When Patience Runs Thin

I was surprised to get an email from a former Kuwaiti student I had years ago at Green River Community College, Hani Alkhulaifi.  He was in town visiting and wanted to meet up with me.  Thank goodness for Facebook because I was able to friend him and see photos of him.  I had not seen him in 17 years and, other than thinning hair and graying temples,  he actually looked quite the same.

Reunion with Hani at Pike Place Market on Thursday

We met at the market by the pig!  That is the best meeting point at the market, but still I laughed when he suggested it because the pig has such a lowly reputation in the Muslim world.  Hani went on to study at Pacific Lutheran University and graduated with honors.  He was one of my brightest students, always sitting at the edge of his seat in the first row, listening hard to catch every word, every nuance, and every bit of information he could.  He was always there during my office hours, wanting to know exactly why he got a 3.5 and not a 4.o on a certain essay or test.  His persistence was a bit annoying, but admirable all the same!

We had dinner together downtown last Thursday and Hani reminded me of an incident that happened 18 years ago, perhaps one that I would rather forget.  I found it interesting that after all these years, Hani remembered this story.  I was a very patient English instructor at Green River Community College in Auburn, WA., but once upon a time, I had a class that challenged me to the CORE!  Hani was in that class!  I swear  the director of the program purposefully assigned that particular class to me, thinking that if anyone could handle that group, it would be me.  Well, I was into the first week of teaching that class and my patience ran thin!

That morning, I walked into the class of raucous students and asked them to please take their seats.  Reluctantly, after much commotion, they did.  I then asked them if there were any questions from yesterday’s assignment and I was greeted with a blank stare.  I asked them to please turn in the assignments and 3 out of 25 students handed in their work.  Hani was one of those who turned in his assignment, but I could see that it was what I call “half-ass” done.  Things were not going so well.  I proceeded to go over the reading discussion and it was clear that no one had read the essay.  They might as well have asked me,  “You mean, we’re supposed to do homework??”  OK, time for the weekly quiz and I was met with 25 vacant eyes looking at me, silently saying, “You’re kidding, right?”  All week, nothing had changed.  My inner alarms went off.  This was the worst class, a teacher’s ABSOLUTE nightmare!  That is when I LOST it.  I was Vesuvius erupting, Etna spewing her lava full force, Mount St. Helen’s blowing her top!  We were 15 minutes into class and it was going NOWHERE.

I SLAMMED my roster book and notebooks SHUT.  I slapped my hands on the podium. The sting actually felt good against my palms!  At least the sting felt REAL and EFFECTIVE.  As if stuck behind a layer of mud, I heard myself scream, “I’m NOT wasting my time anymore…or YOURS!”  They were riveted, more alert than ever, frightened, shocked.  I heard myself say to them, “I am sick of this SHIT!”, as I grabbed my books and stomped out.  I pushed the door shut behind me and the push was powered by my anger. That and the heaviness of the door made for a big BOOM.  I was sure the whole campus heard it!  The loud BOOM matched the hatred I felt -at that moment- for my lazy students.  It took my having a hissy fit to wake them up??

I had no idea where to go, so I ran to the ladies’ room with shaking hands (ow, my palms now hurt!) and broke down into a heap of tears.  I hated myself for losing control like that, for letting the students get under my skin.  After I calmed down, I made my puffy-eyed way over to see Ross, the director of my program (read: Ross the Boss) to confess what had just happened.  I found him and said, “Something terrible just happened.  I totally lost it with my class and walked out on them in the most violent way!  Ross, I realize I could lose my job over this (yes, I said that with a glimmer of HOPE because God, I hated my job more than anything at that very moment!). Ross was quiet for a moment and then asked, “Where are they now?”  The image of their shocked faces came back to me.  “Um, I don’t know.  Still sitting in the classroom wondering if I will come back?  They looked pretty scared when I stormed out.”  I told him in detail what had just happened.  To my surprise, Ross said, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll go talk to them.  Just carry on as normal tomorrow.  You’re the best teacher they could have and they know that.”  I left his office, feeling embarrassed now that my tantrum was over.

Apparently Ross did not have to go talk to my class. Instead, they came to him en masse to discuss with him what had happened.  They were very concerned and worried that I would not come back and asked Ross what they could do to make things right again. The next day I walked into the class.  Miracle of miracles, piles of assignments decorated my desk and there they were all seated in their discussion groups already going over the reading questions.  They saw me and the room went silent.  “Gosh!”  I smiled and said, “I think I have the wrong class!”

“No! No! You’re right!”  It was Hani.  “You are so kind and we made you very angry!  So sorry, Miss.  We are ready to LEARN…from you.”

Would you believe me if I told you that class became THE superstar class of my GRCC teaching history?  Never mind that I had to become a bucking bull to rein them in.  Without knowing it, I had spoken their language and now we could move forward as a unit.

I was proud to tell Hani last Thursday that what happened 18 years ago was a singular experience.  Of course, I remember the incident as if it were yesterday, but I had no idea that Hani would still remember it.  He told me it was a turning point for him and from that day on, he became the best student he could be, that is to say, a dream student (and one that came to my office to argue his every grade!).

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