End O’ Semester and Dontists

The end of the semester always lands with a crash–a head-snapping bump at the very least–and never moreso than when final exam week is topped off with a root canal. As I sat in the endodontist’s office this past Friday morning, nervously fidgeting in the exam room, one of the office workers decided to come in to keep me company while I waited.

Note to humanity: Sitting down with someone who’s nervous is an act of kindness, of course; however, it’s also possible that the nervous person (who was listening to some soothing voices through her iPod as she waited) wishes she didn’t have to take out her earbuds and drum up the energy to make conversation with a stranger.

Especially when that stranger is, intellectually, a few peas short of a casserole.

So there I sat, the hostess of a spontaneous chit-chat party held on site at a dentist’s chair. One one level, I felt under-dressed and as though I should have a platter of hors d’oeuvres to pass. On another level, I considered tossing a garbage can into the wall and becoming so raucous so that the guy getting his head drilled into over in the next examination room would decide to call the cops to bust up our merriment.

Instead, I decided to let the nice woman be nice, even if it meant keeping my Cranky on a leash. So I asked her about her kids, in the process discovering that Nice Lady says “overhauls” when she means “overalls,” and you know damn straight that the second you notice such a speech quirk, the person subsequently uses the offending word ten times in the two minutes. It was okay, though, because she was talking about her son and what he likes to wear, and so then I got to thinking about Dexy’s Midnight Runners in their cute little overhauls and the music of the 80s, and before you knew it, while I was nodding with great interest and asking follow-up questions, I was also replaying A-ha’s “Take On Me” video in my head. As it turns out, blurring reality with cartoon drawing is an effective form of therapy when one is nervous and waiting for the pain to begin.

Next time I go to a middle school band concert, I plan to transform the entire theater into delightful scribbles in my skull.

In addition to revisiting some of my favorite hits of the ’80s and learning more about a dental receptionist’s son’s Prom plans, I also got to enjoy my companion’s surprised look every five minutes when I’d excuse myself for a quick visit to the restroom. Normally, ideally, my nervous bladder is allowed to relieve itself without an audience, but in this case, we had a witness doing some tallying.

Eventually, we got to talk about me, and I mentioned that I teach at the community college. Leaning in close and adopting the over-confidential tone of voice that sometimes means the word “cancer” is about to be uttered, my new friend said, “Let me ask you something. I know colleges want to make as much money off students as they can, and so they make students take all sorts of classes that they don’t need, but how is it that my older son is going to school for welding, yet he has to take classes in math and writing and all that other junk that has nothing to do with welding?”

We in the business of education call that a Breathtaking Question. We Liberal Artsians sometimes go so far as to weep quietly into our bent elbows upon hearing it. It’s one of those questions where I need to use my increasingly-honed ability to count to ten before replying, lest I start yelling and spluttering about how any and every educational opportunity is a gift and how the notion of “having to take classes that are ‘junk’” is offensive to my very bones because I’m still grateful I had to take the physics class in college that completely flummoxed me and which I very nearly failed, for there were huge lessons in not being comfortable or successful and hearing words and ways of thinking that were outside my purview and how I personally want to make my living with language but would find taking a welding class to be a delightful challenge and how most people change jobs at least seven times during their professional lives–and so how could a thinking person NOT want to be equipped to handle every possible potentiality of the future by having a broad and adaptable education?–and, well, any time I end up doing mental spluttering in all the colors of the rainbow, we know it’s time for

one. two. three. four. five. six. seven. eight. nine. ten.            eleven for good measure.

Smiling as widely as my ailing tooth would allow, I asked my new friend, “So, now, the program that he’s in, is it a certificate program or a diploma program? Or is he working towards an A.A. degree?”

Eyes crossing as she tried to parse out my question, New Friend said, “I have no idea.”

Ah. Her lack of knowledge about her son’s course of study told me more than a content-filled answer would have.

It was time to shift from mom-to-mom into teacher-to-learner mode. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but suddenly I found myself talking more smoothly and articulately than I do when I’m in regular-citizen mode. That tends to happen when I’m gettin’ my teacherly on.

