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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Nontraditional Students

Whether I was student or teacher, odds were that any given class would be blessed or afflicted with roughly one nontraditional student. Once I was teaching, the first day of class always came with that breath-holding moment when an older student appeared, and I had to wait for him or her to reveal the character attributes I would have to enjoy/endure. Because nontraditional students are there for a reason. And they will likely let you in on it. Rather than drift anonymously through a course as many an undergrad may, the nontraditional will get their money’s worth. Personalize the course. Become an unofficial teaching assistant. Hijack the vibe of the room. Spin off into a flurry of divorce-induced absences and legal documentation. Or disappear entirely.

Of course, traditional students have their ups and downs, quirks and failings, but the nontraditionals tend toward personality-to-burn assertive histrionics that cement their places in the room and the mind. Sometimes you know what’s coming by way of a shot-across-the-bow email on the eve of class: “Dear Professor (sic) Woody, I am enrolled in your class and want you to know in advance that I have two children and (insert special problem here)…” Once or twice, I responded with preemptive sternness to such emails and deflected the person away entirely. Maybe that’s mean, but when someone is predicting putting a drag on your whole operation before day 1, you want to send the message: Buck up, or jump ship. Especially if you’re like me—a total wash-up at being authoritarian in person.

Jon G.
This guy was a grinning, friendly, very tan, short-but-mighty dude of about 45, who used to sit in the back of poetry workshop with his leg(s) up on the radiator or next desk. He always joined discussions, but not to toxic levels. He liked to say something was “pretty good” when he liked it. Projecting a very outgoing and happy-go-lucky nature, he talked about taking his son to Little League games, etc. Jon blew my mind ten years after poetry workshop when I found him working at Kinko’s, telling me that he had divorced, and, now in his fifties, was living with a 19-year-old girlfriend. I suppose that is a form of “winning,” but somehow it contaminated my feelings about this old champ.

Lori S.
She became an MSU teacher later, but all I can remember is how she was kind of a socially dominant, hot, mature adult woman in a room full of barely-more-than-kids. This made her the apple of the teacher’s eye, and it seemed like she frequently talked to him before and after class. On occasion, she wore tight black pleather pants that, you know, made you look. I find it fitting that she is teaching now and I am not. It’s all about the networking.

Joe R.— or, “Joe-Man,” was the all-time Godzilla of nontraditional students. A long-time fixture at (Southwest) Missouri State, Joe appeared in one of my poetry workshops circa 1994. I won’t bother trying to capture him in euphemistic language. The guy was— and still is— a tragic wreck of a man-child with just enough determination to keep inflicting himself on others. Driving his motorized wheelchair with his withered T-Rex arms, sometimes gasping for air, sometimes showing up with food in his beard and down his shirt, Joe arrived on his shockwave of resentful need. Naturally, he was astute enough to zero in on me from the start, intuiting, perhaps, that I would have perfect attendance and enough conscience that I would always help him get his drink out of its holder, set up his tape recorder, collect his assignments, etc.

Then the fun really hit the fan. Joe could barely talk for lack of breath, but he had a lot to say, often unintelligibly. His poems were also long, rambling, repetitive, obvious, and tiresomely loaded with abstractions and the undisguised pain of his life. I think after only a few classes it became clear: Joe was not there to learn; he was there to teach us about him, and about how shitty the world is when you are super fucked-up.

Mike Burns, the professor, had a pretty even hand with Joe, but it was no secret that Joe tested his patience. He frequently, with decreasing diplomacy, prompted Joe to tie off his comments, or finished reading Joe’s work for him. This was necessary, because Joe’s voice was painfully, haltingly slow. One day, Joe violated workshop protocol by seemingly defensive retort. Someone had asked something I can’t recall...

    “It’s why I WROTE… the DAMN… POEM!” Joe gasped. Burns rocked my world by sternly rebuking Joe.

    “Joe, you know you don’t get defensive in here! I’ll roll your ass right out of here if you can’t follow the rules!”

    Joe said he was sorry, and everything proceeded apace, except that I couldn’t stop thinking about Burns literally rolling Joe’s wheelchair out into the hall like a mad dad.

    Another problem with Joe was that he was grandiose, a perfect counterpoint to his omnidirectional misery. He might praise a classmate’s work by comparing it to Wordsworth, or calling it a masterpiece, etc. Even if my own ego got the boost, it wasn’t long before the exaggerated praise proved tiresome.

    I soon learned that Joe had completed at least one previous degree, in something like sociology or political science. My friend Aaron told me that his older brother Clay had once had a class with Joe. Aaron and Clay passed Joe in the dining hall one day, and immediately after Joe greeted Clay in passing, Clay turned to Aaron and said, “I hate that son of a bitch!” So, Joe apparently wore out his welcome all over. Another friend who worked at the campus library said Joe would ram his chair into the counter to protest slow service, even if it had nothing to do with ignoring the handicapped, as Joe assumed. Yet another buddy’s girlfriend reported a similar incidence from the financial aid desk, etc.

    If there exists a milk of human kindness, Joe had a gift for souring it.

(Many years later, I would reunite with Joe, in his element: at a comic/gaming/sci-fi convention. Vonnegut-like, I have always been a reluctant member of the same karass. Review the further adventures of Joe-Man and Chad-Man here.)

Barb Gunderson
    Barb was a middle-aged woman who took the first poetry workshop I ever taught. I believe she looked like her name. After one of the first few class meetings, she took me aside for a long sit-down talk at the Student Union. She was fired up, which was cool, but she was obviously looking for too much from the course. She raved about being inspired by Andre Codrescu, among others. She wanted a life-changing experience, and I tried to agree, but I also tried to defuse the bomb of her hopes. She wanted an experience between “Dead Poets Society” and an affair with me. I was like, “I have to follow the course outline, and it’s a “Gordon Rule” course (6000-word minimum of critical writing), but we’ll have some fun.” It turned out to be a relatively lackluster workshop group, which happens about 50% of the time. She reported to me about once per month how disappointed she was. I’m sure at the time I wished she was pretty and nearer to my age, maybe I could have struck up an unethically sexual relationship with her, or at least walked with her in moonlight while reading Rimbaud and Rumi to one another and then licking absinthe off one another’s wrists… but no, she hadn’t the power to break my 26-year drought with the opposite sex, and I was powerless to give her the poetry mind-blow she so desired.

Stay tuned for part 2, when we meet some nontraditional students who are actually excellent, as well as more who are nuts.

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