note under my door

I’ve made a point of not visiting my office much this year. Occasionally I stop by to pretend that I’m doing accounting, check my mail, grab something or stow something. A sign on my door tries to make it clear that you shouldn’t expect to find me there.

So I was surprised when I dropped by last week to find a note under my door. I was stopping through on my way to an awards event, part of the final lead-in to graduation ceremonies. The plain envelope with my name on it stared up at me.

I opened it.

There have been letters under my door before, and they’ve ranged far and wide. For the most part, they come from students who thank me for writing them a letter of recommendation, and I appreciate the thought, effort, and etiquette of this. Occasionally, there have been letters not to thank me but to voice a concern or problem. Once, a long time ago, there was a letter that was a bit more salacious. And, a few notable times there have been letters that really, really meant something to me. This one stood out as one of those.

This one was from a student I immediately recognized but hadn’t had in a class in a couple of years. She’d taken my introductory honors course and had since gone on to major in another department in another building on the other side of campus. She described this, and then reminded me of an interaction: “At one point, you wrote on a paper that you wanted to see a copy of my Ph.D. dissertation someday.” She went on to describe how she thought I was kidding until she brought it up and I explained that I was (for once) being completely genuine. I remember making that comment and having that conversation; and I remember really thinking that I wanted to see her ideas get a more thorough showing — she really had the beginnings of a doctoral study.

She continued in her note: “I came to college expecting to fail … thank you for believing in me. That was the first time I thought maybe I could go to grad school.” She’s now graduating, she explained, and in the fall she’ll be starting a doctoral program that combines archeology and paleoclimatology. She closed with, “Anyway, thank you for believing in a student.”

There are all kinds of things that I’ve written on exams and papers, or that I’ve said during class or in my office. They are often in the moment, honest but not what I come home to put in my journal. When I get home and I’m asked what I did that day, I say that “I graded some papers,” not “I wrote a single sentence in a margin to see if I could change someone’s life.” Because, to be honest, almost none of what I will do or write will change anyone’s direction or self conception or anything else. I like to write in margins or respond to ideas in class simply because I like — love — that interaction. It’s the mix of ideas in some ether that gets me excited to step into a classroom.

But we have to realize that in those interactions there’s always some other possibility. You don’t know if, when, or how. But you have to believe in the possibility of any interaction and the possibility of each student.

Here’s the rub: I get this note on what’s essentially the last day of my sabbatical. I’m bracing myself to go back into the classroom, faced with the prospects of creating assignments and grading them. It’s arduous work that no one loves. But this gives me a reason to embrace it, to get back into it, and maybe even to re-realize the importance of the scrawl on a page. Although the vast majority of stuff isn’t going to have any profound effect, there’s the small chance that maybe one thing will. This isn’t me being despondent; it’s actually a hopeful sentiment. There are lots and lots of potential comments to make. When I wrote that I’d love to read more of her ideas, I didn’t set out to try to convince someone that they should apply to graduate school. But I did want to convey that I really believed that she could, and that we’d be lucky to see what became of that.

So this is my own thank you note. I’m grateful to this student for the card in the envelope under my door. I’m grateful that I’ve had the time away to think and learn more about what I’m doing in this profession. And, especially, I’m thankful that I have more classes to go back to, more margins to write in. I can’t think of a better job.