Broken English

I used to be that student. The one who would have a private conniption over anything less than an “A” and stay up late into the night to obsessively create a cover page. For everything. As a result, I graduated first in my class and first in nervous breakdowns.

Then, I became that girlfriend. The one who either held too tightly for fear of losing or kept my eyes to the ground, carefully planning and watching every step in hopes of not making any mistakes. As a result, I made a lot of mistakes.

Now, as a teacher, it’s been interesting to witness the learning and growing that can take place when perfection is not the goal…. when the birthplace of the eraser and coloring outside the lines keeps the mission of exploration and discovery both valued and sacred.

This semester, what I believe to be my greatest classroom success was not found in a brilliantly written essay about Romeo and Juliet or a perfectly executed presentation about The Odyssey. Ironically, I nearly wet my pants in amazement over a student’s request for a restroom pass and beamed with pride as he walked toward this routine destination. He was a student whose voice I didn’t even hear during the first few weeks of classes because he could not and would not speak a word of English when we first met. We stared and nodded and smiled and worked our way slowly through picture book pages.

I’ve read and heard hundreds of sentences from immigrant students this year that are often the source of tasteless jokes and others’ impersonations. Yet I have to say that I’ve never been more in love or impressed with the English language than when I’ve had the opportunity to hear it spoken or used by these teenagers, whose broken but intentional words are the pieces I have used to put together my identity as a student and educator.

Last week, I watched the sun rise and set from the same seat at my kitchen table for more than three days in order to complete my portfolio for graduation. I had to reflect on, justify, evaluate, scan, compare, contrast, and analyze more than a year’s worth of lesson plans, assessments, and student work as a summary of my graduate experience. Tucked in the front cover of my notebook was this quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that I had written on a scrap piece of paper years ago when I was working on my first documentary in Portland, Maine:

“She was nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape, but I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”

I’d hardly say I’m looking my best these days. I think it’s safe to say I could come out with my own line of sweatpants for grad students and they would not say “Juicy.” But I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder or been as proud as I am now of the imperfect product of this journey.

4 responses to “Broken English

  1. Word.

  2. bair rostolsky

    you totally nailed this. i love it. it makes me that much more eager to write with you. come on come on come on. next week. do or die.

  3. Beautiful. I love you.

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