She prayed that God would give her a student that needed what she had to give...but now she worried she was in over her head.
- Posted on Oct 22, 2019
I looked at the blond teenager slumped at his desk in the back row of my classroom and felt sick inside.
Only six weeks ago, before I started my first year of teaching English to college freshmen, I had prayed, “God, please send me students who need what I can give.” And now I asked despairingly, “Why, Lord? Why did You send me Robby?”
There was absolutely nothing I could give this student. I suspected strongly that he was an alcoholic, and that was a disease I’d had no luck coping with. When I stopped at his desk to return a paper he’d handed in, it was clear that he’d been drinking before class. Once again he smelled like a brewery; his eyes were bloodshot; his hair, disheveled. My words tumbled out before I could stop them.
“Robby, are you in the habit of drinking beer for breakfast?”
I regretted the sarcasm but couldn’t control my frustration. I felt as angry and helpless as I had been on a Christmas Eve during my childhood when my father staggered into the tree on his way to the kitchen for another beer. Ornaments shattered on the hardwood floor, and the colored lights sputtered and went out.
After my mother helped him up, he still got that beer. “Mama, don’t you ever want to g-give up?” I asked in an unsteady voice. She sighed. “He needs me to stand by him and pray for him. With God’s help, somehow, someway ... well, I know he’ll find his way.”
Now, in my classroom, Robby looked at his desk and shoved both hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I’m rushing a fraternity,” he muttered. “You must smell beer from the party last night.”
I shook my head. “Robby, you’ve already missed three classes.” I held out the theme he’d written. “And a D on your first paper isn’t a good way to start the semester.” He looked up pleadingly. “But I won’t be absent anymore. I promise. And I’ll work harder on my next paper.”
Classes were changing, and before I could respond, he had risen and disappeared into the crowd. I walked briskly down the hall to my office. I hated myself for being angry and blamed Robby for making me feel that way. He’s just like my father, I thought. He was unreachable. Irresponsible. How many times had I tried to get through to my father—to no avail? And then more heartbreak: My younger brother started drinking. Again and again I’d begged him to stop, bailed him out of jail, listened to his lame excuses. All for nothing. My heels drummed on the terrazzo floor of the hall. Robby would have to solve his own problems, I decided. I had nothing left to give.
For the next several weeks, Robby did come to class regularly. Slumping at a desk in the back left-hand comer of my classroom, he daydreamed or gazed out the window into bright leaves and sunshine. Sometimes he’d get up during a class discussion to go outside and drink from the water fountain.
The two papers he handed in looked as if they’d been dashed off. I marked a large D on each. Yet when I lectured or led discussions, I’d find myself looking back to Robby’s comer of the classroom. His eyes carefully avoided my gaze; sometimes he’d flinch, as if recoiling from a punch.
When I handed back Robby’s fourth assignment, I watched him open it to the back page. His eyes fell on the inevitable D, and I saw tears well in his eyes. They always cry, I thought bitterly, remembering how my father’s large hands would shake as he’d cover, his face and say he was sorry and promise to change. Now, for some reason, I felt guilty, as if I were the cause of Robby’s misery. I quickly caught myself. I would not be manipulated into feeling responsible.
“He’s got to take responsibility,” I vowed.
Determined to confront him, I caught him at the door after class. “Robby, can we talk a minute?” I asked. He looked at the floor and didn’t answer. “I—I don’t like giving D’s,” I began, “but you haven’t given me much choice.”
“I can’t write like you want,” he muttered. “Whatever it is you want, I can’t do it.” I stiffened. That’s always it, I thought. Blame anything but the alcohol. Just give up. Expect to be bailed out.
“Robby, you could write perfectly well,” I found myself saying, “if you’d stop drinking and start caring about your work.” He looked up at me.
“I hate the paper topics,” he countered. “They’re stupid.”
Paper topics were under the control of the English Department and I assigned what the syllabus demanded. Now Robby wanted me to make an exception for him. I hated exceptions. I stared at Robby; for a fleeting moment I recalled my mother’s eyes, warm and steady, reflecting her conviction. I could hear her saying firmly, “We won’t give up on your father. We’ll go on believing that God can give him the will to change.”
Something broke within me—or maybe I was just tired of being angry, unsure of what to do next. I knew what Mama would do.
Robby poked nervously at a hole in his faded jeans, shuffled his feet and waited for me to respond. Then, obviously anxious to retreat, he tried to edge past me. “It’s not your problem,” he said. “You can just flunk me and forget it.”
