John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Returning the Gift: You Never Know What a Student Can Do Unless You……

February 6, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Returning the Gift: You Never Know What a Student Can Do Unless You……

I have just completed fifty years of being, proudly, a higher educator, a profession that our society needs more than ever to teach students how to discern the difference between facts and “alternative facts.” All of us in the profession are constantly exposed to unproven students who need us to invest in them. How do we know what they can do? What they can amount to in life? We can’t unless we give them a chance…

Thankfully, I learned this fifty years ago, right after I arrived at my permanent base in the United States Air Force and about a week before I started teaching my first class. I met someone that I made a bet on, that I “invested” in, literally, and wow, it has really paid off. I will explain. I think of this former student so often as a reminder of what my work is all about. It helps too that he and I are still in regular communication.

So I had only been on my base for a couple of weeks, arriving January 10, 1967. And this former student, Raymond O. Booth, arrived on January 27. He also was assigned to the 363rd Tactical Hospital at Shaw AFB where all the hospital staff ate in what was referred to as “the chow hall.” We were a small squadron and it was easy to get to know everyone regardless of rank differences. Even the physicians fraternized with enlisted personnel and esprit de corps was very high.

dennisthemenaceIt didn’t take long for all of us in the squadron to take notice of this guy. He was the shortest by far, had a loud, high, voice which almost sounded pre-pubescent. He looked kind of like the cartoon strip character Dennis the Menace and he even had a blond cowlick sticking up on the rear of his head as did the infamous Dennis! He definitely did not look military. We all could hear him the minute he entered the chow hall greeting all like his long lost extended tribe. There was consensus that he was the funniest person any of us had ever met. And the patients loved him. He was a medic who worked OB-GYN. His MO was to practice what he called “happiness therapy” and he was so good at uplifting the spirits of his patients that they complained to his supervisors when they gave him a day off. He had another skill all of us admired: he could come to the very edge of mocking his superiors, including the hospital commander, but doing so under the camouflage of humor. Even the brass loved his calculated insolence. He was truly the Hospital’s Everyman.

And I, who never met a stranger, sought him out and frequently sat with him in the chow hall. I learned how bright he was. Underlying any skillful humor has to be the gifts of intelligence and insight. I learned that he was from a rural town in north central Ohio, one of ten children. His parents had no college education. Father was a steelworker. No one in the family had ever been to college. Raymond was a high school graduate, and amazingly given his size, a former football player. The guy certainly had more courage than I did. He had never been anywhere. Had never seen any ocean, which he finally saw for the first time while stationed in South Carolina. I know because I had never met anyone who had not seen an ocean and I wanted to see how he reacted so I drove him over. He uttered unprintable exclamations.

Most of all I knew about him that he was really smart, and a really gifted communicator. So given my biases I inquired as to why he hadn’t gone to college after high school graduation. He told me: “Oh, I could never have gone to college—no member of my family has ever gone to college. We don’t do college!” He didn’t know it but he had laid down the opportunity gauntlet with me.

So I kept working on him about going to college. I told him that there was a college program right on base offered by the University of South Carolina for troops just like him. And better still, the Air Force paid 75% of the student’s tuition. But he told me he couldn’t afford the 25%. He also had a lot of other “reasons” why he couldn’t do college. For example, he thought he wasn’t intelligent enough. I used my best logic and psychiatric social worker skills to neutralize all his forms of resistance, all but the tuition cost.

Finally, I said to him: “OK Raymond, what would you say if I paid the other 25%? But you have to make at least a B. And once you do I will fund a second course and so on.” Of course he was flabbergasted and said he could not allow me to do that. I told him I could and would.

Back story here was that during college I had really angered my parents. I had gotten into a living arrangement with a young woman of whom they did not approve. To both punish me and try to motivate me out of the error of my ways, they cut my allowance from $100 a month to $50 a month, a real hardship. I happened to share this with the mother of one of my friends. And she immediately insisted on giving me $50 right then and there and told me to always carry that fifty-dollar bill on my person “for emergencies!” and that she would mail me a fifty dollar check every month thereafter for the balance of my time in college. And she did. The most important aspect of this arrangement was her insisting I make a pledge not to repay her but to someday do the same kind of thing for someone else. This deal was made in the fall of 1963 and I found a way to repay it in the spring of 1967 with Raymond O. Booth.

Some footnotes:  I broke off the relationship my parents objected to the end of that school year; my parents restored my allowance for the following year. And I sold my car at the end of that year and gave the proceeds to my benefactor who had told me she did not want me to repay her. Even though she accepted the repayment she told me it did not let me out of her original deal obligating me to return the gift to someone else.

OK, back to Raymond Booth. He did agree to my deal. And he took his first course—actually, from me. He earned a B in the course. He took three more courses in succession at Shaw AFB, which I underwrote. Then the Air Force shipped him to the Philippines and he was on his own thereafter.

After his four-year Air Force tour was over he took his 60 or so college credits earned by that time and transferred to a private college near his Ohio home town and finished his bachelor’s degree, with a great deal of assistance from his new wife, Holly. I attended their wedding in December of 1971. He joined his wife in the profession of public school teaching in Ohio where he taught middle school children for over 30 years. He also earned another degree, a masters. And he was a MASTER teacher. He was a dramatic storyteller, classroom performer, lover of his students and calling.

What a wonderful investment I made. He was the first of my students I invested in –in all the ways one could invest. He was the only student though for whom I provided the initial seed money other than my two children. Wow did he return the gift. And so did I.

So you never know what a student can do, unless you……..

*give them a chance, a break, like surely you must have had

*return your gifts

*communicate high expectations

*reiterate those high expectations

*address each of the factors that are inhibiting their getting started

*challenge and support

*let them know you will hang in there with them forever

*allow each student to teach you a lesson

I was so thankful to learn early in my career what dividends are paid for the giver and the receiver—and society—when we give students a chance.

 

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