Category Archives: Higher Education

Thankful Thanksgiving

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I posted something here. I’m the writing teacher, should probably be a little more consistent in my posts…

In my defense, it’s been “one of those” semesters. Without belaboring the details, let me just say I’ve found renewed reasons to be thankful. Let’s get started.

It’s Thanksgiving, almost, in less than six hours. In the spirit of the season, I’ve been thinking about what I’m thankful for, and not surprisingly, the word “people” comes to mind. I am thankful for my family. Like most families, we’ve had our differences over the years, and very often, I feel kind of “out of the loop.” I’m that relative, the one who lives away, the one who’s always been different, the one that no one understands. I get that. I don’t understand myself, so it’s all good. Nevertheless, my sisters are solid supporters and my mom is, well, my mom. Moms never give up on their kids. We had a great time this summer when my mom visited me in Montana City, and one year after my dad’s death, all of us are starting to recalibrate our lives.

Other family…my cousins, I think I’m the luckiest woman in the world when it came to DNA relatives. I get so much love and support from people who are related to me only by a parent…and I never, ever, take that for granted. I’ll call them out: Paula, Lisa, Susan, Joselle, Gayle, Nikki, and Jamie. Jamie, more than any other person, saw me through the pain of the last year, not only supporting me but sometimes calling me on my shit, saying, “Karen…what’s the truth here?” These women are truly selfless and loving and…family.

These people are the foundation of my life, the ones who allow me to have any sense of who I am. However, none of these people live and interact with me daily. Let me mention Mark. We met online in May, both of us a little nervous about another round with love, but we connected with our mutual love for the outdoors. We both have histories, stuff in our lives we’d rather not revisit. We both have sons, which gives us something in common other than our love for hiking and kayaking. We both have jobs that interfere with being together. This is the reality, but we’ve had fun together and enjoy each other, and so far, things are working pretty well. My mom thinks he’s nice because he sends her snapchats frequently. I’m happy my mom likes him.

Then there’s my work: this is where I get most of my sense of self, my confidence, my joy, my motivation. Without my work, I’d not know who I am or what I should try to accomplish. It seems kind of wild considering I didn’t start this gig until ten years ago…and then it was only part-time as a graduate student. This year, especially, I’ve seen the rewards of years of growth, from that insecure, uncertain English teacher in 2007 (which, by the way, my journal confirms was a conflicted, confused individual), to the relatively secure, sure English teacher of 2017. Maybe knowing what one doesn’t know is the key. When I mention my work, what I’m really focusing on is my students. They know who they are: we had a semester that should never happen. We were attacked in a way that is unconscionable, unbelievable, unfair. There were others involved, too, who suffered the effects of being subjected to scrutiny only because of their association with us, and yet we prevailed. And no matter any legal outcome or any professional scrutiny, I know…with 100% certainty…that I have made a difference in the lives of people who are not as “connected” [as if I am] or as well off, or as educated as I have been. I have helped to empower the next generation of people who will continue to question those in power, those with the authority, earned or not. And, oh, by the way, my students in writing are doing amazing, academic, smart, powerful work, and to think that I have had the privilege of inspiring that kind of scholarship…it just does not get any better.

Thank you, universe, or whomever is in charge. On Thanksgiving Day, I’m very grateful.

Checking In: Fall 2017

We just passed the midterm of the semester, and I’ve written here exactly once since school began. “Where have you been, Henderson?” would not be an inappropriate question, and I do have some pretty good answers.

First, for much of the fall semester, I was a member of the hiring committee for the President of the University of Montana; an honor beyond my status in most ways, I was fortunate enough to represent Helena College in the process. I can say with complete confidence, I’m excited about our new President, Seth Bodnar. I think he’s going to bring a lot to the university and a diversity of thought that we need. I can’t wait for him to take over, and I know a lot of people feel that way.

Secondly, I’ve been in Missoula for not only meetings of the committee but also for football games! Mark is a Grizzly fan from way back and holds season tickets. As a hanger-on, I get to attend the home games when he’s going, which has been most of the time. I think we’ve missed one. It’s been fun; I’d never been to a live college football game before, having been a nontraditional, studies-focused student when I attended MSU and not one who made football a priority, except when Adam played in high school.

