November 08, 2008

Student Life (and Death)

Dr. Isis, in her new digs, is writing about teachers letting themselves into students' lives. She's looking at it through the lens of writing, but there are...never mind, I'll just tell the story.

Fall semester of my sophomore year of college, two things happened that shouldn't be related. I got a gamma globulin shot, and I officially changed majors. The event that linked the two was the death of Jon, my buddy and lab partner.

Jon was an unrepentant geek. Band geek, physics geek, punner, the kind who taught himself to flip a pen around his fingers and would practice in class even though the pen would occasionally skitter noisily away. He was the kind of geek who crushed on female friends without any expectation that there could be more.


One weekend Jon went home to do laundry and see the family. He didn't come back Sunday night because he thought he had the flu. A few days later he was in the hospital, then moved to the local university hospital, comatose and in need of a new liver. It was hepatitis.

I thank whoever decided that the hospital needed large waiting rooms. Jon would have been gratified to see how many of us huddled together there. He would have understood, too, as the wait went on for days and people drifted back to school except for an hour or two here or there. The three of us who hung around except to sleep and shower and work when we had to were the ones who had already been through bad stuff, who knew that the strain was survivable and ultimately better than not knowing what was happening. Jon would have stayed too.

It was a week before a donor liver was found. Jon's kidneys had shut down and he was on dialysis. Neither Jon's family nor those of us who'd stayed told the others that we could read the doctors' faces by that point. Somehow, those told a story that the percentages couldn't. They told us how critical the next few hours were.

The surgery went well, technically, but the liver never started working for Jon. His body rejected it, as sluggishly as it was doing everything else. Dialysis got more difficult as his veins stopped functioning properly. Somewhere in there, I made the mistake of telling one of the hopeful people that it was over, Jon was dying. I don't think he forgave me.

Then Jon died, about a week after the transplant.

I think that was when they finally got around to asking which of us might have had close enough contact to be in danger. The night before Jon had gone home, we'd been out for beers with another friend. (Yes, I was barely eighteen. So sue me.) This friend was all but bawling over his impossible love, and Jon and I took turns stealing his beer and drinking it when he wasn't paying attention. We still had to prop him up to walk him home, but we kept him away from dangerously drunk. I earned a gamma globulin shot for that. So did our friend, but he also got the girl in the middle of all the stress.

No one, by the way, ever figured out why Jon's liver went bad. It wasn't any of the known strains of hepatitis.

Going back to classes was hard. I dropped multivariable calculus without regret. I was taking it from the incomprehensible teacher who'd written the incomprehensible book, and having Jon as a study partner was the only reason I hadn't already decided to take it at a different school. I took an incomplete in optics, meaning to go back when I could face the lab without my lab partner. I don't remember what my third class was, something where the grade was dependent on midterm, final, and papers. It was flexible and not something Jon was taking with me.

I woke up the first morning I was fully back on campus to discover that there was a test scheduled in my fourth class--psychology--in three hours. I'd skipped one test, as allowed under the rules of the class, the first week Jon was in the hospital. I couldn't skip this one. I went to the professor to ask for a one-day extension. I think I even managed not to cry in his office.

He said no. He explained that the ability to drop a test was there to cover bad situations and that it wouldn't be fair to other students to make a special rule for me. He, not unkindly, suggested I start studying.

I did. I read the chapters I'd missed, even though I wanted to curl up into a tiny ball instead. I barely finished them, having to go back so many times because I realized I wasn't taking anything in. The test was a nightmare. I knew I wasn't doing well. I couldn't concentrate, and I could barely remember what I'd read. I hated my professor and wondered how life could pile one unfairness on top of another.

When the tests came back, mine had an "A" at the top and no other marks on the page.

I may have learned more in that class than in any other I've ever taken.

All of which is a very long way of responding to Dr. Isis's concerns about doing students an injustice in taking their personal situation into account. It certainly doesn't have to be that way. It can even be an opportunity to help them develop.


Becca said...

Thank you Stephanie.

