Graduation Story

Although I am not among those who say they “love” teaching, one thing I genuinely like about my particular academic job are the students. I have so many interesting and marvelous stories and vignettes about them that I have a near total ban on describing them here, on the theory that if I began to do so, I would have so much to say that I would never get anything else done. And there were many graduation stories this year, happy endings to harrowing paths. But my own students’ stories did not surprise me, as I knew them ahead of time.

This is not a story about any of my majors or graduate students, but of a student I taught four years ago in a freshman course which falls to me every once in a while. And I have political reasons to find stories of striving and success like this one hackneyed and contrived, and I am afraid that by telling them I may be Affirming The System or attributing more good to the efforts of the university than we deserve. Yet I know at the same time that entertaining these wry thoughts is a luxury I may be able to afford and some cannot.

In my section was a young man from New Orleans East on a football scholarship, whose legal name was not [Edward or Theodore], nor even [Ed or Ted], but “Teddy.” He wanted this name translated into Spanish on the first day, and I was glad it at least had a direct translation: Lalito. “It is not a very grownup name in Spanish,” I warned. “But is it my name?” “Yes.” “That is fine, then. Call me that.”

Sitting at his desk Lalito looked like anyone else, but when I found myself standing next to him in line at the bookstore, I realized he was almost larger than life. A Rodin bronze walked among us. “You really are a football player, aren’t you?” “Yes.”

Experience has borne out my prejudice, according to which one cannot expect a great deal academically from football players, but Lalito did well. At the beginning I thought it was because we were covering material he had seen in high school, but when he remained strong after the halfway point in the term I realized he was studying.

One of the exercises on the final examination involved writing a short composition using certain structures which would force the use of tenses other than the present, and the formation of somewhat complex ideas and sentences: “I know that…”, “I plan to…”, “I believe…”. Lalito wrote in part:

I know that playing college football does not necessarily mean I will be drafted into the NFL, and even if I were, I could not play in the NFL forever. Therefore I will not get so caught up in football that I do not do well in school. I believe I can implement this plan without losing my athletic scholarship. I would like to graduate with two majors and good grades, so that I can work toward a professional degree later on, if I should so choose.

After that I saw Lalito around on campus occasionally, and we waved and smiled, but I did not keep close track of the football team, or of the years. As this spring’s graduation ceremony progressed through disciplines in which I knew no one, I took to examining peoples’ shoes.

Then I realized that a very tall student was approaching the podium and heard the Dean saying, “Graduating cum laude in [Sociology] and [Economics] … Lalito! And I saw the photographer snap his picture as he was handed his diploma, looking grownup and grave. And he was no longer really my student, but I found myself clapping wildly.


6 thoughts on “Graduation Story

  1. Basically, my university is a big big football university, but some of my favorite students have been been football students, for exactly this reason. It’s like they run the full range of student possibilities, just like students more generally. Some seem are lazy, some are dumb, some are dumb and lazy…and others are just a pleasure to be around; they work hard, they study, they are interested in ideas, they want to do well.

  2. I once mentored a football player/student of mine at a HUGE football school through a change of major (to my discipline) and a Master’s degree! It’s one of my favorite memories. We started talking when I was paid as a graduate student to tutor him and some of the others so they could survive a sociology course they weren’t expected to pass. It turned out that he didn’t need “special help.” He just needed to know it was an option to see himself as something more than a “piece of meat” (his words in one of our early conversations). This past semester, I helped a freshman basketball player clear the same hurdle at a different school. And a Latino soccer player called me yesterday with a request to meet for coffee and talk about his future.

    You’re right, PZ. It’s veeeery satisfying.

  3. I love this story! One of the most gratifying (and humbling) things about this job is being witness to the growth and achievements of people, especially young people, whether we play a small or a large role in that path. I wish I had been half as conscious about my goals for my future at his age as he was when he wrote that paper.

  4. “More than a piece of meat” – that’s a good way to put it.

    On goals and possibilities – I envy some of the students as well, because they have not been taught to limit themselves so severely as I was. I was utterly conscious of the “actual” situation and of what I must do. I would write amusing sentences in which I claimed I would be an astronaut, and I understood the theory of what one could and should do, but I had long since been convinced that was for other, perhaps incredibly talented people, not for me, in whom higher ambitions were merely arrogant. To do more would be to hurt my mother and my mission in life was to find ways to avoid augmenting her pain. I said this:

    “I know that as a woman, the best job I can aspire to is receptionist. I realize that a more prestigious choice would be housewife, but I have seen what that did to my mother. I am grateful that my aunt is supporting my education. In this way, I am able to ensure that I will be prepared for a receptionist job, and not be forced into a housewife job. I am, furthermore, able while getting my education, to avoid beginning my receptionist job for longer than my aunt was able to avoid beginning hers. For this I am also grateful.”

    Most of my students would never dream of being that directionless – or could not afford to submit to that kind of sexism which I think was a perverse luxury of the privileged classes – not once they have made it to college, as so many have done by the skin of their teeth. This is the part of it that impresses me.

  5. Related: I used to live in a neighborhood with a lot of kids who went to the non-best New Orleans public schools and were sure they were not getting the academic preparation they needed to be awarded college scholarships. Several of them were trying for decent grades, but practicing their Hoop Dreams style sports with the idea that an athletic scholarship might be more attainable. Really good shots were “scholarship shots.” One of them as he got older, got to be really good at school, though. The neighbors became very interested, and started watching his progress for that. “Look at him … he’s not thinking about that athletic scholarship any more … this is going to be strictly on academics, now!”

  6. My notes for posterity on this though: I am reticent to talk about students because so many who do, have so much ego of their own involved in it – inappropriately in my view – and seem sometimes to appropriate these students’ lives and experiences as their own to a greater degree than I’m comfortable with.

    I also don’t like the implications of hierarchy that can inhere in the stories about how ‘they improved, I helped,’ or ‘they grew up, I already grew up’ and so on … for their sake *and* mine (I don’t want to have to be in stasis, either). I don’t see teaching as me saving people, but as some form of collaboration, and that is why I always say I do not like teaching, because so many of the people who say so, say so because what they really like is their own authority, even when it is ‘progressive’ authority. I find ‘progressive’ authority *so* intrusive and manipulative.

    I really don’t feel anything I’ve ever done for students is extroardinary or superhuman or out of the common run of things and I do not want savior credit for it but on the other hand – I have gone out of my way to save a few professors, programs, administrators, and so on, and did give more than it was my job to do, and did have a *large* hand in saving them, and I’d like credit for *that*.

    I am not talking to or about anyone in particular here – but an amalgam of conversations and experiences over the years.

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