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Speaking of Adam, we met up a couple times this semester in Missoula, and I got to meet my grand-dog, Virgil, who has been challenging Adam in his parenting skills and patience. He’s a cute little guy, though—Virgil, that is—and reminded me why babies are so cute: otherwise, they’d never live to the teen years, and by then we’ve invested so much into them that we have to see it all play out.

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I also met up with my bestie, June, one time when I was there for committee meetings. She proudly showed me that I have been elevated to the status of having my photo on her mantle, not an insignificant feat, and I had to take a picture—of our picture—to prove it. We had a great visit and since had many phone conversations about school, work, families, and boyfriends, real and imagined.

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It won’t surprise anyone to know I’ve been working a lot, too. Work involves a variety of facets, above and beyond daily classroom activities. My clubs, specifically, demand a lot of my time and energy but also motivate and energize me by our accomplishments. The Helena Helm published its fourth and fifth editions this fall (sixth edition coming next week, God willing and the creeks don’t rise), and its FIRST EVER print edition the beginning of October. Considering that we started out with a ragtag group of journalist-wannabes (including and especially me!) who had no idea where to begin, to now having both online and print editions of quality news and entertainment and the collaboration of the Helena College Tech Club, which is helping us set up a new web-presence and domain, I think we have made amazing progress, and I could not be prouder of the students behind it. Joy, our editor, was also the inspiration behind the newspaper, but we’ve got some new blood this year who promise to add intrigue and levity to our otherwise scholarly publication. Here’s our new site:

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TRIO Club S2S has already accomplished a significant amount of work this fall. We partnered with the Helena College Psych/Soc Club for the NAMI Walk and had good fun doing it. We have several projects we’re working on for the future, including the first ever CAT/GRIZ Face-Off on November 18th. A family-friendly event, it will be an alcohol-free (hey, you can’t have everything!) event on the Helena College campus, open to faculty, staff, students, families, and friends of Helena College. Potluck will be the menu, with TRIO S2S providing dessert and drinks and featuring our “world-famous” photo booth, complete with swag generously donated by the MSU and UM Alumni Associations. During the event (and prior to, for a few weeks), we will also hold a food-drive for the Helena Food Bank, placing bins around campus for food donations dedicated to a specific team. No matter who wins the game, the winner of the food drive will retain bragging rights on HC campus, and the ultimate winner will be Helena Food Bank and those who need food donations during the Thanksgiving season.

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TRIO S2S has another event in the coming weeks: a dedication of our memorial trees (one on each campus) to students who’ve attended Helena College and died during or soon after they left the college. In my five and a half, almost six years, I know of at least six students who’ve been in my classes at some point (two of them at the time of their deaths) who have died. Last fall, with the death of Joe, I asked TRIO S2S to take on some kind of memorial for those students, and they did. It was not a project without challenges and obstacles, sometimes daunting ones, but through persistence, resilience, and determination, we managed to plant two trees and order two very heavy bronze plaques (“these will last 200 hundred years!” said the man at Crown Trophy) dedicated to the memory of students we’ve lost. Wherever I go, whatever I do in the future, this is something meaningful, tangible, honest, and important that I had a hand in. Doesn’t get much better than that.

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The rest of the semester is likely to whiz by just like the first part has. Next week will offer up some difficult memories for me from last year, as we will mark one year since my dad has passed and nearly one year since I began a new life as an unmarried woman. I’m optimistic that 2018 will be a good year, and I’m fairly confident that I will be busy. There’s that. 😊

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And So It Begins…

Students in Writ 095 are currently working on their blogs. The first assignment is an “About Me” piece. Simple, right? Maybe not. “Pay attention to length,” said I, “and grammar and mechanics matter. This is a writing class, after all…”

What about you, Teach? (Spoken in a true, Vinnie Barbarino accent…look it up, you young’uns). Yeah, so I have been teaching at Helena College for five and a half years now, was tenured this last May, and plan to die in my heels. In other words, I’m pretty sure this is my last professional stop, despite my young age…and I have no plans to permanently retire. At some point, I’ll cut back to 3/4 time or part time…but teaching runs through my blood as much as merlot. Not gonna get loose of me in the immediate future.

