Taking too much as read

13th June 2014 at 01:00

First impressions from Day 1 of my course in developmental reading and writing: Prudence has a big smile, is lively, seems responsive and dresses fashionably. A thick accent, however, makes her comments and enquiries hard to catch.

As the weeks pass, when I say, "What was that, Pru?" she begins to answer, "Nottin' ", and her flashing eyes beg me not to ask her to repeat what she has said. But I do, because I want to know what it was. Almost always she refuses.

Finally, on account of her frequent lateness, unwillingness to repeat herself and continual turning around in her chair to ask Wisman to explain the assignments (which are written on the board), I lose patience.

One day I insist, "No, Prudence, leave Wisman alone. He's very smart and kind, but he's working on his assignment. You're late, you miss the explanations, so you have to suffer and come ask stupid ol' me for help."

She is shocked at my abruptness and meanness.

"No, professor, I'm sorry."

"Ask me."

"I don' need."

"No, you really have to ask me."

She doesn't speak. Eventually shame washes over me and I cease.

A few weeks later, during an important assignment, Prudence again comes in late, clucking. What I don't understand but realise later is that she just has to. She's not trying to bother anybody. She's not trying to draw attention to herself. She is, in fact, embarrassed to be late again.

At that moment, though, I am peeved. "No talking!" I point at the board, where I've written in red: "No cell phones, no talking." I glare and repeat the message, like the law enforcement agent I've become. "If you're late, come see me. Don't bother anybody else."

Face hard, Prudence collects the reading and instructions. Some minutes later, she makes her way to my desk and points at a sentence, asking, "Vocabulary?"

"Which?"

"Yurk."

"Yurk?"

She points again at the reading, and I see "urge". She has quoted a sentence including that word and now the instructions ask her to explain it. But my eye has also caught another word she's written. I point at it. "You know that's not right."

"What is?"

I point again.

"Readed?" she says.

"You know that," I say. I know she knows the correct word. We all know it. We read every day in class, we write every day. We review grammar, spelling, punctuation and verb forms. Prudence has lived in the US for five years and went to high school here. In her own way, she is bright and certainly vivacious. I tell myself she knows the difference between present and past tense "read" and "read". She knows it's not "readed".

She laughs, "Oh, oh."

I think she's embarrassed but, after I've read her paragraph and say "Good" (because it isn't half-bad), she leans over the paper on my desk, her pen hesitating, and glances at me, smiling. "What the right word?"

She isn't kidding. I feel like a terrible teacher.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English at Kingsborough Community College, New York City

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