Friday, May 6, 2016

Good Enough

The sins of each semester are many.  I screw things up, teach lessons that are confusing, try things that don't work, get depressed, feel guilty, get lazy and often wonder what I am doing with my life. 

Each year, however, there comes a moment of redemption.  It doesn't wash away my sins, but it lets me know that not everything I did was a failure. This year the moment of grace came late--very late.

I'll be honest.  It was an awful semester, perhaps my worst in years, but it was over.  So along with the rest of the faculty I decked myself in academic garb last Saturday and watched as another few hundred students slipped across the stage to the sounds of hoots and air horns.

Among the graduates was a kid I'll call Derek.  He showed up in my first-year seminar four years ago: eighteen, not terribly motivated, undecided major and a ball player.  Because he was also my advisee I had a lot of information about him.  He had indifferent high school grades and an ACT that put him at the borderline of provisional acceptance. 

At that time we were using a survey instrument called the College Student Inventory (CSI), which measures such things as family support, receptivity to support services and financial anxiety.  The CSI takes all this information and produces a single number from one to seven that predicts the likelihood of a student dropping out. Score a six or seven and chances are the kid won't even show up the first day.  Derek scored a six, but he showed up.

I usually meet with all my advisees the first week to see how it's going and to talk over my role and expectations for them.  At Derek's meeting he told me he wasn't too sure about college and his parents weren't exactly sure either (this explained the low number for family support on his CSI).  I took all this in and gave him the pro forma advisor rap: "Use the first year to explore possible majors, take classes that interest you and don't be afraid to use the support services if you need them." 

I met with him again after he got two low grade notices at midterm and we made a plan for turning things around, which I'm happy to say he did. He finished the semester above the Mendoza Line and even edged into a B in First-Year Seminar.  When Winter Break came I mailed all of my advisees a card wishing them happy holidays and congratulations on completing their first semester.  On Derek's card I added a postscript mentioning how well he responded to the challenge of those two midterm low grade notices, and I wrote, "You seemed unsure about college when we talked in August, but you sure look like a college material to me."

I had him in the one-credit section of First-Year Experience the following spring semester.  After class one day in January, he hung around and asked if I mailed cards to my advisees every year.  "I try to, " I said, "but it doesn't always get done." 

"Well," he said, "My folks couldn't believe it.  They put the card up on the mantelpiece they were so impressed."

After that first year, I only saw Derek a few times.  He and I would occasionally nod to each other in the hallway or if we saw each other walking across campus.  One semester he took an 8:00 am history class that met in a room I taught in at 9:00.  I asked the history prof how we was doing.  He shrugged and said "Okay.  He doesn't say much."

I had almost forgotten about Derek and might have had I not been looking through the program and spotted his name among the graduates.  He wasn't graduating with any honors.  He was just a name in the program.  I watched him cross the stage and even looked for him after the ceremony to say congratulations, but he was gone. 

I commit innumerable blunders each semester and often I wonder if I am doing any good at all, but every now and then there's a moment of grace.  I'm not the reason Derek graduated.  I was just one small part of the process.  Even so, watching him walk across the stage was strangely redemptive.

Good for you, Derek. Good for you. 

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...