So, teaching, English, writing, literature, learning, all these are some of my priorities in life. Student success is my biggest celebration, and I would not quit teaching if I were rich, but I’d like to try rich for a while…

I live alone, but I do have a cockatiel who’s my companion. His name is Leo, short for Leonardo, and he and I have weathered 20 plus years together. I have a son who’s 30 years old, and an ex-husband who I don’t write about but who was an important part of 25-plus years of my life. My other passions are hiking, kayaking, music, reading, and teaching, not in that order.

Fall semester 2017 is a new experience for me: it’s the first fall semester, ever, that I’ve entered college with the status of “single.” It’s the first fall semester that I’ve entered college without my dad. It’s not that my dad was especially critical to my teaching, but he was critical to my sense of self: I always had a mom and dad (lucky, I know). He died last October 31st. Every day since then has been, “the first _____ since Dad died.” November 1st will change that, but October 31st will be a tough day for me to survive.

You want to know “about me”? I was a mediocre high school student who grew into a pretty darn smart mom, who became a really smart college student who excelled, who became a competent, committed, caring college teacher, who lives her life to the best of her abilities without regret. Let’s get to work.

The Things We Never Say

In just over three weeks, I’ll be back to work full time. I know there won’t be a lot of sympathy for me based on that, but it does make me feel a little panicky. I’m not managing summer very well; how will I manage a fall semester I’m not yet ready for?

Now that I’m moving back into “teaching mode,” as opposed to summer slacker mode, I’m thinking about my upcoming classes and things I hope to do again and things I hope I won’t do ever again (yeah, no need to start a list for me, students), and I’m thinking about all those times when I should have told someone something but didn’t. I’m thinking of those many times when someone did something nice for me, and I thought about telling them how much I appreciated it or how much some little thing meant, but I didn’t. Time moves on, gets away from us, and after a while it seems silly to send someone a thank you card, especially after three years. But you should; I should. And since I’m moving back into “teacher mode,” this will be about teachers, but it could be anyone a person encounters, including teachers. It could be a coworker, a boss, a stranger or even a police officer or a judge! It could be any person who makes any kind of impact on your life. From a teacher’s perspective, here’s what it looks like:

Kaitlin’s not coming back; she is transferring to another school, and I’m quite sad about that. I was looking forward to having her in class again this fall, along with her pal, Nikki. Nikki, too, will not be in my class as scheduled, and I’m not sure why, but I hope it’s because she was accepted into the nursing program: that damn nursing program. I really like those two women, and the fact that they took classes from me, more than once…the same class…is a testament to them and to me: to them for facing a demon (College Writing) and taking it on…with the SAME instructor, and me, for being that instructor they chose to take again. Here’s the thing: I know they like me, too, because they told me. I’m so grateful they told me.

Last May, Nikki and Kaitlin showed up unexpectedly in my office, one holding a white orchid plant and one a bottle of wine (how’d they know????). They sheepishly explained that they wanted to spare me the embarrassment of tears in class (and how’d they know that?) by bringing them to my office, privately, with a card I did not immediately open. To say I was touched by the gesture is an understatement, of course, and I filed it all away “to process later,” and the three of us went to class.

It was the card, more than the flower or the wine (believe it or not) that touched the core of my soul, and I’d love to write the sentiment here, but somehow that feels like it would be a violation of the intensely personal messages the women wrote for me. I can say that I was surprised, had not realized the impact I’d had on those two women who had to repeat my class. When I finally did sit down and read the card, there were tears galore, all mine, some happy but some a little sad, what I could have done better had I known more…

Both were registered for Creative Writing this fall, and I was so excited to work with them in an entirely different genre, one much more relaxed than academic writing. I know them both so much better now; I could really enjoy them, I thought, and we all could make grand, academic strides, but now that won’t happen. In fact, I don’t know if I will ever see either of them again. What I do know, however, is the way that I touched them and how they touched me. The gifts, but especially the card with the long, handwritten messages, one on the inside left and the other on the inside right, remind me that what I do every day matters, both good and not-so-good. One of them wrote that my consistent support kept her going at times…and I wondered how many times I had not been as supportive as I could have been. In the future, I’ll think about her comments when I’m dealing with other students, and I’ll remember that I don’t always see reflected to me—at the time—my efforts and impact. Sometimes, I see a blank stare.

