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Working with Students I Admire

Much of my motivation for working in the writing center stems from a desire to teach overseas, namely South Korea and Spain (I know, it’s huge a juxtaposition of cultures), so whenever a student from one of these places comes to seek my advice, it’s only by a great effort of will that I stay my bubbling curiosity from reaching out to slap them with a barrage of mindless questions. Thankfully, our discussions usually move toward something of a more writerly nature.

Occasionally, however, some of those personal questions will seep through on the page. For instance, I read this opening sentence in a student’s paper the other day:

“I was seven when the rebels attacked my village.”

I was so choked up that I couldn’t move on to the next line. The student looked over at me and asked if there was something wrong with the paper. I barked out a laugh.

“No,” I said, “this is a great hook.” My eyes swam in tears, and I did my best to covertly wipe them on the sleeve of my brown hoodie, lest he think I was a big baby. I plastered on my most manly expression (which really wasn’t all that manly), and we continued through the rest of his essay. But every time a full-stop came, the words were there again:

“I was seven when the rebels attacked my village.”

The words remained long after our session had ended.

“I was seven when the rebels attacked my village.”

And continued to haunt me long after I went to bed.

“I was seven when the rebels attacked my village.”

It was only the next morning that I realized what had been bothering me so much. It wasn’t the fact that a village burned down somewhere in Africa, leaving countless of people without homes. It wasn’t that I knew the student it had happened to either. Instead, it was that I had allowed that one sentence to envelop my senses so completely that I neglected to point out it’s ineffectiveness to address the theme of the assignment. The hook had nothing to do with the paper’s topic!
Perhaps if I were a time lord or friends with Doc Brown, I might have been able to reconcile the situation, but unfortunately I’ve yet to make those sorts of connections. So instead, I sent the student an email. I applauded him for making me cry like a seven-year-old boy who’s just dropped his ice-cream on a hot, summer sidewalk, but I also mentioned it was probably in his best interest to omit his hook—unless he could make it work, of course. I felt so bad that I even offered to buy him a bowl of ice-cream.

But the point is I shouldn’t have let my feelings get in the way of my ability to help the student. True, it was a potent sentence, but sometimes what we think is best for a paper isn’t always what’s really best. Sometimes we just have to take a deep breath, step away from our feelings a little, and say, “Okay, I’m ready,” and move on. 


  1. Anonymous5:37 PM

    It's surprising that your reaction to the sentence changed from emotional to critique. I was wondering, what was the criteria for the assignment? Why didn't it work? It can be hard to separate what you are feeling from what you know you should do. However, I don't think you did anything wrong. I think it's okay that you FELT something as you read and that it got it the way of your advice; it shows that you have, as Clint has written on the board a few times in class, empathy. I think it's okay that you care about the student and what they've been through, and you even went out of your way to send them an email telling them what you thought and felt.


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