Thursday, May 6, 2010

Our Stars Shine on Commencement Day

Published as "A Professor's Reflections on the Last Day of School" in MyLatinoVoice.         

Today is the last day of the school year for me. While I still have a stack of exams and papers to grade, for the next few weeks I am freed from the performance, wrangling, cajoling and occasional haranguing that is teaching.

I love teaching but it is exhausting. If I was one of those professors who lectures then disappears into their own world, it would be less stressful, but real teaching requires engagement. It requires making sure that the students are following your lead; running to the back of the line to pull along the stragglers, without losing the ones who are soaring ahead of the pack.

This semester, I had my share of unique students. One young woman stopped coming to class about mid-semester because she suffers from migraines. I got a note from her doctor but I frankly doubted the consistency of the malady—half a semester? Yes, her written work was decent but I require students to attend class and am rankled by the seven week-long flat line.

A young man missed many classes in the first weeks of school because of depression and acute anxiety attacks. After I wrote him a long letter describing my own experience with depression and suggesting some of the techniques I have used to deal with it, he connected with me and didn’t miss another class for the rest of the semester. We were lucky; he made a real contribution to the class.

An older woman audited one class. The wife of a science professor, she took the class for half the semester in preparation for going with her husband on a research trip to Chile and Argentina. She asked if she could audit another of my classes when she returned. It would have been nice if she could have stayed for the whole semester.

One student handed every single assignment in late. He had a host of excuses: I wonder if he had any idea that after the second excuse, I watched him with a gimlet eye. Finally, I said to him, “Do you EVER hand anything in on time? I mean, not to me, obviously, but to anyone?” A torrent of excuses followed. I interrupted him: “If you handed your work in on time, you wouldn't have to spend all that energy concocting excuses, being embarrassed, and aggravating your professors.” The next time, late once more, he started to make an excuse saying that since the last time, I had been so upset—. I interrupted him: “I wasn't upset at all; it ISN'T MY problem. It's yours. I have a job. As you may have noticed, when the clock strikes the hour, I am standing at the podium, ready to do my work. But then, you were never on time so you wouldn't have noticed. You are the one who is going to have problems if you don't clean up your act.”

My best student this semester is a young Cambodian man who has taken several classes with me and now plans to become a Mayan archaeologist. On a day when some students were mumbling and shuffling because they'd missed a class and didn't know about the assignment (and hadn't tried to contact me), he handed me a report he'd done on the whole book because he'd missed that class so he went ahead and reviewed the entire book. His enthusiasm made up for all the dissembling mumblers surrounding him. If only they could hear themselves! How utterly lame they sound. I hope they grow up to be more responsible adults than they are students. 

My friend, also a history professor, says that they are trifling with us. I have to remind myself that the lazy ones, the time-wasters, the excuse-makers, the mumbling shufflers and triflers are but a small percentage of my students. Most of my students show up to class on time, turn off their cell phones, and do their work. It's too bad that they are overshadowed by the rest. 

In a couple of weeks, I will have a pleasure reserved to few: I will don my academic cap and gown to attend commencement and watch these young people, good students and not-so-good-but-good enough students, graduate. For some, I will shed a tear of joy, knowing that they will go out and make the world a better place. I will meet some parents, introduced as, “This is my favorite professor,” or “This is the professor I told you about!” The parents will shake my hand warmly and thank me for my efforts. If only they knew how those words sustain us as we deal with all the layabouts, loafers, and excuse makers. On commencement day, the triflers fade from memory: Only the stars shine.