I’m pretty good about telling people they’ve been important in my life; I love sending handwritten “thank you” cards (old fashioned as that is), and I enjoy giving people the thanks they deserve, but there have been those times when it’s seemed not as important or a little excessively sentimental (oh, yeah, that’s me for sure…) and I didn’t do it. I regret that now. My life’s work is teaching, and it’s only through my interactions with students that I really know how I’m doing and whether I should keep doing it or whether I should apply to be…I don’t know…a meter-reader. Nikki and Kaitlin reassured me that I should give the old teaching gig another year or two, and I’m excited to do that and eager to up my game and see how much better I might be this year, to see how many students like them I might meet.

So, do it. Whether a teacher, a spiritual leader, a parole officer, a neighbor, or a stranger, there’s never a negative outcome when we express our gratitude and affection for each other, and sometimes it inspires those people to try even harder, to give a little more. I know I will, and if any of you know Nikki or Kaitlin, tell them I’ll miss them a lot this year. I won’t be the same without them.

The Rockets’ Red Glare and Other Observations

Fortunately, I’m not paid to blog because, if I was, I’d be running a deficit right now. Neither am I paid to write, and that, too, would be a less-than-productive source of income for me based on the amount I’ve written lately. However, I AM paid to teach, and I’ve been doing a fair amount of work related to my teaching, especially and including The Rocket Project, formally known by the publication title, Helena’s Rocket Slide: The History of a Cultural Icon.

http://www.blurb.com/search/site_search?search=Helena%27s+Rocket+Slide

Astute readers might be wondering at the lack of symmetry between this and my previous blog post where I stated that the summer of 2017 would be dedicated to play and nonacademic pursuits, but those who know me well will not be surprised. Without an overabundance of things to occupy my time, I subconsciously start seeking other projects, and no one is more surprised than I when suddenly there’s no time to accomplish them all.

I’ll begin with The Rocket Project: since last August, that silly rocket has been in the periphery and then eventually at the forefront of my consciousness until finally culminating in the publication. Never having done an oral history project before, I began with researching what such a project entailed. Next, I tried to imagine how I could get lots of different people to “buy in” to the project, including students who would have to push out of their comfort zones (challenged already by the whole college experience) and call, setup, and interview complete strangers about a local landmark. Putting myself into their shoes, I knew they would hate it, and they did. I also banked on the hope that my cultural capital with enough of them would float the project well enough to be successful, and it was a good bet. Everyone eventually carried out their responsibilities, and many of them found that they grew dramatically as students—and citizens—after meeting such fascinating and inspiring people who were also donating their time and energies to support the fairgrounds and the Rocket Project. After literally hundreds of hours of my own time planning, arranging and facilitating interviews, grading papers, listening to and editing transcripts, and then publishing the book, I came away with a new reverence for civic engagement, selfless service, and the importance of “place” in our lives. I will never forget the experience of The Rocket Project.

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At the unveiling of the rocket, May 13, 2017.

I will be at the Lewis & Clark Last Chance Stampede Fair next week, from Wednesday until Saturday, selling copies of the book. TRIO Club Students2Scholars fronted funding to purchase a dozen copies of the book to sell, and when they’re gone, we’ll take orders for later delivery. Come by and see me! Say hello and take a peek at the book! Help me pass the time on a hot summer day.

Reflections, Writing 095, is in late production due to The Rocket Project, and I’m sweating bullets wondering how I’ll get it finished before school begins, but stranger things have happened, and I’m hoping to somehow pull off a miracle. Between that, planning fall classes, and my responsibilities as a member of the hiring committee of the UM President, I’m beginning to feel the pressure of fall pressing in.

