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One noontime late in the fall, Patience comes by my office to ask if she can list me as a reference on her curriculum vitae.
“Sure. What kinds of jobs are you looking for?” We sit and begin to chat.
She’s a sophomore, a mother, a first-generation immigrant. She tells me what the class and I have already heard from her: that eight years ago she dropped out of high school when she got pregnant with her son Herbert.
But now I also learn that accompanied by her baby, she took care of her invalid grandmother in Haiti for the first two years after the earthquake, and on her return to Brooklyn some spirit of competitiveness overcame her former weariness for school: “I was suddenly gung-ho and curious about everything and everybody.” She’s sharp, attractive and, despite her now ever-radiating academic eagerness, well-liked by her classmates.
“I already have a job,” she says, “in retail. I’m doing okay - not the best commissions on the staff, but nearly. So the reference is a just in case - that is, just in case my little brother really can help me out by picking up Herbert from school. I could get a ten-hour-a-week job here at the college as well.”
“Computer lab tech.”
Shouldn’t I be able to resist encouraging good students to think about careers in education? “Would you ever think of teaching?”
She makes big eyes. “Me? Lord no, professor, I have … My parents misnamed me! It’s our family joke. I have absolutely no patience. Everybody says teachers have to have patience.”
It’s true everyone says that, but what do they mean? I ask her.
“The usual kind - not snapping off someone’s head for asking dumb questions or being spoken to disrespectfully. If I had been one of my teachers in high school, when all I wanted to do was have fun, I would have been so annoyed.
“I didn’t need to listen to them. I would even tell them that. I was so arrogant, so rude. I stopped acting as if I could do the work. I acted insulted when my teachers expected me to do homework.
“I hated when they told me I was wasting my brain. But it wasn’t cool to do assignments or act interested in class. It was eerie when I noticed I was falling behind the kids I knew I was smarter than.
“And then, and then … boys, partying, going my own way. And the old story: I got pregnant. Even I was surprised. My grandmother was the only one who wasn’t upset and seemed to understand me and the only person in the world I wasn’t mean to.”
Patience tells me that having to explain things over to students would drive her crazy.
“Last week, for example, right in the middle of something, you’re being completely clear and then Dizzy interrupts and asks the exact thing you just explained,” she says.
“Dizzy?” I was about to add something mollifying when Patience took on a head-cocking dopey manner of someone who looked familiar but I didn’t immediately recognize.
“P’fessah, what’s that essay? What? When’s it due? Oh, you said that already, you wrote that? Oh, it’s on this paper in my hand? Oh, and you wrote it on the board and you just said it? Oh!”
I smile at her impression of Suzie. I had thought I was the only one in class who suffered those moments. “Right.”
She adds, ruefully, “I have a temper.”
“So do I!”
“No, you don’t. Oh, forgive me for contradicting you, professor.” She laughs. “But if you had my temper, Suzie would know it, and so would we.”
“Well, what if it were your job to teach? Wouldn’t you have to be patient?”
“But that’s just it--I don’t want to have to be.”
“You’re always patient with us, with me and your classmates, when we’re babbling.”
I don’t tell her we teachers are patient the way fishermen are. It’s attention and luck and timing.
Instead I say: “Anyway, you’re welcome to use me as a reference.”
“I appreciate it,” she says, getting up and offering me her hand.
“And I’ll write you a glowing letter of recommendation someday when you decide to teach.”
She smiles and shakes her head. “Not yet, professor! My papa told me never take the bait till I’ve had a long swim around it.”
Bob Blaisdell is a professor in the English department at Kingsborough Community College (CUNY) in New York City