When Students Cry

Brian Taylor

August 04, 2009

I suspect that most college professors, even those in the early stages of their careers, have caused at least a couple of students to cry. The thing is, we rarely see it when it happens. Our students sob late at night, when they reach the end of their ropes, or at the close of the semester, when they receive their final grades. On occasion, though, we witness the waterworks.

It's never fun.

My first time came as an A.B.D. instructor. I was teaching a large undergraduate course and had just returned term papers. A student came to me, upset that her final grade had dropped from an A- to a B+. Unsure of my own authority, I sought refuge in formality. "This kind of thing happens all the time," I told myself, "you've just got to play it out and get it over with." I dutifully assumed the role of the rigorous professor, holding fast to high academic standards, and relegated my student to the role of the grade-grubber, pampered by privilege and unable to accept her work for what it was. For 10 minutes, I moved us smoothly through the script, everything playing out pro forma.

Then her lower lip started trembling. That wasn't in the script. Neither were the body-racking sobs that came next. Not knowing what to do, I did nothing. I just waited in embarrassed silence, as if she were experiencing momentary stage fright and simply needed time to collect herself before we could continue our performance.

But the script had been blown up. Her raw emotion had exposed the artificiality of the little drama I'd been trying to direct. Those sobs were an eruption of humanity in what was supposed to be an impersonal interaction. They took us out of our assigned roles and compelled me to respond authentically instead of objectively.

In the end, I did not change her grade. But I did change my outlook. Subsequently, I made a concerted effort to care. Rather than hiding behind grading rubrics and course syllabi, I sought to deal with student concerns particularly and compassionately, trying to react in the way that would best promote the student's intellectual development.

Because I find that kind of focus hard to sustain, I'm convinced that the occasional crying conference is a good thing. A reminder, if you will, that my students are people, too. This past semester, however, the tears came from an unexpected source: a 250-pound transfer student, 23 years old and scheduled to graduate at the end of the term.

I'd had countless conferences with this student. In fact, "Jason" had been in to see me at least once a week since the semester began. He rarely stayed for less than 30 minutes, and his long and frequent visits were a source of great frustration. As the hours added up, I became increasingly resentful that one student was asking so much of me in the way of counseling, concessions, and overall hand-holding.

The crying occurred when I delivered the devastating news that Jason could not simply pass my class. To get credit toward his degree, he would have to earn a C or better. It was just too much. He sniffled valiantly for a few seconds before the floodgates broke.

At first, I experienced his outburst as another imposition: "I spend all this time counseling with you, and now I have to cry with you?!" Pretty quickly, though, my indignation evolved into guilt. After all, Jason was crying over my class. And then, amid all the guilt, I noticed something: Jason's chin dimpled when he cried, as did my 6-year-old son's. It was the barest of resemblances, but it was transformative. By focusing on Jason's chin, I could conjure up the idea of my own son. And as I did so, I felt a mounting parental compassion that offset my professional impatience. If this were my son sitting in his professor's office, how would I want his professor to respond?

I'd given some thought to parental responses when my twins were born. Although I loved them from the start, I worried that I was blinded by parental bias. Parents, I was well aware, are notoriously bad at evaluating their own flesh and blood. (It's not for nothing that we describe a person as someone "only a mother could love.") Determined to overcome genealogical prejudice and biological investment, I tried to look at my sons as a stranger would. As I studied them for flaws and failings, though, I came to an important realization.

I'd always assumed that the intensity of parental love was tied to a failure of perception. Mothers and fathers loved their ugly or unintelligent kids because they were unaware that their kids were ugly and unintelligent. I've since abandoned that idea. I'm pretty sure parents can see shortcomings as well as anyone else; it's just that we don't allow those shortcomings to overshadow or obscure the ability and potential that is also evident, if you care to look for it.

So as Jason sat crying before me, I tried to focus on the things a parent would see. I tried to drape him in all of the hopes and desires his parents might hold for him. And while Jason's deficiencies (and our difficulties) did not disappear, they receded just a little—enough, in fact, to allow other things to come into view.

Now I'm not saying we should be mothers and fathers to our students, nor am I suggesting that we soften things up or tone things down. As professors, we have a very particular job to do, and that job requires both discipline and distance. All of us have to draw certain lines and toe others. The shift in perspective I'm describing should have little or no effect on our course requirements or grade distributions. But it could have a meaningful—and eminently desirable—effect on our levels of commitment, patience, and compassion. To see in our students the potential that is visible to their parents is to take a big step toward unlocking it.

As for my own children? Well, I sent them off to school this past year. The transition proved traumatic (for us, not for them). It's really something to entrust your children to someone with as much influence and authority as a schoolteacher. So as I'm striving to see my students from the perspective of a parent, I hope my kids' teacher is doing the same.

Kent Lehnhof is associate professor of English at Chapman University.