Vital Signs

vital signsPulse 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.

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You Already Know the Answer

3d white people leaning back against a question mark

I know I frustrate my students. In the midst of a project or paper or in my position as other side to their argumentative debate, I often answer their questions with questions of my own.

C’mon, just tell me the answer, they sometimes say aloud.

I could.

Most of the time, I don’t.

Instead of answers, I try to set them on a path, leaving a breadcrumb trail of academic hints to where they need to go. I try to take them about halfway. Not all the way.

I can’t really say they appreciate my process. It’s likely that they don’t.  But on (rare)
occasion, they seem to get what I’m trying to do, even get caught up in the game.

After a particularly vexing exercise, one of my students—having finally arriving at an answer—said she liked when I made her do “this.”

I said: What, think?

A smile, a nod.

Ahh –that’s what this is all about.

I confront them less with my antics when we stray off the curriculum and into the ocean of their lives.

They let me in –in a flood of information. Maybe more than they intend to, maybe more than they should. But once we’re both in the deep end, they often reach for any debris in the water to stay afloat.  In that panicked instant, sometimes I’m all they’ve got. Captain of their sinking vessel is not a role I relish, but one I can’t seem to avoid.

And when they feel fully engulfed by a rising tide, near drowning, I certainly don’t play a game of hide-and-seek with the life raft. Still,I try only to throw them a line or hold their head above water as I remind them –they already know how to swim.

My students often forget what they already know. Instead of relying on their own instincts, they ask me questions as if I might have all the answers (ha, if they only knew). While my position at the helm of my own life may allow me to sight obvious obstacles more clearly than they, I’ve hardly got omnipresent access to all the what-ifs of their lives. But I get that what they often need to do is to just talk through the problem at hand.

Sometimes it actually is school-related. How to get a better grade or work with a professor they don’t particularly like or handle a group project when they seem to be the only one in the group doing any work.

More often, it’s life stuff. Social stuff. Boyfriend, girlfriend stuff. Life and death and big question stuff.

Scary stuff –for both of us.

I talk a lot when it’s those big ticket items, but I try to listen even more. Because I don’t have the answers.

Not really.

But I do have one.

And it’s that if they’re honest and open and willing to dive into that really deep end of their inner waters,  it’s they who have the answers. They just need to listen -to themselves.