I have a couple of students in my AP class who have never taken AP classes before. When I mention their names to other teachers, I sometimes get surprised looks and often a dose of skepticism at their ability to succeed – not because these teachers are cruel, but because the student hasn’t done much in their past to inspire confidence.
After grading the first essay tests, I’ll admit there are a few not doing so well, and I expect they’ll probably request a transfer after the first six weeks. However, when you have students that others believe will fail, it makes it so much sweeter when they succeed.
I was grading the essays tonight (it’s taken me the better part of a week due to a cold that I’m sure a loving student graciously passed on to me), and while many of them simply regurgitate observations and insights talked about it class, occasionally they make their own insights that are completely original.
Sometimes these are too risky (one essay attempted to argue that Myrtle’s flapping left breast resulting from the car accident was symbolic of a baby bird’s wing, flapping to escape the nest), but some make me tilt my head like my dog Annabelle when I’m processing something, and I come to the conclusion it’s really good.
One of my students of whom I know many were skeptical made one such minor brilliant observation in his exam. He was writing an essay describing Nick Carraway’s narration style and analyzing Fitzgerald’s choice in using him. In class, we discussed ad nausea the first line of the novel:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
In class discussion, we talked about how Nick set himself up as someone who didn’t judge anyone, and then he proceeded to spend the entire book judging. On the third page of his narrative he described Tom Buchanan as having a “cruel body” and the women as if they were decorations in the living room. Students concluded he was very judgmental and just trying to make it look as if he weren’t, to lull the reader into a false sense of security. My student looked to the next line:
In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.
My student argued that, because Nick had grown accustomed to hearing things most people don’t hear, he’d also gotten into the habit of observing things that most people didn’t see, and that made his narration both unique and more trustworthy, due to its detail-oriented nature.
I recognize this insight isn’t ground-breaking. It isn’t going to change the way people view F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it was an entirely new observation that we didn’t look at it in class, and my student – of whom few expected great things – came up with by himself. I am so proud of him I want to burst. Ladies and gentlemen, this is why we teach.
Related: this is not why we teach.