The sky is the color of a pencil lead smudge as rain drizzles outside.
It is nearly nine-thirty on the Monday morning of a Composition I class in Room 108 of the Language Arts building at St. Petersburg College’s Gibbs campus. A student sits in the back of the classroom, listening to music on his earphones, blocking the rest of the world out. His eyelids slide shut.
A young man in the front row wearily rubs from his face. He blinks a few times, trying to shake the sleep out of his head. It does not help.
Fellow classmates file in, so eager with the anticipation of learning that they can barely walk. Their feet shuffle and they collapse into their seats, unable to stand upright another minute.
But when Linda LaPointe, all five foot four inches of her, comes in, everyone sits up. The backs straighten. The earphones are put away. LaPointe is dressed in black pants and a jacket with an orange shirt underneath with not a white hair out of place. A little blue robot hangs from her neck. A Picasso coffee mug is in her hand.
LaPointe, 62, has been at St. Petersburg College for twenty-five years, where she has taught Composition I and II, Honors Composition I and II, World Literature, and Introduction to Women Writers. She will teach Classical Mythology in January.
And she is serious about what she does.
Your first clue is the typed piece of paper, hanging like a warning on the outside of the classroom door, reading, “If you arrive late to class, please wait to be invited into the room.”
Enter at your own risk.
Maybe it is the way she stands in the back of the class as a student reads a paper.
You cannot text with her standing there.
“Put your cell phones away,” she orders before the first student approaches the podium. “Way away. I don’t want to see them.”
LaPointe originally graduated with a degree in psychology with the intention of becoming a counselor, but it was not before long when she realized it was not what she wanted to do. “I fell back on my minor, which was English,” LaPointe said. “I loved English.”
If her words are not enough evidence of that, then her office space certainly is. Three bookcases line the walls. They are piled high with stacks of papers and stacks of books.
The books are everywhere. It is like a library exploded.
Their titles range from “Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces”, “Culture and Imperialism”, “The Scarlett Letter”, “Irish Folk Tales”, and “Tragedy and Philosophy”.
A small table sits beneath the window, covered in thick folders, wrapped by sturdy rubber bands. A French grammar book is lost in the midst, accompanied by a dictionary of the same language.
Beneath them hides a hammer.
A coffee pot sits near the desk, close enough that she does not have to move much when she is need of a refill. A calendar with a cat photo hangs on the wall. Pictures of people fill up the corkboard, accompanied by yellowing newspaper articles.
For a quarter of a century, this has become a second home. Because LaPointe loves what she does.
“I really am passionate about students, their writing, [and] the literature of the course,” she says, sitting in her office chair. “I never stopped enjoying it.”
However, with the joys that come from watching the writing of a student develop over the course of a semester, comes the difficulty of watching the lazy ones fall away, because a class with Linda LaPointe is no walk in the park.
She believes in portfolios, which gives the class the opportunity to rewrite the necessary papers. In her Composition I class, students revise their work again and again until the end of the semester, where they choose two out of four papers, which make up their final grade.
LaPointe allows personal conferences with the students, where she critiques a revision, and instructs the students on what needs to be added, removed, or changed in order to make the paper better. Appointment scheduling twenty-four hours ahead of time is required, for in the last few weeks of class, LaPointe’s office hours become flooded as students cram for the approaching final deadline.
Although this might seem like an easier method compared to those of other teachers who give students a grade without allowing them to revise or know what they did wrong the first time, LaPointe’s has requirements of those she teaches.
Tardiness, absence, and reports turned in after the assigned date are not tolerated, and each offense lowers the standing of a final grade. It is not uncommon for students with exceptional writing to receive low – or failing – grades due to their neglect to show up for class.
And homework is demanding. At the end of each class, reading, writing, or both is assigned and required by the next meeting. It is so infuriating, that it made a pretty blonde-haired girl groan with misery as she snatched her calendar from her backpack in Room 108.
LaPointe is no stranger to lazy, apathetic students who do not want to do the required assignments, and she can spot the culprits ahead of time. “I have become better at recognizing the students who don’t want to do the work.” But neither her passion for students nor her insight can change their minds if they are determined to not make an effort. “I don’t know what to do with them,” she admits.
Instead, she works with what she can.
While the students read their persuasive papers in front of the class, she sits in the back with her cup of coffee, leaning forward on her elbows, and listening intently. When she hears something she likes, she nods with enthusiasm, and scribbles something on the back of the role sheet with her green G-2 pen.
If a student is too scared to read their work, she steps in and does it for them. Holding the paper in front of glasses, unconsciously half-shielding her face from the back row, her voice is paced and even as she emphasizes statistics and key phrase. If she approves, she will give a direct, “Well done.”
If she really likes it, she will clap.
A nervous student stands up to read his paper and begins speaking far too quickly. He rushes through the first few sentences, anxious to be finished.
“Slow down,” LaPointe pleads in a quiet whisper from the back, but he doesn’t.
Another reads his in a quiet voice, his eyes fixed down on the words in front of him, avoiding any eye contact, and stays that way throughout his reading. However, despite his delivery, his paper against onychectomy – the surgical amputating of a cat’s claws – is excellent, and the class acknowledges it.
Above the sound of the applause, LaPointe’s voice is barely audible as the commends the student at the front of the classroom.
“Good job, honey,” she says. “Good job.”