This past weekend I had the opportunity to look through my high school report cards. It would probably shock my former history teachers that I pursued a career in a subject area where I squeaked out B-minuses semester after semester. As someone who teaches at a community college I find myself fascinated by the trajectory of student academic paths. So often I see students trying to choose a direction at a young age -- selecting a major or area of study as soon as possible so that course selection will be more seamless. Looking back at those high school grades reminds me that had I made a choice at 18 and stuck with it, I never would have ended up in my current career.
For so many of my current students the cost of a four-year college is daunting. They arrive at community college hoping to get through the first two years of higher education without incurring debt so that they can borrow for years three and four. I imagine for those students the thought of spending thousands of dollars with no guarantee of a high-paying job is beyond frightening.
My college path could not have been more different from that of my students. Arriving at Wheaton College (MA) as a freshman in the fall of 1990 -- with the financial and emotional support of my amazing parents -- I was certain that I would be an English major (probably because it was the subject I disliked least in high school). Second semester, however, I took a class in Modern US History -- a subject area we had never come close to in secondary-level history classes. My professor, Alexander Bloom, truly captivated me with his teaching style and obvious mastery of the subject matter. He invited students to stop by his office with questions and he showed episodes of the (then recent) documentary series “Eyes on the Prize” outside of class for extra-credit. I was hooked. I can remember searching my notebook for questions to ask just so I could chat with him for a few minutes at office hours.
Professor Bloom is preparing to retire this year. So many former Wheaton students owe a debt of gratitude to Alex for the way in which he encouraged us to love studying history. He was a truly gifted story-teller in the era before PowerPoint presentations and classrooms with digital projection. For students like myself who were searching for an academic interest to which we could connect personally and passionately, his intelligence and quick wit were a true gift in the classroom. No doubt countless students of every academic major took US history classes at Wheaton over the years because they wanted to experience the unique ways Alex connected students to the past.
Perhaps it’s cliche to be “thankful” in the month of November. I feel compelled to use this week’s blog, nonetheless, to acknowledge the teachers over the years who encouraged me. Every once in a while a student will write a note or send an email to me acknowledging some small act that I see as part of my job but that he/she felt particularly inspired by. I remind myself in those moments that I was not always a strong student -- I had many days that I was disinterested or uninspired. I had my share of lousy test grades. What kept me going was the hard work of men and women -- like Alex Bloom and many others-- who were committed to their students’ forward progress and who believed that any student could flourish when she found the right path. For those, and many, many other lessons, I’m grateful.