In the summer of 2011 came an email message from one of the first students I taught, way back in 1983 in a suburban public high school. Kathy had found me through a classmate’s Facebook page, and wanted to let me know what she had been doing for the past quarter-century.
Honestly, I remembered very little about her: the name, a face, not much more. Among 130 or 140 other students I taught in 1982-83, she had done little to stand out. Her first moves after high school, as she related them to me, were not filled with academic promise: an early marriage, and then the birth of her daughter when she would have been graduating from university had things been different. Once her daughter was a year old she began taking university classes, but a few months later she gave birth to twins with serious medical and developmental problems. For the next few years she dropped her university studies to take care of her children.
A decade passed. Kathy began working, but a “handful of years” in an office job convinced her that she wanted a different life than that. As she tells the story, “My employer was kind enough to allow me to cut back to a half-time schedule so that I could go to school full-time and qualify for financial aid, and [the university] provided sufficient resources to help me along.”
Finally, 28 years after finishing high school, Kathy earned her university degree in May 2011. Her daughter graduated in the same class at the same university. Shortly after the graduation ceremony, the university announced the hiring of its new president: one of Kathy’s high school classmates. “It has been a long, strange, and excellent trip!” she wrote.
She told me, too, about her senior thesis: an analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s 19th-century novel, Jane Eyre.
The senior seminar that was offered was on Jane Eyre and [Jean Rhys’s] Wide Sargasso Sea. Although many of my fellow students were enthusiastic about the Brontë novel, I was not. I am just not a fan of Victorian literature, I guess. Knowing I needed to produce a substantive paper to get the sheepskin, and being unwilling to write a piece that was merely a rehashing of other people’s research, meant I had to get creative.
I followed my gut, which led me to interrogate the reasons for my dislike of the novel. I concluded that the tidy romantic ending was dissatisfying because the result was that Jane abandoned her dreams in order to spend her life with a man who was less than an ideal mate, a man who drove his first wife insane (according to Jean Rhys), imprisoned her, and denied her existence to the world.
My paper developed into a close reading of contradictions within the novel, and an interrogation of the mechanisms that make it feel natural for young women in our culture to sucker for romantic conclusions that lead to unsatisfactory relationships and the short-changing of hopes and aspirations. Jane could have made a profound difference [as a teacher] in the lives of many boarding school students who were otherwise left to be victims of a defective system. Despite the fact that she thrice stated that her ideal was to run a school that would provide experiences opposite those she lived through at the Reeds’ and Lowood, she gave away the inheritance that would have allowed her to do so, and became dependent on a dark and brooding patriarchal master to whom she surrendered her agency and independence.
My advisor told me that he had never seen anyone approach the novel from this angle, and that successful completion of my thesis could open up new discussions on the topic. I feel accomplished to have been able to provide a new take on an old subject for a professor who has been teaching literature since the early 60s.
Far too often, students and teachers are judged by grades and exam results. In truth, each of us is so much more than the grades we earn in high school. The grades and exam results tell us something about our recent performance on a narrow range of tasks given us by the school. But they tell us nothing about what we are, who we are, or what we may be and do in the future. “I can’t count the number of times I wished I had been a better student in your World Lit class”, Kathy wrote. Her poor performance in my class would have led unwise observers to conclude that she was not cut out for an academic future, or that if she did pursue a university degree, it should certainly not be in English literature.
Such unwise observers might also conclude that I had not done a very good job with Kathy, and that her poor results followed from my poor performance as a teacher. But grades and exams don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes the results of a teacher’s efforts remain invisible for years; often the most important effects of a teacher’s work are impossible to measure.
Kathy wrote, “I am steeped with gratitude for teachers like you, who taught me that education is not about having answers, but more importantly, it is about learning how and when to develop good questions. Kudos to you for having the fortitude to stick with [teaching], especially when some students do not always give their best efforts! You have been successful in creating a ripple that spans the vastness and touches the lives of others. . . . It does make a difference, even decades later.”
Students need stories like Kathy’s to remind them of what they can accomplish, given enough determination, patience, and persistence. Parents, teachers, school administrators, school boards, and politicians should be reminded of Kathy every time they forget that education is about much more than grades.