Reflections on a Freaked Out Student

Today, one of my phenomenal students had a meltdown. They've been taking an extra course every term since I've known them, doing a complicated double major. Recently, they took on an internship and did probably double the amount of work required in addition to their course load. They pushed for a language course that isn't offered at this University, and by all reports, not only managed to mobilize several slackers around to join in, but are rocking the course. The student will, in all likelihood, do more amazing things than I can imagine (and I think this is a bit of a success as a teacher, really).

But today they had the meltdown. The internship they're doing this term has been going since Christmas. The course load for the term is more than a bit intense. Something, they said, feels like it is going to give. But they hate feeling like a quitter, like they're going to let someone down.

This may be the hardest lesson college will offer them: that sometimes you have to let go of things - and that sometimes, even, you have to fail (though that isn't what the student is doing, by any means). One of the things I tried to tell them, in our conversation, is that one of the biggest moments in life is learning that beyond seeing how far you can go, sometimes you've got to figure out what things about you to protect and to not push against. Sometimes you don't even have the reason - and I can well understand how for this student that would be as uncomfortable as quitting. It's a tough lesson to learn, if you ever really learn it.

For me, that lesson started sooner than college. I am, it has been suggested, perhaps a little too laid back for my own good. To some, my tendency to not offer a definitive opinion on every little thing gets interpreted as having no opinion; my intention, really, is to make sure that when I do offer one, that it comes across that much more strongly for the quiet it disrupts. Like my student, I like a solid answer to things. I want to know the why's of what I'm going through, and I don't like to make my decisions until I do. And so learning to protect the parts of life that made things more comfortable, even when there wasn't an obvious reason why, took a bit of coaxing.

I went to a high school of over-achievers. On the first day of freshmen year, people were comparing what colleges they wanted to go to and using those estimates to establish a hierarchy. GPA could determine where you sat in the lunch room or whether you went to a dance. In my junior year, the presumed valedictorian had a nervous break down from the pressure of three people nipping at his heels. While he was away, the runner's up mounted campaigns against his return and told stories of his downfall. A guidance counselor once suggested at an assembly that college wasn't for everyone, and the resulting horror was long enough that you could have flown to Timbuktu for the pin you were going to drop.

In my junior year, I had an internship at a hospital, working in various areas, culminating in the Emergency Room. In the middle of that rotation, my father was brought in with a heart attack, and I set up his heart monitor and I.V. without a word. No one knew we were related until about three hours later when a nurse noticed a patient with my same last name on the board. I'd gone about my business, and no one would suspect. Only when the nurse joked about the name, suggesting I'd put it up so I could steal a nap in the cardio monitoring room, did I say (matter of factly) that it was my father.

Thinking about it later that evening, I realized that I'd done a great interpretation of the doctors I wanted to be like: detached and quiet. I'd done my job better than anyone could ask of me. And I thought about the questions that friends at school had asked that afternoon: did I think it would impact my Calculus test? Would I get a bad evaluation for failing to disclose patient information? How quickly could I hook up a 12-lead EKG anyway?

And I realized it wasn't who I wanted to be, and that the question wasn't about who everyone else wanted me to be or how they thought I should behave. It was about what I wanted and needed.

To be honest, I'm probably still learning that lesson today - and some days, I probably take that lesson much too far. I hope, though, in telling some of that story to my student that they'll realize that sometimes success isn't measured in terms of how much you're doing, but in terms of how happy you feel. It's not just about going far. Sometimes it's about going happily.


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