Pain in school

(crossposted from Facebook)

I proctored a linear algebra midterm yesterday. The professor and I talked for a bit about the surprisingly high number of students who couldn’t make it because they were sick. Other than possible fakes (they definitely weren’t all fakes, one of my students had a doctor’s note saying he had developed a nerve problem), my sense was that the students just felt susceptible to being sick to me, because of how stressed out / burnt out / depressed they were.

I had a conversation with a student in office hours a few weeks ago which started out with her asking me how to do a homework problem and ended with her telling me that she came to UC Berkeley because it was the most prestigious school she got into and she thought she could handle the math program, but she kept running into things she couldn’t understand in the course, didn’t have much extra time to study, couldn’t afford a tutor, and overall felt like she was maybe too stupid to do math after all, and also maybe she was stupid for not listening to one of her teachers who told her not to go to UC Berkeley. My heart broke. I didn’t know what to tell her or how to help her.

When I feel into what my students are feeling, none of it feels good. Stress. Anxiety. Nervousness. Fear. A sense of not knowing what to do or what their place in the world is. A disconnection from their power. Shrinking away. It hurts to stay with them because I don’t know how to help them; I can’t do it for too long.

I want to tell them that it doesn’t have to be this way. That if they actually understood the insane structure of the game they’re killing themselves to try to win, they’d burn the whole thing to the ground in a night. That they were meant for greater things than sitting hunched over, still as the dead, at 6pm on a Wednesday in a crowded classroom.

My favorite moment of the midterm by far was the moment that it ended. The students came alive again. Suddenly it felt like I was in a room that had people in it.

I hope they had fun last night. I hope they laughed and cried and loved each other. I hope they don’t lose sight of how important that is.

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