A confession to students: 'I was once like you'

Teaching developmental writing in a community college is a job I never dreamed of doing. I had planned to be a journalist. That changed after my second failed attempt at newspaper reporting. When I left that last job in Vincennes, Ind., I moved back to Indianapolis, and four months later, began teaching.

During that first semester, I thought to myself how interesting and terrifying it would be to meet a student much as I was in high school and part of college: stubborn, lazy, and careless. I got through six semesters teaching relatively good classes, but I knew the inevitable would happen: This year I met Steve, a student who is just like I was many years ago.

At the beginning of the semester, I gave my class a copy of Elbert Hubbard's "Message to Garcia." After I explained the essay's contents, I drew their attention to one passage: "It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this or that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies; do the thing - 'carry a message to Garcia!' "

Then I told them my story. I discussed my failures, became vulnerable, and let them see my imperfections, shortcomings, and problems with laziness that had plagued me as a younger man.

I explained to them that my high school adviser told me, "You have a great deal of potential." He was referring to my careless habits that affected my school work. Later, in college, I understood he was right. I carried my bad habits with me, and by the end of my sophomore year, I had been kicked out because of below-average grades.

The following year, I worked in a beatnik cafe, rented a room, and steadily rebuilt my academic reputation by taking independent study courses. Once I had reestablished my credibility, I enrolled in regular classes. During that lonely year of brewing and mixing cappuccinos, and of sharing a kitchen with a voyeuristic ragtime pianist in a "Real World," MTV-like boarding house, I read. That's when I discovered Hubbard's writing.

Two years later, I graduated from college and became a reporter. At two different newspapers, I bungled my job. I left the business discouraged, heartbroken, and haunted by my perception that I would find little success in writing.

During a brief time of unemployment, I reread Hubbard's "Message." Four months later I was offered a job as a teacher and tutor. With that new job came the perk of going to grad school free of charge.

Every year when my students hear this story, and I tell them about harnessing their potential, I feel myself becoming more like my high school adviser. When I first met Steve and told him, along with the rest of the class, that succeeding in my course would come only from their "acting promptly" and "concentrating their energies," he said he didn't need my class, and didn't see the point in writing well. He did little work and expended little effort. At times, I began understanding how my high school adviser felt about me: frustrated, bewildered maybe?

At semester's end, I returned their final assignment and wondered if they'd gotten my message. Steve didn't pass the class. In his portfolio of essays, I wrote, "You have a great deal of potential" and left another copy of Hubbard's essay. I hope he gets the rest of the message quicker than I did.

Rodger D. Johnson is an adjunct faculty member at Ivy Tech State College in central Indiana.

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