UPENN End of Term


It’s Penn Relays season. The sun breaks through over the rows of buses along Walnut Street, and children from middle and high school run together in clumps. Earlier this term I told my students that teaching writing is akin to coaching track than to lecturing in literature. I feel it now on the way to their end-of-term reading. Their young minds have been running fast in the cold rain this winter and spring, and I’ve stood in the mud, stopwatch in hand, watching to see who needs what.

Some of them don’t need me at all. Some don’t want me. No, f’rill, f’rill. Sometimes in writing the desire to submit to any criteria other than the ones you’ve come up with yourself feels like a violation. I feel ya. In their writing, in their comments and the language of their bodies they communicate: Yo, middle-aged, community-activist black lady, step away from the vehicle.

But we have a do contractual relationship, and it is my job to watch them, and to help them, lap the field. Come on, now. Give it up: Speak the conflict; sharpen the vision; work harder to see and remember and think before you paper over not-sure with this-is-how-I’ve said-it-or-heard-it-or-seen-it-before. I push the impatience down into my feet and tap my toes under the table. On Tuesdays, I’m in the prison with men who cannot sleep at night because of the other men’s moaning. I watch them walking in the corridors, hundreds and hundreds of them in blue and gray. They take to the learning like my students at UPenn; and like the Penn students, they sometimes choose not to learn.

The sun is out and the track teams are running on sparkly wet pavement. I stop analyzing how they run and just enjoy them as I can sometimes, sometimes, stop the cascade of criticism and just enjoy English 135. Their reviews and memoirs and profiles; their thoughtful comments to each other; their problem-solving with each other; their laughter. Rilke says that if you can live without writing, do so. But who can live without learning, or learning how we learn, or watching how we chronicle our time, or how we remember, or how we attack a challenge, or how we avoid cognitive challenge? To write better, they must learn to stand in the mud in the middle of their own minds and watch themselves write, from first little thought to final edit.

I say their names in my mind when we’re not together, and try to think of one useful intervention I can make in their writing lives. Bloom, Brenner, Cohen, Goldstein, Han, Knight, Mertens, Okochi, Sardesai, Schonfeld, Siegel, Vaccarino, Vandivier, Vespoli. Tonight I want them to grasp this last chance to learn together in our temporary community. Read slowly. More slowly. Move your lips. Don’t say you can’t. Do it. Make it a gift. Then, after the hype, I’ll sit down and listen and learn what steps they’ve made on their own.

Paying strict attention to each other is like prayer. It’s like love. And then they leave.

Dear God, tell me that they’ve learned something.

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