This is one of my most favourite times of year: September. I’ve never really out grown that back-to-school new year feeling. Far more fun than January 1st (which just foreshadows another birthday for me).
I love university and college campuses in September. All those brand new students, completely lost and clueless. By the end of the month half of them are so homesick. When I was teaching 4th year students I didn’t fully understand what a big deal September is … many of them were just coming out of summer terms or summer jobs and were politely bored for the first few weeks of school. But it’s different with first year students.
I think I started to understand during my first term teaching first year students. At first I was just annoyed at how unprepared and disorganized many of them were. But as I got to know them, I began to see things in a different light. One of my sections was just horrible. It was in a bad room – dark, long and narrow, tagged onto the Physics wing. Several of the college transfer students were being forced to take my course and were sullen and resentful. I dreaded going to that class. No matter what I did I’d get silence in return. I could never wait for the two hours to end. I’m sure my students felt the same.
Towards the end of September, when I finally started to remember all their names, one of my students lingered after class. I recognized her as a student who had written a poignant journal entry about her first few weeks at university. She was from Toronto, far from home, originally excited by the idea of going to school on the West Coast and bitterly disappointed with the isolation she encountered upon arriving. Lonely and homesick, she was silent in my classroom. I’d been keeping an eye on her in class, trying to partner her up with some of the more gregarious students during group work. But her journal entries indicated that things had not much improved for her.
On that day in late September, she waited nervously while the class slowly emptied. There were third year students milling in the hallway outside the door, anxious to get in. I closed the door in their annoyed faces. Then I asked her how she was doing, if things were getting a bit easier? She blinked back tears and nodded. Then she told me that she would not be in class the next Friday. She was flying home to spend the weekend with her mom. I put my hand on her shoulder and said, “That’s important for you right now, isn’t it?” She wiped her eyes. Nodded. Then, before we could get too sentimental, I reminded her to check WebCT for readings and assignments and told her I expected her to keep up with her workload.
As the semester wore on, she came more and more out of her shell. By the end of the term I hardly recognized the giggling, happy young woman surrounded by friends. But during the last class she came and found me outside the lab, waiting for the photocopier. “My mom sent you these.” She said, shyly holding out a bag. I opened it and found a box of green tea leaves and a beautiful silk scarf. “Made from her home village.” She added softly. “To thank you for helping me in September.
When September comes, I think about that student. It took a few minutes of my time to give her a little attention. I was busy and irritated with that class. I could have easily rushed out the door or asked her to talk to me in office hours. But sometimes timing is far more important than we can guess. As September arrives once again, I hope that this term I will find the energy and patience to be present. Being fully present in the moment for my students, even on bad days, that is the greatest skill I can hope to develop.