The end of the semester always portends disaster.
Like everyone, teachers and students, about mid-semester, things just seem to slow down. Mired in intellectual and psychic syrup, we slog through, hoping that just around the corner, there will be a light, however dim. It will show us the way. The end is not far. The worst is over. Almost.
But, god, how those last weeks of the semester drag. Students aren’t looking forward to their final papers. They need more energetic lectures to rouse them from their torpor. I must perform more sharply. They notice every stutter and stumble. They lose themselves in thoughts of the coming break, when they can stay out late, linger in the morning, and live at least part of their day carefree.
Most of my students work. Every semester, I make it a point to validate that work and make clear that working and going to school present them with challenge. Many students work entry-level minimum wage (or a little better) jobs. They are grocery store clerks, waiters, and convenience store workers. They slog away at jobs that have no point, provide no satisfaction. While they hold great hope for their futures, going to school is just entry in a long list of responsibilities they have to work, home, and family.
Among the students are some who live with parents, and school is the price of free rent. They don’t know what they want to do or have flimsy ideas of where they want their lives to go. To them, school is a burden they must endure until something comes to them, like the little bulb going on above their heads. Some don’t see the point. Some understand they stand in something bigger than themselves but have problems mustering the enthusiasm for what to them is just another thing.
The most interesting students I have are those who flunked out of another institution of higher learning. They work eagerly so they can get back on track. They fare pretty well, given they already have some college behind them and know the rigors in store for them. My class is a hard class, but no one has to possess superior intellect. They don’t have to be clever. They just have to put their heads down and do the work.
A few of my students live on their own. They have better-than-minimum-wage jobs but must labor full-time to make ends meet and pay tuition. Some get student loans to help them carry the weight. Others, perhaps a little slyer, know that student loans will come due and don’t want that encumbrance. They pay for apartments, cars, insurance, and find themselves stuck in jobs because they have health insurance.
These independent students are surer of themselves. They see school as utility, a means toward better pay or job. Some know what they want to do, others are still searching but know that they must get the basic requirements for further college out of the way. They attend community college to get those prerequisites and prepare themselves for the time the lightning strikes or the revelation comes to them in a process wrought of time and labor.
I also have what we at the community college like to call “adult learners.” These are generally the best students of the bunch. Firm in their resolve, they know where they want life to go. Some attend school because the degree or extra hours will get them a raise or prepare them for promotion. Others want something different from what they have. Maybe, she’s a real estate agent who wants to go into nursing. Or he’s a middle manager who wants closer proximity to an executive position.
While I tend to like all my students—there are exceptions, but I’m not going to tell you about them—the best ones are those who just want to know more. They didn’t get a college education, or they have a little. They want more history. They thirst for knowledge and need the discipline of higher education to get what they wouldn’t earn on their own, left to their own devices. The class gives them goals, sets assignments, creates due dates, whereas reading on their own in an unstructured way give too much opportunity to distraction. After all, when mom’s at school, she can’t deal with her teen’s angst, indecision, and petty problems that seem to the teen to foretell the end of the world. Someone else has to walk the dogs. The spouse has to do the dishes or laundry. Mom’s at school, away from home, or locked in a room studying.
The end of the semester, after the slog between the middle and the end, always puts some students on edge. Where, weeks before, they couldn’t care less, now they begin to worry. Their regrets over time wasted, study avoided, work done carelessly begins to haunt them. I can see them doing the math. If I get this grade on the paper, they think, I will get this grade for the class. Maybe, if I ace the final, I’ll get that B. The teacher could take pity on me and step me up those last two points. And on and on.
My point is that students have a lot to deal with and some of them are figuring out at the end what they should have started with. Out of this crowd inevitably emerges a student—generally more than one—that sees the writing on the wall. Then come the excuses: I was sick those weeks I missed class. I’ve been dealing with depression and couldn’t get out of bed early enough for class. My job didn’t let me out in time to turn in the paper. I wrecked my car. I had court. I tried turning in the paper and the program wouldn’t let me.
After 15 years of teaching, you might think I’ve become inured to student excuses and tales of woe. But I am not. I still feel the pain. I remember when I was a student. The electric shock hits me when I remember coming to class unprepared for a test or finding there was a test I didn’t know about. I recall working last-minute on my papers and calculating those points, trying to find one here or there, that would give me the grade I wanted, even if I didn’t deserve it.
Just today, a student wailed me a tale of deep anguish. After he stated his position, I asked why didn’t you bring this up earlier? We could have worked through the problem together. I would have made some concession that would be fair to you and the other students.
Disaster, he said. The grade you gave me will bring my GPA in at under 3.0. It means I won’t get into the college I want. I will lose “countless scholarships.” Please, please, give me a B.
So, here I sit. Wondering if I should fudge things a little. A grade has to mean something. If I knuckle under on this one, would it be fair to the other students who did the work on time and well. Am I harboring a resentment against this guy?
What to do? I could easily avert disaster by giving the guy a B. He walks away with increased opportunities, but also he gets something he doesn’t deserve. My guilt would fade after just a couple of days. I would have learned another lesson, filled another hole in my syllabus.
I’ll decide about the time grades are due on Monday at 5 p.m. Who knows what will happen? If I give him the grade he deserves, I’ll still feel badly. If I give him the grade he needs, I’ll be plagued with guilt. It’ll be a disaster for me as much as it will him.