Too Late to Learn?

The following essay was originally published in the November 2011 edition of the online magazine of the Curry School of Education (University of Virginia). It received honorable mention in that year’s alumni writing contest (nostalgia category).

A mild expletive flew from my mouth as I slammed the door and raced for the bus stop. You see, just a few moments ago I decided it might be wise to check the day’s schedule one last time. A wise decision indeed: I was late! Actually, I was very late. In fact, I began to fear that by the time I reached Ruffner Hall from my brand new dorm room in Copeley, orientation was likely to be over — long over!

This turned out to be the second very wise thought I entertained that afternoon.

One apoplectic bus ride later, I pulled open the door to the lobby I’d walked through numerous times as an undergrad on the way to a history lecture in the basement or a politics seminar upstairs. And, much as I suspected, the place was deserted.

Panic took over. You see, it was my first official day as a graduate student, and I had already screwed up. “What kind of impression does that make?” I asked myself. “How do you miss orientation?!”

After coming to terms with my apparent lack of responsibility, I allowed an even more distressing possibility to enter my head. Surely, they’re going to kick me out for this,” I reasoned to myself.

This turned out to be among the stupider thoughts I’ve ever entertained.

Nevertheless, convinced my career was in grave danger, I ran upstairs on the off chance that someone of any relevance was still around. Jogging down the hall, I came across the door of Margo Figgins, the professor who, from everything I had seen thus far, seemed to be in charge of the teacher education program for English. I pounded on her door, and just as my unrewarded heart began to sink, it clicked open.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much at all of the ensuing conversation. I think I alternated between catching my breath and apologizing profusely for what I believed was a most tremendous transgression. What I do remember is how unfazed Prof. Figgins appeared to be and, ultimately, how very much this episode did not cut short my future as a professional educator.

As you might have guessed, Prof. Figgins did not sign a one-way ticket to Caruthers Hall (or whatever it is that happens when you get expelled). Rather, in those few moments she taught me — by doing, of course — my very first lesson at the Curry School and one that a successful teacher must never lose sight of: Be flexible!

According to the rules (that is, the draconian facsimile of the rules concocted by my nervous mind on the way across Grounds) this student had failed. By not paying attention — by slacking — this student had demonstrated an unwillingness to take ownership of his education, his future. This student was looking for a free pass. The chutzpah!

This student made a silly mistake. But he wanted to learn. He just had his own way of arriving at that goal (one involving a touch more aerobics).

A year and a half later, this same student sat in the corner of a 6th grade Language Arts class observing his former pupils during the final stretch of his culminating field project. Of particular interest at this moment is one individual — let’s call him Jason. Jason was a multiply exceptional child; his teachers encountered severe behavioral, emotional, and developmental obstacles on a daily basis. What I am trying to say, as delicately as I can, is that Jason was a challenging student — a student who operated on a very different plane from those around him.

At this particular moment, Jason and his peers are working on a creative writing assignment. According to my field notes, the teacher has just chastised Jason for distracting someone. The whole room suddenly erupts in noise and two other students begin roughhousing. Yet with relative chaos all around him, Jason is now staring at his paper again, pencil clearly moving across the page. According to my notes, he “grumbles aloud to no one in particular, ‘Oh…I’m writing, I’m writing.’”

Jason had one of the lowest scores in the class on a writing self-efficacy survey that I devised for the project. But, on a work sample that I obtained, he had written this: “My favorite class is Mr. _____. Because his class teaches us how to put different words into new words to make a sentence.” I don’t know where Jason is today or what kinds of successes or failures he has experienced since I completed my observations. All I really know about him is that deep down, he wanted to learn.

I just hope his teachers have continued to be flexible.