Letter to a Young Student

[Updated from initial publication.] I don’t think I’ve ever used this site as a vehicle for discussing personal issues, or, like, feelings, so there is no category under which to place what I’m posting today. SO, straight into it, the inaugural “teaching” post:

As a professor, I’m constantly struggling with the tension between maintaining emotional distance from students––partly due to the felt necessity to “be objective,” and partly out of a sense that I have limited resources of empathy––and trying to treat each and every one with humane, patient, attentive care. There’s a lot to be said for the self-renewing properties of fellow-feeling, of smiling at strangers, of embracing the Everlasting Yea and shunning the Everlasting No; but I know from experience that, as an instructor whose purview every semester includes guiding 100+ students through difficult texts and their written responses to them, when I bend the guidelines I myself have set up, I am setting myself up for exhaustion. Deadlines and rubrics help me avoid making tough decisions about the grey areas. If it’s late, it’s late, and there’s a prescribed penalty. If your essay doesn’t satisfy the requirements of the prompt, it doesn’t matter how hard you worked. Jacob cares; Professor Bennett can’t. At least, that’s how it feels sometimes. But I’ve been breaking down the wall between those identities in the last year or so, letting Jacob into the class for a change.

I had a student last semester, really smart, but absent all the time, missing work all the time, and in class discussion, wicked laconic. Like pulling teeth to get a simple “yes” or “no.” By mid-semester, it was clear this kid couldn’t hope to pass, so I pulled the plug on trying to help. Kid dropped the class, per suggestion of advisor, parents, me. This semester, kid is back in another course I teach, and for the first few weeks, things look to have turned around. Not absent once for the first eight weeks; work turned in on time; actually participating in discussion sometimes. Then Spring Break, off for a week. Back in class that next Monday, kid is gone. Next class: gone. Next week and a half: gone. First essay MIA. So I write to the kid to say, “Let’s not do that dance again. You’re in, or you’re out.” Kid turns in the essay, late, incomplete, with accompanying promise to stay the course, finish the course real strong. No more absences, no more mollycoddling required, just going through some tough times. I read the essay, and feel a need to reach out. And that, the email I just sent the kid, is the whole point of this post. 

[Edit: I’m inserting this bracketed addendum after initial publication, because I was just washing dishes and had an epiphany about why it happens that today of all days I feel this strong urge to reach out to the kid, and why I feel the urge to share that act of sharing with the Web. There was a stabbing on campus yesterday. Middle-of-the-day kind of attack, not the usual dead-of-the-weekend-night when the parties are in fullest swing. I’d just walked into class, was writing some small-group peer-critique instructions on the board, when I hear a student say something about a post on Yik Yak, “stabbing in dining hall,” and I assume it’s a joke about Aramark and death-wishes. Then, no, again, someone says there’s been a campus alert and that we’re to shelter-in-place. I leave my phone in my office out of habit, to avoid the other habit of constantly checking messages, to model focused and attentive presence. I check my email on the classroom computer, check the university site, the news. Very little news, no time for capitalization, punctuation, full phrases: “report of stabbing in Blue and Gold dining. W/M 20’s is doer wearing blue La Salle sweatshirt and red hat.” Someone jokes that the kid who wore a red hat to class the first few weeks isn’t wearing his red hat that day. Nervous laughter. First words out of my mouth, whether because I’m frustrated that we’re losing valuable class time or because of the striking surprise of violence in this context: “What the fuck.” Not a question, not an exclamation, muttered more like. Excitement, not chaotic, tittering. A colleague roaming the hall to make sure the doors are closed and locked. Someone in the back says, “My friend isn’t here. She left to go print her homework.” “Where?” “Writing Center, down the hall.” I peek through the window of the locked door. No one, nothing. I turn to the class, “Nobody leave. Don’t open the door, I have the keycard.” I open the door, with my real keys in my fist, spiking through my fingers, just in case. I walk very quickly, worried I look suspicious, toward the Writing Center, door closed and locked. I knock, hear, “Who is it?,” hesitant. Afraid, probably. Of course. “It’s Professor Bennett, and I think a student of mine came here, I just want to make sure she’s ok.” I’m not sheltering, I’m defying the protocols, is this a problem? Door opens, I look at the faces. No, not here. Where the fuck? I’m responsible for minds, not lives, I’m worried now. I shut the door, turn around, the student has just come up the stairwell, had to go to building across the quad––is that the quad?––I say, “There’s been an attack, we need to get back into the classroom and stay there.” “I had to go to Wister, I’m sorry, I meant to print it before.” “It’s ok, you’re ok, it’s ok.” I’m feeling that twinge preceding tears, it will happen a few more times in the next half-hour. I can’t cry, I’m responsible for lives now. What the fuck. Back in class, door locked, I set the class to work. You work, I worry. “You worry about the work, I’ll worry about the danger.” I said that. They laugh. I might cry. “I have to leave again, I have to get my phone, my wife, she’s probably heard, I need to let her know. Nobody leave. Do your work, I’ll be right back.” Keys between fingers, I run down the hall, the other direction this time, uncertain terrain. Every door closed. I see one open, another colleague, I ask if everyone is ok. He walks a step toward me, away from his class, whispers, gestures, “This door doesn’t lock.” Shrugs. I say I’m getting my phone. In my office, I remember I have my dog with me today. I pick him up, carry him over my shoulder, bounding upstairs again and back to class. Everybody loves Carl. Pictures of me on their social media pages, it doesn’t matter now, we’ve been through something. Carl on my lap, in class, licking my hands and I’m answering questions about quotation selection, meaning of logos, what’s a good thesis, and there’s a stabbing victim two minutes away. I keep hitting “refresh” on the classroom browser, very little news. And then the shelter-in-place is lifted. Still no suspect, but the guy is in stable condition.]

Anyhow…this is the Letter to a Young Student:

Kid [not the student’s name, so lay off me, FERPA-enforcers],
Having just read your essay, I’m remembering that you are a good writer, and clearly very bright. But we went through this kind of conversation last term. As a way of reassuring you, and as a way of reminding myself to strive for empathy (and also because I need a break from the repetitive process of grading and giving feedback), here’s a little anecdote:

When I was in college, I had my fair share of personal issues to work through, and even dropped out after my second year. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been prone to depression, sometimes very deep. The easy access to drugs and alcohol, in the midst of a permissive milieu at Wesleyan, only made those dips more devastating and long-lasting. So, despite the fact that I’d always been a top student––3.9 GPA in high school, 1450 SATs (the scoring is different now, but it used to go up to 1600), feedback from college professors along the lines of “near-genius work”––I was kind of losing it, and I dropped out and found a job washing dishes in a café on Main Street in the same town as the university: Eleanor Rigby’s (after the Beatles song). I still remember the little kitchen area: facing the sink in the back corner, I’d put my Discman on repeat (probably Tortoise or Elliott Smith or DJ Shadow), put on my apron and my rubber gloves and my headphones, and I’d spend a few hours every day meditating on the suds, the scrubbing, the tiles on the wall. It was centering, calming, fulfilling. For a little while. But I could only survive on the free cookies and soup for so long. Now, not everyone needs a college degree, but I’d always wanted to teach, so getting the degree wasn’t an option. It was only the beginning. So, I re-applied, got back in, and finished the degree. It wasn’t always easy, but it was what I needed to do.

I’m not suggesting or assuming your situation is at all similar, but thought it might be useful to hear from someone who, though being book-smart and a good writer and a shy kid, had to learn the hard way to get out of his own way, to stop making excuses, and just do the work his dreams required.

-Bennett

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