Students and My Trip to the ICU!

“Dad! DAD! Daaaaaaad. . . ”

As I lay in my bed in the CVICU last week, I could not sleep. Partly because of the medicine I was on for my pneumonia, but also because the screams from another room, one which I could not see, penetrated the air. At various times throughout the night, I heard a man scream out for his dad in successively louder then dwindling tones. He would begin with a semi-scream, move to a loud plea, then gasp as the oscillating “a”s led to the fretful conclusion of the last entreaty to his invisible dad.

Each time he called, I pictured the man standing on one side of a field looking at his dad on the other side, possibly with his back turned. Why did I envision this? I have to think this image came to my mind (what was in the man’s mind, I’ll never know) because of what I have seen in movies and TV. When he called, it felt like the man, rather than following his dad, wanted his dad to stop because something sinister and harmful waited for him across the field. At other points, he would curse and warn his dad not to do something.

What was going on? Was the man dying? Was he in withdrawals? I don’t know, and like everything else, I will never know. However, I will know that the way he burst out in cries for his dad had an impact on me that night. It made me think about how much we ultimately don’t know when it comes to that fateful date we all must keep at the end of our lives. We have things that help us confront and understand that seminal moment, but we will never truly know what to expect until it occurs to us.

While that was one aspect of my unexpected hospital visit, another reminded me of why I love to teach. When I finally made it to a room, I had a someone who checked my vitals and did small things around the room. I do not know the correct term for this person’s job, but she was not a nurse or an RN. Right before shift change, I asked her if I would see her that night. This woman, I would assume not even to her mid-twenties yet, said that she wouldn’t be back that night. However, she told me had a shift at the hospital’s deli the next day, one at a local restaurant on Saturday, and school work to complete. I lay there, amazed, at the dedication of this woman.

When I was her age, I struggled, because of my own tendencies, in undergraduate work. I had, at that point, nothing that really motivated me or drove me to succeed. For her, though, something drives her and makes her work hard to achieve what she wants. When I asked the nurse, after shift changes, about her, she told me the woman was amazing in her drive and dedication to work and complete school, thus reinforcing the image that had already started to formulate in my mind about this individual. As teachers, we need to support that drive and foster it in any way we know how. I wonder if her teachers know that this woman works three jobs and attends school.

I say all of this to note that we, as teachers, need to continually keep in mind the lives of our students. That does not mean that we should, or need to, know everything about their personal lives. However, we need to know something about them. I do not know anything about the man in the other room who continually screamed for his dad. I know a little more about the woman who took my vitals, but not much. What I do know, though, is that no matter how much we want our course to be a student’s sole focus, that is not humanely possible at times.

In English classes, we have an opportunity to get to know students better than possibly any other teacher in a student’s first year or two of college. This arises because of the small classes, typically 25-30 students in courses that I teach. That does not mean that I will have the chance to get to know every student, far from it. The street to communication is a two-way street of course. What it does mean, though, is that I have the space to interact with these students as freshman and sophomores (generally) on a more personal level than professors do who teach courses with 150-200 students in a lecture setting.

For me, the need to “get to know” students becomes even more important in that first year of college when a student will either sink or swim in his or her new environment. Composition courses allow us, as teachers, to  interact with students through their writing, spaces where they share information about who they are: hopes, fears, dreams, etc. It is here that we can guide students and communicate with them on a more personal level than we could if we taught Chemistry 101 because we see, through discussions, conferences, and papers, the student and who he or she is as an individual. I do not want to insulate that other professors cannot see these aspects as well; I just want to note that English courses provide a unique space for this to occur.

What are your thoughts on this topic? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

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