All It Takes Is One Good Student

Brian Taylor

September 07, 2010

When September comes each year for me, I walk into those old familiar classrooms and once again feel the thrill of being a college professor.

I admit I'm a capital-R Romantic about college. I've been in it for half of my life, and I love so much about it. I still believe that what we do is important, and that we are privileged to work with young people who are discovering themselves, finding their way, opening up to the world in full and exciting adventures.

Of course, that feeling doesn't always last—not even to Labor Day. It all comes crashing down when some students want to know if they have to do the reading that day. "Can we go outside?" "Can I use my senior project from high school in this class?" "My parents are taking me to Las Vegas next week. Will I miss anything?"

I sense that I don't have to tell readers of The Chronicle any more than that. We love the job. We hate the job. We are excited about the students as they arrive, and then we are crushed when they invariably disappoint us. (And we feel shame about that last notion as well.)

I've always managed to outweigh the negative. I get enough good students every year to beat down the whispers inside my head to "quit, just quit, go open a glass-bottom-boat company in Key West." But each year it seems I get more and more of the students who kill my spirit and make me question why I'm working harder for their progress than they are.

Last semester's misery was saved by a 20ish student in one of my writing courses, an interesting young man whom I will call "Jet."

Jet was one of the worst students I've ever met. He was always late to class, and always lacking a book or a pen. He would give me insanely complicated excuses. But then he'd cobble together a few paragraphs and I'd think, "If only he would find two hours to finish this, or an hour to come to class." Jet was smart, funny, and had a healthy interest in using his mind and stretching it. Living in the world a few years past high school had given him some wisdom that most of his peers hadn't earned yet.

When a debate would break out about a reading, he would listen intently and then have his say. He was able to see both sides, and as he spoke you could tell he was working out his own position, placing himself in an argument that would serve as a great start to an assigned essay.

But his life kept getting in the way: job, girlfriend, parties, second job, sick mom, stolen truck, lost books. It was a cascade of things that stood between Jet and what he could become.

When he missed class, I would set up a special time to meet with him, and then he'd miss that. I'd tell him to meet me at the library and he'd go to the wrong building and call me three hours later: "Was that today or tomorrow?"

He was always apologetic. When he missed an appointment, he didn't act as if it had never happened. He would take time before or after the next class to thank me for making the time. "I'm trying to do better," he said once.

On the day of the final, he showed up 45 minutes into a two-hour exam. I gave him the test and then watched him. He read it. He put his head down for a while. He looked at the clock. He shuffled through the papers he had brought with him, and sighed quietly. He had forgotten his text—a very useful tool for the test. I could see whatever hope he had vanish. His shoulders slumped, and then I watched him as he started to write.

That gave me hope. Go, kid, go, I thought to myself. Show me what you've got. I knew Jet could do it, could ace this course and any other if he wanted to.

But after about 10 minutes, he got up quickly and brought me a sheet of paper. It was a note, folded in half. His eyes never met mine, and before I could say a word he was disappearing up the steps of the hall and out the door. His note was an apology for failing me, for asking for help and then not taking advantage of it. For being a screw-up. For not being "cut out for college."

I know that some of you will read that and think it was a ploy, just another maneuver to curry pity from a hardened professor. But I knew Jet well enough to know that he meant it all. And it made me truly sad.

For every Jet, I have 20 other students who don't care about college, and certainly not about a freshman writing course. These are the students who would never understand that their failures are in some way also our failures, that we're all in it together. They would never understand—I know you might mock me for saying or believing this—that we actually love them. That we want them to succeed, to find the love of learning that we all found when we were in school. They would never write the note Jet wrote to me, because it would not occur to them that it actually mattered.

Too many other students seem to lie easily to me, to cheat, to plagiarize. I always am amazed to catch someone who has broken at least one of my college's rules of academic dishonesty. There are no tears. There is no embarrassment. There is usually no apology. This incident is, apparently, just a speed bump on their path to fooling me enough to pass them to the next level. I flunked one young man for stealing a paper from an online essay mill, and all he wanted to know from me was what other instructor taught the course in the summer, and could I recommend one who "didn't have so many rules."

These students take part in class only if I trick them with a participation grade. Their eyes rarely light up unless it's the day I tell them our class is going to have its own Twitter account. There is so little joy among them. I finish a semester winded from the effort.

I've spent the summer trying not to think about all of those students. In another few days, I will walk back into a classroom and I hope that I will be ready for another semester. I hope that the summer away will have recharged my tired batteries. I hope, more than anything, that I will find my love of the profession again, a sea of open minds, a group of new students waiting and willing. And Jet among them.

W.T. Pfefferle's most recent book is "The Meager Life and Modest Times of Pop Thorndale" (NFSPS Press, 2007). He teaches occasionally at Central New Mexico Community College.