Teacher to students: Chill out!

This is the time of year when my students - freshmen at George Washington University - melt down. These aren't really my goof-off students who come to class when they can wake up in time and who hand in papers randomly. I seem to have fewer of these colorful charmers each year.

No, these are the conscientious students who take copious notes, sit upright in the front of the classroom, and later show up in my office with tears streaming from their eyes. I can't do it; I won't have enough time to finish everything; I don't know what to do, they tell me.

I know they want comfort and reassurance, so I give it to them. I tell them to tackle their work in small parts, to work steadily, but also to make sure they get enough sleep and eat right. All-nighters, I tell them, are usually counterproductive. If you're studying, you don't remember much, and you pay the price later for all that sleep deprivation.

The counseling offers only temporary respite, and leaves me too depleted to do more than stagger home to my own high-maintenance adolescents. So I can't help but wonder what's going on. Why am I seeing more anxiety, more desperation? Do they feel they must always be perfect?

Is it what we are teaching kids as we tailgate to work, multi-task at home, and stomp our feet if the line at Starbucks moves too slowly? Just a few years ago, I was complaining that students seemed to find the all-too-easy excuse, the shrug of the shoulders, the cut-me-a-break attitude. Today I'm seeing the opposite: a lack of joy, a single-minded focus on outcome.

That isn't usually a good technique to use in writing.

Most writers, I tell my students, often have to get worse before their writing can improve. They take chances, do outrageous things with language, play around with style and rhythm and tone. When they take the safe route, they tend to remain careful, steady writers whose words leave my head the minute after I read them. There's no voice, no personality.

Recently, I had a student who nearly drove me crazy with his questions: Will this be enough to make my paper an A? If not, what do I need to do to make it an A? Fewer students each year ask me: How can I become a better writer? How can I get the most out of what I read?

Far too many of my students this year spent spring break holed up in the library. To many, that's better than chugging fruity rum drinks on the beach in Jamaica, but it's not exactly a break either. In fact, I'm beginning to suspect that the sense of pressure and expectation they feel from parents and others, and that they impose on themselves, is what makes so many of my students drink so hard. They feel they've earned a release from the unrelenting tasks of midterms, research papers, lab reports, and work-study jobs. For too many, their days are a cycle of studying frantically, drinking frantically, sleeping it off, and starting over again.

I had to chuckle when one student late last year told me she was going to miss class on the day the Supreme Court handed down its first ruling on the presidential election. "I'm in Washington, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she said. I reminded her that she had virtually no chance of getting into the Supreme Court. She knew, she said. She just wanted to see for herself the spectacle of protesters and media blitzkreig outside the court.

You know what? That's not such a bad reason to blow off class.

Even if she didn't actually learn anything except how to maneuver through a crowd, she had started to develop more of a sense of perspective than most of my students. They can't seem to understand that they are young and smart, and have unlimited possibilities. I have no doubt they will do well as adults, and maybe even make something interesting out of their lives. But for now, they need someone to tell them to stop, take a detour to the Tidal Basin on a warm spring day, and stroll under a canopy of pink and white cherry blossoms, looking up at the sky from time to time.

Debra Bruno has taught college English for nearly 20 years.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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