My friend Patton Hollow and I were quietly reading student essays
in our office.
Suddenly Patton said, "I can't do this any more."
"Assigning my students to write autobiographical essays. It's just
too much, too often."
"What happened this time?"
One student, he said, dutifully following the assignment, had
written about a defining moment in a personal relationship. With
her father. One night when she was about 10, she woke up to
shouting downstairs. This was not unusual, and she stayed in bed.
Soon it got quiet, and after a few minutes her bedroom door opened.
In the doorway stood her father, crying. She could not make out or
did not remember what he was saying. In his hands he held a
He told her to get out of bed. Terrified, she did. He walked toward
her, raising the gun. Then he knelt in front of her, held the gun out,
and told her to take it. She did. She was only 10. He took the barrel
of the gun in his hand and put it to his forehead. He was sobbing. He
told her to pull the trigger. He was not fit to live, he said. He had to
die so he would cause no more pain. She had to put him away, he
She did not know what to do. She was only 10.
"She wrote this in an essay?" I said.
"Are you sure it's true?"
"It's definitely true," Patton said. "She was in here yesterday
"She didn't pull the trigger. But last winter her father killed
I didn't ask how. There was a more immediate problem. A teaching
problem. "What did you say to her?"
"I can't even remember."
"What are you going to do?"
He did not know. He only knew that his teaching responsibility
was to not let it go. I suggested he ask one of the professors for
This in itself was tricky, because which professor could be trusted
to understand the situation? Some of them, with stunted moral
sensitivities, could be ruled out immediately. Others would be
Eventually Patton got what was probably the most humane advice:
Keep the discussion focused on the piece of writing; emphasize to
her that she is trying to convey her pain to other readers, not just
simply reliving it herself, and get her to talk about what she wants
the readers to feel and understand from her story.
How to do this was another matter entirely, and depended on
Patton's skill, not as a lecturer or paper-grader, but as a human
being. Luckily for the student, as a human being Patton Hollow was
an exemplary specimen, and the student-teacher interaction came
out on the upside of progress. How the student fared afterward, we
Teaching is not a process of injecting facts into brains. It's a matter
of getting people, first, to remember facts, and second, to
understand them. Strong emotions - and thoughts and moral beliefs
- color everyone's understanding. To teach well, you have to see
into each person as best you can, and try to wend a way among the
facts, understandings, beliefs and emotions that are already there. In
other words, you have to make contact. This is as true in science and
math as it is in English and history.
Now imagine you are a high school teacher in central Maine. You
are responsible for teaching - actually teaching (see previous
paragraph) - girls who you've noticed have neat, parallel scab lines
on their forearms. Hulking boys with wild, frightened looks in their
eyes most days. Kids who go to the back corner of your room and
put their heads down on desks they can barely fit their adult bodies
into. Others who have noticeable talents for memory, calculus,
music, language, field hockey, truck transmissions, profit margins.
Still others who have no noticeable interest in anything. How do
you get their attention? How do you get any of them just to read 10
pages in the textbook this weekend?
And why does that kid put her head down on the desk every day? Is
it me? Or is it something that goes on in her house involving
Then one afternoon, she appears in your classroom doorway after
school. She wants to make contact. But you have to send her away
because you are required to attend a meeting in which an
administrator is going to summarize a book she is assigning all
teachers to read about dealing with troubled students.
If you think teaching - actually teaching - is a cushy job, think
© Dana Wilde , Bangor Daily News, 2007.