She really didn’t know…

One time, back in grad school, I was sitting in my office grading papers or something, and I got a phone call.  I forget the name of the office the person was calling from now, but it was the office that oversaw the program that gave kids Detroit kids a shot at attending the University of Michigan.

These kids were mostly African American, and they qualified for the program because they didn’t have the financial means to afford college themselves, but they had succeeded as high school students.  When they got to my Spanish class, they didn’t always mix with the mainstream students.  I didn’t have time to get to know any of my students very well, but I tried to make a point to reach out to the kids in this program because I hated HATED seeing them drop out after a few months.

The program that they were in was supposed to offer them some academic support and some coaching, but since the program was run by idiots, it seemed their academic support consisted entirely of requirements imposed on them:  what  classes they had to take, what GPA they had to maintain, what kind of offenses they could be expelled for.  That’s what I saw at least.

So I got this phone call in my office and the counselor–I guess that’s what we’d have to call her–called me up and wanted to ask me about some remarks I had written in the “remarks” section of the withdrawal form I had to sign for one of my students.  I said, sure, I’d be happy to talk about what I wrote, what office are you in?

The counselor choked for a second, and then said, “Ok… yes… we’ll do this in person then,” and told me she was in some office in Angel Hall.

So I put on my baseball hat and walked five minutes to Angel Hall.  Let’s “do this.”

This student of mine, I don’t remember her name now, but I remember she was bright and enthusiastic and quite beautiful.  She had come to my office and shed a few tears about how stressed out she was, how she was taking eighteen credits and she wasn’t sleeping or eating properly.  When I had talked to her before, I could see why she had been academically successful as a high school kid in Detroit; she had exactly one academic strategy, and it was brute force studying. They had her in a pre-med track, so besides Spanish she was taking a chemistry course, a writing course, and a couple classes to meet her full time requirement.

When I say “brute force studying,” I mean that I doubt she collaborated with a study group or went to her TAs or tutors to ask questions.  She was the kind of student that isolated herself, read and reread until she understood, did her homework to the exclusion of her health. Big emphasis on drilling short term memory recall.  It’s a very punishing, isolating way of studying.

Anyway, I had checked all the boxes and filled in all the information they requested, and in the “remarks” section I wrote that my student was over stressed, and that the program was pushing her too hard and giving her bad advice.

So when I got to the counselor’s office, I removed my hat and sat across from her on the other side of her desk, and first listened to her explain to me briefly what the program was about, and the requirements that their scholars must meet.  Then she explained to me that she could see that I was frustrated with the situation, but that this particular student really didn’t have a difficult course load, it was a standard freshman slate… “The only difficult class in her schedule is Spanish,” she said, and I’m sure it was a boilerplate line that they use on instructors, like ‘the only difficult class in X’s schedule is [whateverclassyour’reteaching].’

I looked at her for a moment and wondered what to say.  There were five things wrong with what she had just told me, but she seemed to be missing a big piece.

“Did she tell you,” I asked, “that she hasn’t been sleeping and that her hair is falling out?”

The counselor took a breath and held her eyeballs still so they wouldn’t roll.  Very professional.  She started to explain to me that all freshmen experience stress and repeated that the course load was nothing especially difficult.

Then I realized what the missing piece was.  She didn’t know.  The counselor didn’t know.  I had to be the one to tell her.  The counselor had never picked up on it.  The student never told her.  Then again, why would she?

“You know she’s five months pregnant, right?”  I looked down at the desk to give the counselor some privacy, let her squirm with her shame a bit.  No, actually the truth was that I really had nothing to say after that.

We took a moment, just a moment, and the counselor replied, hesitantly, “No, we did not know that.”

I assume that the matter had already been settled at that point, because the counselor didn’t review a file or write anything down.  I imagined the student had already packed up and left campus.   The counselor got right back on message and said, “still, we would appreciate it if you wouldn’t criticize the program, because generally the advice we give is good.”

I said,  sure, ok, and left.  As I walked out, I put my baseball cap back on and turned it forward.  There are no heroes in this story.

One thought on “She really didn’t know…

  1. JP, this sounds all too familiar. To assuage the liberal affirmative action types on campus and in the state, the flagship elite public trots out a shiny, happy face bureaucracy whose primary mission is to set up its constituents to fail. And given the widening income gaps in our society, this situation will probably only worsen. But to give Michigan the benefit of the doubt, do you know if this program exists to this day and has it been reformed? And by the way, this gets to a part of SLA studies I am frustrated by: the main professional interest groups’ inability to provide statistics on socio-economic status and other demographics of language students who persist versus those who drop out early.


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