Thursday, March 12, 2015
Some time back when I was still teaching mostly 'live' classes, I referred to the back corner of the classroom as the Student Bermuda Triangle . I warned students not to sit there because many who did had a habit of disappearing in the middle of the semester.
Of course, I was joking, but the truth of the matter is that there always were students who simply disappeared. They quit coming. And we never knew why. But one day at the local mall I ran into one of those students and he shook my hand and asked if I remembered him. I had to be honest; sometimes I remember a face, but rarely a name.
"I was in that back corner," he said. "The Bermuda Triangle."
I laughed and asked how he was doing.
"Great," he said. "I just wasn't ready back then; fresh out of high school, parents insisting I had to go to college. But all I could think of was getting a job, and a car, and getting wasted on the weekends."
"I have to admit," I said. "I was no different." And I explained how I didn't go to college right away because I didn't really like school and couldn't wait to get away from it.
"It's all good though," he said. "You were a good teacher. I remember that. So I started back two years ago and I'll graduate from the University next June." He grinned. "And guess what?"
"I majored in English." He laughed. "Went back to the community college, took the basics and transferred and realized I always liked to write."
I came away from that incident feeling much different about my Bermuda Triangle. Where I used to feel responsible for the loss of a student, worrying that I had said something that turned him off or didn't do all I could to get him involved, I now realized that there were others like him whom we never know about and who go on, even if it's not back to college, to find a career path that is satisfying and fulfilling.
I had a roommate in college, named Bill Desmond, who didn't want to be there (he wanted to join the Navy), but went because his parents insisted on it. After he arrived, he decided that he had made a mistake by trying to please his parents, so he made sure he would flunk all of his classes. He spent most of his time in the Student Center pool room and most of the weekends at the town bar. And he succeeded and joined the Navy. But we kept in touch. He learned computer operations and became a technician aboard a Navy Destroyer and retired after 20 years. He loved every minute of it, married his high school sweetheart (I was his best man), and bought a Mom and Pop grocery store in Pennsylvania. He sold it a few years ago and now lives in California near his kids and grandkids.
Did Bill's teachers fail? No. Did the college fail? No. Bill was a perfect example of what the bureaucrats don't bother to measure.The kind of experience my former student and Bill had is of little or no concern to the so-called educators who discount anything that can't be measured by a standardized test. And evaluating teachers and schools on the basis of the results of those tests just adds insult to injury.
So how about we follow up on students one, two or five years later? And how about defining success on the student's terms? Some don't belong in college. And I don't say that pejoratively. I recognize that's heresy by the standards of the bureaucratic administration whose focus is on assuring that the funds keep coming in. But wouldn't it be nice if we took some of that money being spent on programs to keep students in college and, instead, spent it on better counseling, on programs that help students decide what direction is best? And letting them know that if they decide college isn't for them, but later on change their mind, the door is still open?