Drawing the Line

You know how it works: the semester is coming to a close and suddenly every student has an excuse as to why that last paper just isn’t going to be on time. You get frantic emails sent off at 3:47am about the sudden onset of the stomach flu, an aunt that has died and a funeral that is being miraculously held the next day (what service!), or the occasional admittance that the student screwed up with an honest plea for an extension.

Our community college is new and it’s small therefore if a student was a freshman in my House last year I taught them in Fall (Reading & Writing) and Spring (Comp I). If they are a liberal arts major they maybe had me for Cities in Film, Literature, and Criticism for Fall of their second year. This is great in many ways for both the student and the professor, but sometimes when you get to know a student very well it gets harder and harder to grade them objectively (as if that’s possible, but that’s another post). Some students I will teach for two years straight.

This fall I had one student whom I had taught for three consecutive semesters and she struggled with deadlines the entire semester until she fell off the map the last week of class. Her third 10-page paper was turned in when the last paper was due. She didn’t ask for an extension; she just emailed it to me as an attachment with no email message. In my mind I was like, “WTH?” but I was under a tsunami of papers that had to be graded in order to calculate the grades that had to be turned in by x deadline, so I didn’t put up a fight. Instead, I wrote her back and said, “Where’s your last paper?” No response.

About five days passed, and one hour after I turned in my grades (via a computerized system, therefore I can’t retract them), she sent me her final paper, again with no email message. This time I went off: I told her she was taking advantage of our relationship, that her emails containing attached papers and no message were unacceptable, that turning in late work without asking for an extension was totally unprofessional, that this behavior would not be accepted in a four-year university and that she needed to get herself together and what a disappointment she had been this semester.

Yeah. I laid it on pretty thick.

That was about a month ago. I saw her today and asked her, “What happened at the end of the semester? I don’t get it….”

And she went into the craziest story–a story so surreal that I know it has to be true because this student does not have a fictional imagination strong enough to make this up. This student is undocumented and their family needed some money. She is paying for all her college out-of-pocket (undocumented students don’t qualify for federal financial aid), and it’s hurting them. She got a temporary job in a factory in Queens assembling razors. She was literally on an assembly line where she had to unscrew two tiny screws to break the razor handle into two pieces, then she had to mix a combination of toxic glue and glue the razor handle back together. She explained to me that the company claimed that glued razors sold for more than screwed razors hence this unassembling and reassembling. The job started the last week of classes and she took it because she needed the money, but all of her grades suffered for it. And then, she got fired! All because she messed up 10 razors on one shift–her fingers were sticking together from the glue.

She didn’t ask for me to reconsider her grade (she got a B instead of an A because of that last paper). She was more in awe of her experience.
“Professor,” she said, “I was LIVING Girl in Translation (the novel we read in Comp I last spring, I wrote about it here)–and it was horrible. I have seen the other side–you wouldn’t believe it–it’s so much worse than you think….” She was literally dumbfounded by her experience; it had profoundly shaken her.

I was floored.

I struggle with where to draw the line with students, when to play compassionate teacher versus strict teacher. I played the strict teacher card on her, and I feel she deserved it in many ways, but as I look back now all I can think about was how I never once asked her if she was okay, if something was up, what was going on….I just assumed she was playing me. When I asked why she didn’t say anything, she said she didn’t want to tell me because at the time she was embarrassed to be working in a factory. “So typical,” she said through a tense and self-aware laugh, “Immigrant girl in a factory!”

I just wished I had asked. Even if she had chosen not to say anything, I would feel a little bit better tonight as I sit here typing this.