On the first day of class, he sat in the last seat of the last row.
As I walked through the classroom to introduce myself and pass out the syllabus, I said, “You know, where a student sits in class tells me a lot,” in a teasing way with a smile on my face. He huffed back affably, but said nothing.
For the next several weeks, Tyler, as I’ll call him, returned to his chosen seat. I allow my students to have their laptops out during class, hoping they’ll use them to look up topics we are discussing or to take notes, and Tyler’s face was often hidden behind his as he slouched in his chair. I operate on an “innocent until proven guilty” model with laptops, you see, so I watched and waited.
Tyler submitted assignments on time, and they were generally well-written, but in class, crickets. Though he did participate in our small group activities (because it’s nearly impossible not to, one of the reasons I use small groups), he did not raise his hand or comment in the large group at all.
About a month into the semester, I collapsed into one of the armchairs in my local library after class, planning to tweet, write, and generally veg out online. And there it was, a tweet from Tyler, sent during our class an hour earlier. As soon as I saw it, I cringed. I’d worn glasses to class that day, which I don’t normally do, and the tweet complimented me on my appearance in them. Another student in class had later tweeted to him, something along the lines of, “Oh man, you’re crazy. I can’t believe you just tweeted her that.” Clearly this was impetuous, attention-seeking behavior.
End of the world? No. Threatening? Absolutely not. Inappropriate? Yep. I am known for being a flexible and caring professor, but I take boundaries very seriously. I blocked Tyler on Twitter and sent him an email, asking to meet with him before our next class. He wrote back immediately, told me that he knew it was about his tweet, apologized profusely, and agreed to meet.
The next thing I did was to consult with someone in student affairs and a few of my colleagues, to confirm that I wasn’t under or over-reacting. Check. Then, I stepped into the hallway with Tyler before the start of our next class.
“Tyler, I want you to know that I’m not perfect, not even close. We all make mistakes and tweeting your professor about her appearance during class is a mistake. But I’m not here to judge you or yell at you, I just want you to know that your choices have consequences. Your consequence here is that I don’t want to see your laptop ever again.”
“I’m really sorry,” he said.
“Thank you. As far as I’m concerned, this issue is done. We begin again today.”
I thought about stopping there, but something pushed me to say more.
“You know Tyler, I get the feeling that you’ve gotten a lot of attention in the past for making people laugh. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I want you to know that college is a great time to make a fresh start. Showing people how smart you are is another great way to get attention.”
He nodded, and I felt better for saying it. We went back in to class. I felt quite sure that the tweeting would stop but equally sure that nothing else I said had made its way through to him.
And then the strangest thing happened. Tyler proved me wrong.
At the start of the next class, I looked up from the front of the room to see Tyler sitting smack in the middle of the room, row 2. My smart mouth itched to comment, but I bit my tongue, lowered my head, and smiled to myself. Later, in class, during a discussion of active listening, another surprise:Tyler’s raised hand, followed by a thoughtful comment.
For the remainder of the course, Tyler participated in the large group. Every. Single. Day. I never saw his laptop again, and yes, he earned an A in the course. It was as if Tyler was waiting for someone to give him permission to succeed.
Whenever I catch myself making an assumption about one of my students, I think about Tyler, and about how we are all imperfect, but how we are also all given the opportunity, in every moment, to begin again. Just because a student starts in the back row, doesn’t mean they’ll stay there.
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