On my first day of teaching, I headed up the stairs feeling part lion tamer with chair and whip, part artist ready to catch the potential of my students and show it to them, and part actress with the curtain rising. Coming down the stairs was Aaron, a veteran teaching assistant, who, noting my anxiety, breathed, “It’s their first day too. They don’t know that you don’t know what you’re doing.” Oddly, those words gave me comfort. Walking into that first class, freshman college English, I know I was prepared to teach, but I wasn’t prepared for my own role. I can’t remember what I discussed, probably the syllabus, but I do remember James, the student who began my journey to becoming a teacher.
Sitting in the back row was a boy with eager eyes and a timid demeanor—a look of wanting. He wasn’t the only African-American in the class, but he looked ill at ease. James was from Chicago, a gang member, and homesick for his mama’s cooking. In the following weeks, he never missed a class, never skipped an assignment, and never volunteered. As we worked on essays, James began interacting with me on his drafts, asking questions in the margins, responding to my queries, creating a dialogue on paper. Seldom did we actually speak; my verbal advances put him off, his body striking unnatural angles to draw itself away from the path of my words. Instead, we had our chats on paper. The lion tamer cracked the whip, questioning his word choice and transitions. The artist touched her brush against the canvas of his thoughts and helped him color the experiences more vividly. And the actress worked to arouse his curiosity.
Naturally inquisitive, with a good eye for detail, James depicted his circumstances in his essays. On his personal narrative, I urged him to explore how sitting at his grandmother’s dinner table made him feel safe in the projects. For his descriptive essay, when he spent more time describing the journey through the filthy stairwells and clots of semi-lucid people than on his mother’s tidy apartment, I encouraged him to ditch the underdeveloped prose about his home. Through his words, I felt the boundaries of love that his “g-mom” folded around him, the fear of stumbling across the wrong person in a dingy hallway, and finally understood the eager timidity in his deep eyes. This class was his attempt out, or so I naively thought.
Because his words had seeped into my heart, I spent time on his drafts, offering him feedback on style, tone, and word choice. Rather than minimally marking his essays, I circled his errors, writing out the grammar rules and explaining why a comma was or wasn’t needed.
Late in the semester, I came into Monday’s class, but there was no James. As I read that day’s campus newspaper, I learned James and three men had robbed a student at gunpoint. James was caught trying to forge a check on the student’s bank account, and he and the others were in the county jail. The lion had devoured the tamer, chair and all.
I approached Wednesday’s class wondering, “Would the other students know? What would they say?” But as I rounded the corner, there James was, essay out on his desk. As I passed back drafts, James asked if he could still turn his in, since he’d “had some trouble.” I asked him to talk to me about it later. Since there was a class meeting in the room after ours, we spoke while walking down the hall. I mentioned that I’d seen his name in the paper. He shrugged, intoning that he knew better than to get mixed up in that but chalked up the experience to bad luck. Out on bail, he’d likely go to jail after the trial, where he would continue with college classes. I stopped walking. Here was reality earnestly staring me in the face. What I thought was horrible and earth-shattering news wasn’t to James. He was going to prison. He had held someone up. He was capable of violence. He was handing me his paper.
All this rattled through my brain in that baffling moment, a moment that lasted too long. My unsettling silence suffocated us in the busy hallway, and I awkwardly realized that he expected the teacher to say something teacherly to him. Muttering something about how I’d get the paper back to him soon, I ducked into the ladies’ room.
Later, while I tried to write helpful comments on his essay, the chasm of our lives pulled me from my task. What do I do or say? How do I fix this? What good are words? I was angry at my well-meaning stupidity and at my naiveté. I struggled to maintain perspective and not scream in the margins, “Why did you do it? I thought this was your way out!” Instead, I wrote about word choice and tone, corrected grammar, offered advice about transitions, and, acted like … well, a teacher.
As we worked on that last essay, there was a change in our marginal chats. They were less, mostly because less were necessary. James’ writing flourished. His review of Malcolm X’s autobiography connected the literature to his own experiences and gave me hope for his life to come. On the last draft, I wrote a long note encouraging him to keep up with his writing, to maintain a journal, and to keep reading. He earned an A for the term, and I never saw him again.
A year later, after taking time off to figure out what I was doing in life, I returned to finish my Ph.D. Most teaching assistantships were taken, except for special admissions—two sections of urban, minority, high-risk students who, like James, were provisionally accepted to the university on a government grant. I accepted with trepidation, my heart still tender. On that first day, I met Lakeiwa, Shawnna, Curtis, and many others whose faces still seem so clear in my mind, yet whose lives are now so far away.
This time, I entered the classroom as a lion tamer without the chair, as an artist without her canvas, and as an actress without her lines. I admitted that I didn’t know their world and the only way I could was if they wrote about it. The writing was raw and poorly constructed. Each class, I held mini-lessons in grammar, so we could discuss their writing to see its structure and help give order to their thoughts. This schoolmarm style of teaching wasn’t popular with my peers; however, the joy in seeing my students learn basic skills and see their writing sharpen filled me with confidence.
To make them feel at ease about learning the lexicon of grammar, we compiled a dictionary filled with their phrases, like knocking boots (having sex), chillin’ (relaxing), and hoopty (car). This assignment helped my students straddle the divide into the academic world without having me falsely enter theirs, pretending to understand. My place as teacher was becoming cemented. I could never be a part of their culture, and they didn’t want me in it. They wanted a teacher.
Some dropped out; like James, caught in the cycle of poverty, they left for “better opportunities” back home. When I wanted to scream at them to stay, I said, “Take care. Keep reading.” By that time, I knew I was no lion tamer, no artist, and no actress. I was a teacher, a person who offered herself each day to her students, giving them basic skills to approach problems ahead, and accepting that she couldn’t give it all. I understood that the chasm separating us would always exist, and that was OK. My job was, and still is, to give them the whip and the chair so that they can defend themselves, to provide the paints and the canvas for them to paint their own masterpieces to be hung far from my prying eyes, and to act out lines, written and staged by their own hands and formed from their own experiences.
Today, looking into the bright faces that try too hard to look jaded, I recognize that the 8th graders I teach now are little different from James in their curiosity and tentative feelings about where they fit in academia. Words are new territory, and the language of clauses and phrases as new to their tongues as their words are to mine. We acknowledge the gap, and now, as then, students point out that I should never try to speak like them. However, they fully realize that they can understand grammar, discuss their writing, and talk the talk of English. Best of all, I walk into the class each day knowing that my colleague Aaron was partially right: They don’t know that I don’t know what I’m doing sometimes. But they trust me to be a teacher anyway.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Lion Taming Without a Chair