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Second Time Around

September 1, 2013
'I Want a Second Chance' by Alyssa L. Miller via

‘I Want a Second Chance’ by Alyssa L. Miller via

I didn’t like school. I thought I would. When I was little, I watched my brother walk to the big, brick schoolhouse across the street each morning and was horrified by the unfairness of it all. Then we moved and I finally got to go to school, even if it wasn’t the one I’d grown up looking at.

The problems started early. In first grade, I was sent to the principle’s office when I refused to work on my math problems. Math wasn’t the problem. The problem was that when the teacher told me to “Go over there, sit down, and do you math!” for the fourth time and I answered with an exasperated “I can’t!” for the fifth time, I wasn’t referring to the math. I was referring to the fact that the desk she was pointing at didn’t have a chair.

Of course, at the age of six, my communication skills were less than comprehensive. It was not an impressive beginning, but it was the start of a pattern – a pattern of non-cooperation on my part and a pattern of misjudging the problem on the part of my teachers. The problem was never that I was stubborn or clueless or disrespectful, though I was often all three, the problem was that I was bored. To make matters worse, I resented it.

This continued for the next, oh, ten or fifteen years. But I was determined, as Twain said, not to let my schooling get in the way of my education. I persevered and I found my home in the ivory tower. It’s got the greatest view. And it’s the only place I’ve felt free to ask all my questions. I have a lot.

This was on my mind as I stepped into the classroom this summer, feeling decidedly out of my depth. I knew my subject matter backwards and forwards, but I didn’t feel entirely confident about how to teach it, and I knew almost nothing about the students I would be teaching it to. I was never the average student (stubbornly stuck either above or below, but never in the pack). High school was many moons and thousands of miles behind me. What do they even teach nowadays? Not enough, in my estimation.

But it doesn’t matter because now they’re in my classroom. And they’re just as apathetic and bored as I was when I tried college for the first time (with a few exceptions). I don’t know if they hated school as much as I did, but they really don’t seem to love it as much as I do now. It’s been working against them the last few years, and although everyone tells them education is important, very few have actually seen how it can or will work for them yet. So they sit in my classroom, afraid to talk, afraid to think, almost afraid to learn and it’s my job to make sure they know it’s okay. It’s more than okay; it’s actually kinda awesome. Although our lives have been very different, I can empathize with them on that level. So I make them listen and laugh, talk and participate, think and work.

It didn’t work for me the first time. I dropped out of university on my first try, but I also came back. It wasn’t until that second time around that I got lucky enough to meet a professor who seemed genuinely happy to have me in their classroom.  Just that one teacher made up for all the others who didn’t really seem to notice if I was there or not, who treated students like interchangeable parts.

I don’t really think they all mean to do that. My anthropology teacher had classes in 300-seat auditoriums. She was a good teacher, but that’s a recipe for impersonal education. Not exactly what a frustrated and impatient eighteen-year-old stumbling through a major life transition needs. Now I have empathy for those professors, too. It’s hard enough with a dozen students and only one class to worry about.

Two dropped out. Five flunked. Four got C’s. The rest put in the work and moved on, but I’m still not entirely certain how much they learned. They all gave me good reviews on the course evaluations. But probably the best thing is that five of them showed back up in my class again this fall (it’s required and I’m the only instructor) and seemed genuinely okay to be there. They smiled and said hello and that they were looking forward to the course. They didn’t get too discouraged and give up. They don’t resent me for the grades they earned. And I think maybe we’ll do better the second time around.

I certainly did.

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