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kolby white whale
Ahab had his white whale; I have Melissa.

Melissa is seventeen, headed (probably) to the University of Texas and is, by all accounts, wonderful. She wears jeans with stitched designs and cardigans with little woven flourishes. She’s on the executive committee of the Service Club. She makes straight A’s and takes AP tests.

But she can’t write.

Exhibit A: “Sidney Carton is ever foraging for quests of real righteousness in order so that his love will in the end open over his heart and be forever his true side as opposed to the other.” Hack away enough debris and you find a mind working hard to analyze a character. She can kind of write, but not like a senior should be writing.

I feel lousy because she is, like the white whale, inscrutable. She has been evaluated by the impenetrable coalition responsible for identifying and labeling learning disabilities, and for assigning individual education plans, and she’s come through clean.

Her parents are warm, loving, and supportive, but her syntax is impoverished. I spend minutes in individual sentences trying to divine even a vague coherence. Why can’t I figure out a way to unlock this completely capable student and allow her to write with the intelligence she clearly possesses? I get angry: Everyone can write! How dare you! I ought to stick no. 2 pencils up your fingernails!

We talk at my desk. She sits across from me as I explain she shouldn’t need to feel pressure to over-write to impress a reader. “Just speak the idea out loud to yourself—then write down those words.” Sometimes I let her dictate to me, and her prose is fluid and easy. I tell her to dictate for herself and we are left again with a garbled heap: “John Donne demonstrates his ultimate mastery of poetic achievement in the world of metaphors by the novel idea of building a flea into the body of his lover so he might persuade her of his romantic certain intentions.”

She listens and nods. She holds her pen like she’s hoping ink will dribble out. She says, “Oh, now I get what you’re saying.” She says, “Yeah, that makes sense.” We sit on opposite sides of the desk, feeling a mix of pity and shame as we try again.

This is where I get upset. Because I don’t have the resolution, the breakthrough. It’s all right there for Melissa and me. It should be happening now, as she is haphazardly attaching yet another digressive prepositional phrase. But the filament of understanding doesn’t ignite. She doesn’t understand. And neither do I.

What I don’t need now is a list of “Best Practices” for my profession. What I need is the courage to face the inscrutable, to sit across a desk from a patient, unsolvable girl and know that sometimes best practices aren’t enough.

We don’t operate in a sterile environment—and we aren’t the logical next step in some assembly line. There’s no realistic expectation that we can get it right each time. But that doesn’t mean I have to feel resigned to it.

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Kolby Kerr lives and teaches high school English in Dallas.  He holds an MFA in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University and has appeared in Relief journal. Melissa’s name and some of her identifying details in this story have been changed to protect her privacy.

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