OK, guys, I was in a crummy place this morning. But now, the very same evening, I’m back to feeling like a worthwhile and even moderately happy human being. What got me there? My students.
Today was my last day of teaching for the semester. I did a little lecturing, the students did short presentations on their final projects, and then I tied it all together with a segment of the class that I call “What Can You Do Now that (Most Of) You Couldn’t Do Before? (WCYDNT(MO)YCDB).” My class this semester is very hands-on, very project-based, and involves an introduction to both computer programming and basic statistics (neither of which most of the students have ever encountered before), so it’s intense, but my students come out with a lot of tangible skills for research and science in general. It’s a really fun class to teach, and the students grow a lot. Around this time of year they’re stressed out by the last lab report (due tomorrow) and their final projects (due next week in lieu of an exam), so I like to take some time to remind them about how far they’ve come during the semester. And by gum, did it work — all the students were grinning and nodding along, recalling everything they’d achieved during the semester. The last thing on my slides was a message: “Way to go, guys!” — and they burst into applause. It was a lovely moment.
It has, by any measure, been a phenomenal semester for my research group. I have a new freshman(!) who won a very competitive fellowship that will fund his research in my group at least through next summer. I also had two graduating thesis students this year, one undergrad and one masters. The undergrad was a co-recipient of our department’s prize for excellence, achieved honors on his thesis, and when he gave his thesis presentation during our research seminar I nearly burst into tears — here was a kid who had never done research when I took him on two years ago, and he was up there talking like a grad student, answering questions thoughtfully and thoroughly, and just generally standing there being a scientist. A couple of weeks ago the college hosted a poster session for science thesis writers, and a huge segment of his family (a sister, two grandmothers, a grandfather, an uncle, and a couple of cousins) showed up to see him present his research. It was just lovely to see how proud they were of him, and how proud he was to show off his wonderful work to his family.
My masters student didn’t cross the threshold of our department until he was a graduating senior. He had been double-majoring in two different subjects (neither of which was mine) but took my introductory class in the fall of his senior year, decided to stay for a fifth year to write a masters thesis in my research group, and is off to do a PhD in my field in the fall — somehow I’ve brought him into this field that he loves enough to do a PhD in, and I’ve helped him get there over the course of just two years. He started doing research in my group just over a year ago, and yesterday he defended his masters thesis brilliantly, despite a barrage of challenging questions from my collaborator and friend who had come down from Harvard to serve as his external committee member. When she (a Harvard professor!) said that she thought he deserved an A on his masters thesis defense, in a field he had just entered a year and a half ago, I just about burst with pride.
Guys, this is why I do what I do. College students change and grow so fast, and I just simply love knowing that I’ve helped them in some small way with their growth as a scientist and, sometimes, as a human being. Sometimes students come into our program and it changes the trajectory of their lives. Sometimes I just teach them basic statistics, and feel good about knowing that they’ll be able to interpret medical studies and read the newspaper without being duped. But either way, at the end of the semester, I look at my students, see how far they’ve come, and feel all warm and happy inside. I try to pass on that feeling to them as well — at this time of year, I try to make a point of telling my students how I see their growth and their potential, and how proud I am of them. Soon their families will descend on them for graduation, and I’ll see parents beaming with pride as they take pictures of their sons and daughters in robes. This will be my third graduation at my current university, and it seems that every year my emotions surrounding graduation are just deeper and deeper. Maybe someday I’ll be a curmudgeon, but it won’t be for many years yet. 🙂
The last two years have been SO hard on a personal level. But when my students need me, for something as small as help on a problem set, or as large as advice on their next steps in life, it forces me to function, and to focus on life beyond my narrow sadness. Many of the things that used to bring me joy in life have been harder or more complicated to deal with since our loss and during the years that we’ve struggled to become parents, but teaching hasn’t. Watching my students grow is one of the few positive ways I’ve been able to see life moving forward, to think about the future with hope instead of fear and despair. Working as a liberal arts college professor is a very parental role in some ways, and even if my students leave at the end of the semester and never come back, I know that I’ve helped in some small way to shape their future at a critical juncture, to help make them into the adults that they are meant to be. My job is challenging and demanding, but it’s also extremely rewarding. The challenges, demands, and rewards have been very healthy for me as I’ve struggled to deal with infertility and loss. As I look back at the end of the semester, I’m able to feel a lot of satisfaction in what I’ve accomplished, and what I’ve helped my students accomplish, even while I’ve been working through what can at times feel like an all-consuming personal disaster area.
Thank goodness for the end of the semester. 🙂