A student came to me the other day. She was in tears. Something had just happened in Spanish class that really threw her.
“I have to drop Spanish,” she said. “I can’t go back there.”
“Tell me what’s going on.” I pushed a box of tissues within reach.
We talked at length. We talked through what had happened that afternoon in class and how we would handle it. And then our conversation turned to larger concerns and she told of me of her ongoing frustration. She wasn’t learning what she wanted to learn and it hurt because she loves the language, but she felt that her time was being wasted in this advanced class that focused on literature and the technical aspects of the language.
“I don’t want to read science fiction in Spanish,” she explained. “I want to speak it. I want to speak Spanish to Spanish speaking people. I want to be able to go to a Spanish speaking country and live there and meet the people.”
It was easy to feel her frustration with a curriculum that simply wasn’t meeting her needs, wasn’t igniting her passion for Spanish. And yet, that’s what this level of Spanish was all about. It wasn’t a problem with the class; it was just a bad match for her interests – and she was serious about her interests.
We talked through possibilities. Could she stick it out? Would it be different in a different class? Could she take a different kind of Spanish class at a community college?
How about volunteering with a local social service non-profit in place of her Spanish class? Her eyes lit up.
In the following few days we talked to many different people. Her parents were excited, supportive, and nervous because what we were contemplating represented an atypical path through school. College Counseling was not against it – the important thing was to be able to talk about it on a college application and to tell a compelling story about the decision to drop Spanish. The Academic Office was doubtful because it was more or less unprecidented and our program is not set up to allow lots of students to do the same. The Service Learning Coordinator was thrilled.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Four things come immediately to mind.”
My student, with the help of her parents, generated a list of interests. How would she like to spend her time learning, and what did she want to get out of this experience? Then, she and the Service Learning Coordinator came up with a list of eight possibilities. Eight local organizations who were looking for volunteers. Eight opportunities to use her Spanish to help people. I was amazed, and we are still waiting to hear what comes of the contacts, but to think that a week ago she was in tears of frustration because of not learning what she felt was relevant and today she is looking forward to the possibility of volunteering with a Spanish speaking non profit is eye-opening.
I met with her late in the week for an update.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“I am nervous. I don’t want this to be a bad decision.”
I tried to help her see that in this case she was in control, that whether this turned out to be a good decision or a bad one depended on her, her initiative, her drive, her approach, her follow though; it was up to her. And I would be there to help.
The moment has stuck with me. I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps for the first time, this student was faced with an unpredictable outcome. It might work and it might not. But the moment seemed real. Neither she nor I knew what would happen, but we knew what it depended on. That, too, is the live encounter.
The next morning, as my student was filling out a form, I overheard her talking to a friend.
“I heard you might be picking up an internship,” her friend said. “That sounds so cool. I’m so jealous.”
And then I started to think.