A Night of Lessons

Friday night after hours of reading student essays, I took one more from the pile and began reading. By the time I finished the four pages of rough draft I had a feeling it was plagiarized. A quick search for one sentence on Google brought up the webpage that constituted the entire paper. I fired off a curt email telling the student it was incumbent upon her to persuade me why she had not just failed the course. Admittedly, I resented the forty-five minutes I had wasted reading the draft and commenting on it—and I wanted to impress upon her the seriousness of her mistake. I figured she would respond with contrition and she did, around midnight. Because I was up checking on the clanging woodstove, I saw her reply and even though it was nigh on one a.m. I decided to respond and set her mind to ease. She apologized and predictably explained the stress she felt with four papers due plus a job and balancing all the demands. Then she noted how she was loathe to disappoint me because I had expressed such excitement over her topic. She said she couldn’t bear to let me down and yet she had managed to do just that.

I know the experience well—trying so hard not to disappoint that it happens tenfold. I also know had I been in her situation, I would tossed and turned all night fretting about whether I had just failed my first college course before the semester had even ended. Oskar Schindler said the power is in the pardon—that our capacity to grant pardon is the ultimate power so I thought, why allow her to suffer through a long night worrying. Instead, I typed a reply two fingers at a time on my ipad as I sat in bed. This is what I wrote:


I appreciate your candor and your acknowledgment that I cannot get the time I spent on your paper back. I spend so many hours reading and responding to student work, time I could be doing other things like playing my sorely untouched banjo that it really bothers me when that time is wasted. Some of it will be wasted commenting so extensively on work a student cares less about than I do yet as I’ve said in class, I can’t do it differently. My standards do not allow it. But as a wise therapist once pointed out many years ago, my students are under no obligation to adhere to my high standards. They are mine, not someone else’s.

That said, I want to respond to what you wrote about being overwhelmed and not wanting to disappoint me by telling me you couldn’t get the draft done. I understand where you are at. I spent more years than you have been alive trying desperately not to disappoint people, especially those I respected. I will let you in on a truth: it’s not a matter of IF we will disappoint others ( especially those we care about); it is a question of WHEN. And the sooner we come to terms with that, the better. I am the first to admit how much I dislike disappointing people but here’s what I learned, like you, the hard way: when I tried to hide my own overwhelmedness and appear to have my act all together, I was afraid to ask for help, so I kept frantically pedaling and I ended up disappointing far more people than I could have ever imagined in one fell swoop. I made a far bigger mess than you just did. I learned in a way so anguishing I would wish it on no one and yet I would not undo it now because I learned unequivocally to ask for help. That’s why there is the bolded, Italicized paragraph in the syllabus exhorting students such as you to come talk to me if you experience panic, procrastination, depression or anything else that impedes your work. Yet every year a student inevitably does not do that and takes the route you took instead.

Whatever else you learn from this class and this experience, I hope, dare say I pray, you learn to ask for help, to realize there is no shame in being human and overwhelmed by too many assignments, work, expectations or whatever else comes your way. Learning to recognize and acknowledge your limits is perhaps the most important achievement. Remember that when you acknowledge your limits, you tacitly give others the permission to do the same. Remember as well that your limits are as much a part of who you are as your talents, your energy, your potential. Honor your limits as much as you honor your potential. Trust me on this. I am not the sort of instructor who has vast stores of knowledge about an academic field that I can transmit through lectures but I have learned the hard way a great deal about life, about the importance of being authentic and truthful even when it is terrifying. Especially when it is terrifying.

Telling an instructor or professor or a boss or a parent or anyone else you are overwhelmed, that you are trying to meet all the demands but you can’t, not in this moment, is a brave and compassionate thing to do because it invites the person you tell to meet you with compassion. Not every person will. There may be a faculty member or an employer who says “too bad, suck it up and figure it out,” but that kind of response in turn will invite you to dig deep into your own truth. If you cannot suck it up and get it done, you will know. And you will also know that all response is autobiographical. The person who meets your honest request for help without compassion lacks compassion. We cannot extend to others what we cannot give to ourselves. And that person is more in need of light than you.

Most often though, at least in my experience, compassion will rise to meet you. It is not my desire to see the work you’ve done thus far in the course go to waste. It is my intention to impress upon you the seriousness of your actions. You did not commit a crime so much as you violated a steadfast rule about academic honesty. Okay, yes, you did steal someone else’s words and stealing is a crime but in this context the authors of the website suffer no harm so relieve yourself of the burden of thinking what you did is a crime. It is a mistake but if you learn from it and acknowledge as you have just done, then you transform it into a lesson and lessons are good. Plagiarism is not good but learning to ask for help is what’s good here.

