On final exam day, I sit at the front of a quiet classroom, listening attentively for the sound of my students writing. Pens are a lot quieter than they used to be; I can barely hear them marking their papers. The test, four pages of literary terms and grammar exercises, is free response, so I should be able to hear something—maybe a student loudly tossing his pen onto the desk in frustration, another sighing heavily, or a third compulsively clicking her retractable pen as she ponders the difference between active and passive voice.
As I sit at the low table at the front of the room, I think about the many silences that have occurred across the semester. They usually represented a discussion in the making, a classroom of students waiting for me to answer my own questions or afraid to venture their own opinions. On the first day, the silence was unique—pregnant with nervous energy. I remember sitting behind the large teacher’s desk, checking the time on my phone, not wanting to start class too early. I could barely see over that desk; I felt small and inadequate behind it. Soon I started dragging one of the student tables toward the dry erase board and positioning the large teacher chair behind it.
Sitting at this shorter table, I can see my students as a collective group. I can distinguish body shapes but not individual features. I can observe posture. I watch them taking their exam and realize that their backs are straight. None of them hunch over the desk, their noses inches from the paper, as I would have done—as I still do when I write at a desk. Up until now, I’ve equated that hunched posture with concentration. The more intensely I concentrated, the lower I bent over the desk. I only leaned away, only sat up straight, when I had finished reading or writing. I sat, back straight, when I discussed course material or answered questions—these behaviors were a breeze for me.
Watching my students, I can’t help but wonder how I looked as a student, bent over my paper in ardent concentration. What did my teachers think seeing me doubled over the desk? What changed when I sat up? Did they think, “Oh that’s just how she has to do it?” Could they see what that posture meant for me?
Twenty minutes pass in relative silence, with the occasional sound of a student scratching out his answer and rewriting it. Finally, the quiet breaks as a student flips her exam over, stands, gathers her things, and zips her bag. My ears place her on the right side of the room, and I hear her traveling toward me. She calmly offers me her test paper, and I track the flash of white, extending my hand to take it. She wishes me a relaxing winter break and leaves the room.
These sounds repeat as other students finish the exam and bring me their papers. At my desk, some pause awkwardly, unsure which of us will speak first. A student says, “Here,” and hands me her paper. I thank her and smile. She waits half a second and then blurts out, “I’ve had an amazing semester—you’re a great teacher!”
I am stunned. I stammer a grateful reply and she hurries away. Other students repeat similar remarks as they drop off their exams.
“I really enjoyed your class.”
“I hope we can keep in touch.”
“I learned a lot from you.”
“I appreciate all you’ve done to make me a better writer.”
I am shocked, not because I feel diffident about my abilities, but because I don’t remember making declarations like these as a freshman. I remember turning in exams and getting out of there, desperate for a coffee and some holiday shopping. I don’t remember thinking to compliment my instructors until I reached my upper level courses.
I think about all the things that worried me—not seeing their hands in the air, writing over my own writing on the board, being unable to find what I’d written, not seeing them texting or using their computers during class, being unable to read their body language and facial expressions—an endless list of incompetencies. I was sure that these things would make me a bad teacher, one that students would mock. A teacher they would ignore. A teacher they wouldn’t take seriously. I was afraid that all my individual struggles would amount to a pathetic reputation—that I wouldn’t be able to demonstrate my skills because I regularly made gaffes in small, everyday ways.
Then students stopped at my desk. One student gave me a loaf of pumpkin bread and a handwritten letter of appreciation. Another lingered, even after turning in his exam. He said that I was different from the instructors at his previous school, that I cared. The handwritten letter, which I read later in my office, reiterated this gem; the student said that she was touched by my enthusiasm. She was amazed that I wanted to share my love of the material with students. She said that’s what mattered.
So many of my first-semester concerns can be laid to rest now. My students don’t mind printing their work in size 18. They have learned to tell me when I’m writing close to the board’s edge. My inability to detect their raised hands doesn’t make me a bad instructor. In my classroom, students were willing to suspend the conventions that have been a part of their education since kindergarten—Don’t interrupt! Raise your hand! Be quiet!—and respect my unconventional space.