Dear Students Who Have Failed My Course,
I want to tell you about being a college instructor. One of the best moments is on graduation day, when I’m sitting in the auditorium or gym or wherever the ceremony is taking place, holding that commencement program with your names on it. The program is printed on thick cream paper with the university seal only used for formal occasions embossed on the front. I read it cover to cover, learning about the day’s speakers, memorizing the key to who is graduating with what honors and certificates, and savoring each student name in my ear. Even though I’ve never taught outside of the English Department at the colleges and universities where I’ve worked, I still read every name. At my current university, this means that I’m reading the names and majors and minors of every graduating student from the College of Natural and Health Sciences, every graduating student from the College of Social Sciences and Professional Studies, and every graduating student from the College of Business, Economics, and Computing in addition to the names and details listed under my own college: the College of Arts and Humanities. I want to feel the weight of it all—to be submerged in the waves that the pages represent. The pages of names represent joy and success, especially today, but they also represent sacrifice, struggle, and failure. I accept my participation in this cycle of troughs and crests. The names make a rhythm in my ear like the tide. But mostly, I sit there perusing the program details because I’m searching for you.
Having taught 64 college writing and literature classes to date (over 8 nonconsecutive teaching years), with an average class size of 20 students, I’ve selected an F in the dropdown menu on the final grade roster next to more names than I can remember at this point, but the act always leaves a trace. There are cases that stand out: students who became representatives of the many, the decisions about grades that became exceptional learning experiences for the rest. All of the students who have failed my classes are a part of my story as a teacher, not just the students who sat next to you and passed the course with ease. In fact, I may have learned more about what it means to be a teacher from the students who’ve failed, from you, than I ever did by a paper that earns an “A” in its sleep.
You were the kind of first semester freshman who didn’t adjust to college easily—a first generation college student coming from a weaker school district through no fault of your own. You lived on campus and were learning a lot of things the hard way. Some people steal laundry; Roommate conflicts are not like sibling conflicts; Understanding one professor’s syllabus does not mean that you’ll be able to read all of your syllabi the same way; and perhaps the most underestimated: College assignments take way longer than high school ones. While you were silent in class, bewildered perhaps by the loudness of everyone else, the way that participating seemed so natural to them, your notebook was full of doodles and figure sketches. I remember always being able to tell from a distance which quizzes and classroom assignments were yours by the detailed drawings in the empty spaces.
Maybe it was guilt, that off-feeling in my stomach on the last day of the semester when you handed me one of your drawings. I’d already calculated the raw grades to that point and knew that you’d need something near miraculous on the final paper to balance out all the days you overslept through class and the assignments that were rough or missing because of it. You needed a huge win to counter your attendance to achieve a passing net grade. So when you handed me that drawing on the last day, it didn’t immediately read as a thank-you or appreciation. I thought you had been miserable—and most people don’t thank anyone for that. My assumptions made your gesture seem like a bribe, and I’m sorry that’s how I remembered you for so long. When I saw your name in the program this spring, my heart leapt.
You were the kind of freshman student who wasn’t “really” a freshman—not like the college films would have people believe. You had two kids under 5 years old, a divorce behind your belt, and more than a few years of working at a dead-end job. You had a boss who fired people frequently and a weekly schedule that changed even when you put in requests and wrote notes about your course schedule. Still, in class you were a star. You had completed your reading and came prepared to discuss what you thought about it. The other students gravitated toward your unconventional air.
It was hard to watch you miss deadline after deadline for papers, and then you started missing class too. Even though you never failed a single assignment you turned in, the zeros and your attendance made it impossible for you to earn a passing grade. I struggled with your grade a lot. I knew what the math said, and what the department attendance policy allowed. But I also knew what you were capable of; I knew that you could succeed in the next class, but you hadn’t earned the grade to move up. I worried that by marking the grade you earned, that I’d also discouraged you from trying, from coming back. I hoped you were gritty. Sadly, I haven’t seen you on campus since nor have I seen your name in the commencement program.
You were a first-time, first-semester student last fall. On your diagnostic you wrote, "I am a horrible writer." I wrote back. "Who told you this? Writing is a skill set, one that you can always improve. We will improve and expand your skills together this semester." And while your skills did improve by the end of the term, you weren’t ready to be done with the course—your grades and confidence level said as much. Resilient and determined, you came back after earning an F and took the class again. This spring you improved your raw score grade by more than 30 percent. It will be a few years before I will look in earnest for your name in the commencement program, but I do expect it.
You were charismatic, a goof ball. If this had been a 1957 high school, you’d be called class clown, but it was 2012 and you were sleeping in your university class because your body couldn’t function on two jobs, a full time load, and such little sleep. I didn’t know then that you were a drug addict. For a couple semesters after failing my class, I’d see you in the halls frequently, but you were stoic. Not the golden boy I remembered. And then poof, you were gone. I was worried about you. This semester, I cried while reading your tribute to your education on social media, and I delighted in finding your name in the program.
You may not see me as “your” teacher or your instructor anymore—the class we shared is blowing in the winds of semesters past or wholly forgotten about; you’ve spent years in other disciplines by now, but I am proud to be a part of your journey, even though the memories of my tiny scrawl in the margins of your drafts may not be fond to you.
In case you ever thought otherwise, in case you ever were worried that I simply didn’t like your personality, I want to go on the record and say that that was never it. Students earn a failing grade in my class because of their particular performances within those fourteen weeks. If you failed a course of mine it was not because of who you are. It was that your assignments didn’t satisfy the course objectives or your attendance didn’t meet the department expectations. In many cases for students who are juggling huge life pieces, like working to live independently or family obligations, poor attendance leads to poor assignments. I get it. And I never thought poorly of you for it. To do so would be to favor those who haven’t had the same hurdles.
In any given semester, I have no idea whose name I’ll find in the commencement program. The downside of teaching mainly general education composition classes is that I typically only have the one semester’s worth of interaction with each student before they (you) branch off into the college and department system to find minors and majors of their own. I’ve taught way more students from outside of my department and my college than inside. It’s hard to keep tabs on a moving target, but I like seeing you in the hallways, even when you pretend to not see me. I like seeing you in your element, headphones on and studying or laughing with friends, maybe rushing to class with confidence and an iced latte. I see you and I know that you found your way, that you didn’t let the semester in my class be the end of your story. I see you and I’m reminded that failure isn’t an inevitable fact of life and that while it is always painful, it is also useful. Failure is a part of the learning process. And it makes me smile that much wider and clap that much harder when I see you strut across that stage, hand outstretched to the Chancellor, waving to your family and shouting to the world.
And my heart shouts back.
About the author: Nick Tryling splits her time between the English Department and the Parkside Academic Resource Center (PARC) at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. She teaches English composition and creative nonfiction each semester. As the Director of the PARC, she gets to develop student leaders who tutor one-on-one or hold group sessions across campus. Nick earned her MFA in Creative Writing from The American University in D.C. and her BA in English and Studio Art from Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Shortly after graduate school, she took two academic years "off" from teaching college to be the Director of Youth Services for Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY). Way before that, in the 80s, Nick sent for Endangered Species Flashcards from the World Wildlife Federation, and she's been an activist ever since. She loves her partner, their cats, and the smell of baking bread. Connect with Nick on Twitter @AdHocNicktr or Instagram @thenicktr.