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Photo from Pixabay

I was invited into a student’s home today. Unfortunately, the home was much different from what I remembered from a previous visit years earlier, when this girl was so much younger — and so much happier.

The first time I visited Angelina’s home, she was about eight years old. She and her older brother lived with their parents in a humble but well kept neighborhood of two-family flats. I was there on a Saturday morning, and Angelina’s dad cooked pancakes for all of us. As he cooked, he told funny stories about his youth; meanwhile, his wife and his children laughed in both amazement and adoration.

“You really did that to your friends, Dad?” Angelina asked.

“This next story’s even better,” he replied and began again.

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About ten years have passed since that first visit. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to that rented set of rooms again. I knew it would be darker, lonelier. I could see it in Angelina’s eyes. Yet, she asked me to come. She asked for my help.

Again, it was a Saturday morning; again about 10:00. This time, though, the kitchen was empty, and the sink was full. Angelina’s mom and brother were still sleeping: one exhausted from too much work; the other hung over from not enough. Dad was gone — long gone.

“He left about four years ago,” Angelina explained. “They argued constantly; he couldn’t stay. I miss his pancakes — and his stories.”

Now, Angelina tells stories of her own. She doesn’t have her father’s flair or his energy or his humor. Her life changed too much when he left. Her stories are darker, sadder, and so much more powerful than his — unfortunately.

When Angelina finished her story, she looked to me for advice. I offered what I could: kind words, encouragement, small constructive criticism. “So sad,” I thought as I left. Then, I went into another student’s home.

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Photo by Jim LaBate

Most teachers stand in front of their classroom and speak. They lecture, they question, they probe, they prompt, they quiz, and they correct. Not I.

I merely listen. I watch. I sniff. I feel. I laugh. I mourn. I am touched by their lives. I am silent until the end. Then, and only then, do I speak — slowly, softly, and carefully.

No, I do not have a typical classroom. I sit in The Writing and Research Center — near the dictionary and the thesaurus — and I wait. My students come to me, and their essays take me to their neighborhoods and into their homes. I am a writing specialist. I read student essays. I read their lives. And I am richer for it.

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Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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