Dispatches | April 24, 2007

Sitting down to the computer just now to check my email, I received the following message:  “i thought i could make it to class but on my way i threw up.
thank you.”  The lower case letters achieved their intended effect; I felt sorry for my poor little sick student.  And also noted that she’s quite polite.

Lately my students at the women’s college where I teach have been losing it.  Finals are a week away and the stress of the countdown is clear on their faces, by their behavior, and, dare I say it, in the way they dress.  They look and act a mess.  My classroom resembles McClean of the Lowell, Sexton, Plath era.  A lot of matted haired, catatonic girls shuffling around in housecoats.

It hasn’t been a picnic for me either.  Every day this week a student has burst into tears at the end of class.  The scene unfolds in standard fashion.  They wait until everyone has filed out of the room and then with downcast eyes quietly ask me if I have a minute. 

I tell them, yes, of course, I have a minute and try to sound as if I mean it.  As a teacher, one of the few things I don’t have is a minute; it’s often out of class and off to a meeting. 

While sitting across from them in a wrap-around desk, feeling more student than teacher, I’ll ask, “What’s up?”  

What follows is a brief explanation of why they didn’t turn in their papers and then a lengthy, complicated story of all that is wrong with their lives.  Mostly though they speak of stress and anxiety and frustration; they have too much work and too little time.  None of their work seems good enough.  What I’m thinking but will never say?  Welcome to the real world.

In each case crying is a basic physiological response to built-up pressure, nothing more dire or significant than blushing, sweating, sneezing.  Thought of in this way makes their tears a lot easier to handle.

As a younger teacher I thought it was my job to make them stop crying.  I would comfort them with promises-life will get better, you’ll be a great writer, of course you’ll get into your program of choice-even though I had no way of knowing whether it was true.  I’d say anything to get them to breathe deeply and exclaim, “I feel so much better.”

Experience has taught me to shut up and listen.  What I lack in maternal instincts I believe I make up for in trustworthiness and reasonableness.  They know I am not going to spout a lot of psychobabble or academicese and will only give counsel when directly asked. 

This week, my modest wisdom was not what my students needed.  They simply wanted an opportunity to purge their stress and anxiety through a loud, ragged sob.  I’ve finally learned to bring a box of tissue to class.