“Are you upset with me?” the young man asked.
It was Day One for the summer program I was teaching in. The students, all rising high school juniors, had been accepted into a program intended to support first generation college students. My job, as their English teacher, was to give them extra academic help in reading and writing.
“Why would I be upset with you?” I responded.
There was little to do on the first day. I had little time to begin with. My day had been cut short by a seminar held that morning about why students should want to consider attending college. All I had time for that day was to do introductions, distribute the books, and tell them what to expect from the course. At the end of each class (I have two), we had 5-10 minutes to spare so I told them they could get started on their first reading assignment.
In my first class most of them appeared to get started on their homework. In the second, not so much. But it was close to lunch and they were also more awake than the first group had been. It didn’t bother me that some of them chatted instead of reading. And then this one young man looked at me and said, “Are you upset with me?”
And I couldn’t for the life of me even imagine why he was asking me this question, but when I asked why he thought that he had an answer:
Most of my teachers would be all, “Do your work” and getting on to me for talking. So, are you upset?
“No,” I assured him, “I am not upset with you. Look, I’m used to teaching college students. Do you know what happens in college when you don’t read?”
“You call them out?” he said.
“No. I don’t call them out on it. Do you know who you hurt when you don’t do the reading?”
“Myself,” he said.
“Right. You hurt yourself. You also can hurt the community of our class. When you don’t do the work, you won’t be able to participate and that cuts down on the experience for us all. I want you to read, but I’m not going to stand over you.”
“I’m going to read. I promise. Just not here. I want to do it at home where I can sit somewhere quiet.”
“That’s not a problem,” I said.
“Thanks for not being mad at me.”
It was an interesting experience to start Day One. Of course he had plenty of reasons to make the assumption that I might be less than thrilled with him, but I told him the truth. And I do hope he reads tonight. From the first day I gathered that my students have little faith in themselves as readers and as writers. Tomorrow we write, and I will see what they bring to the table. But the comments they made today about how they know very little about how to write, and how they are terrible writers, was sad. I don’t believe them. Just listening to them talk about writing told me otherwise. My first challenge leaving day one was how to get them to believe they are/can be accomplished writers.