A Wheel That Never Squeaks

She ran the Center for Teaching and Learning at her small midwestern college, and that year, for whatever reason, she began getting all kinds of student-based questions and concerns.

What do I do when a student who is a single parent has to miss class because of sick kid issues?  Do I treat her the same as a residential student?

I have a student with transgender issues and I don’t know how to support him.

My autistic student is struggling with the social issues involved in being in class.

And there were more–questions that came via emails, drop-in visitor questions, words floated around committee tables–a theme of ‘Help me; things are changing; I don’t know how to deal with this new and unique situation.’

So she and her assistant, Mindi, designed a whole new series of one-hour workshops.  They pulled together student panels for the first thirty minutes.  A group of single parents, say, might talk about their struggles; the assembled faculty would listen and ask questions.  During the second half hour, appropriate college personnel would talk about what they could offer in terms of help.

The message was always the same: We want to help our students succeed.  We are not going to dumb it down for anyone, but we do want to work with unique situations.

The session on helping students with high functioning autism featured videotaped interviews, so the students wouldn’t have to deal with the stress of face to face questions in an intimidating room full of faculty.

She and Mindi offered the sessions every two weeks, and the series proved to be popular and helpful.

One day, Lilly, who was an advisor and the military veterans officer on campus, came to see her.

“Can you do a session on working with returning veterans in the classroom?” Lilly asked.

She looked at her young colleague, perplexed.  “You know,” she said, “in all the comments, complaints, and discussions, never once has anyone brought up the issue of student veterans.”

“I know,” said Lilly.  “That’s because they won’t complain.  They’ll vote with their feet.”

Lilly arranged for her to meet with three of the students vets, three young men, all of whom had served in Afghanistan.  Joe was the oldest, sturdy, short-haired, and intense. He came to the meeting in an Oxford shirt and tie; he talked about how grateful he was that the government still made college possible for returning veterans. He mentioned that he was on a timed mission; he had two kids at home.  His wife was a nurse, and she’d been carrying the breadwinner burden alone for too long.  Joe was anxious to get his degree and start teaching.

She’d seen Avery, probably mid-twenties, on campus quite often.  Tall, bearded, and usually smiling, he worked in the mail room several hours a week. They’d talked about the weather, the annoying construction on the college’s main roadways, and the high cost of textbooks.  She hadn’t realized Avery was a returning vet.

Derek looked like he was about 16; she was shocked to learn he’d been in the military six years.  He was a thin young man who ducked his head when he talked; he wore a long pony tail and had piercings in nose and ear.

Lesson number one, she thought to herself.  Lose the stereotype of what I think a returning veteran looks like.

Joe, Avery, and Derek sat across the table from her, thanked her politely for the invitation to talk, and folded their hands in front of them.  Lilly prompted them to share some of their thoughts and experiences, and, calling her ma’am and never interrupting each other, they did.

With all due respect, they said, they were on campus to learn, and things that interfered with that troubled them greatly.

Some classes couldn’t start on time because so many people were late.

Some students wasted class time complaining about the assignments, or about the busy pressures of their lives that kept them from completing the assignments.

Some students never came to class, and then, when they finally did show up, they expected their classmates to fill in all their blanks.

And it really bothered them, they said, when students were rude and disrespectful to instructors.  “Why do they put up with that?” asked Avery. “That is just not right.”

He talked about a class that began, every time, with a student berating the female instructor.  She stood, nodding and smiling, until the tirade ended; then, without response or remonstrance, she began the class.

“Did you talk to the instructor?” she asked.

“No,” said Avery.  “I didn’t want to disrespect her further.”

Discussion over, the young men stood up, shook her hand, thanked her for the upcoming opportunity to present a session for faculty, sidled around the table, and left quietly.

When the door closed behind them, she looked at Lilly.

“Wow,” she said.

Lilly nodded. “A couple of things,” she said.  “Did you notice they all sat facing the door?  Returning veterans find it very hard to sit with their backs to a door–it goes against all their training. And Avery wound up dropping that class.  He couldn’t stand listening to the tirades; he didn’t like the disrespect.”


They set up the returning veterans panel for the following Thursday during common time; the room was full.  Lilly introduced Joe, Avery, and Derek, and they talked about their experiences on campus.  They told the faculty they were there for a purpose, and they–the vets–were counting on the faculty to help them achieve their goals.

The young men were serious, polite, and determined.  They talked a little bit about how their experiences had changed them, about their discomfort sitting with their backs to the entry.  They were alarmed by loud noises.  Derek told a funny story about how he’d reacted when a trolley of tables had fallen in the hallway outside his classroom; he went into full military reaction, he said, commanding his classmates to get under their desks while he went outside to investigate.  The instructor had been startled, but after class, they talked it through; then, they understood each other better.

There was a question and answer period. She grimaced when Dillman, notable for his lack of social finesse, stood up and asked, “So, man.  What was it like over there?”

The young men paused and looked at each other, and then Joe answered on all their behalves.  “It was hot,” he said.  “Really, really hot.”  They went on to the next question, quickly.

At the end of the student session, a literature professor stood up and thanked them–thanked them for their service, thanked them for their time.  She wished, she said, that every one of her classes was filled with returning vets–with students who were sober and serious and cared so much about their learning. It seemed a signal for applause; the group stood up to take a break; they swarmed the students, shaking their hands, patting backs, before heading to the restrooms or the Keurig.

She stepped outside into the quiet hallway; Lilly was placing her handouts and papers on the table, ready to guide the rest of the session.  The three student veterans huddled down the hallway, sixty feet away.  They were talking intensely; finally Derek nodded.  He looked over, gave a little wave, and started toward her.

The other two pulled book-bags up over their shoulders, looked around, and walked away.  She had the distinct impression that Derek had drawn the short straw.

She smiled as he approached, but his face was knotted in concern.  “Can you tell her,” he said, without preamble, “that that’s NOT what she wants?”

“I’m sorry?” she asked, confused.

“That instructor,” he said, “the one who said she wished she had a whole room full of us, that every class was full of returning veterans? Can you tell her that she doesn’t want that?”

“I…” she said, and she looked at him a little helplessly.

“Think,” Derek said gently.  “Think how we learned to be the way we are.  Isn’t it better to have a bunch of clueless kids who’ve never been to war?”

She opened her mouth, but once again, words escaped her.  She raised one hand to do something–gesture, touch his arm, maybe try to wipe something sticky and indelible away.

He smiled and ducked his head.  “Thank you, ma’am,” he said.  “This was a wonderful opportunity.”

Derek hefted his book-bag over his shoulder, looked behind him, then walked away.  She watched him for a moment, then went to help Lilly pass her handouts to instructors.


Posted in response to the Daily Post’s prompt, I Pledge Allegiance:

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