ode to students

It’s 7:30 AM on the Monday of finals week*, deep into the month of December. It isn’t yet light outside, and probably would seem even more dark except for the fact that there’s 8 inches of snow on the ground, adding to a general glow and muting the sound of a car spinning tires and struggling to make its way into the parking lot — the perfect scenario for the physics exam had I only thought to write it in. The snow offers a cushion of calm in an otherwise stressful landscape.

Students walk into the lecture hall for their final exam. They stomp their feet; heads and shoulders are accessorized with snowflakes, a kind of weather monitor, confirming it’s still accumulating. Some were here half an hour early when I first checked on the room. Hats and coats drape chairs. People carry the amperage of anxiety and the weight of fatigue in the same body.

There’s the young woman who gave birth four weeks ago. She went a week past her due date and, in a kind of pregnancy purgatory, still came to class each morning. She made the daily pilgrimage down the 18 lecture hall steps to her seat in the first row. Watching her, no one complains about how tired or uncomfortable they are.

There’s the girl whose family has been in upheaval — a sibling who needs care, parents who don’t understand or support the kids in this new culture and new trajectory. She’s taking care of all those around her and forgot about herself. Can I still get a C? She can, if she gets nearly perfect marks on all the rest of the work in the course. And she tries. She’s there early.

A woman with a hijab headscarf (and an especially heavy coat on this snowy day). I don’t know what else she faces in our current angst, but I don’t fault her when she’s not in class. But I worry when she’s not in class. I just smile and welcome her when she’s here.

These students are parents and children and brothers and sisters. A husband-wife duo sit in the corner in the front row opposite the new mom. They’re here early each day. A brother and sister sit a few rows above. She’s there early and he gets there just in time — or a few minutes late — as she razzes him. A moment later she shares notes or the latest announcement that he missed.

There’s the girl who reminds me of my own daughter — something that sounded cute a few years ago and now is especially real — a pink pom pom atop a black knit hat that caps long, straight hair. There’s the guy who shows up in blue scrubs, doing an internship at the local hospital. I’d asked him if he’d saved a life yet. He said no. I asked if he’d let anyone die yet; and he said no to this, too.

There’s a student whose marriage fell apart at the beginning of the semester. He just asked for an extra few days to finish a two-page paper. I said okay.

One young woman with a subtle nose piercing sports thick framed glasses and Chuck Taylors. She conveys elegance in a cotton sweatshirt, even though she doesn’t know it. She got 100 on her last exam. She pulls her long hair towards her upper lip during tests.

When a student’s sister tragically died a few years ago, he was back in class after a couple of days and I’d asked why. Why didn’t he want to have some more time? He said he didn’t know what else to do. So he came to physics class, he did the homework, he took exams, and he studied with others. He looked tired, maybe older.

Another: She’s taking her fourth course with me and writes solutions to problems that I want to frame and put up in my office. I think she’ll be valedictorian of her graduating class this year. When she suddenly had to leave class the other day I started to worry, but then I’d realized that it was December 1, the day that dental schools release acceptance notifications. She’ll be attending her first choice of schools, and if I ever needed a root canal, I’d be happy to call on her. There are students here who may be installing a stent on me someday, or putting an incision into my partner’s eye, or delivering my first grandchild. This is all completely within reason. Although I’m uncomfortable to see a former student interning at my urologist’s office, I know that this is all right and I know that they’re so capable and extraordinary. After all, they’re taking this exam to demonstrate they can calculate the wavelength of an alpha particle spiraling in a magnetic field.

And then someone asks to make an appointment as soon as possible. She’s waiting on a diagnosis: an infection, something random, or cancer. Can she have a few extra days to complete the project? Yes, of course. Let me know what else I can do, I so tritely suggest. I always say those kinds of things, “Let me know what I can do to help.” That’s easy to offer when you know there isn’t anything you can do to help. I help people draw forces on squares on inclined planes. I don’t do anything important except keep them working on the forces on boxes on inclined planes so that they can make progress on this one thing, so that they can be certain of one thing, so that we can control one thing.

There have been people waiting for moms to die or for kidneys to arrive. Another sent a note with a photo of where his car had been parked when he’d last seen it. It had been impounded and he couldn’t make it back to class.

There are Thanksgivings away from home back in Virginia, spent here instead at a regional state institution out West, a place where we don’t think about students who may be from Virginia and how hard it would be to get home for a Thursday holiday if you have class on Wednesday.

One time there was an escaped rabbit. She never found it. There was the injury involving a stubbed toe in the stairwell. It was a whole month later before she had a brace on, having finally seen the doctor when it was clear something wasn’t healing and was, in fact, broken. There’s the student who would break down into tears because of her mom, worrying about the diagnosis and falling behind in class as she tried to take care of generations above and below. She brought me three boxes of tissues later that semester, because I never had them and because she knew she might break down in tears again. She did. So have others, and I’m grateful to have the tissues.

Last week we had a two-year-old in class. She played with colored chalk while her mom finished a lab investigation. The chalkboard was flooded with art that reached just above the tray and up another seven inches, the total extent of the toddler’s reach. When her mom was done with the lab, she wished she could stay longer. We left the art on the board.

In spite of the pregnancies and two-year-olds and moms and siblings and lives and deaths, there’s extraordinary work. Those students taking their final exam are contemplating the relative nature of time, the amount of energy released in a nuclear reaction, the dance between electricity and magnetism. They’ll go on, and I’ll see them in the hallway and say hello, or I’ll see them in a classroom of their own — teaching my own daughters, nephews, grandkids (I’ve done the harrowing calculation and it’s totally within reason), and my own future students. When I see former students in their own classrooms, I’m awed by the magic they create that I know they didn’t get from anything I taught them. I try to sit in and learn from them so I can pass it along somewhere else. Or I’ll likely visit a student as my future cardiologist or dentist or mayor or neighbor. One of them, actually, is my pharmacist, so I like to say that I get my drugs from a former student.

Yet, maybe I won’t ever see many of them again. And, it’s so very likely that if I see them and even recognize them I won’t be able to recall if they were in my class in 1996 or 2016 or 2036. (I’m sure that one of them will be my neurologist somewhere down the line, and we’ll be ironically engaged in this discussion about my memory.) But they do stick with me, each one in their own way. Leaving behind boxes of tissues or the memory of the day they rushed out of class to get the call from their future graduate school or the imagery of the walk to the bottom of the lecture hall after 40 weeks or pregnancy, with the broken toe, with the name in line for a kidney donation. They’ve paid their tuition and submitted their papers, but I perennially feel indebted to them. The teaching gig only happens if there are others here to experience it all with me. This, my ode to students, is really just the inadequate, incomplete, and ongoing attempt to describe the gratitude and admiration I have towards them.

I started writing this during a 7:30 AM final in December of 2015. I’ve come back to it now in December of 2016, proctoring the same exam for the same course. There’s a little less snow and the faces are all new, but it’s the same scene and the same ode.