Teach English? A piece of cake.
“You must jump in,” she said.
“I can’t. There are sharks there, in the ocean, waiting!”
“Jump!” my aunt said. “Prove yourself, prove your courage.”
The sophomore English teacher had invited the Writing Coaches. Her assignment was “tell what you did last summer”. Their first draft was ready. We were to help work on it. The students knew we would return in a week, check progress, and help finalize. I matched up with Istir. Off we went to find a quiet place to work.
Helping him find a “grabber” first sentence was not a problem. He was about to be eaten by sharks.
His family was from the Seychelles (off the coast of East Africa). His aunt and family still live there. His mom sent him to spend the summer with family in the Seychelles.
I was terrified. How can I? My brain was screaming. The men in the boat were no help. My aunt was not going to back down. I grew for 15 years only to be ripped apart by sharks. No one listened to me. Shut up. They were disgusted. Picked me up and threw me in.
As he read, he would hear the rough patches. I said, “Stop and make a note or correction on the spot.” He was embarrassed.
My coaching cue, “Don’t be. You see how reading out loud to another person helps you hear what needs to be corrected. Do you have someone to read to at home, as you work on this draft?”
“No, but I’ll find someone.”
As we walked back to the classroom, I thought ‘that was productive’. He was a fast learner, and excited by his writing improvements. Once again we reviewed the several areas that needed fixing, and his plan. He was confident. “Yes, I’ll get that done.”
I thought to myself, here is someone to win contests down the road.
A week later, the Writing Coaches were back in her classroom. I scanned the students looking for the three I had worked with. Saw two of them and we had a good follow up on their drafts.
Finished with them, I went to the teacher, “Where is Istir? Did I miss him?”
She said, “He did not come to school today.”
She saw my disappointment and continued, “He comes to school once in a while. He misses days.”
“That young man has talent.”
She agreed and started to tear up, “I know. I know. He has to stay home to take care of his brothers and sisters.”
As I drove out of the parking lot, I talked out loud to my car. “There she is. Teaches English to four classes of over 20 young people each, more than eighty students. And her heart breaks.”
Writing is writing
Hallway bells rang, chaos. Classes settled in. Mz X, the teacher came out of her room to welcome us, eight Writing Coaches. We followed her into her classroom. The students, juniors, were quiet. We stood in a line. Looked at them. They looked back. “Now what!” was on many faces.
The teacher introduced the “Writing Coaches” and reviewed the background of the writing assignment about to be coached.
Coaches introduced themselves. “Hi, I’m a retired English teacher. I taught for 25 years.”
“Glad to be here. I am a contractor. I have a business in town.”
“I retired from a procedure writing job. I still do occasional writing gigs.”
My turn. “Hi. I’m Bob. When there is snow, I ski. No snow, I bike. A Montana boy, I live on the mountain. Oh, I read a lot and I like writers.”
I noticed Mz X, standing in the back of her room. She zeroed in on each of us, what we said.
Introductions over. She stepped forward, “Ok, Jennifer, you go with retired English teacher. Tanner, you go with Leo”. She continued pairing coach and student down to the last one, “Oh, Sean, you go with Bob.”
Sean got slowly to his feet. Fell in line with me as we headed out the door looking down the hall for a place to sit. I noticed: tall, slim, long hair, does a finger-waggle when passing other students. Lots of kids like him. I asked, “Do you ski?”
“Play some sports?”
We sat. I waited a bit. He slouched. Eyes downcast.
“Want to read what you have?”
He looked at me. “I don’t have anything. Didn’t do it.”
I slouched too. Both looking down at our shoes. I noticed his shoes. “You a skateboarder?”
“Yeah, I do that some.”
“Ever break something showing off at the park? I’ve seen some amazing things there.”
“I’ve never broken anything. Mostly bruises.”
Noticed calluses on his fingertips. “You play music?”
I took a deep dive, “You write songs?”
He did. Got out a notebook for me. I did a quick glance, several songs. “Read this one for me.”
He read, then he waited.
I gave a big exhale. “Phew, you know, I could hear music in your lyrics. They fit together. That’s poetry. You like poetry?”
"Who's your favorite poet?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Mine is Robert Frost. Heard of him?”
“Writing your song was harder than writing that 800 word essay. You put in some good work crafting those lyrics together. Look, you have lines rhyming at the end. You have the number of syllables matched. They give a beat. Look, look, here is a word there, it should rhyme with the line above. You need to fix that. You need a different word that means the same thing, but sounds like it belongs there. You know where to find a word that will do that?”
“Thesaurus. Either the book or on the Internet. You will find a bunch of words there. Different sounds and mean close to what you want. What to know what your coach thinks? OK, fix that word. Put these song lyrics in the computer. Print it. Hand it in for this essay assignment. Tell your teacher that your writing coach said, it is worth an A.”
We got up and moved back to the classroom. “Ok now. You on the game plan? You know what to do? But here is something bigger for you. Do not stop writing music, the rest of your life. Got it!”
Sean nodded. Walked in and back to his seat.
Mz X looked at me. I smiled.
Three or Four Problems
Fourth graders are so cute. I had forgotten that long ago. What an age, maximum cute oozes out, all of them. Thus, I ruminated sitting at my table by the window. Half dozen teachers were busy ushering kids from their classrooms to the twelve coaches. I waited for my coachee.
She breezed to my table. “Hello”. Sat politely waiting.
“Show me what you have, please.”
She handed me her hand made note book and happily started reading a draft. The notebook was a piece of work: marks, notes taped, paperclips, dozen two sided pages, clippings, beaten, finger marks. It was USED. She had worked a huge pile of notes from the notebook, drafted many pages and was chopping them down into cohesive sections and paragraphs. Already she had finished two drafts. She used good vocabulary, had some big words and knew their meaning.
She finished reading her draft. Sat with her hands folded. Waiting.
I asked, “What grade are you in?”
She looked up at me, “The fourth grade.”
I said, “There has been some mistake here. No really, a big mistake. I know you look like a fourth grader, but you should be in that other building there across the parking lot. High school. You write like a junior in high school. What are you doing in the 4th grade?”
“I’m not big enough to go to high school.”
“Yes, I know that, but look at the problem here. You write like a high school student. That gets everyone confused. Maybe you should start writing like a 4th grader. Wait until you get big enough, then write like a high school student. What do you think of that?”
She was starting to beam. Glow.
“Whoa, did I see your head swelling? Did I?”
She shook her head, No.
“Yes, I did. I saw it. You are getting a big head. Now we have three problems. You have a small body with a big head and you still write like a high school junior when you are supposed to be in the 4th grade.”
Off she went. Next coachee was waiting.
Her teacher always asked her students, “What do you think of your writing coach?”
I heard from her teacher, next time she saw me a week later.
What do you think she said?
The teacher walked up to me, leaned in, lightly touched my arm, and said quietly, “You are right.” Turned on her heel and walked away.