But I stood there blocking his path. He was wrong. It was my problem. I remembered the prayer I’d said before school began. I hadn’t asked God for the best students but for those who needed what I could give. I took a deep breath. “Okay, Robby, on the next paper you can write about anything you want. Forget the assignment sheet. Just make sure your paper’s at least two full pages, and ... and that it’s about something that matters to you.”
His eyes widened in disbelief. “Anything?” he asked.
“Anything,” I answered.
Afterward I worried that I’d violated the letter of the law set down by the English Department for freshman composition. But I consoled myself by arguing that I hadn’t violated its spirit. I went on worrying about Robby and my response to him while I cooked dinner, did my laundry and fed the cat. A week later, after he handed in his next paper, I pulled it from the pile as soon as I sat down in my office, anxious to discover what he had to say. Neatly stapled together were six full pages of small, careful print. The first sentences were: “Kevin woke up with his face in the high grass beside the interstate. He could hear cars whizzing by and his head hurt. He’d blacked out again.”
I looked up from the paper and felt my eyes begin to sting. Taking a long gulp of coffee, I kept reading. In a moving, concrete and straightforward style, Robby continued for six pages describing the life of a teenage alcoholic. “Kevin,” he wrote, “hated looking into the mirror at himself. It made him want another beer.” The Kevin that Robby described lost friends because of his drinking, woke up in places he couldn’t remember arriving at, and made D’s in chemistry, calculus and English. He felt “desperate, alone and sure of dying.”
At his paper’s conclusion, Robby added a postscript: “Miss Bradford, this is not me. I wanted to try writing fiction, but I don’t want you to think this is me.” I pushed his paper aside, put my head on my desk and cried. All of the times my father had bellowed, “I don’t have a drinking problem,” replayed themselves on the screen of my thoughts.
I reached for a tissue. What should I do? If I referred Robby to the alcohol treatment program at Student Services, he wouldn’t go. If I contacted his counselor at the General College, what would I say? That to every alcoholic his dependency is only fiction? That I had a way of knowing when people drank too much? That I’d grown up with an alcoholic father? That my younger brother had looked just like Robby his first year in college—the year he wrecked two cars and nearly killed himself? I knew I wasn’t a counselor, a social worker or a psychiatrist, and I was sure Robby’s presence in my class had been some kind of cosmic mistake. I’m just an English teacher, I thought. But the words stuck in my mind as if they contained the answer. You are an English teacher. Just teach English the very best way you can.
I poured another cup of coffee. Then, with an almost peaceful determination, I began grading the paper. Scrupulously I marked every misspelling or grammatical error, put in absent commas and suggested shorter paragraphs. Finally, in my end note I wrote, “Robby, this is your best paper yet. Concrete, compelling and interesting. You involve the reader in Kevin’s painful, desperate situation. But fiction requires a conclusion. What happens to Kevin? Does he find help or end up a victim of the bottle? For your next paper, I’d like you to finish the story.” I scrawled a large B below the note.
When I handed the papers back, Robby was in class, but he missed the two classes that followed. Panic crept over me at odd moments that week. Had I done something so wrong that he’d decided not to come back at all? How could I have imagined I could help such a confused, haunted teenager? I knew if he didn’t show up for class the next time, I’d have to notify his adviser.
When I walked into my classroom on Monday morning, I immediately looked back at Robby’s seat. It was empty. As I opened my book, I tried to squelch disappointment long enough to teach the other students. Then, glancing up to take roll, my heart jumped. Robby was there after all, but not in his usual seat in the comer. He’d moved to the second row. His hair was combed, and he wore a bright-green polo shirt and crisp khaki pants. I’d never seen him in anything but torn jeans and an old shirt. Catching my gaze, he smiled broadly.
Back in my office an hour later I turned to the conclusion of Robby’s “fictitious” narrative. He’d written a single paragraph: “I couldn’t write it. I was afraid how it would end up. I’m not drinking anymore and I’m going to Alcoholics Anonymous. I know I can finish this now—if I can just get an extension.”
I wrote at the bottom of the sheet, “Extension granted.”
I still saw Robby after he finished my class, taking away a B- as his course grade. Usually it was early in the morning. I’d be walking across campus, clutching a cup of coffee, not yet awake, and I’d hear him shouting exuberantly, “Hey, Miss Bradford, bow’s it goin’?”
Robby had needed the professionals he went looking for and found. But I’d been wrong in arrogantly declaring that I had nothing to give. He’d needed me to believe he could make the changes so important to his leading a healthy, productive life. My mother had been that believing person for my father and brother—to this day faithful members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I thank God for using my classroom as one of the instruments in Robby’s change. And I remember Robby at the beginning of each semester when I carefully pray, “God, send me students who need what I can give.”
*Names have been changed
This story first appeared in the March 1987 issue of Guideposts magazine.