Sample Narrative Essay: Learning on the Fly

What appears below is a sample of the kind of paper students in my Fall 2016 section of ENGL 1301: Rhetoric & Composition are asked to write here. Its topic is one that would likely need discussion, although it would likely receive approval if requested. It does, however, adhere to the length requirements expressed to students. They are asked for approximately 1,300 words, exclusive of heading, title,  page numbers, and any necessary Works Cited entries; the paper below is exactly that length as assessed by those standards. Its formatting will necessarily differ from student submissions due to the differing medium. How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.

I have not always taught at the college level; I began college with the idea of becoming a band director, and when I switched my major to English, I did so seeking certification to teach high school. As part of that pursuit, I spent a semester student-teaching at Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio, Texas. Standing near where Monticello Park shades into Maverick and Donaldson Terrace, located on Donaldson Avenue not far off of Babcock where it approaches Fredericksburg, the school focuses on a lovely building built by the old Civilian Conservation Corps. Decorated within and without by intricate carvings and inlaid tiles in variegated colors, it does show its age, to be sure, and the work of bored, delinquent students upon it—but I nonetheless reached it gladly each morning, knowing it to be a good place to do the last little bit of work before I began my teaching career.

Typically, when I went to work at the school, I would wear a button-up shirt without a tie (my throat swells when I speak as classrooms call me to do, and ties threaten then to cut off the flow of blood to my brain) and a pair of slacks—and I still felt underdressed for the building, even as the teacher who graciously allowed me to use his classes for my own learning typically appeared in jeans and others on campus dressed no less casually. I was anxious about my professional status, then, having not yet earned my certification or my baccalaureate, and I knew that presenting a polished appearance to my students would do much to help instill a sense of respect for me and for the work I tried to do with the classes I taught—six sections of regular-level senior English.

Then as now, though, I did not want my students to be so much in awe of me that they dared not speak. Too, then as now, I wanted them to feel the same joy in English language and literature that I do—and, since senior English at Thomas Jefferson High School then treated British literature, I was particularly motivated to make the joy and delight of the subject matter known. Even then, I knew I would be treating it at length in my career to come, although I did not yet know my doing so would take me to graduate school in Lafayette, Louisiana, and to a career beyond. And so I did what I could to embrace laughter and wordplay, cracking wise in the classroom as often as the material and circumstances would allow. With Chaucer, the Greatest of Geoffreys, I could often do so. With Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and with Malory, less so, but I still did what I could to find and push forward my delight in the work.

Advancing it, though, did not always go so well as I would hope. The early class, still waking up and filled to overflowing with more than thirty students crammed into a classroom meant to hold twenty-five, and having no few students whose command of English, by chance or by choice, did not permit jokes to go over well, did not laugh so much as I did. Second period, disrupted by demanded oaths and announcements, often had problems finding its rhythm again after the class resumed. Third period was given to planning and draining the last dregs of each morning’s thermos of coffee. Fourth period was usually pretty good about getting the jokes, or at least getting that there were jokes, and several of the students produced remarkably sensitive, astute work; that I reached them, I know, and I wish I had been able to remain in contact with some of them across the intervening decade. Fifth period, following lunch, was generally good, if perhaps a bit sleepy with bellies full. Sixth period, smaller by far, was almost always on top of matters—if punctuated unpleasantly by two students with mouths smarter than their heads. Seventh period, with seven students, might be quiet, but it was the kind of quiet that comes from deep consideration and understanding, and I appreciated having such an end to each teaching day.

So it happened one morning that I had gone to work wearing a white shirt and blue slacks, and I was teaching as I normally did, going over some of Shakespeare’s sonnets in much more sedate fashion than I do anymore. (I know more now, or I flatter myself that I do, and I can speak of things with college students that I cannot with high schoolers.) Even so, I launched any number of jokes, chiefly puns and what I thought were sly commentaries, presenting texts in unaccustomed accents, towards my students as I moved about the room, gesticulating wildly as is my wont—and they laughed! Oh, how they laughed! Shoulders heaving as head dropped to desks or into hands to shake while cradled, the students guffawed and bellowed and brayed; some even snorted, and their doing so gave me pause. I stopped to share their laughter and resumed my work, sending out comment after comment to what seemed acclaim. If I recall correctly, one student even slipped out of his chair and onto the floor, and one or two might have had to run to the restroom against the gales of mirth that blew about the class.

For forty-five minutes, I kept such things going, and in the last five, as students began to pack their things to flee from my room to those of other, more established, more staid instructors, one of them—a student whose good-natured smart-alecky commentaries often offered me pushing-off points for my own—came up to the lectern on which I leaned to catch my breath again and still my mind to present materials to the next class.

“Mr. Elliott,” he said, for I had not yet earned my higher titles then, “I need to tell you something.”

“What’ve y’ got?” I asked in reply, suddenly sobered—for the students at Thomas Jefferson High School face circumstances that are often not optimal, often not as any of us would have them be, and the words he spoke were given me in a tone hollower and lower in pitch and volume than his usual rolling jollity.

“Well, sir,” he said, and his neck and cheeks began to flush red, “well, your, well,” and, trailing off, he pointed downwards at me. My eyes followed his finger’s gesture, looking behind the lectern and towards the front of my pants.

My fly was open.

My shirt stuck through it.

I had taught the entire class with a bit of my white shirt emerging through the front of dark blue slacks.

I had not noticed.

I felt a flood of heat in my own chest and neck and cheeks, a sudden fever in my forehead, and I knew I did a fair imitation in that moment of the flag of the Netherlands. I spun quickly, facing away from the class—even though I was behind a solid lectern and so concealed, and even though I had had a banner of peace and surrender emerging from the front of my pants for all of my students to see—shoving my shirt back through the open fly and zipping it tightly closed.

I turned back to the student just in time to hear the bell ring and the din of students flooding the halls, rushing out of the classroom—he was already on his way out of the door, and as he cleared the threshold, I heard the twittering of laughter and the lower ululations of others’ mirth—not because of the things I had said, but because of what I had left undone that day and not again since.

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