What I would like to happen to resolve this is for you to give some thought to how you wish to proceed. Apparently you have other big projects concurrently due and limited time in which to complete your assignments. Part of college is learning where and how to divvy up the finite resources of your energy. I believe you do care deeply about the world, and improving it, helping to heal it through environmental education. Only you can decide which assignments to prioritize. If it is enough to get a passing grade you can write a paper that will accomplish that. Maybe later you will have more time to craft a paper that manifests your full potential. Or you can decide to compromise the quality of another assignment. That is up to you. If you wish remain in this course and pass it, you have until December 9, like everyone else, to hand in a final draft. Bear in mind though, not one word is to be plagiarized. If that happens, it will not just be failure of the course; I will report it to the dean.

In ten years no one will care what grade you got in ITW. It won’t matter so don’t stress yourself out too much if you just need to write something adequate. What will matter in ten years is that you hold onto your passion for healing the world, that you remain committed to offering your light and your gifts in a way that honors your limits and your fullest potential. I will think no less of you if you decide you just don’t have the time to write the best research essay you are capable of writing as long as you just say so. And if you decide you want to go for the best work you can do because you want to research environmental education and write something that matters, I will support you in that effort every way I can.

All I ask is that you save this email. Re-read it any time you are afraid to disappoint someone and are thus tempted to ignore or hide your limitations. Re-read it in ten years and send me an email and let me know if the lesson stuck.


In the end it was I who had a sleepless night but eventually I will sleep and when I do I will rest well knowing ten years after I disappointed so many people, most of all myself, the lesson stuck enough to pass it along. Dayenu.

A Dayenu Day in Class

I teach three courses this semester, all first year students, in their first semester of college. If any of them ever “Google” me and find this blog post, I hope none will feel I have written about them behind their backs—but rather I have lifted them up with love.

My students frequently leave the classroom—ostensibly to use the bathroom though when I ask later,  they acknowledge mostly they get up to stretch—because it’s too hard to sit still. Just as frequently a student will look at a cell phone in class or whisper to another while someone else speaks. Actually, it’s rare for a student in any of my classes to speak without my prodding. I pull so many teeth I ought to have a degree in dentistry by now. Recalcitrant, taciturn, reticent, silent, fidgety. There is so little attentiveness in the room.

Monday, I get frustrated. One too many laptops open during class. Too many assignments not handed in. Too many disengaged students obviously bored, restless, uninterested. Walking my dog on Tuesday and I mutter and froth. In the middle of the night I wake to the sound of my own agitation, scribbling notes to call them to task on Wednesday.

Today, I devote each class to a conversation about all this. I name my frustration and I inquire earnestly: Do you leave the room during your other classes? Do you look at your cell phones? Do you refuse to use your words? 

Oh no, the students reply. We talk way more in here than any of our other classes. Kids get up ten times as often everywhere else. One student tells of a course where the students deliberately remain silent each class when the professor asks questions. Another tells me he and his friends play games on their phones while the professor lectures.

In my Love & Marriage class, students acknowledge how uncomfortable it is to speak to each other face to face. Too vulnerable. Too risky. Monday, we made a list of topics on the board that people avoid: grief, loss, feelings, money, religion, politics, past relationships, the future of their relationships, commitment, addiction, mental health. What’s left, I ask. What do you talk and text about? Daily routines and events.

I assign Brené Brown’s 2010 TEDx talk on vulnerability and ask the students to generate discussion questions in response. I write eight of their questions on the board and give them the choice to talk in pairs or quartets. They opt for the latter. Within a few minutes I can hear the conversations shift to lighter topics. In less than twenty minutes the room grows silent. They have exhausted their capacity to remain focused or perhaps they have expended their energy dodging intimacy.

They have told me children are shaped by their environment. They learn by observing parents. So I ask: If you and your generation struggle so getting beyond superficiality, if it’s uncomfortable to simply speak face to face, what will your children be like? They meet my question with silence but I can hear it register.

In my 2:00 class, I ask, Why are you here? A young woman says, Do you mean why are we here at school or why are we here—in life? I invite the students to answer both ways. Some do, most don’t. We discuss their expectations of college, how some students resent being told what to read, what to write, what to learn. I ask if they feel engaged in their education now, or previously. The answers vary but the first time all semester, the students grow animated, eager to talk aloud.

A students says, You are the only teacher who talks with us. The other teachers don’t know our names. This saddens me though I am grateful to be  the one who knows their names, who understands the importance of that. It is such a simple gesture but so potent. When two students whisper as another speaks, I remind them the one gift we can offer each other is our presence, our attentiveness. I ask that they give that to each other. I notice there are no more side conversations. I explain how it feels from my side of the desk when a student watches basketball highlights on a laptop while I show a video. My unadulterated choice of words shocks them. I acknowledge that’s it’s probably not what they intend but it’s how a teacher most likely reads it. All I can do is model authenticity and candor, vulnerability and the courage Brené Brown defines as telling one’s story wholeheartedly. I give them my real self in manageable bites. When I invite them to be real back, without judging where or who they are, learning happens. We teach each other. I have no illusions I will coax them into being better writers, more diligent readers, effective researchers, critical thinkers—but I harbor the possibility that listening with my whole heart may encourage them to do the same.

For that sliver of grace amidst restless shuffling—the struggle to live into the So what? of their lives pungent in the air—I am grateful.