How are your powers of concentration? Can you settle to a writing task and focus completely, or does your attention wander to the Internet, or the to-do pile, or that packet of Hobnobs?
Let me tell you about Eva.
I've taught creative writing in various contexts, but no student has concentrated so well and so politely on my teaching as Eva did, and in the most distracting of circumstances.
Each August, between 2003 and 2008, I taught writing at a summer school at St Mary's University College in Twickenham. It's where I sat my own English degree, graduating in 2000 when I was forty. One of my lecturers offered me the summer school work.
The students were Polish graduates, awarded the summer school as a prize for excellent performance achieved at their university in Warsaw. Most hadn't ventured outside Poland before. They were determined to squeeze the most out of the opportunity.
Was there a language gap? No, they'd learned English to a high standard. No worries there, apart from a few grammar mishaps.
The students, mainly young women, were startlingly polite, focused and hard-working, even on sultry West London afternoons in hot classrooms. They never missed classes or arrived late, they stayed afterwards to ask more questions, and I've never been listened to so intently either before or since.
In the final week, I had set the class an assessment: to write a description of a marketplace, and had promised them one-to-one feedback. I didn't realise how seriously they'd take this. But it's challenging enough being asked to write a description in one's own language, isn't it? So, writing one in a second language and employing figurative devices such as metaphor and personification is even more tasking. Some of the students, with shadows under their eyes, told me shyly they'd stayed up all night, perfecting their work.
Eva's one-to-one feedback session was to be in the basement of the university in the afternoon. I arrived at the university with minutes to spare: the punishingly-hot weather had cracked, and there'd been significant sudden rainfall, so many of the roads were awash. I was glad I'd worn knee-length boots.
Eva arrived bang on 2pm, clutching her folder. Together we sat at a desk, hunched over her piece of work. She was desperate for approval. I was desperate to give her some; I suspected she'd been one of the all-nighters.
However, what surprised me was that once or twice, she seemed to lose focus. In lessons, she'd always been exemplary, almost super-human in her ability to concentrate.
She dragged herself back, though, and applied herself to what I was saying for another few minutes.
Again, though, I sensed her attention wandering. She glanced at the floor and then back up at me. Once more, she regained focus and we continued.
Fifteen minutes in, though, she gradually began to lose her grip on the session. She kept staring down at the floor or at her feet and I suspected she was now not listening to my feedback.
'Here,' I said, pointing to a simile she'd used, trying to drag her back on track. 'This one really works, Eva.'
She smiled, but still, something was definitely distracting, even upsetting her now.
'What is it, Eva?' I said.
She bit her lip. 'I am so sorry to interrupt,' she said. 'I do not want to be rude. And your feedback is so valuable. But, something is very wrong on the floor.'
'On the floor?'
She pointed. 'There are many waters around our feet,' she said.
I looked down. The room was half an inch deep in flood water, pooling around my boots. Her sandalled feet were immersed.
'Eva! Why didn't you say?' I said.
We paddled to the door - she grabbed her folder as we left - and peered into the basement corridor, just as a perturbed college official splashed towards us in wellingtons and beckoned us towards a safe exit.
As we climbed stairs, we met less and less water. 'When can we meet?' Eva said, her face anxious, 'to complete the feedback?'
We heard later that a foot of water had leaked into the basement. If Eva had waited any longer, she'd have been in flood water up to her knees while I wittered on about extended metaphors.
I must think of Eva when Facebook nibbles at my concentration. She set a high standard.
|Eva, dressed and ready for the next feedback session.|