Tough lessons 101
“I am excited for you, but also remember that nervousness,” my old roommate Rin wrote in an email to Malkie, a young woman just starting at our old college. “There is so much to take in during those first few weeks. I felt incredibly busy even without classes. Perhaps that’s why freshman fall semester I failed my only class ever.”
The class was Introduction to World Religion. “It turns out,” she continued, “that I was, in fact, expected to attend the weekly discussions.”
Bummer. Early that December, she said, the professor sent her a note saying she had no reason to take the final since she would not pass the course, not having attended a discussion. Ever.
“I did actually get the professor to smile when I visited him in his office and said that the time had just gone by so fast, and each week I meant to go, but there were so many other things happening. Of course, I didn’t want a smile, I wanted him to say something like, ‘Well, if you do really well on the final, maybe you could finish up with a C.’”
He didn’t say that. But Rin is stubborn. She is also ridiculously smart, having arrived at college intending to major in physics, then switched to history, and eventually finished in political science. She is also a talented comedic writer. Rin took the World Religion final anyway, and got an A on it, and still failed.
“Ah, the life lessons …” Rin mused. “I can hardly remember the classes I did well in. But I still remember that moment.” (She managed to survive it and is today an anesthesiologist at a university hospital.)
My friend Karen had a shock as well during freshman year. She received the first C of her life, on a history paper, and she went to speak to the professor, a birdlike woman whose lectures were always packed and who once gesticulated so vigorously she fell off the stage and broke her arm.
“I wasn’t trying to get her to change the grade,” Karen told me, as the thought flashed through my mind that that’s what I’d have been trying to do. “I just wanted to know how to do better in the future.
“And [the professor] said, ‘You didn’t follow the assignment.’”
I learned hard lessons myself, of course, like the time a test on the poets Shelley and Keats drew near. I studied Keats, I learned all about the “Ode to the Grecian Urn.” I didn’t feel like studying Shelley, and airily assumed that we’d be given a choice. Then the test essay question was only on Shelley.
And now the shoe is on the other foot. I am teaching a course. I have students, a class full of them: funny, lively, tech savvy, varied. They make me laugh. They speak with insight and, sometimes, bald honesty. Many are very diligent; last week one handed in her midterm paper four days early. One day I emailed Adam, who photographs rock musicians and is working on a film project, and noticed that the reply came in at 5 a.m. They’ve also, as I speak on material I’ve prepared, been known to pull out cell phones and start tapping, or computers and type (trust me, not taking notes). I stop them.
I started the semester being relaxed about late work, and learned the hard way to be firm about making deadlines and to take off points otherwise. And then I have to do it; and I don’t like it, either. My friend Lynn grew up coming to this area for holidays, her family often bringing friends and relatives to visit and ski. One boy was pokey getting out of the house in the mornings for the slopes, and one day Lynn’s father told him, “If you’re late again tomorrow, I’ll leave without you.” And he did. Years later the boy, now grown, told the story at the man’s funeral, and said, “I never forgot it. It was one of the most important lessons of my life.”
— “Femaelstrom” appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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