The other day I was having lunch with a friend who has recently returned to teaching college English, Freshman Composition as it is lovingly known. In my day, I think we just called it English 101, but I’m assuming it is much the same thing these days, although teachers no doubt have to edit out text spelling like “u r gr8.” The interesting part of our conversation however, was not about spelling, but about the responsibility of the freshman English teacher to shape her students.
I commented that it was much like parenting, I’d imagine, because we’re not trying to raise large children, we want to nurture individuals who grow into functioning, competent, successful adults. And so, with the English student, we don’t just want them to get through the semester and pass with a C or above, we want them to excel because this will make their lives better in ways they can’t even begin to imagine at the age of 18 or 19.
Indeed, it isn’t even just about the writing, it is about communicating. Personally, I fear that many college freshmen don’t understand the value of being able to write effectively, and yet, doing so will absolutely serve them in any profession they choose. An employee who can convey their point with words will definitely have an advantage over one who cannot. It is that simple.
In any case, back to lunch, as we were chatting and my friend was deliberating the challenges of designing a course that would both meet her needs for teaching the essentials as well as draw the students into the magical world of words, I felt compelled to share an anecdote with her. It is one that I have shared many times and even came up in a recent submission for my memoir class as a part of my MFA coursework.
In that piece, I described a moment when I was giving a presentation to then Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his most senior advisors on the need to implement a system-wide HIV in the Workplace program to educate the personnel of United Nations on HIV and AIDS. The meeting was lively and even heated at times and, in the end, we prevailed and a program (UN Cares) was designed and launched in 2008 and continues to function in over 100 countries to this day.
What stuck in my mind, however, was that in that moment as I was addressing these world leaders, the person who crossed my mind as if hovering in a corner, was my freshman English teacher, Febe Portillo. She had said to me then that it would be my duty, always, to speak for those who could not be in the room and, in that moment, as in many others, I heard her voice reminding me that I was not there for myself alone, but for all people who might not otherwise have their voice heard in such a setting.
I’ve lost track of Febe Portillo after the nearly 30 years since her class, but I still think of her and as in that moment in 2005 at the UN, or as with my friend the other day in Brooklyn, I am reminded of the important role teachers play in our lives. Professor Portillo may never know how much she shaped the woman I am today, but I hope that somehow she does; I am forever grateful to her for her words of wisdom and, above all, her confidence in me that I could do something useful with my life. I hope I have not let her down.