2. Incorrect First Impressions
I form ideas about my students the moment I meet them. In fact, my impressions begin before that, when I first look at my class photo lists a couple of weeks before the semester begins. When I walk into the classroom, I have a some troubling images already in my mind: the dark-haired boy with the heavy-lidded eyes and the sneer, the blonde with the pouty lips and the miles of cleavage, the slightly cross-eyed girl with the puffy face. I have previous experience with faces like these. Bad experience.
When I look around the class, though, it’s rare that I can spot the sneering boy, the pouty blonde, and the cross-eyed girl I’m looking for. If their pictures are on my course lists, it’s because they’ve already been at the college for a semester, and so the pictures are at least three months old; in some cases, they’re a year old or more. When you’re seventeen, three months is a long time, and a year is the difference between adolescence and adulthood. It’s usually a couple of weeks before I can reliably match the photos on my list with the faces in my classroom, even with the helpful hint of the student names under the photos.
What’s more, there are always Gladwellian “blinks” of insight within the first few minutes of the first class, and these blinks are almost invariably wrong. This semester, for example, I felt a spasm of irritation at the three giggly, chatty girls who sat at the front of the room in my 10 a.m. class. Chatterers! I thought. Layabouts! Disruptive influences! Not so. They were the cheeriest little things imaginable, and I was soon thinking of them as beams of sunshine that lit up the northeast corner of the room.
I also decided, before he opened his mouth, that the sullen dark-eyed Romeo who snuggled with his girlfriend in the furthest corner was an arrogant and clueless little SOB, and was amazed when his first in-class essay merited a 95%, and he unfailingly emailed me every time he anticipated missing class, which was not often.
This works the other way, too, of course. I have them do writing samples on the first day, and whenever I get a remarkably good one, I put a little star in the corner of it and assume that that student will henceforth be a delight. Christine handed in just such a remarkably good sample, and went on to do excellent written work throughout the semester, but in the meantime I had to stop at least once a lesson because she and her friend were carrying on a completely off-task conversation, in full cafeteria voice, right in front of me while I was trying to address the class. Christine also turned out to be a sulker and an eye-roller, and she was one of the students I was most happy to see go when classes were done.
However, students like Christine are more than compensated for by students like Berdena, who waltzed into class in leopard-print skinny pants, stiletto boots and huge hair, who could not spell for the life of her and who missed one class out of every three. For most of the term, Berdena gave me no evidence that she was anything but an airhead party girl.
Then, for her final assignment, she wrote a beautiful and beautifully constructed (if poorly spelled!) story about the horrific violence she saw her father committing against her mother when she, Berdena, was a small child. When we discussed her story together, we talked at length about the steps she’s taken to deal with the things she’s seen, and the things she might want to do now (like seeing a counsellor at the college or joining a support group, for example.) She told me about the process of writing the story, and about the advice one classmate gave her about how to make the present/past/present/past structure more fluid. Then she said, “Thank you so much for giving us this assignment. I’ve wanted to write about this for a really long time.”
As I look at those class photos, or at the eye-rolling or the leopard-print skinny pants, I rarely pause to be curious about the forty immensely complex mysteries that have landed in my classroom. It never fails: everything I think I know about them turns out to be wrong.
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