Non-Measurable Mondays is a weekly series for the Fall 2015 semester, featuring stories and essays on modes of student success that cannot be grasped by data. We are seeking submissions for the full semester, which can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details, see the original post here.
The 10-day period that begins with Rosh Hashanah and ends on Yom Kippur is commonly called the “Days of Awe” and is the time of year when the Jewish people the world over consider their actions over the past year and plan to make amends for wrongdoing. We ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged, and to forgive others for wronging us. This period of atonement asks us to take a reflective moment and consider our trespasses as well as those who have trespassed against us. We must repent our sins against other people before Yom Kippur and repent our sins against G-d on Yom Kippur through fasting and prayer. Traditionally we ask for forgiveness three times as required by Jewish law, however forgiveness is a not a given. We cannot expect forgiveness. We can only ask for it.
This brings me to my story of forgiveness, and my story of lessons learned.
A few years back I wronged one of my students. Asa (not her real name) was one of those students who arrived early on the first day of class, notebook and textbook in hand, ready and waiting to get the learning started. Each week, she was the first to arrive, participated like a champ, and was an exemplary student in all ways but one. She never turned in any assignments.
I handled this by the Applied Sciences book; I communicated my concerns via face-to-face conversations. I emailed her my concerns after first focusing on her accomplishments in terms of participation, attendance and support of her classmates. I asked her if there was anything I could do to further support her. She apologized and told me she would get it together.
At midterm she was still failing and another serious conversation took place. At week 13 I sent her yet another email telling her that if she did not get her work in she would not pass the course.
During week 16, I met with each student individually to discuss their final grades. I sat at the large desk in the front of the room and students sat toward the back near the classroom laboratory. I pulled names out of a hat and called each student up one-by-one. Asa was 3rd to last. She came up to my desk with a big, expectant smile on her face and sat down facing me. I pulled out her grade report and proceeded to tell her that she did not pass the class.
She fell apart.
My initial reaction was shock. Why didn’t she know that she failed the course? I thought I was clear. I told her several times that she was not going to pass. I thought she understood. I fumbled around, not sure what to say or how to handle her tears. The students who were still waiting to meet with me were staring at us. I said something like, “Well, good luck to you,” and dismissed her haphazardly as it was dawning on me that this was perhaps the lowest point in my teaching career. I knew that what had happened was akin to a public shaming and I was destroyed by it.
I thought about calling or emailing her, but one day turned into two, a week turned into a month, a month turned into a semester and before I knew it, 2 years had passed. I never stopped thinking about that interaction, how humiliated Asa was and how I made it so much worse.
Fast forward 2 years.
This summer I received an email from Asa. She wanted to talk about school and her career and could we make an appointment to meet? I replied immediately and we scheduled a time for 2 days hence. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say to her and how I wanted to make things right. I planned a big speech, complete with excuses for my behavior and a whole lot of nonsense about my reaction to her reaction.
When she walked into my office, I was so happy to see her looking well and happy. She gave me a big hug and we sat down. Right away, I told her that I wanted to apologize to her for my behavior on the last day of our class, and especially for speaking to her about her final grade with other students in the room. I said I was sorry, and I asked for forgiveness. She in turn, apologized to me for not doing her part to improve her grade, for not paying attention to my efforts at communicating with her, and for generally just messing up an entire semester of college.
All this time, I knew I owed her an apology and all this time, she thought she owed me one.
I told her that I learned a valuable lesson on that day. I learned that privacy is a right, not a luxury. I learned that students might say they understand when you are telling them something very important, but they don’t always. I learned that letting someone walk away from me when they are upset because of something I have done is unacceptable. I learned that after 18 years of college teaching, I can still learn valuable lessons about my teaching practice, students, and human interactions that will make me a better practitioner and a more humane person.
Asa had forgiven me two years prior to my request. She had let it go when she left the building while I carried it until this past summer. The most important lesson I learned on that day and during the months that followed is that waiting to apologize and ask for forgiveness only adds to one’s burden. So in the spirit of the “Days of Awe” apologize sooner rather than later and forgive somebody who has wronged you. The weight of both will slip right off of your shoulders.
Jennifer Asimow is a Professor of Child Development at Harold Washington College.