standing, hope-filled and unknowing, on some precipice where the Bad Thing lurked in wait.

***************

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope lately. I’ve been trying to pin it down, to define it, to figure out just exactly what hope is, and to decide whether it’s a foolish thing that ought to, as my mother taught me, be replaced with practicality.

Right now, I want badly to open the door wide to hope, but I am afraid of what will come in with it.

**************

Hope, the Merriam Webster Dictionary tells me, is “desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.”

   Hope, Emily Dickinson says, is “the thing with feathers -That perches in the soul…”

Another poet, Langston Hughes, talks about hope in terms of dreams, and echoes Dickinson. Without dreams, he says,–without HOPE—“..life is a broken-winged bird/
That cannot fly.”

Hope, then, is not just a fantasy or a day dream; it’s an expectation. It is not just envisioning what I want to happen but believing that it will happen.

Hope has feathers: given the right conditions, it can lift off, can soar and arc and careen. People on the ground below will shade their eyes, pointing and marveling. Hope is alive and waiting, filled with potential; hope is ready to launch and fly.

Or, it can crash, wings broken, aching and grounded.

Hope is alive. It’s a choice.

It’s incredibly, fearfully dangerous.

And yet I think hoping is what I am called to do.

*****************

“I wonder,” my brother Dennis said to me, a few years after my parents died, “what Jim and Jean would think.” We were talking about Mark being in law school, about our little family giving up great jobs and a steady school system to pursue a long-pulsing dream.

I was perched on the kitchen counter of our mobile home in Ada, Ohio, a cramped but homey abode where we’d live for Mark’s law school years, talking to Dennis on a curly-corded phone. We had rented out our hometown house and moved three hundred miles away; we had signed on the dotted line for law school loans.

I had found a job with benefits; Jim had valiantly made the switch to a new school.

Law school had always been Mark’s hope…not just a dream, but an expectation, a living thing that never stopped touching him with its feathery fluttering. The time had finally come, when Matt was safely settled, when Jim was old enough, when I had my master’s degree, when we could grab hands and take that Indiana Jones kind of leap of faith.

“Oh, I think they’d have loved it,” I said to Dennis, “don’t you?”

I said that glibly then, but now I wonder. My mother, I think, would have been horrified.

What about health insurance? she’d have asked. What about your house?

What if something happens? What about Jim?

But that hope was such a force for Mark, and the expectation of fulfillment lived deep and strong in all of us. Once freed, it was almost as if there was no choice. We had to follow where hope soared.

And it’s true that there were no givens. Mark could have had to leave school without a degree for some reason—health or finances or something unseen; Jim could have had a terrible time at his new school; I could have failed to find a job that gave us the insurance and the money we needed to muddle through.

We were taking chances, but, as we always said to Mark when he had his doubtful moments, “You can be fifty with a law degree. Or you can just be fifty.”

He turned fifty the week he got the notice that he passed the Bar.

We all were stunned, for a while, by the power of hope fulfilled. And then that just weaves into life, and we begin to wonder, What else…? What next…?

*******************

We use the word ‘hope’ for lots of things.

Hope you have a great day.

Hope you have a good trip.

Hope you feel better.

Hope the weather holds off.

We’re not really meaning hope, then, though.

We’re meaning, It will be nice if…

Hope is a bigger, more muscular thing than that kind of simple, daily stuff.

Hope is a beast.

And hope is a choice.

********************

And what if, what if, WHAT IF, I hope—what if I put my energy and my being into that expectation, what if I let that living thing free, invest in it, feed it, fly with it—what if I do all that, and The Bad Thing happens anyway?

How in the name of God, then, will I be able to pick up the pieces and survive?

It’s a terrifying thought; it chills me and freezes me, for a moment, in my tracks.

But the choices are stark, and the choice against hope is to settle for The Bad Thing before it comes to call.

I believe that hope is a living thing. I believe it has feathers and wings and muscles and soaring power, and that I must unleash it in the expectation that the thing I dearly, dearly want is going to happen. It may not match, exactly, the set picture I carry in my mind; hope may trundle in on tired feet, with dirty hands, and have to sit on the edge of the cot a minute before it catches its breath. It may be days or weeks or even years after hope shambles in that I think, startled, My God. My hope came true!

But if I refuse to hope, if I don’t release that power into that crystal air, then I can be sure the expectation will never be fulfilled.

It’s a terrifying thought; it chills me and freezes me, for a moment, in my tracks. And yet I don’t really see a choice. It’s hope, or it’s despair.

*********************

I have another picture of my mother, in her fifties, wrapped in a fuzzy blue bathrobe, the ever-present cigarette hanging from her lips. She sits at the kitchen table, with a steaming coffee mug and a stack of prayer cards and a handwritten list.

After the flurry of the day’s borning settled, she sat at the table, drank cup after cup of coffee, and she prayed. It was a daily ritual, one she’d kept since my earliest remembering.

She prayed that people she loved who had died were safely in heaven.

She prayed that those who were sick would find healing.

She prayed that money woes would dissipate, and she prayed that her foolish, reckless children would be safe.

She prayed for her grandchildren and she prayed for her friends, and she prayed for her brothers and sister, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews; she prayed for people she’d once shared a hospital room with, for companions at part-time jobs, and for people who’d coached her kids. She prayed for people who annoyed her and people who had hurt her. She prayed for beloved pets.

She prayed, and in that praying, she channeled her hopes.

She may have thought she had closed the door; she may have tried to teach us to be safe instead of daring. But in her morning ritual, she revealed a belief that maybe she did not even know she held.  There’s hope, her prayers said; I know the Bad Thing happens, but there’s hope that the Good Thing will follow.

***************

Today I am reaching for that feathered companion. Today I am going to set it a-soar.