Martin Cockroft was a WITS writer during the 2003-2004 school year. Since his days at WITS he has become a professor at Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania. He remembers that working at WITS helped him find his way to his passion. He knew he wanted to teach creative writing, but he didn’t know where to start. Now four years later he is doing what he loves. When asked if he had any specific memories of his time at WITS his response truly epitomized the great work we do here.
I was teaching 7th grade girls at CEP, an alternative school. They were a tough bunch–at least they acted tough–and they were given very little personal freedom. They couldn’t carry pencils for fear they would jab themselves or other students with them.
This afternoon students were writing poems and I was walking around, reading over their shoulders, praising them and making suggestions. One student–I’ve forgotten her name, but not her face–wouldn’t let me see what she was doing. I’ll call her Keesha. We’d had problems in past weeks with students writing disrespectful notes about teachers and students when they were supposed to be writing more imaginatively, and I had decided I wouldn’t let them use my time to defame other people.
I hovered over Keesha and asked her to lift her hands, which she’d spread like wings across the page.
No, she said.
Keesha, I said, you need to let me see your work.
No, she repeated, more fiercely.
I walked away. Had I responded appropriately to the situation? I spent a lot of time at CEP wondering how best to help students who didn’t seem to want to be helped, who, for legitimate reasons, didn’t trust authority and didn’t want to show vulnerability. And while I tried to shape a safe, open class environment, I didn’t want to be played.
I drifted to other students. Some were anxious for my attention, and others I’d all but given up on. They sat, arms crossed, and refused to write a word. Keesha was different. She hadn’t been especially enthused in past weeks, but she’d usually responded to the assignment. I eyed her from across the room. Her pencil was moving furiously.
When I returned, she leaned over the page again.
Keesha, I said, what are you writing?
None of your business, she said.
She was calling my bluff: What was I going to do? I wasn’t going to physically pull her hands away or rip the page from her. I shrugged and moved on to other students.
Near the end of class, several students shared their poems. I thought of calling Keesha out, but didn’t. So maybe she’d written a note, or drawn something obscene. There was only so much I could do.
Students handed in their poems and I turned to stuff them into my satchel.
“Mister,” someone said from behind me.
“Yes,” I said, turning back toward the class. It was Keesha. She had a paper folded in her hand.
“I have a surprise for you,” she said, thrusting her arm toward me.
I took the folded paper and unfolded it.
It was a poem. It was a lovely poem.
Sometimes as teachers we trust students and they abuse that trust. Isn’t that what I was afraid of? Isn’t that why I had trouble making myself vulnerable? That day I learned a far more serious error is to doubt a child, to reserve trust when trust is warranted, when trust is what is desperately needed. Without knowing it, Keesha shamed me that day. And I have never forgotten.