Forging classroom connections despite audible sighs

A few students dropped by my office the other day. It was the second week of the semester and I was on the cusp of knowing every single student’s name in all my classes.

My visitors challenged me to recite the roster, so I closed my eyes and mentally circled our classroom. "Chris wears a Denver baseball cap," I said, "and Jordan’s the one who plays guitar in a band." The students nodded. "Cassie is usually reading a book at the start of class, Jess always has a funny comment…" I made it through the whole line-up, and as I finished my litany I felt accomplished, as though I had flawlessly pulled off a small but impressive magical feat.

Identifying everyone at the start of a semester isn’t easy – there are three blond Jakes and a few tall Jennifers scattered among the mix, not to mention a Kate and a Katie and a Katelyn all in one class. A student asked,"how do you know all of that already?" "I don’t even notice who’s sitting next to me!"

"It’s my job to notice," I replied. But paying attention is about more than being able to distinguish Bryan from Brian, Brendan from Brandon and Brittany from Britney. It’s about learning something about the individuals or, perhaps, about a class as a whole.

I’ve observed, for instance, that my freshmen are quite diverse in their choice of footwear. We sit at tables arranged in a circle, so it’s easy to see an array of flip-flops and, a few pairs of colorful Converse; I know who has already resorted to Uggs, who sports battered running shoes. I’ve also identified, in each class, who the smilers are and who the nodders are, and I feel exceedingly affectionate toward them. They are the most likely to laugh at my jokes; like any performer, I appreciate the feedback.

I’ve observed, after just a handful of classes, which students regularly forget their books, which ones secretly check their phones during class, and which guy sits in the back row and whispers to the student next to him when he thinks I’m not looking. I can identify the poetry student who only pretends to complete the in-class exercises but never actually writes anything down, the senior who already looks sleep deprived, the half-dozen students who have colds, the non-trad with a chip on her shoulder. I’ve noticed the student who looks perpetually puzzled, as though she expected a trigonometry or physics class but stumbled into a writing workshop and can’t determine how to escape. As is customary, there’s a student who compulsively taps his pen on the desktop as he thinks, approximately one in each class who is left-handed, and about 10 percent across the board who are leg jigglers.

These gestures and habits help me identify who’s who; I connect the tendency with the student, and start to remember: oh, Stacy wears only black; Lucy texts really fast; Mario always has coffee. The traits are endearing, usually, and my observations kept mostly private. In general, the students don’t know how I come to remember them but I love that I get to remember them. I’m glad they’re not distant students in a virtual classroom; I feel lucky that we meet and investigate literature together and find some humor in each other’s idiosyncrasies.

All this scrutiny happens, ideally, amid collective good spirits. The atmosphere of a successful seminar is simultaneously relaxed and active. I want students to feel safe when they grapple to articulate an idea; the ability to express complex thoughts takes practice and it’s important that they have the freedom to stop and start, stutter and pause and retry and, on occasion, stall in frustration. Getting an idea on the table takes effort, and in the process we’re all likely to interrupt one another, attempt and abort, detour off subject, argue and otherwise improvise our way toward something that feels fluent and meaningful. Students have a lot of freedom, but there are limits to how much self-expression even a creative writing teacher can take.

There’s one tendency or habit or momentary exertion of identity that I’m trying to nip in the bud this semester: the sin of the audible sigh. The audible sigh (A.S.) is a big, loud inhalation followed by an even louder and more prolonged exhalation, often used to indicate objection. The A.S. is heard when I ask, for instance, that students move their desks into a circle or, more peculiarly, when I request that they take out a pen and paper. From the corner of the room I’ll hear it: the whisper of intake, the pause, then the weary, whooshing sigh. I’ve often ignored the A.S., but lately I address the source. "Um, Thomas, this is a writing class," I might say. Thomas will make eye contact from over in the corner of the room where he assumed that he was invisible, and I’ll smile. "Is it particularly difficult to pick up a pen this morning?" I’ll ask. Now Thomas will smile, startled that I heard him, perhaps surprised that I’ve interpreted his protest as problematic.

The whole class is on alert now, recognizing that the audible sigh is not so innocent, that it’s just as critical an utterance as our words have been. This moment is a part of a tradition, a history that repeats itself every semester, a small part of the familiar choreography of student/teacher interaction. Perhaps Thomas didn’t mean to send an audio cue to his classmates that said he’s bored or disinclined to participate, perhaps his loud sigh carried no disrespect whatsoever. I suspect he’d insist, if pressed, that he’s merely tired.

But by paying attention, and by bringing my observation to the attention of the audible sigher so that he, too, can pay attention, a connection is made. In that moment of connection, Thomas can protest his innocence, I can agree to believe he’s tired and meant no offense. Or he can say "sorry" and I can say "no problem." Or – if there’s a little magic in the classroom that day – a bold and insightful student can take a risk and, ten seconds into my confrontation with Thomas, can sigh loudly. This second sigh – which is, after all, merely amplified breath – is a discrete unit of sound, smaller than the smallest word. But when that second student sighs, they aren’t just attempting a joke. The student is recognizing the power of sound, the importance of timing, the presence of conflict and a potential resolution to that conflict – in other words, a whole host of subtleties we’ll be studying in books all semester long. If just one person in the classroom recognizes the comic and, I’d propose, literary significance of the second sigh – then the whole class can gauge my reaction – instant delight – and we can laugh together.

And then we can get down to business. The business of paying attention; of writing down what we observe, of making sense of those words. We can pursue, with rigor and enjoyment, the business of being together in a city, in a college, on a lake, in a classroom where our job, I think, is to notice and appreciate and struggle and learn and laugh and always, always, to connect.