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On Small Classes

By Kerry Spencer

The biggest class I ever took at BYU had 3,000 students. We met in a huge auditorium with lighting and sound technicians to help the instructor go over the basics of American history. The room was dark, and runners carried a microphone to students with comments. The professor had twenty-four TAs to help with grading. Attendance might have been taken, but no one was really going to know if I came or not.

I do not teach that kind of class.

My classes never have more than twenty people. (Well, once I had twenty people because I added someone when someone else swore they were going to drop. That person didn’t; I got in trouble.) And there is some comfort in the smallness. Not only can I get by without a sound technician most days, but I generally know the students’ faces. I never have to grade 3,000 papers at a time (though sometimes it does feel like that many, and having twenty-four TAs actually sounds pretty nice). By the end of the semester, I know names. I know temperaments. I know majors and interests. I know who is going to cry when I give them a B+ and who will hug me for the mercy of it.

And sometimes, I know more than I’d like.

Some of it I ask for. Writing assignments are meant to be provocative, and if I assign a paper on sin and they give me treatises on their personal experiences with drug abuse, fornication, or violence, I really can’t blame it on the students.

But sometimes you have days. They start when one of your students comes in without a backpack. They have no questions about the assignments, or vague ones. Maybe their hair looks disheveled and maybe they look like they haven’t been sleeping very well. They don’t always look right at you and they seldom get right to the point.

“Do you like dealing with students?” they might ask. What they really mean is, “Are you someone I can trust?” But they don’t say that.

One sat across from me and after some fumbling said, “I messed up. I messed up and I’m not a virgin anymore and no one knows it and what do I do? Do I get married? Do I break up? I think I love him, but I’m not sure he’d make a good husband.” She looked like she hadn’t changed her clothes in a few days and she fiddled with nonexistent rings on her fingers as she talked.

I stared at her for about twenty seconds.

How to write a thesis? I can do that. Audience awareness? Absolutely. Logical fallacies? I’m a master.

But this?

Later that semester I was reading a journal written by one of my favorite students. His comments were insightful, his papers were delightful, his sweater vests were colorful, and he was the kindest kid I’d met in a long, long time.

I was sitting in my bed, ignoring the television that was tuned to SpongeBob Squarepants. (For my four-year-old. I swear.) I scrolled down the screen, balancing my laptop on my knees, leaning my head against the hard wood of my headboard. Something smelled a little like rotten milk and I thought vaguely about looking for the bottle my baby must have stashed somewhere. But the journal kept me right where I was.

I’m gay, it read. And I don’t know if I can handle the secret of it anymore. I can’t stay in the Church if I have to be alone forever. I can’t stay at BYU if I can’t be who I am.

I don’t know if math teachers have days like this. If they get emails about how to cope with newlywed finances, or how to choose a major, or at what point you can make your own decisions and not have to obey your parents anymore. I don’t know if it’s the subject or the size of the class that leads so very many of these emails to my inbox. Do they think that as a writing teacher I have wisdom about life? Or is it simply the fact that they know me, trust me, and believe that I know them?

When my dewy student sat in front of me, asking the implications of premature virginity loss, I think I just stuttered. I probably looked horrified and uncomprehending, and my difficulty coming up with an appropriate response probably wasn’t lost on her. All I could focus on was how small the room seemed to become. The sound of the copier faded into the background and the smell of someone’s microwaved Hot Pocket (mozzarella and meatballs) seemed a strange companion to my student’s unanswerable questions.

“I don’t know,” is what I think I ended up saying. “I don’t know. But I’ll think about it. And I’ll write you something.”

Maybe students think they can talk to their writing teachers because writing demands more of what we consider our self than many other subjects. Words are insights into our thoughts, and the way we use them can make people laugh, cry, love us, hate us. Deep inside, we believe that how the audience responds to our words indicates our worth as a human being.

Writing is where all other subjects meet, becoming relevant, personal, powerful.

And so it shouldn’t surprise me when students come to me with these issues. But it does.

It took me two weeks to drag together my thoughts on virginity loss into words. And two weeks to comb through my thoughts on homosexuality. Every letter I’ve ever written to students takes time. It’s a time I wouldn’t have to invest if I taught 3,000 students at once. The intimacy of a small class means you know more about the students themselves than any teacher of thousands.

But it comes with its own rewards.

Sometimes in a folded paper flower, left on your desk for no reason. A squeal from a student who runs into you at Mr. Mac. Or a message, weeks after a semester is over, about how your letter is by their bed. How they read it over and over. How grateful they are to have had someone who cared about more than commas and conjunctions.

Sound techs are totally overrated.

About Kerry Spencer

Kerry teaches writing at Brigham Young University. She grew up in California and now lives in Utah with her husband and two babies.

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