Thursday, April 4, 2013

"To My Former Teachers and Professors." From Aphra in Allamuchy.

To my former teachers and professors,

I'm sorry.

I know I could have been a better student. I was the type that no educator ever wanted to deal with--sleeping or staring blankly during class, if I was there at all. Perky and enthusiastic for the first two weeks, only to become withdrawn and uncaring for the rest of the semester. Turning in work late or never, forcing you to chase me down to get it back, making you suffer through parent-teacher conference after parent-teacher conference where you gave me far more chances than I deserved, in exchange for a fifty or fewer percent chance of me actually following through on anything. Was I paying attention? Was I learning anything? Was I dumb, or defiant, or did I just not care?

The truth is that none of it had anything to do with you, or your teaching methods, or even the course material. I could have handled all of it, if I were willing to make an effort. Even my worst subjects could have worked out, if I'd been willing to sit down, actually think about the problems in front of me, and go to you or anyone else for extra tutoring if I couldn't come up with anything. I was lucky to have some of the best teachers and professors out there--people who legitimately cared about their students and the material, and if anyone could have motivated me, it was you. You did everything you could. You didn't fail me; I failed you. I failed myself.

From middle school through most of college, I dealt with periods of intense, numbing depression. Many days, I couldn't move. I couldn't focus. Assignment pages, math problems, and great works of literature were meaningless in front of me. There were clouds of pressure around my head and my throat, and often I couldn't understand how I could breathe when I felt so suffocated. Half the time when I looked out the window or at the clock in your class, I was wondering how long it would be before I had the freedom to run, to hide, to jump off a cliff if I could just get away from all of this pressure. I began self-injuring and binge-eating because it made it easier to convince myself that the pain didn't matter if I could channel it physically and get it out of my head, and I told myself I'd kill myself next week anyway and none of it mattered. Then next week came, and I was still alive, and the paper due last week was overdue, and now I had a new one due tomorrow.

People gave me tips. They said to just sit down, take it one assignment at a time, and plow through. My father took me to the local college library for a weekend and had me sit down and work next to college students, paper by paper, until all of my outstanding essays were complete. The pressure diminished after every completed paper, and I really did feel better once they were done. But the majority of the time, I couldn't get myself started for anything. When teachers would say to come to them for help, I couldn't bear to go in and admit that I had nothing, that I had done nothing. So I became a liar. I said that I had it done, but had left it at home. Or that I forgot it (I never forgot. How could I forget? The fact that I hadn't done it was all I could think about). I pretended I was sick rather than come to school, and since I always felt queasy anyway, it was easy to convince even myself that I was ill.

Now that my frontal lobe is better developed, and that my mental issues have been dealt with through therapy and medication, I see how counterproductive all of it was. You wanted to help me; you were there to help me. If I had gone to you and said that I had nothing done, maybe you would have helped me come up with something. If I was honest, maybe you wouldn't have been lenient with me, but you would have understood. Instead, I was just some mystery girl with a bad attitude. You deserved a better student than me.

So please accept my apologies, and know that I did learn in your classes, even when it didn't seem like I was learning anything. On the rare occasions when I actually focused and paid attention, I was fascinated by the material and the way you presented it. I still have strong opinions on many of the books I read or skimmed in your classes (and even when I didn't read them, class discussions made me feel like I had). I'm hopeless at science, but the little facts or curiosities I learned in ninth grade bio or college astronomy still gave me fodder for years' worth of daydreams and hypotheticals that I hope to someday use in my own work (when I can concentrate and learn about it for real). I will never be the writer who says that math is a waste of time because even if I never use algebra in my career, learning it taught me how to solve problems, and how to think. All subjects are interrelated, and I needed them all, and I needed all of you. Even if I didn't say it then.

With thanks and regrets,


  1. Dear Emo Former Student:

    I should let you know that I never worried that I was "failing" you. It never occurred to me to think I was failing you. Why? Because I did my job, and I have my own problems.

    And I am actually glad you were not honest with me about your binge eating and cutting yourself. I am not your counselor. I am not your friend. I'm your professor. So please don't tell me about your barfing and bloodletting sessions. I. Do. Not. Want. To. Know.

    In exchange, I will not tell you about my mother. Or my mother-in-law. Or my anxiety disorder. Or my high blood sugar. Or my high blood pressure. Or my insomnia. Or my eczema. Or the money I am going to flush down the toilet by investing in my brother's start-up.

    Agreed? Agreed.

  2. I actually think Aphra was well intentioned in her note. Thanks for writing it and good luck!

  3. Dear Aphra,

    Although it's nice to be told that you think we couldn't have done any more, we really don't need your apology. You have nothing to apologize for: you didn't fail us. If anyone, you failed yourself.

    Write your letter to fellow students. Give them some help. We're fine.

  4. Give the kid a break. She's trying to do the right thing. You are all right of course, but I'll take her at her word and tell her, "Done and done. Keep working, keep getting better."

