Late Bloomers

We had what we call our Majors Fair this past week where every department on campus has a booth (of sorts), and students come around to learn about the various majors.  Out intro. to college class requires their students to come and talk to at least two different areas, just to find out what there is, as far as majors and minors go, on campus.

While I was there, I had a conversation with two of my colleagues about students in our first-year writing class.  One of them had a student who had already declared an English major come up and talk to us, which is what provoked the conversation.  I pointed out that, oddly enough, English majors in my first-year writing classes are usually not the strongest students, a trend that has puzzled me for years.  My other colleague responded that many students are simply late bloomers, that we need to give them time to develop.

She’s right, and her comment reminded me of my own path, as no one would have expected me to end up where I am today.  I came to college after not having worked very hard in high school, and my first two years in college illustrated that lack of preparation and work ethic.  I was a mediocre student, at best, in my freshman classes, often not completing the assigned reading, though I always went to class and turned in assignments, which is the only way I was able to keep my scholarship (also, my second semester was loaded with the easiest teachers, completely by chance, so I actually made the Dean’s list without much effort).

Sophomore year, though, is where everything fell apart.  Oddly enough, the year began with our matriculation service for first-year students.  That service was where the incoming students signed their name in the official roll (for lack of a better term) and became members in our community.  The faculty wore their regalia, and we all took the service rather seriously.  I was sitting next to my roommate, one of the strongest students in our class, as the faculty members walked in.  When he saw them in their regalia, he commented, “I’m going to wear those one day.”  I might have agreed; I’m not really sure.  Regardless, I didn’t have plans nearly as clear as his.

Our Sophomore humanities core was, as one of my professors put it, “designed to weed people out,” and it came quite close to doing so with me.  When we had to turn in our major paper, I was called into a meeting with the writing professor who asked me (honestly), “What is this?”  She let me revise the paper, and I did, moving my grade all the way up to a D.  That fall semester should have caused me to lose my scholarship (which would have led to my having to leave the school and go elsewhere), but the college gave me a semester to pull my grades back up, which I did.

In fact, it was only in that spring semester that I began making any real progress as far as my education was concerned.  That summer, I switched my major to English, and I began enjoying learning and participating in the discipline.  I still struggled due to my lack of any real preparation in English, often earning Bs and Cs on papers, only hitting As (or A-minuses, which I was pleased enough with) in one or two classes.  There were only a couple of moments in my senior year where I actually felt like I was really an English major.

I don’t know what my professors thought when I asked them for letters of recommendation for graduate school, especially given that I was so clueless about the process that I applied to Duke and Emory, with the University of Tennessee as my backup school (needless to say, I didn’t get in any of them).  I assume they thought that the system would work itself out, that I wouldn’t get in to the programs and I would figure out something else to do with my life.  Maybe, though, they saw me as a late bloomer; maybe they believed that I was hitting my stride and that graduate school would be just the right place for me.

If they did believe that, they would have been right.  I ended up in just the right graduate school for me, and I thrived over the next couple of years.  Of course, I also ended up in a doctoral program where I didn’t, but I managed through it, despite never really learning how to write an academic paper on that level.  I wouldn’t learn that until I was actually teaching at the college level.  I truly was a late bloomer.

I have to remind myself of my story on a regular basis, especially when I see students in my first-year writing classes or even in a sophomore-level survey I teach.  I have no idea who will end up going to graduate school or becoming doctors or lawyers or engineers or screenwriters or whatever else they want to do.  I might not believe they have what it takes to get to that level, whether in ability or in work ethic.  I should remember that my roommate (who wanted to wear the regalia) never graduated college and I ended up teaching it, something no one would have predicted, certainly not either one of us.  We never know how our students are going to turn out, so perhaps we should treat them all as if they could achieve whatever dreams they have, pushing them to get there, supporting them along the way.