Friday, April 9, 2021

Last Call

Have you ever been at a bar at last call, when they turn on the lights and what was a magical place in the darkness transforms into a dirty, tacky room that you would not have entered if you had seen it this way at the beginning? I think that is where our students are in this year of pandemic teaching and learning.

Yesterday, at the end of class, I told my students that I was there for them, I saw them and asked what I could do to help them get to the finish line this semester. We had about four minutes of class time left, and I wanted to acknowledge that our once-a-week class had two boxes left to check off before the semester ended. A student raised her small yellow emoji hand and asked, “where can I find the motivation to move forward? I seem to have lost it just when I need it.” There was a lot of nodding. Cameras that had been off for the past hour came back on. I sighed, took a deep breath, summoned my inner Kate McKinnon, and paraphrased her entirely accurate statement on the Dec. 20, 2020 episode of Saturday Night Live, "It's like the light at the end of the tunnel has shown us how stinky and bad the tunnel is." There is so much truth in this. Seeing what we have been through as we near the end of it is an exhausting place to be stuck as finals approach.

So, I tried to find something that might re-ignite motivation. I had to admit that the semester ending wasn’t enough of an incentive to get to the end of it. I had to also admit that there is no easy answer to that question except maybe, while it seems like a time where things don’t matter and that the pandemic blip will explain any so-so grades, the truth is that the pandemic excuse will have a pretty short half-life. So, I told them it does matter. The grades will start to matter; the approach they take to getting them will matter more, and most important of all: they matter. We have not given up on making sure they learn because their learning-even under these strange circumstances-will always be what matters.
I asked them to find a morsel of normalcy every day from now until exams end and make a list of these things. I showed them the flowers I bought at Trader Joes in cheerful shades of yellow, coral and orange and urged them to find something beautiful to look at when they are down. Spring is exactly the right time of year to see these things changing daily. I suggested going to the ocean (but no swimming yet, it is still cold here in Massachusetts!) and understanding in its vastness that they should, occasionally, feel that they can be small and not in control and that is okay. But I also told them that nothing I say is a one size fits all pep talk: flowers and water will not solve all problems and that my advice was not meant in any way to diminish their very real feelings of despair. I offered to meet individually with anyone who wanted a tailored pep talk. I reminded them about the counseling center and our Dean of Students office.

But truly, I had no answer that might find lost motivation. I am hoping it is merely misplaced and that time, light, flowers, waves, vaccines and kindness will help us find it.
In the meantime, I will pull out my virtual pom-poms, cheer students towards the goal and raise my glass to the day that we can consider this awful and now illuminated tunnel completely behind us.

(Elizabeth Stillman - Guest Blogger)

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