Pulse rate, blood pressure, temperature. Vital signs give clues as to what might be going on inside our bodies. Sometimes those physical symptoms even hint at what’s going on in our heads. Too bad, not always.
Even without medical training, I could usually tell when something was off with my own kids. A tug at an ear, a loss of appetite, a blank stare into space. I knew when they were hungry, tired, sick or sad. Most of the time.
Early on, I also learned to read the signs with my students. Even with new-to-the-fold freshman, I could quickly figure out when something was amiss in their new worlds. It hardly took the mind of a rocket scientist. Or even a psychologist.
When my student confessed that she hadn’t eaten in 36 hours (apparently she counted them), I knew that anything I thought we’d be discussing about classwork was no longer important. I also knew that her not eating wasn’t really about the crappy food or her meager bank account.
She eventually ate –and not just because I began to bring food to our sessions. She also began to talk. She introduced me to a few of the demons with which she regularly grappled. She had made some bad choices, but then she made good ones. And then a few more. She hit a few potholes, took a detour or two, but eventually got back on the road and found success, in school, in life. And I was never her only resource. She had others who were competent to help her dig deeply, ask tough questions, find some answers.
That first student was the bellwether of things to come. I just didn’t know it at the time. She taught me, though, to look for signs.
I had a student who took naps. Lots of them. Who doesn’t like a good nap? But these sleep habits weren’t restorative; they were wholly depressive. Another student would mention in a text that her hair was greasy; it meant she hadn’t showered. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to, or that she didn’t need to. She just couldn’t.
I never signed up for—nor am I in any way qualified to be—de facto therapist to my students. On the other hand, before I can direct them to the very competent people who are trained, they share with me. Sometimes it’s laid bare with crystal clarity. But sometimes I have to look for signs.
I’ve become pretty good at it, too.
But now, instead of waiting for the obvious to unfold, I ask questions early-on. I’m sure with the newbies, those questions seem pretty innocuous. Some of my veterans, though, have figured out that their answers to benign questions about roomies or trips off campus might reveal too much. They dole out answers with reluctance, put up barriers. Some of them avoid me, altogether.
Eventually, though, they come back around.
And then I have to look for signs all over again.