“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.” –Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
At my presentation last night at WWU, I met a young, Vietnamese student who, when I had finished, stayed after to talk. She liked my ideas, writing in short bursts, writing every day, making one change, imitating other writers to warm up, and so forth, but for her last paper, she patiently explained, she had worked from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., and still wasn’t happy with the results. At the Writing Center, she told me and the resident advisors who had also hung around after, the tutors corrected her grammar, but didn’t seem able to help her write more efficiently, or communicate her ideas in the way she hoped to.
I was thrown back to my days working with International students, to debates about global versus local editing, to the mandate given us to keep our pens off the students’ papers. I remembered how frustrated students would get, trying to explain, in English, what they were thinking–and how they were thinking–in another language altogether. This young woman had two years of college in Vietnam, after all. (And I remembered my first International student, years ago, who had been a pediatrician in China and now had to endure English 98, which didn’t even count toward her degree.)
What do you do? I never quite figured this one out. But I know that the struggle to try to connect, to hear, is worth it.
So I tried to listen and to hear what the student was really saying. I tried to value the cultural story of frustration and displacement and homesickness between the lines. Then, feeling a little homesick for the land of college teaching, I leaned back and let the RAs (my daughter and her capable boss) take over.