At first glance, you’d think he’s not that interested in class. He is often trying to find his paper, but once he does, he’s at-the-ready, jotting down ideas, notes from the board, ideas for later. He sticks to meetings that you set up; I know, rare for a sophomore. Today, when I was in line in the dining hall, he came up to me and asked a question about his poetry analysis paper. He was worried about his thesis. I told him that I wasn’t having lunch with anyone, and that if he wanted to stop by and chat about it a bit, I was down.
I make that offer sometimes, and every now and then, students take me up on it. It was my lucky day today!
Talking about him abstractly is getting on my nerves, so let me attach a pseudonym to him: I’ll call him Michael. Today, Michael reads me the poem he’s selected, one by Cornelius Eady, “I’m a Fool to Love You,” a sad dirge about a Black woman who accepts her circumstances, decides that the lesser of the two evils is an abusive man who fathers her child. Deep. And Michael proceeds to lead me through an excellent close reading. He’s captivated by the repetition of “blues,” wants to follow it throughout the poem. He needs help articulating the why; can I help him make his thesis get the so what to what he’s trying to say?
This poem is so rich that I can’t help but ask him questions about it. Why the blues (“because it seems to take on different meanings for the mother, makes her seem to finally reach acceptance”) which leads to a bigger discussion of the meaning the blues hold for folks, particularly for, but not limited to, Blacks. Then we somehow get on a conversation about parents and he tells me his father was deported when he was five, but that his mother didn’t tell him the truth until he was nine. That his mother, herself, is undocumented and speaks no English, and sometimes he feels tired having to do all the translation. He wishes his sister wasn’t so shy so she could assume some of that burden, but she can’t even be brave enough to order a pizza. He wishes there was a poem for that, about how he feels about his sister (write one, I suggest).
“I want to be remembered for something,” he tells me. Then do something good for the world is my reply. He says he’s going to. He just doesn’t know what it is yet. We go back to the poem and pause to discuss why the speaker’s mother chooses the father, even though he’s no prize. “He’s the best of the worst,” Michael summarizes, and we go back to the poem, mine it a little deeper for specific words that capture her resignation. He reads them to me, and I savor them. And we point to lines in the poem and we read and reread them.
I cannot WAIT to read your analysis, I say. We talk more about his thesis and I ask him if he’s happy with what he has. No, he says, because we just talked about a whole lot more.
What do I do?
I explain that the beauty of a working thesis is that it can change. And given that it seems that there are now even more layers of the poem, opening the door to new layers of analysis, maybe it makes sense to revise the thesis. He seems incredulous that one can do that. Of course, I say. Working means you can change it!
We try out several different statements and eventually he decides to add a part to the end that speaks to the resignation of the speaker of the poem.
I tell Michael that I heard he applied 15 times to one charter school, the one he currently attends. Actually, I say 14 times and he corrects me with 15. I ask him why and he says he had researched the school, and all of its graduates went on to college. 100 percent. He said that’s his only goal: to get to college.
I told him he should have a different goal: getting there probably isn’t going to be a problem given what I already know about him, but he should train his mind and heart to think about getting THROUGH college and what comes after. That was even more important. He shrugged. Short-term goals are as important as the long term ones, I reckon.
What I found surprising, though, was that, given that he goes to a small school, was that he rarely talks to his teachers other than for extra help. “Teachers are busy,” he concluded.
Unacceptable. Why have small schools if you can’t have lunch with this dynamo?
There’s more to this story, mostly about how this conversation with Michael reminded me about what it means to teach students who are multilingual, who do much of–if not all of–the interpretation for their families, who are imbued with all of their parents’ hopes for the future, who are still, ultimately, young people who need to be kids, too.
Oh, and Junot Diaz. He makes a brilliant appearance to cap off why we read literature. Later, though.