Teaching in a graduate school I am often blessed to have students from different stages of life. Most of my students are recently out of college, but not all of them. Every year I will have one or two who are coming to law school as a second (or even third) career. These students can struggle adjusting to the work, which is often so different than what they did before.
One of those students I’ll call Joe. (I will not use real student names in this newsletter, ever). Joe was in his mid-50s when he came to my class, and it had been 30 years before he had been in any sort of organized schooling. He was commonly seen in cowboy boots and hat. In class, he found himself surrounded by 25 year olds who were used to the grind of academic life, and even then had their own adjustment to make. He always took those disconnects with good humor, and made good friendships among his classmates. Even so, his ride through graduate school was a bumpy one and yet I greatly I admired his refusal to give up. My daughter met him a few times, and referred to him as “Cowboy Joe.” She even greeted him that way, and said he enjoyed the moniker.
My wife says I am solar powered. There is some truth to the comment, as I really do prefer sunlight, and a stretch of overcast days can slow me down. But of course many people are wired that way, and I understand from those who have it that Seasonal Affective Disorder - which has the perfect acronym SAD - is a real thing. During the winter months, teachers often start the workday in the dark, and go home in the dark - which is it’s own special kind of hell.
But the Taoists remind us that when we have reached the low point on the wheel it is something to celebrate, because it means the wheel is starting to move in the opposite direction on that day. I always thought of the winter solstice - on December 21st - as that day for winter darkness. And it is, but it is (effectively) not.
I learned that what happens on the solstice is that the days start to get longer in the evening. It is not until January 15th that the days start to get longer in both directions - morning and evening. So it is really only around January 15th that we start to feel the gloom of winter lifting.
I learned that from Cowboy Joe. I often speak to my students about the darkness of this time of year, and how hard it is to come back to school for a new semester in January in the cold and dark. We forget how important it can be to our students that we are able to acknowledge their pain and discomfort, and offer them our empathy, even as we pile on new work. One year, when I mentioned the hope of the winter solstice, Joe came by my office after class and explained the significance of January 15th to me. I will always remember it.
We teach our students, but we also learn from them. Little things, and big things too. In facts, but also sometimes in the questions they ask.
Years ago, I taught kindergarten as a part-time job when I was in college. One beautiful spring day, I was overseeing a period when students had several activity stations they could choose from, and was sitting some distance away in a window seat. The view over the Hudson River was spectacular, with a brilliant blue sky and puffy white clouds wafting slowly down the river. Tyrone was a busy 5 year old, and after checking in on all the stations, he noticed me sitting by the window. He climbed up and joined me - up on his knees, hands on the glass - silently looking at the clouds with me, uncharacteristically still. And then he broke the silence between us with a question for his teacher.
“Is God in the clouds?” He asked.
I suppose I stammered out an answer of some sort. Maybe something about God being in everything. He pondered that for a while, and then went back to the stations. I have often thought of Tyrone since that day, and the profundity and innocence of his question. I hope he is well; he must be in his forties now. I hope he has come up with a better answer than the one I was able to offer.
The novelist George Saunders has a new book out, and in the introduction he says this about his students in the literature classes he teaches:
“They arrive already wonderful.”
Indeed they do.
Letters of Recommendation
In the spirit of Dry January, I offer a recommendation of the simplest non-alcoholic drink you can make. It combines Canada Dry Ginger Ale and Cranberry Juice. In any ratio you like. 1/3 Cranberry, 2/3 Ginger Ale is my choice, but half and half works too. Over ice, or not, whatever your pleasure.
Q of the Week
A new feature of this weekly newsletter is Q of the Week, which will either be a Quote or a Question for you. The quote will be intended for inspiration for your upcoming week. The question I hope you will respond to.
Today’s Q of the Week is a Question:
What have you learned from a student that you will never forget? Please reply to this email, and let me know.