Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Annie From Abelard Loses It. An Essential Early Thirsty.

I get that life is fundamentally unfair. Things recently started looking up for me. My school's dean really came through and fought for a budget to get me a funded professorship. Which was a direct result of me taking on extra regular term courses as well as summer courses and continuing to publish things, apparently. I was also asked to be a peer reviewer for a publication in my field, for which I get a stipend and some CV fluff. So things are better for me than they've been in a while. But as life gives with one hand, it breaks my heart with the other. In the past week, I had two very emotional college "miseries" confront me.

The first one happened last Monday. A little background is required: I garden. I have a green thumb. It's something I love to do. I never grow decorative plants; everything I grow has a function. I grow enough stuff that I had a deal with a local farmer's market to sell them my produce. It was a nice way to do my hobby and have a little bit of lucre to show for it. This year they moved pretty far away so the long and the short of it is, I have a fuckload of parsnips and tomatoes. I brought them in to the break room in my college (as I've seen other people do) but not a lot of them moved and tomatoes don't keep forever. So I figured I'd mention it to my students (despite the embarrassment) and see if any of them wanted to take one home before I donated them to a pantry.

One young lady took me up on the offer, approaching me after class to ask, timidly, where the produce was. I told her she could follow me. I took her to our break room, where the two boxes were still sitting on the table. My mentor (who I've written about previously) was sitting at the table with two parsnips and a tomato that he'd picked out, drinking coffee and reading his notes or something. The student puttered around the table for a minute, looking at the vegetables. Then she turned to me, bit her lip, and asked how many she could take. I blinked and told her she could take as many as she wanted. She asked if it was okay for her to take them all.

I wasn't sure what to make of it, but I said that was fine. She turned back to the produce and then back to face me and I could see she was visibly tearing up.

"It's embarrassing, but... these will feed me and my children for more than a week." I took a moment to actually analyze her clothes and presentation, something I'm usually oblivious to. Her hair was pretty, but it was tied back with rubber bands. Her clothes had been altered and stitched in multiple places, probably by her. Her backpack had a pretty design with colored tape on it that I suspect functioned to hold the thing together. This was someone who was working very hard to make the best of a situation. As she was thanking me, I saw my mentor quietly slip the vegetables he had taken back into their respective bins.

My student began working out the logistics of how to get the produce back to her vehicle.

"Is it okay if I make two trips?"

I offered to carry one of the bins instead. I was very humbled and despite telling myself that I should feel "good" for doing something nice for someone, I felt miserable. I felt oblivious and the accusations of being an academic in an ivory tower were a little bit internalized for the first time ever. I felt like a bad person for complaining about my situation when things could be so much worse. But by that Friday I'd feel even worse.

I know that sometimes students need a bit of extra help even if they work hard. Intelligence is a spectrum and not everybody's talents lie in schoolwork or educated fields. And yet when that actually rears its head and stares into my soul, I can't handle it. I have a student in one of my classes that is really, really struggling. I had them for another class and I know that they work hard and that they're not stupid. I offered to give him extra, ungraded assignments that he could do and I could critique him on. He gladly accepted. He also hired a private tutor with his own money. When he asked, timidly, if I would be comfortable coordinating with his tutor, I agreed even though I wasn't.

I even agreed to schedule regular weekly office hours with the student to meet with him and go over material. And during our session on Friday, I witnessed him labor to understand a topic and I also witnessed him give up.

"I'm thinking this maybe just isn't for me."

"This course?"

"No. College."

I'm not pompous enough to believe that college is for everyone, but this still really felt like a punch in the gut. After getting over the irrational anger I felt, I felt incredibly guilty. It was my course that made this student believe that an education was not for him. I tried to talk him out of this lack of confidence with mixed results. Our session ended, and I was fine. I was fine in the department meeting I had after. And I was fine for the commute home. But as soon as I walked in the door of my house, I sat down on the steps and I cried. I cried for at least half an hour. And I've felt despondent in the week since. I know that it's wrong on multiple levels, but this has just felt so Sisyphean in the past few days.

Q: Is there anyone with advice on how to deal with these sorts of emotional setbacks in this line of work?


  1. These stories both break my heart. I have such empathy for students like this, and for proffies like Annie who struggle with the right step.

    I'd say you did everything right in the first instance. I would have felt just like you, momentarily patting myself on the back before realizing that the produce was not about me! You're a terrific person who made a terrible situation slightly better.

    In the second one, I don't know. I have been there, too, and have had those terrible nights thinking about my students and their problems.

    But, I'm not a counselor. I'm not even currently an advisor. I'd turn the second person over to whoever it is counsels academically in your division or department. Those needs need to be addressed and a box of produce won't do it. But you can avoid the misery in the second place by getting someone with more power and training to help the young man.

    You've got a beating heart, Annie...that's always good.


  2. Annie,
    Please remember, that when the student said that,
    "I'm thinking this maybe just isn't for me." He means at this time and place, only. That does not mean, that later, when he is ready, he won't try it again. Age and maturity go a long way in helping our students tackle their issues.

  3. You are a god person to help the first student. Maybe she can take more of your crops. At least you know that they would be appreciated.

  4. These are not setbacks. You feed the hungry. You are compassionate in separating the wheat from the chaff. This is the stuff of life. Good for you, Annie. Good for you.

  5. It's hard to imagine a kinder reaction to either student.

  6. Echoing everyone above: I think you handled both situations as well as anyone could handle them. It doesn't make either situation easy, but if you found it too easy to shrug either situation off, that wouldn't be good, either.*

    It also strikes me that both students' ways of handling their situations are quite mature. The student who took the food is doing the best she can with what she has, and isn't too proud to accept help when it comes out of the blue. And the one who decided "this isn't for me" gave it a serious try, and didn't conclude that he's dumb or a failure, just that he and college aren't a good mix. Maybe he's giving up too easily; maybe it won't turn out to be a permanent decision; but even if it is, it sounds like he has something approaching a reasonable grasp of his abilities, not the sort of all-or-nothing extreme thinking that the self-of-steam gurus inadvertently encourage. It's still a frustrating situation for you, especially since you've put so much time and effort into teaching him, but it's not necessarily a failure on either of your parts. At the very least, you gave him a chance to try under ideal conditions, which is a valuable gift.

    *If you continue to feel "despondent" for much longer, though, you might consider looking into whether your new (or current) job comes with access to and Employee Assistance Program, or some other form of short-term counseling. Sometimes it's precisely when things look up a bit that we realize how hard things have been for how long, and collapse a bit. Having somebody (in addition to the helpful mentor) with whom to process it all might be helpful. You're doing a lot (and it's paid off; congratulations!); think of this as getting one more part of your infrastructure/support system in place. There's been a good deal on the value of self-care on various academic blogs lately; here's one recent post that comes to mind.

    And again, congratulations!

  7. Re. second student: A sad situation but nothing for you to feel guilty about. Indeed, college is not something for all of our students. I've had some very hardworking students who, it seemed, didn't have the mental firepower to get the job done. It's one of the great mistakes of our culture to push virtually everyone into college. It is a heartbreaking situation, but what I see in some of my soft-headed colleagues is the inability to be honest with such students and pass them rather than deliver some bad news to a good person. It drives me crazy and makes me glad I'm retiring next year. Be strong and know it's NOT you.

  8. You helped a person in need and offered your very best to a struggling student. I do sympathize with your sadness for these people's situations, but aren't you also happy to be able to serve people who really need help? You've done that, you know. Even the second student---your compassion and kindness made that moment more bearable for him. I'm happy someone like you was thAt for him in that crucial moment.