I was an adjunct professor for five years and taught an introduction to the primal narratives in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As it turned out, for some students it was also a writing boot camp.
I was not and am not a teacher, at least not in the formal Education system. I am a teacher within my own profession — religion — but that is a far cry from anyone professionally trained to teach a comprehensive subject matter. I teach soft stuff, like the journey to open the heart and mind, and the imagination, to the ordinary sacred. But the rigorous study and discipline of helping students learn how to learn, and then pouring into them a specific, ordered, and defined content of information, well that is just not something I was ever taught to do. Despite that handicap, I tried to teach my students how to write.
The first semester I taught it was immediately obvious many of my students did not know how to write. Their essays, even brief ones, were full of misspellings, grammatical errors, and just plain incomprehensible expressions. It caused a bit of a crisis for me personally. You see, I went to college without knowing how to write, too.
I was warned at the end of my first semester in college that I was in danger of flunking out. Then a sociology professor grabbed hold of me. She demanded I learn how to write. She was wonderfully fierce and intimidating, and willing to spend as much time as it took to see me get it right. Assignments I turned in came back over and over and over again as she demonstrated what I was doing wrong and what I needed to learn.
I knew that in my part-time teaching gig, a second job and with four children at home, that I could not be as available to my students as that wonderful sociology professor was to me. But I could do something. So I reduced all assignments to five hundred word essays, the length of this column. I figured that in their post-graduate jobs no one would ask them for a research paper but they would have to write emails succinctly. Even a five hundred word email would be too long in most jobs. I wasn’t an English teacher but I could send them to the writing lab students had available for tutoring almost 24/7, and I sent them there over and over and over again. I’m not very fierce but I tried to be demanding.
It is unlikely I saved anyone’s future the way that professor saved mine. But just maybe, in addition to revealing the amazing and profound similarities surrounding Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad, some of those students learned to write a little better.
Now I marvel that publishers have deemed my two novels and a collection of poems and essays worthy and potentially profitable enough to publish. One college professor took a failing kids by the scruff of the neck and insisted that he learn something, not even the content of her field of study. Don’t all of us have that one seemingly random person who came along to change our lives in some quirky way? And doesn’t a river of gratitude flow endlessly from our memory of him or her?