Saturday, September 06, 2008

English 101

As I finished my teaching certification in 1997, I nearly didn't finish school as I completed my student teaching. Somehow, I had never had an English 101 class. Fortunately, an old employer who I had managed a restaurant for wrote a letter documenting that I had had to write nightly reports for the restaurant and the school granted me an exemption from the class.

A year ago, while looking over the requirements to transfer to the University of Illinois at Chicago's Pharmacy program at some point in the future, I saw that I need to have English 101 and 102.

This semester, I've got Chemistry 203, an advanced chemistry class involving trigonometry, advanced algebra and some calculus. It is not going to be easy. I was going to take Anatomy, but couldn't get into the only section that fit my schedule. It was just as well; Anatomy is going to be a tough one. I'd like to keep it to one tough one a semester. I thought I'd get English 101 out of the way.

My English 101 class is from 9 to 12:15 every Friday. Yesterday was the first day.

The teacher came in. She is a young hipster, with dreadlocks, tatoos and a pierced lip. She introduced herself. She lives with her husband in a town about fifty miles to the south of Chicago and teaches at two other community colleges. She made a decision a long time ago, she said, to teach in community colleges because it gives her the opportunity to work with students he wouldn't get to work with in a four year school.

She then had us introduce ourselves. The class is amazingly diverse, like all the other classes at this school, located in the heart of Uptown, the most diverse neighborhood in Chicago. They were diverse in ethnicity, nationality, gender and in their dreams. A couple were, like me, working on Pharmacy degrees, and a few nursing degrees. Others were working on Fine Arts degrees, Engineering degrees, teaching certification, an associate's degree in auto mechanics and one, an Evanston cop, was honing her writing skills in order to try to enhance her chance to make sergeant.

The one way the class wasn't diverse was age. I was, by far, the oldest person there. The cop, who I'm guessing was about 40, was the only person even near my age (I'm 47). Everybody else was between about 18 and 28 years old.

The teacher starting talking. She talked about the writing process, about revisions, about how the class wasn't about grammer, spelling, etc.-- that it was about developing as a writer, about voice, content, structure and purpose. I chuckled a bit-- it was, basically, the same things I talked about when I was a sixth grade teacher teaching writing. In the end, we teach the same thing, over and over again, at higher and higher levels.

At the end of class, she asked us to write a "diagnostic" essay, in order to get a sense of where each of us were in our writing abilities. The writing prompt was "Describe an experience in a high school English class."

I described an incident with one of my two favorite high school English teachers, Holly Haberle. But I prefaced it with a description of something that happened in my sophomore English class.

My freshman and part of my sophomore year of high school, I just slogged along. I was unhappy. My family life wasn't the best. I was still unhappy about our move to the suburbs a few years before.

In the winter of 1976, I decided to start dealing with my unhappiness. I started journaling and dealing with my unhappiness. I started working harder at school and with the realization that now that I was in a high school of 5000 students, I'd have an easier time finding my "tribe," so I started working harder at finding friends. As the year wore on, my disposition-- and my schoolwork-- improved.

This included my English class. I started revising papers before I turned them in, and so was shocked when my terminally perky, phony sophomore English teacher returned a paper stating that the paper was so improved over what I'd turned in before that she didn't believe I'd writtten it. She was accusing me of plagerism. I was furious. No good deed goes unpunished.

Fortunately, the next year I had Dr. Bill Lally, a truly terrific teacher. So terrific, in fact, that I took two classes of his the next year. Fortunately, I also decided to take English Lit with Holly Haberle, another of the extraordinary teachers I've had in my life.

In my "diagnostic essay" yesterday, I recounted an incident where Mrs. Haberle returned a paper I'd done and told me I had to revise one more time. I was annoyed. I was a high school senior with a class overload working nearly full time in order to put money away for college. This would entail a late-night rewrite.

The others, I argued, didn't have to do another rewrite. The others, she replied, weren't as good writers as I was.

I was stunned. Later, I realized, she ignited, that year, through prodding, cajoling and arguing, a lifelong love of writing in me.

So, for nearly thirty years of on and off higher education, I have managed to avoid taking an English 101 class. As my class started yesterday, I could tell where this teacher was. She was nervous. She was where I was first class of the year for many years-- nervous. What is this class like? Who is going to have a lot of trouble with it? Who will be the ones I remember, good or bad, years later?

I, on the other hand, was in the place my students were, year after year, wondering about their teacher. As I sat there, ready for this adventure, and a little nervous, I thought that it's not necessarily a bad place to be.


SkylersDad said...

Another great story JY! Let us know what the young teacher thought of your paper.

Erik Donald France said...

Whoah, terrific! I'm taking a break from teaching community college English, but I loved the diversity. At Macomb, ages ranged from 18 to 75, which was way cool as far as discussions and life experiences.

In 2004, it was at Macomb where I realized that Bush had an edge over Kerry and it was again at Macomb (this spring and summer) where I saw that Obama had a serious edge over any Republican -- thank God!

Mathman6293 said...

Mr. Yen, you are such a "memory jogger". I read this post and thought (again), "man this guys writes a great story." You reminded me that my favorite teacher in high school was not a math teacher, but an English teacher. The one who really got me hooked on reading.

I wonder about the piercing trend. On day one, the kid with nine ear holes and a bar through her lip walked into my class. I wondered what is this kid about? Turns out she is a sweet fantastic kid.

I can't wait to hear what your teach thought of your essay.

'Bubbles' said...

As a fan of your blog, I was tickled to hear you are taking english 101.

It is so sad that there are teachers like the one you had that assumed the worst about your improvement in writing, isn't it? Makes you wonder how many kids that teacher squashed before they even had a chance to get started. Sigh.

Dale said...

I was thinking you could just submit your blog and get an automatic A+ and exemption.

lulu said...

English teachers are so lovable, aren't they?

GETkristiLOVE said...

Great story, as always Mr. Yen. Hope you get an A!