The Rocket, however, has not entirely dominated my time, and Facebook friends know I’ve been very busy enjoying summer enthusiastically. I’ve hiked Refrigerator Canyon, Hanging Valley, Hauser Dam, Fleschers Pass, McQuithy Gulch, and Mount Helena, all new experiences except for Mount Helena, my go-to hiking area. I’ve kayaked Hauser Lake, Canyon Ferry, and the Reservoir and hope to get out on the Missouri before I head back to school. In terms of outdoor fun, it’s been one for the record books.

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Hanging Valley hike: thirteen miles round trip and a spectacular view (oh, and Train Like a Girl)!

I’ve made time for friends and cultural pursuits, too, and my high school chum, Cinda, visited over the 4th of July, just before all of us were jolted awake by the 5.8 earthquake on July 6th at 12:30 a.m. What to do in the middle of the night after being wakened by a house-shaking earthquake? Why, check Facebook, of course! All my local friends were up and chatting about the frightening experience of waking to an earthquake in progress, and my own thoughts reflected my literary background: I’m not supposed to die in an EARTHQUAKE! I wonder if that’s how it feels when the time actually arrives, if the person is annoyed or shocked at how it all goes down.

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Cinda and me: friends for forty years!

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My mother left today after visiting me for the first time since I’ve lived in Montana City. We took the Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour, the Last Chance Trolley Train, went sapphire mining at the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine, and saw Tarzan at the Grandstreet Theatre. Along with a variety of Snapchat photos, meals out, and wine, I enjoyed the time with my mom tremendously and look forward to our next opportunity to spend time together. Since my dad died last October 31st, we’ve all been learning how to move forward as a family, and individually, without him here, and this was the first time Mom and I spent time alone, just us with nothing to do but have fun, and we did.

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What’s not to love?
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Mining for our fortunes

Finally, some people missed my December and January posts where I wrote about my failed marriage and were surprised by recent revelations that my hiking and kayaking partner is also a romantic partner. Mark is indulgent of my penchant for social media and indifferent to whether anyone knows or cares about our relationship, which I appreciate a lot. So, regular readers of my blog should expect to see frequent updates of the adventures of Mark and Karen, and I appreciate the many expressions of support and affection I’ve received, not only in the last couple months but the previous nine or ten months. I lived through several dark days and lots of self-doubt, but I’ve emerged on the other side, and though way behind in my goals for summer 2017, it certainly has been one to remember.

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Me, Mark, and Mom

 

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Appropriately, at the top of Mount Helena

Please come see me at the fair!

The End

Tomorrow is a new beginning; that means that today was an end. I feel like this whole past year has been one succession of ends in my life, and frankly, I’m over it.

Trigger Warning! (for Brad or any of the students from my honors class—they’re a sensitive bunch—there will likely be some very bad language in this post, so if you’re easily triggered, you might want to skip this…)

Today, I sat through several hours of an end-of-semester planning meeting for our 5-year strategic plan. Yeah, so you know what that was like. However, I tried to pay attention, and a couple things really stood out to me. For example, we were reminded that the brain has basically two regions: one is the decision-making part, and one is the language, or emotional, part. Wanna guess which part dominates my life? I don’t know why it was a eureka moment for me. It makes perfect sense. I love language and everything related, and I am completely dominated by my emotions, to the point that rational judgment is often impaired.

We did some good work today, but I was distracted by the fact that there are so many ends in my life now. The end of the semester is a good thing, but it’s also a time of reflection. People who work in education get to do that twice a year, once at the end of the calendar year and again at the end of the academic year, and I was thinking about the past year and wishing I had done it better and wishing it wasn’t the end.

I’m coming off a very good year, professionally. It seemed like I had the Midas Touch though my pal Nathan said it was due to the year of the “Hen”derson (the Chinese year of the Rooster). I had great students, as always, and my special courses, Creative Writing and Ways of Knowing were innovative and successful; The Rocket!!! This is still incomplete as of this writing, but by all accounts, The Rocket project will go down in history at Helena College, and my name will be attached to it; TENURE!! Yes, friends! It was officially announced yesterday, so I feel confident in announcing that I have received tenure and will spend the rest of my working life at Helena College (unless the President needs a new press secretary, which could happen…).

