Friday, January 29, 2010

Second Chances

    I teach in the First-Year Writing Program at UTPA, and I created the Rhetoric and Composition course on the theme of becoming a conscious citizen. Students are given the freedom to choose their own research topic upon which they will write a six to eight page paper, with an annotated bibliography. It’s no small feat. To make some of their lives easier, I often have research materials available for their use––with one caveat. The materials must be returned or their grade will suffer.
    At the beginning of the semester, my copy of An Inconvenient Truth began circulating among those students who were doing projects on global warming. Finally, it rested in the hands of one young man. As I handed him the copy, I had a sinking feeling in my gut. I dismissed it, and chuckled as I reminded him that if I didn’t get my video back, he wouldn’t pass the class. He looked at me as if I was kidding.
    A couple of weeks passed, and I realized that he still had my film. I reminded him about it, and he said he would return it by the end of the week. The end of the week came and went, but no video arrived. It slipped from my memory until I received an email from him stating that he was going out of town because of a family emergency and that he would have to drop the class. He promised to return the video via a friend by the next day.
    A week before the end of the semester, I doubted that my video would ever resurface. I hated to give up hope, but I knew that the chances were slim. Why would a 19-year old student with a lot of other things on his mind who hadn’t gone out of his way to return my property thus far do so nearly two months later?  A little voice inside me whispered, “you will get back.” The cynic in me said, “yeah, right.”
    One night I was walking Opal, my Jack Russell Terrier, around campus, and we were nearing the home stretch when suddenly I looked up and there was the young man in possession of my video. I wagged a finger at him. “You have something of mine.” He squirmed. “I’ll go back and get it right now,” he said. We were across the street from the dorm. I hesitated. He obviously was going to dinner, I thought. I don’t want to put him out. He saw the chink in my armor. “Or I can send it to class with a friend.” I nodded my agreement, and walked away. The sinking feeling in my gut resurfaced. This time I was mentally kicking myself in the fanny. What was I thinking? I didn’t want to put him out? That was my money invested in that video, and I had a lot of other things that I wanted to spend money on other than a replacement video.
    Then, I realized that I had come face-to-face with an age old pattern. I go belly-up when it comes to holding people to their responsibilities. I promised myself that it would never happen again. If someone needed to do something for me, I was going to insist that it be done immediately. As I got closer to my apartment, I began to wonder if I was indeed going to ever see that video again––or the young man who had it.
    The last day of classes arrived, and I was in my typical end-of-semester harried state. Students were turning in portfolios or coming to me begging for extra time––some with their heads in their hands; others were proudly admitting that they were really working to overcome their procrastination, but were having some difficulty mastering the skill. I went back to the apartment around five with a hefty stack of portfolios in my bag, but decided a walk was definitely in order before I sat down for three-hours of grading.  I needed to move my body, and Opal needed a little exercise as well.
    We began our walk, taking our usual route by the Wellness Center, the dorms, the Social Behavioral Sciences, and the Math Building. All was going well, and our pace was brisk. Then as we arrived at the far end of the Education building we were stopped in our tracks. Ahead of us was a mother cat and her kitten. Mama kitty sprang into action. She hunched back, puffed out her tail, and hissed; meanwhile, her kitten ran a safe distance away from us. I tried to go around her but Opal, by this point, was out for blood. So I did the next best thing. I took a sharp right and dragged Opal away from what was going to be a very ugly scene if we stayed much longer.
    As Opal settled down, I realized I was relieved to cut my walk short. The portfolios awaited me, and I was already feeling a bit tired. I cut through campus until we were on the path walking passed the dining hall. I just happened to look in the building. and there was my former student coming out of the door. I planted my feet and called his name. His face dropped.  “It’s time to get my video.” He was trapped and knew it. “I have to go to the rest room,” he said. “I’ll wait,” I replied.
    Minutes passed and I wondered if he was going to ditch me. Finally, he reappeared, with cell phone planted on his ear. We passed the dining hall and one of his friends joined us with a Cheshire smile upon his face. I believe he was getting a kick out of his friend’s predicament. They walked several steps ahead of me as we marched toward the dorm. We were about a quarter of a mile away and the walk was anything but cordial. I wondered if I should break the ice and make small talk. Instead, I opted for silence, hoping my former student was squirming each step of the way. We arrived at the dorms and he disappeared. I sat on a bench and waited, still not entirely sure my video would be back in my possession. Five minutes passed, and he came out of the building with my video in hand. I thanked him, wished him a good break, and went back to my apartment. I walked away relieved to have my video, but more importantly I was rather proud of the steps I took to hold the young man’s feet to the fire.
    We are frequently given opportunities to break our old patterns. Sometimes we fail to recognize those moments; other times we see them and are paralyzed by our fears, and dig an even deeper trench. As I reflect upon this incident with my student, I remember the multitude of times where I opted to take care of someone else’s needs rather than my own––even though it was in my best interest––and perhaps everyone’s––to set good boundaries and make honest requests, something my mother or other women in my life never modeled for me.  This is one spell I will be happy to break forever. But I know, I will have other opportunities to practice getting it right.

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