fall foliageI live in a place where the leaves change color.

In the fall, when a new academic year begins, there is a confetti spray of crimson and amber, announcing that the party’s started, along the community college campus drive leading to a filled parking lot. Then, rows of sensible but sporty Civics and SUVs. A few Chargers and Mustangs that look as rumbling and revved-up as they sound. The red Yaris. The grey Jeep with Green Bay Packers headrests. That VW Beetle with eyelashes on the headlights. Before I even enter the school, I am greeted with such personality.

Once I’m in the Writing Center, it happens every half hour: another student, a new paper, a different story and conversation. Though the appointments can blend together on a busy fall day, each one does have its own personality. And it begins with my sense of sight.

I’ll see a name on the schedule. I’ll see a face come in the door. I’ll see a hairstyle, a body, an outfit, a bag if they have one, an artist’s portfolio, a parcel of food, a laptop, personalized with stickers. At the table, I’ll catch a slump, a lean, a foot twitching, or a pencil tapping.

We are trained as tutors to perceive body language. How is the student sitting? Where are they looking? Where are they coming from, mentally and emotionally, and what are they bringing to this conversation about their writing?

And their writing: is it typed, clean, and stapled? Or is it handwritten— wait, now get a good look at that penmanship…

Call it “assessing,” or “observing,” but basically, I’ve been wired to judge. Gazing from name to notebook, I’ve made numerous mini-decisions, including, but not limited to, this person’s origin, age, education, work ethic, sleep quality, the clubs they joined in high school, if they’re Team Android or iPhone, and what their attitude towards their essay, and towards me, is. These visually-informed perceptions are all meant to help me better discern how to help this student become a better writer within the next 25 minutes.

Now, tutoring remotely, the only changing colors are those of text that’s highlighted or underlined to track changes on a student’s document. Our school primarily uses a Whiteboard alongside a chat column in our tutoring sessions, which is really good for focusing on the paper. Sometimes, when a Zoom call is involved, there is sound. But still, we are mostly looking (now for 60 minutes) at shared text. There’s nothing more I can see, and my early-onset cataracts constantly remind me that my connection to this other person is now blurred in more ways than one.

This must be what the telemarketers at call centers or customer service reps on the other side of the “Chat With Us” tab feel like. From the caller’s side, I want to feel like they really do care about me and whatever my problem is. I also know that usually, I doubt it. I don’t want that to happen with our students. Over and over, we maintain our value on teaching the writer, not the paper, but the way things are, the odds certainly can feel stacked against that.

However, now that we meet through chat, students are literally sharing their writing even more, just in the very act of getting help with their writing (How’s that for immersion?). And as they write, I am immersed in the possibility of personality once more. I start to read— to see— their lexicon, slang, accents, and tones of voice.

Something weird is happening: I think even more about them as people. I’ve noticed that I don’t judge what I don’t see anymore. I imagine it instead— because now there are blanks, and I must do some work to fill them in. When much of daily life is now confined to the square footage of our homes, I can understand there is more going on than these discussions about essays between the students and me. Are their children playing in the next room? Is their cat pawing the keyboard? Some are also supervising siblings with their own online schooling. Others are essential employees and have to be at work in five minutes. Inevitably, some are texting their buddies as we chat, only there is no longer a table that they have to hide under. It can feel, strangely, even more personal than being in-person.

Working at a community college, I would often run into students in public spaces, whether we were both out on a grocery run, or I was shopping where they cashiered or eating where they waited tables. One time, I was pleasantly surprised to get a UPS package delivered by a former student. There is always a delighted recognition that goes both ways: Hey, you have a life! And it’s so refreshing. In this pandemically-restricted, quasi-anonymous world, it’s now quite possible that I’m running into my students without realizing it. We could be passing each other by, masked and at a couple arms’ length, at the park, the grocery store, or the mall. On my way out, in the parking lot, I could very well see that VW Beetle with the eyelashes again.

I can imagine that— even as outside my window, on this late October day in central New Jersey, leaves are falling like confetti.

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MJampathomPhotoAbout the author: Having stepped back from her previous life as a graphic designer to teach English, May Jampathom is now a Writing Center tutor at Brookdale Community College, in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

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