Let me add the new clubs that so kindly asked me to advise them: TRiO Students 2 Scholars and Newspaper Club, the Helena Helm. These students made me look like a rock star this year. Everyone is talking about the successes of TRiO S2S and the first-ever student newspaper, and I was the lucky person they asked to put the oky-doky on the slip. Just wait though…this is NOT the end of these guys. TRiO S2S is still working on memorial trees and is going into the fall semester with a full leadership team on board. They recruited successfully and have been pioneers in club organization within a two-year college. Plans are in place for a fun run in the fall and a huge orientation presence, along with sponsoring the Rocket book, currently in the making. The Helena Helm plans to be in place to record all the good works of all the clubs beginning early in August and has also highlighted some of our faculty and staff who really deserve some credit (Helenahelm.blogspot.com). It really did seem, at times, as if I could not make a bad move professionally. Never fear…I very competently managed that personally.

How someone can be so successful professionally and so unsuccessful personally is something that Bill Clinton and I apparently share. My personal life, over the past year, has been a succession of ends: the end of my marriage (and because my ex-husband is reading this and will object to my pandering, let me just say it was all my fault), the end of my relationship with my dad (at least my ability to impact that relationship at all), the end of my long stint as a dog-mama (I miss my Lancelot more than I can bear to think about at times), and the end of Karen as I knew her, before.

I lost friends from my former life, people who somehow had to “choose” a side; I lost people I considered family because they, too, had to choose, and I wasn’t really family; I lost some self-respect because I wasn’t able to be the person, the teacher, the friend, the woman that I know I should be. Despite the fact that I initiated our divorce, I lost myself in the process; the past year is a blur of just moving forward because I had to.

More than anything, as I come off a very successful year professionally, I wish I had been a better teacher. I wonder how good I could have been if I would have been “on.” I think about the times I went to class on two hours of sleep…how inept I must have been to facilitate discussions. I think about how distracted I was, really, all year, how my emotional state detracted from my ability to foster learning. I’ve been fortunate to bask in the glow of the Rocket (and it really is an amazing project), to receive the accolades of the work the clubs have accomplished, to relish the feeling of earned (?) tenure, but today, when my beloved friend Tammy said to me during a pensive moment, “A Penny for your thoughts,” my response was one she surely did not expect: tears of regret bubbled up in my eyes: How I wish I’d done things differently, and I wish this wasn’t the end.

Oh yeah, the trigger warning? Fuck.

Seven More Days

Almost always, at midterm of the semester, I develop a bad attitude: I start grousing about students, complaining that they’re not performing to caliber, noting the many who are not attending class, wondering what other kind of work I’m qualified to do (?) because I’m so tired of this teaching gig. Like the monthly cycle I used to dread, I can almost predict it to the day, but then before I realize it, we’re about two weeks away from the end, and miraculously, the rainbow appears.

Y’all have my permission to slap me silly the next time I start; I mean it.

Today, a good day, I remembered why I do this work. It isn’t for everyone; let me be clear, but for me, I cannot imagine how I could possibly love an occupation more, and it’s not just those damn students who make it so great.

I woke at 5:45 a.m., the usual time when my alarm sounds. It annoys me, usually, but I rise and start my day. By 6:30, earbuds in, gloves on, and well-worn sneakers laced up, I’m on my way up the hill with a little Lynyrd Skynyrd on Pandora. I hike up the asphalt trail, warming up and breathing hard. About 20 minutes into the hike, I turn around and pick up the pace. Downhill is not quite a sprint but neither a jog, somewhere in between as I try to keep the pace slow enough that I don’t jar anything too drastically or trip over my own feet. At about the 30-minute mark, I turn around and walk/jog the last few minutes back to my house, and when I arrive, I feel energized and ready to take on the world. After showering and dressing for work, I eat breakfast and visit with Leo the bird, filling his water and food dish, giving him a special piece of lettuce or some millet. Then, I leave for work.

