Tuesday was the first day that I was required to work at the University’s summer orientation program for new students. In the afternoon, we help students put together their first-year schedules. As an academic advisor, this is my job and about 85% of the time I love it. Orientation is a different beast on multiple levels. First, the students are overwhelmed and in a post-lunch food coma. Second, the room is very warm, thus adding to the sleepiness. Third and most challenging, the range of student experiences, preparation, attitude, and willingness to listen is drastic. In 60 minutes, I advised 1. an Honors College student who had enough AP credits to make her a sophomore; 2. a young man who was pre-enrolled in all of his courses and all of them were right (!); and 3. a young woman who was required by the University to take developmental writing and math, yet who was in complete denial about her ability to handle college-level Chemistry and fought us on her schedule. I do not offer this as complaint. I can’t stand whiners. I offer it as context for the layered complexity of advising work and the challenge of dealing with unknowns. At summer orientation, you never know what is going to walk in the door and end up sitting across from you. For me, this is both stimulating and a little overwhelming.
I came home on the overwhelmed side. I just could not understand (or accept) how in 2013 a student graduated from high school not being able to do math or write at a pre-college level. What do students learn in high school? What don’t they learn? Whose responsibility is it to teach them? Why don’t students take more ownership of their experiences? How can young people the same age, from the same state, in the same year, come to college at completely different levels? What were the social, economic, political, racial, and geographic factors that impacted their experiences, their level of exposure to higher education?
I felt sad. Sad for my student, that she has such a hard climb ahead of her. And a little sad for and disappointed in myself because I am not sure that in our 20 minute interaction, all that much was accomplished. How can one or two interactions with me and my colleagues possibly undo all that she has learned (or not) in the last 18 years?
After dinner, I took L to his baseball game. In my recent efforts to spend less time on Facebook and on my phone, I brought along a magazine that I then proceeded to leave on the front seat of my car. Instead of feeling sorry for myself for forgetting my magazine and about my self-imposed Facebook hiatus, I sat and listened. Because I wasn’t distracting myself with technology, I was able to really see all the things that were happening around me. I didn’t just look at them with my eyes, I felt them with my mind, my heart, my soul. At an elementary school baseball field, in a medium sized MidWestern, University town, I observed…
A man in a wheelchair arrived to the game with his two sons. The boys were on scooters a few feet in front of him. Before they ran out to meet their teammates, the dad called them over, gave them their hats, wiped his shirt with his tongue and cleaned smudges off their faces. It was such a tender moment of kind parenting.
Four sets of grandparents there to cheer on their grandchildren. They were all married. They were holding hands. One of the sets of grandparents lives with the parents of one of my son’s teammates. The way they laughed together, the knowing way they touched each others’ arms, hands, faces, was so moving to me.
There was also a bi-racial couple there; their older son was on the other team. When the dad arrived to the game, the younger boy shouted, “Dad!” And then bolted off his mom’s lap and ran full speed to meet him. Then the Dad went over to the bench and said hi to every kid on his son’s team. Every one. Then he greeted all the parents with a huge smile, handshake, pat on the back. And he was so…happy. You could not see this man and not smile yourself.
And, on the other team, there was a young boy with Down Syndrome. I will confess that when I saw him and his mother approach the field, I was nervous. With so much talk about bullying and kids being cruel to other kids, I was nervous. Would anyone on my son’s team, or my own son, say something mean or inappropriate? What would the behavior and attitude of the coaches be? His coaches and teammates did not treat him different than any other player. He participated fully in every part of the game. What a gift it was to watch this young man play. And what a gift it was to the young players out there- and to me- that his teammates and coaches treated him with the dignity and respect that he deserves.
All of this sounds like a scene from a bad Hallmark movie. But, it’s true. Perhaps the diverse community that I witnessed has nothing to do with my experience earlier that day. Maybe though, it has everything to do with it. As a person of faith, I believe that the Spirit was tapping me on the shoulder and giving me the grace to see with new, grateful eyes. I was sitting there thinking, “Wow. This is so cool! THIS is where I choose to live and work. All of these wonderful students, people, families, communities, and possibilities are right here. Right in front of my eyes.”
If I had been on my phone or reading, I would have missed all the good things and people that were happening on the baseball field. Earlier that day, I was focused on the wrong things in my interactions with my student and I missed the point. The questions I need to ask are not about her and her past experience, which were beyond her control on some level. The better questions to ask are about me and how I could have seen the situation with different eyes. What could I have done differently? Could I have been a stronger touchstone for this young woman? Although her facade said one thing, underneath she was probably very overwhelmed and confused.
I am going to work to see my students with new eyes. I don’t have to go to orientation. I get to meet a new group of students and help them. I may not be able to change the system they came from, but I can help them navigate the one they are entering.
Each day is a chance to see with new eyes. What are the areas of your life and work that need a new perspective? What will you do today, tomorrow, next week to see with new and grateful eyes?