I'm all teary and emotional right now, so I don't have anything pithy to say. But thank you for your story.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Becca, I fully expected that no one would have any idea how to comment on this. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that story, Stephanie. You are an wonderfully devoted friend. I hope that when I become a prof, I will remember to be human like that.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks, Scicurious. He was a pretty wise old guy. He retired at the end of that year.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this story. I am a student myself, hoping to be a prof some day. I do believe that professors have a great responsibility in "raising" students. And, honestly, not too many profs I've met in my grad school share this opinion. However, I was lucky to have had wonderful professors during my pre-grad school years. Those people are an inspiration to me.

Thank you again for this emotional story.

JaneB said...

Thanks for the story.

As a very rules-restricted prof, though, I envy your professor the ability to do something that human and generous. What with blind double marking and auditing, I would never be allowed to do that. The student would have to fill out endless forms and provide proofs of what had happened, just to be allowed to retake the course... bureaucracy is unsympathetic, and that's one major reason that I'm against our system!

Stephanie Zvan said...

PhD Wannabe, never underestimate how much influence you can have on students' lives. On the other hand, know also that you probably won't hear about most of it. This professor didn't, mostly because it took time for me to be able to think about the whole thing clearly enough to know what a difference it made.

Jane, I'm so sorry to hear that. I hate the idea of education as a one-size-fits-all product for consumption. Keep fighting!

Anonymous said...

Wow, Stephanie.

Thank you for sharing, and I am sorry you had to go through that situation.

Anonymous said...

I have often been in the position whereby getting to know my students well was part of the job. I taught the tutorial in bioanthro at Harvard, and that was a training session in a lot more than theory. I often teach at UMN in the Honors program, wherein we pay a lot of attention to the individual. Of my four or five or ten best friends, all but one or two are people I initially got to know as students. Today, many of the students in my degree planning class or my research class are expected to become my advisees, and we will develop a close working relationship that is meant to function for year.

Regarding disasters: Yes, well, I have four dead students, one having killed herself after killing another, one having died in a horrific event you all have all heard of (not 911), one having died in a fire. There are probably others, but I count only these because they died while being my student or within months after. (I was not necessarily that close to these individuals, but I had them in my classes and remember them pretty well). Rapes, robberies, brain tumors, getting tossed out by landlords, etc. are all the memorable tragedies that are NOT handled by the "drop one test" rule.

Ya gotta be getting to know your students, or I'm not quite sure what you are doing, though of course there are exceptions. I've had literally thousands of students in the large lecture course, and of these, I remember only a few (typically, those who went on to do other things with me).

Elle: If you are reading this, I think you are the student who has kept in touch with me for the longest ever, Ana, you are a close second in that regard!

Nice post, by the way. I would have given you a break on the test.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks, JLK.

Greg, I know you would have. Of course, you'd have then found a different way to prod me to get back to work.

Candid Engineer said...

Wow, I was tearing up by the time you mentioned the 'A' on top of your test. What a sympathetic thing for your professor to do.

And I am so sorry about the passing of your dear friend Jon.

Dr. A said...

So sorry for your loss. The fallen ones live on in such stories, thank you for sharing.

Eugenie said...

Thank you.

A week ago a student passed away on campus in a very awful accident. I didn't know her personally, but I'm still shell shocked.

(She was the fourth student in the past year to pass away. Two lost their battles with cancer, and the other also passed away in a horrific accident. All four where female.)

I find it hard to cope and understand why these things happen to people so young (like myself). I am terrified that I would loose anyone so close and pray I will never have to face it.

Again, thank you for this post and my sympathies.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Hey, Eugenie. I'm sorry to hear about that. That's got to be pretty overwhelming.

Hang in there. The one good thing to come out of ugliness like this is that you learn how much you really can cope with--and that you don't have to cope alone. Please don't let yourself think you're the only one feeling terrified by all that. If you're not already reaching out to your friends at school, try it. You'll be amazed at how many of them feel the same way but don't want to be the first to bring it up.

Take care.

Drugmonkey said...

this anecdote is a strong contributor to my recent considerations of tribalism SZ. You are perhaps more tribal than you think...?

Stephanie Zvan said...

DM, obviously more than I thought, since I heard the siren call and responded. Still, probably less than I appear to. That may be something worth unpacking a bit further. You know, when I have a moment to breathe.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephanie! Just wanted to let you know your post has been mentioned in the Carnival of Elitist Bastards. The Carnival is up at my blog. Thank you so much for such a moving post!