  5. Dear Aphra,

    You've put into words my school experience from fourth to twelfth grades. If only your parents, or mine, or the appropriate school personnel, could recognize severe depression for the illness it is. If we'd been diabetic, you can bet they'd have taken us to doctors and made sure we took our insulin. But depression? My dad, an M.D., checked my pupils periodically for drug use but otherwise just lectured me.

    Congratulations for emerging from under the cloud, and thanks for writing. I have a couple of students who are absent in all ways except physically, and your note reminds me that they're probably struggling with much more fundamental problems than mastering Hamster Husbandry.

  6. It's an honest account, and she seems to be taking responsibility (both for what she didn't do in the past and for her life going forward); she definitely deserves credit for that. I do think that some of the apology is more appropriately directed at K-12 teachers (the ones who had to keep calling conferences and trying to intervene in various ways). Since college, unlike K-12 (or at least K-10 or so) is voluntary, and can be completed at pretty much any time in a student's life, including in bit and pieces and fits and starts, the appropriate approach to higher ed, especially given how stretched thin we all are these days is probably to withdraw until the student has hir act together, and then give it another try. Proffies aren't counselors, and counseling centers in many places are overloaded.

    The one thing that bothers me a bit is the reference to frontal lobe development, which seems to be a very popular explanation for the extended adolescence that has become part of the American middle- and upper-class experience. For most of history (i.e. the time during which our brains evolved, and to which they are presumably still in large part adapted), human beings began taking on full adult responsibilities soon after they reached sexual (and physical) maturity -- in most cases, sometime in their mid-teens. Somehow, they managed (and still manage in less "developed" countries, and in one of the last vestiges of our belief that 18-year-olds are adults: the military. Well, that and giving them licenses to barrel around in several-ton deadly machines at c. 16). Admittedly, they were mostly living in relatively small, fairly structured, and often quite hierarchical societies, with far fewer choices than US teenagers face today. But many seem to have risen to the occasion, perhaps because no one gave them the chance not to.

    I'm not saying Aphra would have been helped by fewer conferences and second chances and more Fs -- it sounds like she was being treated as someone with a behavior/motivation problem when she needed what she says she eventually got, "therapy and medication," probably in concert with each other -- but I do think that, at this point, we may be asking too little of middle-class teenagers. One of my favorite advice columnists is Marguerite Kelly of the Washington Post. She's a bit hung up on dietary interventions as a possible answer to behavior problems, especially in young children (not that that doesn't sometimes help, but it seems to always be at least part of her answer), but one thing I love is that her answer to helping almost any child, from elementary school on up, who is coping with pain and/or exhibiting behavior problems, almost always involves giving the child a chance to be competent by helping others, often not in some carefully-structured volunteer activity, but at home. "Have him/her make dinner once a week," she often says, stressing the value of such activities for feeling like a competent, contributing member of a community (in this case, the family unit/household). Once again, this (or at least this alone) wouldn't have been an answer for Aphra (wonderful name, by the way; I of course find myself thinking of Aphra Behn), but I wonder whether it might have played a useful role in helping her find a way out of her depressive spiral. There's something both soothing and energizing about work that produces a visible (even edible) result, and I sometimes wonder whether that's something that both parents and kids today are missing, at least at those social strata where people buy prepared food and hire out the house and yard work that used to be called "chores," so as to have more time for learning "teamwork" on the soccer field.

    1. CC, I agree with much of what you say here, including that "proffies aren't counselors." (That's why I mentioned "appropriate school personnel.") I also think that regular, meaningful chores are essential for kids.

      As for the frontal lobe / emotional maturity issue, I think it's no accident that militaries and religious orders traditionally recruit older adolescents (not full adults) for training. These hierarchies are tapping into (some would say exploiting) the last burst of brain plasticity in order to produce individuals who internalize the chain of command.

      And yes, in many cultures girls and boys start taking on adult responsibilities in their mid-teens, but almost always within a very structured extended family with lots of support and the expectation of obedience to the elders. That's another ingredient missing in our society.

  7. I don't think the letter should be directed to teachers and professors; rather, it should directed to the administrators and supervisors who believe that a disinterested student is one that we are indeed failing. I've got one supervisor in my department who believes that genuinely disgrunted students don't exist. Instead, disgrunted-seeming students are disgrunted for a reason--you just haven't figured out how to teach them yet. Her language is rife with this whole idea of "failure"--we're failing these people, we need to change our teaching styles, we need to meet them on their level. All bad evaluations are a reflection on YOU. Blah blah blah.

  8. Dear Aphra,

    I was your complete opposite, a teacher's dream -- high achieving, engaged, every T cross and and I dotted, etc. And yet your story is so familiar. I contemplated suicide on an hourly basis and lived in a state of constant, gnawing self-hatred and anxiety. No binging or cutting, but enormous amounts of mental real estate occupied by fear. I'm so glad you got help. That is all that counts. That's all your teachers would have wanted for you, had they known. Forgive yourself. Life is short, and when it's done being bitter for stupid, chemical reasons, it really is very sweet. Whether you have As or Fs on your transcript, getting your depression into remission is the most important thing you'll ever achieve.

    Love and sympathy,

    Frog and Toad