The best thing about that whole scenario is that I don’t have to worry about the time. Sometimes I leave home at 8:05 a.m., other times 8:30. Sometimes I’m really slow and it might be 8:45, but rarely is it later than that. The flexibility that my job offers is incredibly valuable to me; it gives me great peace-of-mind to have the leisure in the morning to treat my body the way I should and attend to Leo. After all, he is 20 years old.

My colleagues: you’d have to experience it to completely understand, but I’ll try to put it in perspective. We’re something like a family. We bicker and barter and sometimes we really step up in support of each other but more often we’re commiserating or teasing each other. Most of the faculty share one huge office divided by cubicles. The lack of privacy, especially when working with students, can be problematic, but the camaraderie at other times reminds me of the television show The Waltons and their nightly ritual of saying good-night. Good night, John-boy. Add to that a group of highly educated stand-up wannabes, and we have some really hilarious pseudo-conversations sometimes, so funny that I’ll be laughing about it hours later. Yeah, and I’m being paid for that, sort of.

Make no mistake: I make up for the late arrivals and collegiality during evenings and weekends, and I haven’t had a true lunch break in a couple years, but those things are important in my life, to the quality of my life, and really help me wake up at 5:45 with a little less crankiness.

Nonetheless, it’s the students (you knew this was coming) who remind me why I love this job. It’s not all students and it’s not even some students all the time, but it’s most of the students, and sometimes it doesn’t even have much to do with school work. You’ve heard, I’m sure, that we’re headed to hell in a handbasket? Ask any teacher who’s been doing this work for any number of years, and you’ll find out that’s not true. Teachers who teach, those who love their work and their students, will be the first to tell you that students haven’t really changed over the years. Society changes, and culture changes, and sometimes it does seem that values weaken some, but I can say with complete certainty that we are in good, capable hands. Here’s why:

Meet “M”. I met him last semester in my class, a young man who struggles with mental illness, who lives with a woman who also struggles with mental illness. They support each other and both contribute to the conversation about mental illness, going so far as to be participants on panels and informational venues. “M” is in my class, again, this semester and told me about his early mornings, 4:00 or 4:30, when he rides his bicycle to work several miles, riding home later to prepare for school. This is all in addition to school. But what struck me most about “M” was last semester when he and his partner were both in my class. I knew the challenges they were facing, and one day, I felt compelled to hug his girlfriend; I felt she needed some support. It wasn’t her response that surprised me, but his: he came to me later and thanked me for the gesture. It was important to her, he said, and the love in his voice, the tenderness and concern for her, touched me deeply. More concerned with her suffering than his own, his empathy for her responded to my hug. See what I mean? No hell in his future, none other than mental illness and the costs of healthcare.

Then there’s “B.” I met him last semester, too, and I was impressed immediately. A nontraditional student and irrepressible perfectionist, he soon stood out as a class leader, and I sought his advice and help. This semester, he’s in two of my classes, so I see him every day; I remind him, frequently, of his good luck, and he responds that he had no other choice, or something equally dismissive, but our friendship has grown this semester and my respect for him is immense. A committed father and husband, his priorities in life are clear, but he’s involved in many groups and activities beyond school. His humor, his leadership among students, his stellar academic work, and his kind heart endear him to me more all the time. The only questionable association he has is his personal friendship with Donald Jr., and I’m going to cut him some slack there. He also doesn’t drink, and that might be his problem, for I have found that a couple glasses of wine will take the edges off.

There’s so many students like these; I could write about them, each one, and people would think I was making it up, but I’m not. These are our students: they are parents, children, spouses, employees, friends, veterans, young, old, male, female and confused. They struggle, and they’re trying their best to better their lives while working and managing dysfunctional vehicles and relationships. If you want to see and experience the best that Montana has to offer, I invite you to visit your local community college, where you will find instructors who are doing their best to help students, citizens, who are also doing their best.

But take my advice: don’t do it at midterm.