How to Make
Students Shine
(Despite Themselves)

Part II
And finally, there was Antonio, from Mexico. He wrote perfect English but his writing was a pain. He wrote in a script so small I had to practically crawl in the notebook with a bright light to get through it.

After struggling with it for a couple of sessions, I wrote a note in his book complaining about his handwriting. This created an interesting dialogue. He wrote a testy response under what I had written. He said his teachers were always bitching about his writing, and he wasn't about to change at this late stage. I responded to his response, told him that change was possible even after age twenty.

He may not have suspected that my complaint about his writing was selfish, for I wanted to read everything he had to say. His dreams were wonderfully weird and his life was a hoot. Each weekend he would tank up and go find a hooker downtown or head over to Mexicali to get laid. His exploits were sordid and funny and equal to some of the best of D. H. Lawrence or, at least, Joyce's "Nighttown."

He also gave wry critiques of my class. In those days I had given up coffee, was drinking a fetid dark liquid yogurt for breakfast. I would swill this stuff regularly, in front of all. He knew to rack up points even as I was teaching. He wrote that the vision of me and my concoction at 8 AM made him quite ill. I think the word he used was "barfy."

Antonio ultimately won the big prize. We added everything up in the last class. He topped the list at 165,000 words. All crammed into one tiny journal.

I loved the whole moil. I also came to love my students. Most of them wrote without shame. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be reading their secrets while pretending to teach English. With my ecstasy of discovery on how to get laggard students to write sensibly and well, I was prepared to ask to teach more classes in English 101. I figured that one day the Journal Sweepstakes that I had invented would make me famous --- would change forever the way writing was taught at American universities.

Unfortunately, my journalism class sunk my big prize forever. The class met each Wednesday at noon, and each week I would order up thirty copies of a local or national newspaper for us to study.

We'd look at style of writing, layout, depth of reporting, feature vs. news stories, and, in general, the "feel" of the newspaper. We did "The New York Times," "The Wall Street Journal," "The Los Angeles Times," "USA Today," "The Washington Post," and ... woe! ... "The National Enquirer."

"Look how it's laid out," I told them, referring to the latter. "The language --- nothing but the most simple, the best of 6th grade prose. No index, so you have to page through the whole thing. The placement of the pictures, the tone, the feeling. It does what it sets out to do: to titillate, to excite, to appeal to simple folk with simple stories. Perfect for the checkout stand."

They loved that class. "Now they're learning real journalism," I thought. But when they came to put out the annual April's Fool's Day satire issue --- which I neglected to vet beforehand --- I found that they had taken my words to heart.

They put a picture of Author Hughes, the President of the school, on the first page. His visage was neatly cropped to show him consorting with a lovely, toothy, busty cheerleader. The head nun, Sister Sally Furey, a good and straightforward lady (the two times I had met her I had gotten somewhat fond of her): they decided to award her a prominent "National Enquirer" inspired hobby. They set her a-dancing. On a bar. At Pacer's Club. The local strip joint. Down on the Midway.

I read that one and kissed my fame --- and my ass --- goodbye.

§     §     §

I handed the notebooks back at our final meeting. Antonio got his, as did our Football Captain. But the Princess never showed up, and I never saw her again. I have held onto her notebook all these years. It turned up a few days ago when I was cleaning out my closet.

I read a bit about Heffalump and Pooh, thought about them some. Are they still together? Does she still complain about his beard and he about her mother? Did they go on to have a passel of Kangas and Tiggers and Roos?

Too, I wondered if she would ever come back to reclaim that part of her love and her joy that she gave so generously, to him, and to me, so long ago?

--- L. W. Milam
Go back to Part I
of this article


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