A few classes back, one of my students laughed and played on the internet without trying to hide it for the entire two-hour class. Even though I knew that I couldn't force this student to learn and that it was this student's choice to ignore me, I was frustrated, to put it mildly.
I thought I had this student all figured out. I presumed the student was bored or simply chose to chat online instead of take notes.
Even though I know better than to assume, I did so anyway. I labeled this student in a negative way in my mind. And braced myself for what would unfold in the next class. Only the student no-showed.
Fast forward to today.
I walked into my classroom a bit early, and the only person waiting in the room was the laughing, internet-obsessed student from a few weeks ago. The student approached me and explained that life was not going well. This was a particularly difficult time: it was the one-year anniversary of a younger sibling's death. A death that the family didn't grieve well. And as a result, they were struggling individually and as a family. Those earlier harsh thoughts dashed out of my head as I choked back tears, encouraged this student to take some time to grieve, and offered my condolences.
This student's personal struggles in the midst of a tough semester made me grateful that I didn't have any family tragedies while I was in grad school. It also reminded me that everyone has a story. Every student has a life outside of class. One filled with other responsibilities and relationships that produce joy, sorrows, anxiety, and any number of other emotions. And each day when I step into the classroom, I'm competing not only with the distraction of their wireless internet computers but also with all the life baggage that they bring into the classroom. If I remember that, hopefully I'll be a little more compassionate the next time a student seems disinterested in my lectures.
Brandon Heath's song "Give Me Your Eyes" echoes the tune that has been playing in my heart ever since this encounter:
Give me your eyes for just one second
Give me your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me your love for humanity
Give me your arms for the broken hearted
The ones that are far beyond my reach
Give me your heart for the once forgotten
I've been there a million times
A couple of million eyes
just move and pass me by
I swear I never thought that I was wrong
Well I want a second glance
So give me a second chance
To see the way you see the people all alone