Saturday, December 14, 2013

What I Learned from Taking my College Math Final

"What if my car breaks down on the way?" I asked my son - not that I was looking for an answer, just that I wanted to share my anxiety with someone - as I headed out the door to take my final exam for my math class. I had studied hard for over a week; but it seemed there was always an interruption in study, or something more important to attend to, just as there had been all semester. Too many of those pesky algebra concepts seemed to remain shrouded in mystery.

Walking down the stairs from our apartment, I stepped on something, turned my ankle, and with relief, regained my balance. A drink bottle had fallen from the outside pocket of my backpack, something that had never happened before.

On the road, I got sick. I pulled off the beltway at the first opportunity and found a Burger King. After a break and getting a strawberry milkshake (seemed to be just the ticket), I went back on my way, grateful I had allowed extra time. 

Finally, I got to the familiar classroom, where we all exchanged notes about our concerns; how many correct answers we would need to pass the exam; and what kinds of problems were on the test (one of the students had a friend who had taken it that morning).

As it got close to test time, our teacher had still not shown up, which was not like him; he was usually in the classroom before I arrived. Finally, another young man walked in, whom we had never seen before. He told us in a no-nonsense manner that our teacher had a scheduling conflict and here are the rules. 

Just then, I recognized someone walking down the hallway. She glanced in, recognized me, and her face lighted up with a big smile. My very positive, encouraging math teacher from last semester just "happened" to come by just when I needed her. She always believed I could do it (and I did, in her class), and she also had a way of making me feel calm. So here I was now, a little more confident, a little calmer, as I began the test.

I wish I could tell you I passed the test. But I won't know that until the middle of next week. 


What I do know is that I've had a personal glimpse into the lives of some of our young people as they try to balance everything. Many of those who are traditional students (meaning right out of high school) might not have as many responsibilities as some of their non-traditional-student counterparts, but they still have "life" happening all around them and to them; sometimes transportation issues; sometimes part-time jobs; and often four or five classes to juggle. 

I know the great variety of challenges not only from observing my own six kids but also - now - from my fellow students. There is the young woman who has to take a taxi to get to a bus stop to get to school, and the lady who is one math class away from getting her associate's degree in hospitality, taking the math class I was taking for her third time...not knowing what provision, if any, there is, if she doesn't pass the third time around.

So am I suggesting we feel sorry for our college students? No, just that we respect them, and appreciate what they are going through. And if they start but don't finish, that we respect them for getting as far as they did and making the choices they think they must for their lives.

And there is one more thing all this brings to mind. When someone says college isn't for everyone, we might want to be sure we aren't thinking that some aren't smart enough. We all have different intelligences (Howard Gardner), and some of those various intelligences may have less to do with college than others.  Or someone may be academically intellectual in some areas but not in other areas. 

With so many recent college graduates today looking in vain for work in their field, I think it's time to applaud their efforts and also those of all our young people, whether they pursue university, community college, technical schools, or alternative plans. May we recognize both the efforts of our students and the value of each of our young people, whatever way they choose to pursue their lives.

And, like my teacher, whose stopping by to smile at me calmed me and gave me the confidence to give that exam my best shot, may we offer our young people the encouragement of our respectful, loving presence.

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