It's like somthing from The Blackboard Jungle, this tiny basement classroom used to house the university's English skills improvement program. I'm waiting under grainy fluorescent lights, at a desk graffitied with last year's political propaganda, for my first student, a girl named Ramona whom I'm to tutor in Freshman Comp., English 102. I check my watch for the third, maybe the fourth time, and I'm standing to leave, to mark her officially as absent, when she steps through the door toward the hand I've extended in greeting.
''Morning,'' she says. ''I'm Ramona. I'm pleased to meet you.''
As I offer my name, her eyes--brown Latin eyes, alert, cautious, with a trace of defiance--suggest that she might not be pleased to meet me, to be here in this room at 8 a.m. captive to an English book, a teacher she's never met before.
When the introductions are finished though, she produces, with a good deal of frowning, a folder filled with last semester's essays. Each composition is liberally smeared with red felt tip, her own handwriting made nearly illegible by the comments, the reprimands and suggestions, of her instructor. At the bottom of each paper appear the grades, all ''E''s, each one followed by the advice, ''Try Harder.''
''I'm terrible at English,'' she confesses. ''I try hard. I go to class. And I study. But it never gets any easier --it's impossible.'' Her voice is different, lower now, almost a whisper, and trembling slightly, with none of the previous defiance. Watching her face, her eyes, I think: this is going to be tough. I talk for a moment, reading a section from the text, a chapter entitled ''Writing the Essay.''
I watch her eyes assume a dark, pained quality, as if I might be a dentist or bill collector, as if she might be waiting for the right moment to run. So I change tactics. I tell her I was lousy in English. That I dropped that subject, and dropped out of school. Twice. What helped me to learn English was reading it. Read a lot, I suggest. Good reading produces good writing.
She tells me she doesn't believe me, not a word of it, and we argue, but she promises to begin reading, to read a book a week. ''Begin with A Hundred Years of Solitude, you'll like that,'' and she shakes her head, the dark hair flying, a silent yes.
I'm talking today about Keats, and what the poet had to say about the importance of revision. ''Writing, good writing, is primarily re-writing. . . . '' Ramona wants to know who Keats is, and when I inform her she's unimpressed. So we argue and I persuade her and she agrees, reluctantly, to make a rough, maybe two rough drafts, and then a final. Over the next few weeks, the essays are much improved. We are making progress.
We spend some sessions just talking. She describes at length and in detail her childhood in Spain, the country's music, customs, architecture. She tells of her family's immigration, the difficult adjustment, what it was like to be the only Spanish kid in school, to be the only one. ''No one in my family,'' she says, ''has ever gone to college, has ever thought about it. But I am going to do it!''
Her feelings are so strong that I tell her to use those feelings in her writing. Write what she knows about, and cares about. This advice produces an essay on gourmet Spanish cooking, an argumentative essay on rights for Hispanics , and a comparison-contrast weighing life in Spain against life in America. The grades for the new essays are higher; have risen to a ''C.'' I'm impressed. And so is she, I think. The defiance of two months ago, and much of the insecurity are gone. And she calls me ''Bro'' now instead of ''Teach,'' or the more frequent, ''Hey man.''
But there are setbacks. One grade, for an in-class essay, receives a ''D.'' Ramona is nearly in tears. ''I can't do it. I can't do it. I can't do it-- '' She rolls up her fists and pounds them on a desk top, pounds them until I'm certain she's going to break something, until I take them in my own hands and stop her. ''You can do it, you can do it,'' I say, repeating the words over and over, until she reopens the book, and we begin again, very slowly.
The semester is winding down, is coming to a close. The final paper, an essay on bilingual education, has been written, rewritten, and is ready for submission. We both think it's good, and know, finally, that she will survive this. Durng the past months, we've solved questions of usage, syntax, mechanics, agreement, punctuation, diction and spelling. I watched her confidence rise as each crisis was solved, the old fear of writing giving away gradually to enthusiasm, an exuberance for the possibilities of writing. We're sitting outside today, on a bench under ironwood trees and some palms; the books have been put away and we're talking.
''It's funny,'' she says. ''Sometimes I'll write about something and it will surprise me. Something I hadn't thought about or had never imagined. A word, or a sentence, or an idea. One idea will lead to another and all I'll have to do is to follow them, write them down, find the right words--and that's it, I think, finding the right words, words that go with the idea-- ''
''That go with the feeling,'' I say. '' --a feeling that might have been lost , that was named and given meaning because we took the time to write it down - to find the right words, to make those words public.''
I'm excited, nearly breathless, but I think she understands. She's smiling and I believe she shares my excitement, my desire to tell her this and be understood, to put into language something that was unsayable, something precious, something exquisite--something inside that had had no words before!