A few semesters ago I was asked to teach a section of freshman composition that met Sunday mornings at 9:00. When you’re an adjunct, it’s hard to say no, partly because you’re afraid you might not get asked again. So I agreed, but had to wonder what a Sunday morning class would be like.
Bunker Hill has classes seven days a week, morning, afternoon, evenings, and even overnight. Our students lead busy, complicated lives. Many work full-time, some two jobs and more. One of my favorite students from a few years ago worked eighty hours a week while taking three classes. His wife stayed home with their three children.
That first Sunday, I entered a big bright classroom. It was 10 degrees outside, and gusty. I was early, and getting myself organized at the front of the room, I was picturing my students making their way in from the vast parking lots and from the subway, crossing the wide open plaza in front of the school, bundled against the cold and wind. I have so many students from warm weather places–Brazill, Haiti, the Dominican, Africa–and I marvel that they are now sitting through a Boston winter. I know that even though it is mid-year, more than a few will be taking their first class here, and perhaps this morning will even be their first time in a college classroom. What a morning for them to start their college education.
Students drifted in, some 15 minutes early, some on time, a few just after 9:00 when the class was due to start. It was a big room, with seating for 40 or more and the class registration at 22, and some gravitated to the corners of the room. I made a mental note to change the seating early the next week so it wouldn’t be easy to hide.
And then I started class the way I have started every class since returning to the classroom in 2011, by reading Gary Soto’s wonderful poem, “Oranges.” If you’ve never read it before, read it now. (Really, read it now.) And if you have read it, read it again. It is a perfect little short, short story wrapped in a poem that evokes a time and place like few things I have read. Then I said something I often say, which I stole directly from Jim Ellefson, a poet and teacher who leads a writing workshop I take at Ferry Beach most summers. “Writing is a gift. You’ve all been places none of us have been to. Write about one of those places. Take us there.”
Then I gave them 20 minutes to write, and, after asking them to put down their pens, I asked, “OK. who would like to share?” What follows is usually several minutes of cajoling, but that morning a young woman sitting up front shrugged and said, “I will.”
She then shared a vignette about a favorite restaurant where she grew up in Cartegena, Colombia. When a second young woman then talked about a beach where she worked in Antigua, I knew we had a theme. The hell with it being 10 degrees outside, We were going to the beach. Or at least to hot places. Next: a cemetery in Marrakech, then an army base in Iraq. Then a young man–who would end up with the best portfolio in the class–volunteered. “This is about my bedroom in Everett. No one’s been in my bedroom, right? I mean, that would be weird.”
In all, nine students shared without hesitation, and–even more happily–students readily complimented each other and asked questions. They were warm, supportive, and genuinely interested. We were an hour in, I had spoken for no more than a few of those minutes, and we were off to a flying start. I knew I had to move on to all the administrative stuff that comes with a first class–the syllabus, classroom expectations, the coursebook–but I couldn’t let the moment pass. “I started us off by saying writing, at its best, is a gift. You have given each other a wonderful gift. Thank you all for sharing, and thank you just us much for listening.”