They Don’t Always Come, But When They Do It’s Wow
by Esther Cohen
I wish I weren’t, but I am in the you-should-do-this category. While I am not a know-it-all (most things I do not know), I do have the unfortunate You Should Do This Because It’s Good For You quality. As a parent, I tried to sit on it, but often didn’t. Reading, for instance, was the most important thing my son could do. And he didn’t. Some part of me felt that he was therefore doomed. Not the biggest part, but still.
One of the biggest fights we ever had was one day when I came home from work and he was, as always, playing a game on the computer. His playing computer games drove me crazy, and I would picture in my head all these activities he could be doing instead (cooking dinner, creating science experiments, inventing magic tricks, drawing a graphic novel). One day in one of those unfortunate parental What Are You Doing discussions, he who was in seventh grade said, “You’ll never be happy until you come home and find me reading James Joyce. And that will never happen.” I was so pleased that he knew about James Joyce (!) that I dropped the discussion.
I’ve been teaching writing all my life and it’s hard not to have parental expectations of students. They should read what I give them. I’ve taught traditional college classes (I teach Good Stories at Manhattanville College, a former Catholic college with serious good students in Purchase, New York), but most of my classes have been with workers: dishwashers, migrants, nannies. I’m teaching Fast Food Workers now, as part of their national campaign to organize and to change the minimum wage. The class is on Tuesdays. They are usually very late. They don’t read what I give them very often, and they are not particularly good at letting me know when they’ll be at class. They text in class. They even talk on the phone.
I try not to care, but I do. They’re just always late. And even though I work hard to find a poem they might like (who wouldn’t like Langston Hughes?) they usually don’t. We work hard to find common ground, ground where we know we are helping each other. Although in some ways it’s easier, always easier, to teach people who mostly agree with you and who know that Raymond Carver and Grace Paley are better than most, I’ve always been attracted to people and places that are unfamiliar, to teaching classes in which I can learn from what I don’t know. Teachers always learn, of course. But I learn more from what’s different than from what is already familiar.
The Fast Food Worker class itself is hard, and because I feel I know a fair amount about something as small and insignificant as sentences (even I know that sentences are small), still I call myself teacher and they are students. I am a familiar sort of teacher, one of those earnest over-read types. The three who come all the time (others wander in and out) could not be more different from what I familiarly know. Maurice is 31. He lives in a men’s shelter, is very handsome, and is a gifted cartoon artist and graphic designer. He wants to study, and wants a computer. He’s the author of a comic we’ve made together. Anthony is 38, though his age is hard to tell just by looking. He grew up in the Puerto Rican projects on the Lower East Side, where he still lives, has an infinite number of health problems, and often visits his brother in jail. He cleans up and closes three McDonalds, and has a pregnant girlfriend who will give birth to triplets. Naquashia LeGrand is 22. She works at a KFC 16 hours a week for $8 an hour. She lives with her grandmother and is a fast food leader. We wrote a speech together when she got an award a few weeks ago.
We are all both comfortable and uncomfortable in our roles. We all have separate agendas. They all want to be on American Idol, and to change the minimum wage. I too want the minimum wage to change. And I want them to write because I believe writing will help them tell and know and understand their own stories, all amazing, all difficult, all worth telling. The writing part is a struggle, a weekly problem. They’re happier singing, and drawing cartoons. I know too that it’s as much for me as for them that I want them to do what I want them to do. I believe they’ve got to tell their stories to change their lives. Maybe this is true. There are many ways to change lives, and storytelling is one of them. I want to be part of that process for myself at least as much as I want it for them. They don’t need me to tell their stories, and the ways they want to tell them are new to me. They are rappers, graphic artists, cartoonists, rather than sentence people.
And yet, when they do at last arrive, when they sit down, finally, with phones in their pockets, when we all get the chance and the opportunity to hear one another, to really truly listen, it’s often wow.
When my fast food writing student was on the Colbert Report recently, it was WOW with capital letters. Here she is:
Esther Cohen is a contributing writer for Jewish Currents. Her books include Book Doctor, a novel, and Unseen America: Photos and Stories by Workers.