The Old College Try: Things Taken For Granted


Today was a breakwall day.  You know those days where you feel like you’re like a breakwall surrounding a harbor continually being battered by the waves.  Today was one of those days in each of my sections.  Between an adult student’s lashing out in frustration in an extremely inappropriate manner at the end of class to a younger student’s unabashed refusal to see her role in the lack of progress in my course… it was a breakwall day.

After meeting after meeting, a 4:00pm lunch and a 1.5 hour commute home, and yet another meeting tonight, suffice to say, I found myself in a pretty rotten mood.   Thankfully, my gym is open 24/7 and instead of indulging in a little stress eating, I opted for a little stress-relieving circuit training.  And with a little pain came some gain.  The source of my frustration, in many ways, is what I take for granted.

I spent my teen years growing up in a single-parent household and we had to be… “creative” to make ends meet some times.  Life was not without drama or trauma.  But I was blessed with a mother who, despite the waves, found a relatively successful balance of knowing when to push and when to pull back, though perhaps pushing more than not.  Knowing that I had someone to answer to though informed my decisions and made a difference in forming my work ethic.  I also was blessed to have teachers in high school, and then college who would step in fill that same role.  People cared if I worked hard or not, and they let me know both when I eased up and when I achieved great things.

And while I’m not alone in this experience, I also need to remember my experience is not the same as everyone else’s.

I take for granted that someone would see the importance of working hard.  But not everyone does.  There is a type of learning disability that deals with part of the way the brain works, called executive functioning.  In simple terms, executive functioning is our brain’s ability to “connect the dots” when it comes to cause and effect situations.  Some people are born with this inability somewhat impaired resulting in a struggle to understand why certain effects happen, not realizing how their own actions helped contribute (directly or indirectly) to that specific result.  We go to school to train our brains, but even before grade school, we begin learning as babies from those with whom we live.  But what happens if we grew up in homes where our parents never played a strong role in our cognitive development?  Studies show that with vocabulary alone, children from families of educated, middle class backgrounds were exposed to over 50 million words by the age of four and yet, children of the same age from families below the poverty line were exposed to a mere 4 million words.  If they are bereft of communication, how are they being exposed to the relationships of cause and effect?  Who is there to teach them in the 5 years before grade school (and early interventionists would argue that this is a pivotal period of time to prevent noticeable developmental delays later on in primary and even secondary schooling)?

I’m not making excuses for poor behavior.  People who are 18 years old, and especially students who are nearly 10 years older than that, have been exposed to what is socially acceptable behavior both in and out of the classroom.  But, in some regards, I have to wonder if their social environments haven’t somehow had a negative impact on their abilities to really see the bigger picture, to connect the dots, and to understand how it is they’re actually impacting and getting in the way of their success?  Do I take this for granted?

Maybe I do.  My job, as I see it, is to continually fight to help them gain some glimpse, no matter how small, of that bigger picture.  My responsibility needs to be to hold that ground and help them see what the bigger picture is and to try to help them see how each action can either connect those dots or cause greater frustration.  Wednesday, when I see them again, I’m going to try to reestablish a dialogue.  They can curse me up and down again if they want, and that’s fine too.  Sometimes, waves will keep on being waves.  But I’m a thick-headed breakwall.   And for the few waves that get the idea, they can quiet move forward into the harbor and get the success they worked hard for.

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About fhelvie

I live in CT with my wife and two sons. I am also writing my doctoral dissertation, which is focused on the relationship between American literature and comic book superheroes. I have served as a panelist at a number of conferences discussing my research in comics, medieval literature, and pedagogy. Most recently, I had the good fortune to present at the New York Comic Con. In addition to my work in comics scholarship, I'm also a full-time professor of developmental English.
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