on students

I’m surrounded, even accosted sometimes, by interesting students. It’s a simple part of the environment and a fascinating swirl of images to be within. It should be that these individual case studies would be the most compelling part of my job — certainly more compelling to describe that the stack of papers on my desk, an episode of grading, or a meeting. On the other hand, while interesting, these people are, well, people. While David Sedaris makes good use of extrapolating biographical information of his family members to paint disturbing images of them, I wonder if it’s appropriate (or even ethical) to do this to people I’m not genetically tied to.

But, like Sedaris, I think it might be too good an opportunity to not think about writing about the most interesting and important entities of my job. What kinds of character sketches could come of these?

  • The young woman whose neckline always plunges to depths well beyond the average collar or t-shirt, accented by a locket that dangles like a shiny lure dropped off the side of a boat. She simultaneously wears a CTR ring. I always wonder if I should notice these things, but I suppose it’s a bigger distraction for the students sitting across from her in her lab group, such as
  • the student who will be coming to class tomorrow morning, the day of his wedding. I’ll hand him his graded exam, on which he earned 100%. Dinner and dancing on Friday night, a trip to San Diego, and returning for class after spring break.
  • The young woman who lives in the dorms, does her homework, runs track, asks good questions, is delightfully charming and thoughtful, and gets some of the highest scores in the class. Cute as a button, I actually see her as an image of what (I hope) my own daughters will look like in a few years. She wears shirts that go all the way up to her neck.
  • A student who comes in for advice about his research project. His ideas stumble and bounce as they spill from his mouth in a disorganized accumulation upon the desk. I keep thinking he reminds me of someone as I try to make sense of where he’s going with these ideas; and then I realize the person he reminds me of is me.
  • The woman who comes to my office to cry. She bought me three boxes of tissues last semester because I never had them in my office.
  • A snowboarder. Nothing much else to describe — that says it all. Except, he understands and can apply conservation of angular momentum, even as a three dimensional vector.
  • The chemistry major whose handwriting qualifies him for serial killer school. I think he’s brilliant, but his work looks more like graffiti than physics. He told me his family doesn’t refrigerate mayonnaise.
  • A student who always wears red. Not maroon or crimson or rose. Red.
  • The young man whose younger sister was killed in a skiing accident a few weeks ago. He came back to class a few days later, tired, pale, and subdued, but he still smiled. A few days later I asked him how he was doing, what kind of load he was carrying and how he was keeping up with it. He told me that he “only” had my class (5 credit hours of physics), organic chemistry, biochemistry, and physiology, so it wasn’t too bad this semester. I tried to say something but it just came out as an incredulous vomit of disconnected words.

There are others, and there will be more. They keep coming back. I could write about each one of them, I suppose, though I’m not sure I should. More than that, I realize that the plunging neckline and the snowboarding and the crying and the mayonnaise are all secondary. Sure, this is part of these peoples’ lives, but only a part. I get to interact with them on so many other levels, and it goes beyond physics. They ask, “Can I ask you a question?” and I smirk and withhold the desire to respond, “but you just did.” And then we talk about conservation of angular momentum, or Gauss’ law, or sometimes sisters and algebra and snowboarding. They reveal things like, “I hope I don’t get proposed to” and “I don’t understand this” and (the most brave) “I really thought I understood this but . . . ” It’s a fun job; it explains why I make so little progress on other things when students are coming by all morning.

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2 thoughts on “on students

  1. I love this post. Your descriptions of your students are so vivid that I feel like I would recognize them if I saw them walking down the street in a crowd. When I write, I struggle with character descriptions, so I can learn a lot from you.

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