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Dim student or one who has to work harder?

This kid is breaking my heart.

After a decade in community college teaching, I have yet to judge a student incapable of succeeding due to intelligence. Other’s innate intelligence is not my business. Effort gives me a better idea of how a student will do in my class. In fact, I’ve set my class up in such a way that you need not be overly intelligent, quick, or clever to make it in my class. You must be willing to work to do well.

That’s why a student I have this semester troubles me. She is sunny and always has good things to say. Her face is hard to read, though. It hides emotion but reveals a fragile person, someone who’s sensitive and easy to puncture. I’m suspect, after dealing with her for several weeks now, that she just isn’t intellectually ready for the task of college.

She isn’t doing well in my class. I have taken her aside a couple of times and gone over aspects of the syllabus and other materials. I talk to her and ask her questions. She answers in ways that say, yes, I understand. But I look into her eyes and a see a vacuity that I have only ever seen in the mirror.

Teachers, particularly in Ph.D. studies, sat me down and asked me if I knew what was really going on. Caught unawares by my own ignorance, I scooted around for answers that made it seem, on the outside, that I was getting the picture. I wasn’t and I knew it. I realized in these discussions that, wow, I’m in over my head. Then, a deep-seated panic bubbled up, an expression of helplessness and fear.

When I talked to her about her overall grade the other day, she had the look I’ve felt in my own face. She wouldn’t reveal that she wasn’t up to the task. She couldn’t. it’s not in the American student lexicon. A student must always defend their intelligence, their awareness. Only the most confident student will say in a moment of stress, yes, I’m way off base and need help.

I am not that student. I have never thought of myself as intelligent or gifted in the smarts department. Any stars I got behind my name I earned with pure, dumb work. I ignored the signs and forced my way through. When a teacher took me aside and tried to enlighten me, I understood only that I wasn’t in their league. Being stubborn, I didn’t let it stop me.

And that’s what I wanted to tell my student: It doesn’t matter that when I look into your eyes I see a dim bulb. People have done that with me before. What I know, what has been proven to me again and again, both with myself and others around me, is that sheer effort and focus will get you through. The people around you will tell you that you cannot make it. They are wrong. You should not listen to your inner voice, the one that says you cannot make it. I am here to show you that when you put your nose down and push hard, as hard as you can, you will make it through.

But I can’t say that. First, I am not a good judge of the brightness of anyone’s bulb. Second, to say that to her would mean confessing that I don’t think she’s got the smarts to make it in my class, something of which I am not certain of in the first place.

She’s an adult and I am a professional. But the other day was one of the times when I really felt the need to give the woman a hug. I didn’t, of course. I kept my distance. I told her that I would do anything I could to help her bring up her grades. She only need to get a hold of me on the E-mail.

She began to cry. She was stoic and didn’t show her weeping except to wipe her eyes with the back of her wrists. “Well,” she said, “I have given everything I have to this course. I have my job to do and my other classes. I’m doing what I can but I feel like no matter how hard I try, I just can’t get ahead.”

“Hold on,” I said. “That’s wrong. You are not flunking this course precisely because you have given it all you’ve got.”

“But I give all I have and still am getting a D, then what good is it?”

Let’s back off the total grade a minute I told her. I explained that she had places where she could improve. Our most recent paper, for instance. She handed it in a little early. I looked it over while we sat there and told her the shortcomings—citation, spelling, unclear sentences—and how she could remedy them. She spend time fixing what she could with the paper and then turn it in again.

“You’ll do that for me?” she said.

“Well, you turned it in early. You still have time before the due date. Put the effort in and we’ll see.”

The tears began to dry up.

“And there’s the matter of your tests,” I said. “You almost have the essay parts of the tests together. A little more detail and organization will help you on that. Some extra study of the multiple-choice questions will go a long way to improving that grade.”

“Well, I get those questions,” she said, “and I look through them but I’m not able to do well on the exam with them.”

“Repetition is everything,” I said. “If you sit down with those questions (there are 100, 25 of which I use on the exam) and read through them five times a day for five days before the exam, you will likely do better. I can’t guarantee anything, but I think if you do that work, you will do better.”

“Repetition . . . ” she said. “That makes sense. You think that will work?”

“Listen,” I said, “I can only tell you what works for me. I was a student a long time. I understood that I wasn’t the best or brightest student in the bunch. But I knew that I could work. I once had a constitutional law class and the professor was going to give us a test. He would quote the Constitution and we would have to identify the section, article, and clause. So, you know what I did?”

“What was that?”

“I sat down to my computer and wrote the Constitution word for word five times. Five times is always magic to me. If I do something five times, I know it. I typed five copies of the Constitution.”

“What happened?”

“I got an A on the test,” I said. “And today I can still quote you the Constitution. So, give that five times a day five days in a row a try and see what it does for you.”

She stuck out her hand and I shook it. I don’t know what happens next. I can’t wait to see.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if she’s intellectually ready for college. Can she do the work for my class? That’s the question.

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