What the Teacher Learned

I have been teaching for nine years though it doesn’t seem that long to me. Most of the time, I feel like a novice, a teacher-in-training, which I suppose is true. In the course of those nine years, I estimate I’ve had about 1500 students in classes. That’s a lot of students, and I’m not even halfway through my career. Those students have taught me as much as I’ve taught them although they probably never knew it, and I’ve been thinking about that lately when I remember a student named “Mark.”*

Mark was in my class during spring semester of 2013. He enrolled in the lowest level developmental writing class as a nontraditional student. Trying to make a career change due to health issues, his goal was to eventually get a bachelor’s degree in engineering. I also was assigned as his academic advisor, so I got to know him pretty well.

An affable fellow not too tall but stocky, he reminded me of a teddy bear. I knew and worked with him during the next 2-1/2 years and never knew him to use a profanity, ever. He was kind of a burly man with decidedly masculine characteristics, not childlike or effeminate, but it seemed that he lived by some measured code of behavior. He was always polite, never rude or loud, and he was a consistent student in that he attended class regularly and completed most of the assigned work. Over the years, I noted that as the work became more difficult, he would procrastinate more, and sometimes the quality of the work was not what it should have been. Nonetheless, I enjoyed working with him.

Mark was easily entertained, and I remember when he got a new laptop. Unfamiliar with computer technology, he had great fun discovering games and noises and all manner of distractions that his computer could produce. He found some sort of game or app that had a bird, an icon or something that moved around on his screen. He was delighted with the bird, and I felt a little impatient with him when he would want me to look at it instead of focusing on his writing, but I was also amused by how he found joy in such a small thing.

He enrolled in the next writing class, with me, and I began to worry about his career goals. I could tell after only a few months that engineering was beyond his reach. He struggled in basic writing and low-level math. He took only two or three classes a semester but still seemed unable to stay ahead of the work. I broached the subject of his career goals and suggested that maybe something less ambitious would be more attainable; he balked. He had an image of himself as capable of the demands of an engineering education though he really didn’t comprehend how difficult it would be, nor did he seem to understand that his current work did not support the idea that he would be able to manage it. I began feeling exasperated because he seemed unwilling to accept the truth, but I also didn’t want to squelch his dreams. I consider myself a champion of the underdog after all.

It was the fall semester of 2013 about mid-semester; at the end of class one day, Mark came to me and asked for my help, and as he began booting up his computer, I moved to the next student in line (why do they always wait until the end of class to ask questions?), trying to multitask the list of things I have to do at the end of class to allow the next instructor access to the room. Suddenly, Mark slammed the top of his computer and said something to the effect of he didn’t appreciate the way I was treating him, and he stormed out of the room. I stood dumbfounded. Never had he exhibited any kind of anger or outburst before, and furthermore, I had not intended to ignore him; I was helping someone else as I waited for him to get his computer up.

I finished up with the other students and retreated to my office. Initially, I felt angry myself; he was the one who asked for help but wasn’t prepared! It wasn’t my fault that half the class needs my attention all at once! He had no right to feel offended! Of course, he did have a right to his feelings, and after I thought about it, I realized that I needed to talk to him and explain, maybe even apologize. I wandered the building, looking for him in his usual spots, and found him in the library sitting alone at a carrel, his computer running, and his head lowered. “Mark?” I said. He looked up at me, and suddenly I felt about three inches high. His eyes were red-rimmed and in them I saw profound pain. “Can we talk?” I asked him.

“You have no right to treat me like that,” he said. “You completely ignored me when I asked for your help. That’s not okay.”

“I wasn’t ignoring you; I was waiting for your computer to boot up, and I was just helping someone else in the meantime. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad, really. I’m so sorry, Mark.” I sensed, in that moment, that he had experienced a perfect storm of aggravation, probably a compilation of many things, and even though my part was completely unintentional, I suddenly understood the grave responsibility I bear in my interactions with students.

This many years later, I don’t recall what happened next, so humbled was I by his pain and my part in it. I hope I helped him with the paper; I want to remember it that way. I do remember feeling ashamed and disappointed in myself. I was the teacher, the one with the power. I knew the outcome of my life’s goals, but he did not know his. Whether I intended to treat him cavalierly or not made no difference because that was how he experienced it. And he had trusted me. He did complete the class, and he did submit his final essay for publication in the book of student essays that I publish, so it seems he forgave me if I haven’t completely forgiven myself. However, he continued to struggle academically in all subjects and last fall he withdrew from school to try to figure out his life.

Mark died last January. The obituary in the newspaper listed no cause of death and no services. It seems fundamentally wrong, to me, that a person dies and the universe doesn’t even register a blip. I read Mark’s essay to students in my classes, as I sometimes do, noting that he had passed on, and I’ve thought about him many times over the last few months. I know I will never forget him or the way I made him feel that day. I am forever chastised to pay close attention to my words and actions.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I have learned this, too.

*I have changed his name to protect his privacy.

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