Guest Post, Heather Foster: Sh*t My Students Said: In Memory of Teaching

Now’s as good a time as any to announce it: at the ripe old age of thirty, I’m retiring. Well, I’m preparing to change careers. In 19 months, I’ll have my BSN, and hopefully, a nursing job. There are many reasons why. I found it nearly impossible to write while teaching Comp; the adjunct scenario is a racket; and when I wasn’t grading a stack of 78 disastrous essays on Flannery O’Conner [sic], I was dreading the next stack of 78 disastrous essays on Flannery O’Conner. I love helping people. I love science.

teacher-mistake_2837991bThat’s not to say there aren’t things I have loved about teaching. I have learned from my students. Just this semester, a girl who studies Victorian floriagraphy taught me something new about a poem I’d have sworn I understood inside out. Sometimes I was fortunate enough to have students—usually a handful each semester—who made me intensely happy with their smart contributions to discussions about literature, and especially their ability to follow essay guidelines. I’d strategically place those students’ papers in the pile, a reward for the halfway mark, a reset button in the seemingly everlasting hell of circling comma splices.

And sometimes a poem would do it—after days watching dozens of eyes, glazed and confused, stare into the distance while I explained again that “so many good times” is not a concrete image, so please try again (some students took more than SEVEN attempts to come up with one single image until I finally yelled, “Brass lamp! Accordion! Cowbell!” and the room went silent like in one of those movies where the crazy person finally loses their shit and I stood there breathing hard, regretting most of my life choices)—finally we’d read Allison Funk’s “The Lake” and I’d see the lightbulbs switching on and I’d hear them talking about poems in the hall, and I would know that this, this feeling of showing them something they might never otherwise see, this was why I signed up for this gig.

Nevertheless, I’m moving on. But not before I take a look back on some of the craziest things to ever come out of my students’ mouths. Those who are teachers will probably not be surprised by anything they find on this list. College students are notoriously lazy and shameless, and since I taught mostly dual enrollment high school seniors, I dealt with my fair share of both. They are, in many of their ideas about writing, the polar opposite of me, and so listening to this stuff for days on end can be maddening, but I have to admit there’s a kind of ridiculous charm in their words as well. Behold:

  1. “Writing poems is so easy for me. They use hardly any words.”
  2. “The next line says that he died before she had time. She is talking about killing her father. This could mean that he died before she had time.” Meanwhile, Plath is rolling over in her grave.
  3. “I am writing about the Galway Kinnell poem, because it’s got a really long title. If I mention it a few times, I’ll hit the word count sooner.”
  4. “Can you type up everything you said in class today and email it to me? My alarm didn’t go off, but I want to pass the midterm.”
  5. “At first, I thought I hated poetry. Then I discovered the secret to writing the perfect poem: listen to music. But not just any music. Something really deep, like jazz. As you can see, the results are amazing.”
  6. “Can you read my 6 page rough draft, fix my errors, and tell me exactly what grade it would get before and after I fix each thing?”
  7. “The fact that the paperhanger accomplished his goal inspires me to believe that no matter what people think you can or cannot do, you can do anything you set your mind to.” I won’t spoil William Gay’s tale for those who haven’t read it, but the paperhanger is maybe not the best role model.
  8. “I didn’t do my homework because the guideline sheet you gave me blew away in the wind.”
  9. “I never thought I could like poetry. Then your class changed my life.”
  10. “I haven’t been in your class for the past 6 weeks because my fiancé faked his own death to get out of having to marry me.”  What else is there to say?

Heather Foster

Heather Foster lives and writes on a farm in west Tennessee. She has a story in Exigencies (Dark House Press, 2015), and her poems have appeared in PANK, Tampa Review, Third Coast, RHINO, Iron Horse Literary Review, Word Riot, Superstition Review, Graze, and Mead: The Magazine of Literature & Libations. She has one husband, three children, and a cat named Sylvia Plath.

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