I have been teaching at the college level for more than a decade. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me on so many levels. And yet, I am back wondering again, as I have been over the past couple of years, just how long I will continue in this role given the accelerating changes I am seeing in the students who are showing up before me.
Over the years, I have witnessed a noticeable decrease in attention. I have watched as they have grown increasingly sleep deprived. I have born witness to the growing attitude that they would rather be elsewhere, and doing other things; mainly, and by their own admission, wanting to get back into bed, back to a screen, and more often than not, both. I have felt and heard of their lack of interest and enthusiasm for the college experience. I have observed in the halls during the times between classes how they are more interested in being bent over a device than they are in hanging out with friends, or taking a moment for themselves.
While all of this has been, rightly so, cause for much concern, truly it pales in comparison to what I have been up against in one of my classes this semester. That being behavior that would be more “appropriate” to middle school (if that case can even be made), than it is to college seniors. I have been required daily to handle such things as students talking when another is talking. Students who are more interested in their side conversations than they are in paying attention to what is being taught. Along with students who regularly miss class, and come late without a thought to check in with me, or explain why.
As appalling as all of this has been, it gets worse. Much, much worse. A core group of students from this particularly difficult class have been regularly smirking and nudging each other, quite openly I might add, over another student in class whose very way of being they have deemed worthy of their ridicule. Their disdain and disregard for this student’s basic worth and humanness has been ongoing. Their complete lack of awareness has been chilling; right down to the fact that they do not even possess the common sense and the decency to know that if they are making a choice to demean another, they should at the very least be making attempts to hide what they are doing. That at least would be a step up for it would demonstrate that they knew what they were doing was wrong. But no such thing has been in evidence.
Despite a number of interventions on my part, this has continued.
And so last week, when it occurred again, I asked the student who was being targeted if he would do me a favor and get something from my car. I did this so that I could speak to the class without him being present. and therefore potentially, humiliated. Once he was gone, something inside of me erupted with such force that I had to pace the room and pause regularly to keep up with the intensity of what was moving through me. I remember very little of the specifics of what I said, but what I do remember was the poignancy of my hand over my heart and the message: We belong to one another. And what is being done here is unconscionable, and will not continue.
In this time of terrible and caustic lack of basic human decency and civility toward one another, whether in the real world or the virtual one, it has trickled down and is overtaking our children. What will become of us when there no longer exists a generation who has the basic foundations for how to respect another human being? A kind of respect that both includes and honors our differences. And one, by the way, that cannot be remediated through programs offered, but that must be lived, taught, and demonstrated in our homes and in our communities.
Do you know what the kicker is? The student who was being targeted, when I took him into the hall to ask him if he would do me a favor, worriedly looked at me and said, “Did I do something wrong? Am I in trouble?” I can barely think on this as the injustice around the person being harmed being the very same one wondering whether or not they have done something wrong, scrapes at me so deeply as to be almost unbearable.
Postscript: Not one of the students, directly or indirectly, involved in making fun of this student has yet to step forward. I find this to be perhaps the most troubling of all. For as human beings we are sure to make many, many mistakes with one another. We can absolutely count on that. Therefore, the true reveal of our character and mettle is born out of and demonstrates itself in our ability to self-correct when confronted with the truth of what we are doing. To re-do, re-work, and make repair for the mistakes and the atrocities we create with one another.
And yet, in this case, not one has stepped forward. Not one.
(Thank you to Vici for nudging me along on this one.)