“It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?”
By Jim Miller
Despite all our best efforts, things don’t always go the way we would hope. Sometimes we are stunned by the unexpected bad turn and left groping for answers.
Last week in my column about what motivated me to go on the March for California’s Future, I explained how the stories of my students inspired me:
As a community college professor at City College, I am particularly attuned to the painful realities of economic and racial inequality because I see the costs of poverty on a daily basis in the classroom and in the lives of my students who frequently struggle to balance the hard economics of survival and academic success. Sometimes the choice is between books and groceries or rent; in other instances, it’s between childcare and study time. The list goes on and on.
As yet another semester of my career comes to a close, I continue to be troubled and moved by the hard roads so many of my students have had to travel to succeed or even just to put themselves in a position to try. Whether it is the daughter of immigrant parents helping to run the family business while taking a full load of classes or the veteran with PTSD fighting to put his life back together and stay off the street, the small, unsung but heroic battles against the odds are too numerous to recount.
And as this year ended, I celebrated a good number of wonderful stories with my students who came from working class backgrounds and surmounted great obstacles, whether that was putting their life back on track after doing time in prison, suffering from some kind of abuse, or just gritting it out while working several jobs and burning the midnight oil to succeed in college. I’m seeing students who I’ve mentored head off to the UCs and Ivy League schools with scholarships and, in some cases, great academic accolades.
Those final hugs and affirmations are what make my colleagues and me sure that our work is worth doing, that we are privileged to have the opportunity to play a small part in bettering the lives of others. And if we are doing our jobs well, we do them with deep love.
So as we watch thousands of students come into and then depart from our lives we can only hope that we leave them with some new skill or trace of wisdom that will make them better able to succeed or maybe, if we are lucky, able to live with more meaning and purpose.
To do so, we need to connect.
In this way, against all the technocratic blather about tracking students to “learning outcomes” and jobs, teaching is still fundamentally about the practice of compassion, which, as Pema Chodron reminds us, only “becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Thus when we succeed, it enriches us and our students beyond words.
But we can’t always succeed at this, no matter how hard we try.
Sometimes the hard roads that our students travel get the best of them. Such was the case with the brilliant, shy young man who took his life at the very moment he was supposed to be turning in a final for one of my classes. Instead, he sent a group email to his instructors simply saying, “Goodbye.”
He was a smart, respectful young man who was always impeccably polite. In the classroom he was engaged and frequently smiled in the midst of our discussions. An “A” student who came to the office all the time, he never revealed much about himself. Circumspect, thoughtful, but guarded—no one would have suspected him to be in the grip of despair. As of this writing, nobody knows why he did it. But he did.
At some point a quiet desperation engulfed him, and he could not escape.
Of course, one blames oneself. Perhaps I should have known, should have seen something.
Having lived through some difficult times myself, I think again of Chodron saying, “Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.”
If only I could have connected, if only.
But, of course, I failed as we all do at some point in our lives when a real human connection, perhaps just the right conversation at the right time, might have done some great good, but just didn’t happen.
In the face of this, all those of us left behind can do is try to be present for others as a way to at least partially redeem the lost by making the world better for those who are still with us.
So to all my students and those of others who have triumphed against the odds and are now going on to pursue great things I say this: above all else, do good, be kind, and kiss the beautiful earth with every step you take along the way.