First Day

He raised his hand.

I walked to the back of the classroom toward his desk.

It was the first day of class—my first day ever to teach.  And just ten minutes earlier, I had climbed the creaking staircase to the second floor of the science building.  As I walked down the narrow hallway that smelled of formaldehyde, I checked classroom numbers.  When I found mine, I stood outside the door and tried to catch my breath.

I leaned my back against the hall wall and wondered what I’d been thinking.   Me, a teacher?  I hadn’t even taken the required speech class in college because the idea of standing in front of a classroom paralyzed me with fear.  And now here I was, starting a career doing just that.

They began to arrive.  One by one.  I managed a smile for each student.  And when the bell rang, I asked God for a miracle and walked into the room.  My voice quavered as I introduced myself.  I passed out a bio sheet for my students to fill out.  Buying myself some time.

And then I saw his hand—near the back of the room.

“I don’t have a pen,” he said.  And so I gave him mine.

At the end of the semester, I got my first student thank you note.  He put it in my hand as he walked out of the classroom on the final day of the semester.  It read,

Dear Dr. C,

I will never forget the day we met.  Your class was my first-ever college course.  I was so nervous.  And when you gave us an assignment sheet to fill out at the beginning of class, I realized I didn’t have a pen.  So I raised my hand. 

I was scared.  But when I told you, you smiled and reached into your pocket and gave me yours. I couldn’t believe a college teacher would do that.  Thanks for being so kind to me. I will always remember that.

His first day.  My first day.  Both scared.  Both hoping to make a good impression.   A student and a teacher.  Both so different.  But with so much in common.

Now, after 25 years, I no longer hyperventilate when I walk into a classroom.  I’m no longer terrified.  No longer frozen with fear.

But they are.  Many of them anyway.  And I often forget that.  Some of them are first generation college students.  Some of them have never heard of a syllabus.  Some of them have no idea how to write an essay for an academic audience.  They don’t know what a fragment is.  Or how a writing process works.  Some of them are worried about money and about the girlfriend or boyfriend back home.  Some of them already dislike their roommate.  Some of them are homesick and wondering what they were thinking when they said yes to college.  They are scared, just like I was 25 years ago.

Easy for me to forget.  Easy for me to say, “If you don’t have a pen, then borrow one from someone else or go back to your room and get one.  This is college.  You have to be prepared.”

But I know that students can absolutely think they have things under control, and it can still go wrong.  The computer crashes.  The printer runs out of ink.  The power goes out.

And, as teachers we have a choice to make.  We can be harsh.  Or we can be kind.  Some might say that students have to learn accountability or else they’ll think they can get by with anything.  I get that.  But perhaps a little compassion and flexibility along the way might make an impact we could never imagine.

Funny thing.  I had a campus meeting this summer.  And I was scheduled to give a presentation.  I wanted to get to campus early.  But things didn’t go as planned.  Traffic was heavy.  Stop lights weren’t friendly.  And by the time I got to the campus, I was stressed.  I managed to get to the meeting on time.  But as the session began and the first speaker was introduced, I reached for my pen—and I realized, in my haste, I had forgotten mine.

And so I took a deep breath . . . and raised my hand. . . .