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Last week I wrote about the gap between the expectations we have for students and the expectations they have for our classes and their participation in them. Since then, I had an opportunity to join in on a Program in Writing and Rhetoric pre-term staff meeting at Stanford, led by my inimitable colleague Marvin Diogenes. During this session, Marvin asked all of us to turn the dial back to the first day of our first year in college, to our arrival at whatever school we attended. For him, that was fifty years ago this week, his first day as a first-year student at Stanford.
Marvin asked us to make notes about what that day was like: what did we remember about the place and our place in it? What was happening on campus at the time? What was happening in the larger world that week or month? What favorite movie or song or band do we remember from that year? What activities were we signed up for and why? How did we allocate our time between school work and “other” things? He had about twenty of these prompts, all designed to take us back in time to our 17- or 18-year-old selves, to get our heads back into that space, if only briefly.
He described leaving his home in Michigan pretty much for the first time, getting ready to head west to California. He remembered packing two suitcases and two boxes, which his brother-in-law helped load into the car—when Marvin, being his ever-cautious self, remembered he had not packed his winter coat. No room in the suitcases now, so he wore it instead, onto the airplane headed to SFO. In those days, current Stanford students turned up at the airport to welcome new frosh and usher them onto waiting buses for the ride south to campus. Marvin found himself on one of those buses, the only person wearing anything even vaguely resembling a winter coat. Feeling awkward and out of it, a “nerd” from small town Michigan, he imagined everyone on the bus looking at him with derision or contempt. Or worse. It was a moment when he felt a complete outsider, ostracized and very much alone. He asked us to look over our notes and to think about when and where we might have experienced such a “winter coat” moment, and just how that had felt.
Then, more to the point, he asked us to remember such a moment when we looked out at the faces in our first classes this term. The students, he said, might look unengaged. They might look distant and even suspicious. Or just silent. Those appearances, though, don’t reveal the whole student, not by a long shot. We can be sure, Marvin reminded us, that each of them has had or will have a “winter coat” moment that will affect them deeply, though we won’t be able to see that at all.
I’ll remember this story for a long time. Especially when I am greeting new students. And I will try very hard not to make snap judgments and to question my own assumptions about the students I see.
I had more than one winter coat moments in my first year, from the time I badly mispronounced a word that I had only seen written to . . . well, you get the idea. And the movie of my first year? Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, after which I did not feel comfortable in the shower for almost a decade.
What was your first week of college like? And do you recall a winter coat moment?
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