I've reached the end of my first semester back at BGU (Big Giant University). And what a baptism of fire it has been.
I taught three classes: 2 freshman rhetoric and 1 poetry workshop. The freshmen were great. Agreeable, smart, hardworking. They were downright sparkly. Ahhh, to get TWO freshman classes that I enjoy is rare.
Ever notice how the universe is balanced? Sometimes treacherously so?
My third class, the poetry writing workshop, screamed "Raise your hand if ALL your classes are outstanding! Not so fast, Candy."
I've taught lots of poetry workshops. There are always snags that you hit when someone gets a little snarky about someone else's work, or has a bad day, or turns in something bordering on offensive. No problem. Do a quick Alan Alda and talk about it and move on.
THIS class? How can I describe it.
On the first day, you always size up your class. See who looks incoherent, who looks bright-eyed and intelligent, who is dressed pretentiously, who is text-messaging (something I forbid in class), who is smiling, who looks like someone just killed their pet bunny with a machete.
On this particular first day, there were 4 stand-outs.
1. Loud Never-Shuts-Up Girl: She made her presence known. It was a mix of Nell Carter and a yipping prairie dog.
2. Flamboyant Girl: Dressed in an emerald green satin twirly skirt, black lace hose, a gold sparkly blouse, and giant gold scarf wrapped up over her head and tied in a big bow. Like she had some sort of designer mumps.
3. The Smug Twins: guy and girl. Leaning toward one another so closely I thought they were conjoined twins. Curling over in half-slumps, eyeing the rest of the class with a look that said "You are reptiles unworthy of my attention. You will never ever understand my work."
A few days later, I see a good friend of mine in the hall, who also happens to teach the same level of poetry workshop I do. It's a class the university has just added. He asked me how mine went. "Pretty well," I said. "Except for these 2 annoying smug kids that are already on my nerves." He asked me their names. I told him. He then confided in me that those very two students had emailed him after the first class, asking if he'd let them into his class, because they definitely did not like Candy's. I was crushed. He said "I'm only telling you this because you had them pegged on the first day. And yes, they are smug."
As I stood in the hallway trying to figure out a way to make the floor open up and swallow me like a giant frothing pit of acid quicksand, my friend said "I shut them down. I told them 'Candy is one of the best teachers on campus, and if you drop her class, you will regret it.' Besides," he said, "you'll win them over."
Yeah. Right. They hate me so much that they beg to get into another class.
"You just told them that crap so YOU wouldn't have to take them," I said.
Next, the usual process does its processing: I go home, freak out, and Scott talks me down from the ledge. We come to the conclusion that I cannot "play" to the Smug Twins. My only choice is to teach a kickass class and let the chips fall.
Easier said than done. It's hard to walk into a room with radiant confidence when you know for sure that 2 of the 14 students despise you. I admit it. I'm not all that grown up, not so emotionally mature that I can just let that fly by my bottom-feeding collection of neuroses.
But what could I do?
I treated them like everyone else, with maybe an extra tidbit of ignoring them. As it turns out, this bothers people like that.
So I clung to it. And a couple weeks into the semester, the guy whose class the Smug Twins tried to transfer to, emailed me and said they'd emailed him yet again, to thank him for telling them to stick with me. They were enjoying the class. I cried.
Happy ending. Until...
The factions in the class had formed. Out of 14 students, there were 8 "normal" ones and 6 who were in definite camps. Camp #1 included the Smug Twins and their housemate, all of whom are terribly well-read, good writers, and many, many-layered in their smugness. One of them, I'll call him Stretch because he's about 6'4", is the best student writer I've ever encountered. He just makes you sick. So much talent that he almost has reason to be smug.
Camp #2 consisted of Loud, Never-Shuts-Up Girl, her cohort I Am A Spoken Word Artist Girl, and This is Just Too Many Words Girl. (I will add here that Too Many Words girl wore a T-shirt to class one day that said "I Have the P*ssy, I Make the Rules," though on her shirt, there was no asterisk.)
The trouble was brewing from the beginning. When I passed out a fantastic poem by a Pulitzer prize finalist (and friend of mine), Too Many Words Girl said (of course) "This is just too many words. Why she gotta put so many words in there?" The Smug Twins openly snorted and rolled their eyes. It did not deter Too Many. "I mean...maybe she should write short stories instead. She might do better with stories."
"I'll let her know that," I said. "She's only won the National Book Award and was a Pulitzer finalist. But maybe she could try something where she might find more success."
Flamboyant Girl did her usual thing. She sat in her over-accessorized radiance (this time with a pair of Mickey Mouse ears to top off her gold satin) and said "Well, I think it's a beautiful poem! Just beautiful!"
And Loud, Never Shuts Up Girl did her usual. She drove us down a winding, tedious road of an unrelated personal anecdote about her grandmother in Chicago who likes to "put the smack down" on people who get all up in her face.
The personality clashes came to a head one day in class when, after Spoken Word Artist read her "poem" with much, shall we say, stage presence, the Smug Twins commented on certain lines that seemed a bit repetitious. After some very chilly back and forth comments, Spoken Word blasted out with "All y'all just don't get spoken word!"
My hormonal imbalance and lack of sleep jumped in and blasted back: "You know what? That's insulting. Don't come to my class and sit here and paint everybody with your generalizations." And before I could go on with the rant that was pushing its way out of my mouth like searing lava, thank God that a Smug Twin jumped in with (unsuccessful) soothing, almost patronizing words to try to keep Spoken Word from blasting a cap into our @$$es, instead of just a literary zing. The room was bathed in tension. I got control of my murdering inner self and moved the workshop along. For the rest of the class we were all on edge, like cats when the carrier is in sight.
Please believe me when I say I actually ended up caring for all these faction members. Spoken Word lost her mother 5 years ago, at age 14, and you can actually see the pain in her eyes. And who knows what the hell happened to the Smug Twins. My best guess is that they're wealthy 'burb kids who like to lament the white bread nature of the world, and their slanted, superior takes on all that surrounds them. How they suffer. Loud Girl? Possible inbreeding.
As the semester went on, the boy Twin kept cranking out astonishingly good poems and fiction, which he also asked me to read. He sent me music, brought books to me in class that he knew I would love. He wrote long emails to me about what he was thinking about, about his writing, about music. I even went to see him and his twin/girlfriend in their improv group on campus. (Scott and I were the oldest ones there, by about 15 years.) I sat one evening listening to the latest songs he had emailed me, and it hit me, just how my relationship with him had taken a hard left turn. We were pals. I could not believe it. We had crossed paths for some kind of reason.
So now I'm grading the poetry portfolios and have just taken a break before I can make myself finish Never Shuts Up's work. Her final poem, like all her others, is a love poem. First line: "Man, boo, I need you back."