Thursday, May 15, 2003

In grad school I was a Teaching Assistant, which meant that I supervised the Biology 102 lab a couple hours a week, and that I led a Discussion Group (DG) 3 days a week. The PhD profs would give the students their lectures 2 or 3 days a week, the students then had a lab and a DG on the topic.

I worked very hard preparing my DG materials. I'd go over the topic's more difficult concepts, then we'd do Q & A. I tested them at regular intervals and kept a grade book on their scores.

Most of the students then were the "normal" 19-to-21-year-olds. The course was for non-majors. So I'd look out on this roomful of bored or sleeping students and know that this was all the biology they'd probably ever get. I felt a great obligation to teach them as much as I could. Most of them seemed to feel a great obligation to resist learning.

One semester I had a 50-something "displaced homemaker" in one of my groups. I felt immediate empathy for her. The first day of class she arrived in a bright-colored double-knit pantsuit, nylons and low pumps, and her gray hair was coifed and sprayed into spun-sugar rigidity. She was nervous and timid, and she blanched at some of the students' language--but she was my best student.

I had been where she was, a brand-new college student older than "the norm." I knew intimately her fear of appearing stupid, her doubts about her ability to succeed in college, and the middle-aged semi-fear of "these young people," even though I'd only been 25 when I started college.

I'd also taken the friend of a friend, literally by her shaking hand, and walked her into the Admission Officer's office (he happened to be a neighbor of mine, but by then, my junior year, I wasn't afraid of Admin anyway), and sat with her while she asked him how to apply, whether there were grants, loans, or scholarships she could try for, and whether he thought she could make it through college. (Does an Admissions officer ever say No to that question?) She was a home-salon hairdresser, a single mom, and she wanted more, for herself and for her kids. Her voice vibrated with fear, and though it steadied during the conversation, she never lost her fear, and she still hadn't applied for college when I graduated and left that town.

Years later I saw the movie "Educating Rita." The single shot that still sears my memory is when Rita went to that ivy-covered Administration Building to apply for admission. She stood at the bottom of those stone steps, took a deep breath, patted her lacquered spun-sugar hair (she was a hairdresser too, a lower-class Briton with a savagely chauvinistic husband, and parents who simply couldn't understand her yearning for education), and started up the steps. The lines of her body were tense and crooked with the weight of her entire life pressing down on her--everyone she knew telling her in words, action and attitude that "her sort" didn't go to college.

They shot the climb, brilliantly, from behind Rita, and it was Julie Walters' genius that her whole body, her whole being, told you what a heart-breaking act of courage she was performing. I cried at that scene, for joy and pride in Rita's bravery.

Anyway, my 50-something student's semester resembled Rita's remarkable journey. The first sign was when she started actually discussing biology in our discussion group. Sometimes she even disagreed out loud with the other students.

Then she showed up one morning with a new 'do: short, combed, and left to riffle freely in the air.

By the end of the semester, she was wearing jeans and sweatshirts and sneakers to class.

The strain had relaxed out of her face, and she laughed and teased along with the other students. Of course she got an A, that was never a question. And this former "displaced homemaker" had stepped whole-heartedly into the stream of life.

I felt honored to have witnessed the metamorphosis.

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