A student slouches across my desk from me. He is one of my students, and I haven’t seen him in class for two weeks. Now it’s time for mid-term grades to go in, and he assures me that he’ll start coming to class again, and he’ll make up all of the work. “Please don’t give me an “F” for my mid-term grade – my parents will kill me!” he says, with a tear in his eye.
These are the questions I ask myself, as I try to determine the best course of action with this student. On one hand, the student might just need a nudge in the right direction, a little time to make that adjustment to college life. On the other hand, he needs to learn that there are consequences to his actions (or lack thereof, in this case), and that he is accountable for the choices he makes.
I am probably pretty soft as a teacher. At this moment, I am inclined to accept the excuse, and encourage the student to come to the rest of the class sessions and make up the missing work. The student has good potential – he could do “A” work if he applied himself. We are bound by academic honesty to give the grade the student earns for a final grade, but with so little of the grade in at mid-term, certainly there’s a little wiggle room. Maybe we could split the difference with a “C.” These thoughts also run through my mind.
I picture two scenarios – one is the student finally making the adjustment, and turning things around. He becomes an honor roll student, and twenty years down the road, talks about those good years at Creighton and that computer science teacher that hung in there and gave him a break when he really needed it. The other scenario is the student walking out of my office, smirking, and saying “sucker!” under his breath. This scenario shows him bouncing from one lenient person to another through life, refining his teary-eyed routine into a well-polished performance with a guaranteed result.
Looking at these two scenarios, one thing becomes painfully clear: both have very little to do with the student, per se, and very much to do with me and my ego. In the former, my ego gets stroked by being the good guy that made a difference in the life of a student. In the latter, my ego gets kicked in the chops by being the naïve sucker who accepts a lame excuse to enable a student to keep playing games. Neither scenario is focused on the student.
In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius encourages spiritual directors to treat each person as an individual, to help their retreatants discern what God has in store for their lives. Though it’s difficult to always treat a classroom of 30 students as individuals, it is not so difficult to do so for that one student sitting in my office.
Jesus knew how to read the hearts of people He met in His ministry. To do so, I am convinced that He engaged them in conversation. He did not simply talk to them or with them. He was sympathetic (sym- is “with, or together,” -pathetic is “affecting or moving the feelings”). I am also convinced that mercy can only be authentically meted out when one is sympathetic – when one walks alongside another. This sympathy does not develop quickly – it takes time and a few well-directed questions.
Back to my slouching student. I pour him some coffee. I ask him about what it is exactly that he came to Creighton to find. He’s shocked. “Why do you want to know that?” he asks. His answer will lead to another question. Another answer, another question. Pretty soon we’re both on the same side of the desk.
Sooner or later, we’ll get around to talking about that mid-term grade. By that time, we’ll both already know the solution, because we walked there on the same path.
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