“Well, if he’s in a certificate or diploma program, which I’m guessing is what welding would be, that means he’s mostly focusing on learning the skills of the trade, but his instructors–who have experience in the field and a well-established knowledge of what it takes for success in the profession–will have built the curriculum around not only practical skills but also the more abstract skills that they know are essential. In some cases, that might mean they have planned some courses that deal with concepts that go beyond welding, such as math or writing. If you think about your own life and the work you do behind the counter for a dentist, you probably can see ways where it’s helpful to be number savvy and have accomplished communication skills. For example, you file insurance claims, do billing, schedule appointments, hand-hold nervous patients, oversee office logistics, and so on. If you were simply able to pick up a phone receiver and say ‘Hello,’ you wouldn’t be completely able to meet all your job demands, would you?”

Looking like there was little she’d rather be doing than picking up a phone receiver and saying, “Hello?” at that moment, she simply stared at my moving mouth.

Continuing, I said, “And if your son’s program is, in fact, an A.A. track degree, then he’ll finish it with the label of ‘college graduate‘ and the possibility of transferring to a four-year institution, where he would enroll in higher-level college classes. Thus, the community college not only has to ensure that its graduates can handle the next academic challenge, it also has to ensure that its A.A. graduates fulfill society’s–employers’–expectations of what a ‘college graduate‘ is. College graduates absolutely need a broad base of foundational knowledge. The caché of being a college graduate would lose its weight, if employers hired someone with the expectation that he/she could write a letter or balance the books…but then were told by the new hire, ‘Actually, I don’t exactly know how to put paragraphs together, and I can’t figure out how much this client owes us.’ Were this the case, employers would have the right to think, ‘Why the heck did I hire a college graduate? Did this person not learn any of the basic, important skills?’”

At this point, we took a breather so that the doc could come in and give me the first four of what would eventually be twelve numbing shots. Patting my arm, he left the room and said he’d be back in about twenty minutes.

Having already forgotten that she was getting more than she bargained for, my new friend looked at me expectantly, as though I might suddenly hold up my hands and launch into “This is the church/This is the steeple” so as to amuse her better.

But no.

I went on: “Thus, it’s imperative that the college asks its graduates to gain some breadth and not just depth in a single area…”

Re-engaged, perhaps perking up because the word “breadth” sounds like “breast,” my new friend noted, “The thing about my son, and I know him well, is that two days after he finishes these classes he cares nothing about, he won’t remember a thing from them. It’s not like he’s going to remember some biology business or what year some document was signed. The information will be gone from him the second he leaves the classroom.”

With a certain admiration for this defense, I nevertheless had to rebut: “The point isn’t that graduates will remember the details–although it’s surprising what bits do stick. The point is that the ‘junk,’ ‘non-practical’ classes are the ones that teach people how to think…how to become critical thinkers who are able to handle any situation or problem, no matter the job, simply because they have been trained in how to break down the issues, examine the angles, play through all possible outcomes, look for faults in logic, hang in there when things don’t make sense. They’re being taught abstract thinking skills that reach far beyond recalling the parts of a cell or that William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. They’re being taught more than how to take two pieces and apply fire to them; they’re being taught how to be thinking citizens with the ability to consider every life choice.”

If you’re thinking I’m just typing all this up for a blog post, and I didn’t really rattle off so very much rhetoric at this poor woman, then you have no idea how much I can talk when I’m scared. Those poor people on the Titanic would have been hard-pressed to hear the orchestra playing “Nearer My God to Thee” over the noise of my holding forth about how a hypothermic death has inherent merits over death by fire.

Fortunately for my listening audience and the future of higher education, the endodontist and his assistant came back at that point to administer four more shots, unfortunately not of tequila, and to begin the procedure (flash to five minutes in the future, when he began clipping in the dental dam, and I winced; it was at that point the final four shots slid into my cheek). Kindly, my new friend bid me good luck and dashed off to answer the ringing telephone. Was she able to gasp out the requisite “Hello?” We’ll never know.

After the root canal and during its subsequent complications (a separate blog post in itself), I spent a lot of hours online, wrapping up the work of the semester. As I was grading final exams from my Modern Literature class, I was reminded repeatedly that the “junk” courses which feel to so many like a nasty way of milking money from their pocketbooks are, in truth, movingly transformative. Even when skeptics can concede the value in a math or writing class, they are generally unmovable in their opinion that literature classes are worthless. Of course, this attitude hurts me, personally, for it hits me where I live, but even more, it insults something beautiful: the way fine writing can inform our view of the world and the people who inhabit it.

You don’t get that from a welding class, Butch.

Before I give you evidence of how the Modern World Lit class affected a few of my students (not because of me, necessarily; because of what they read), here’s a quick update from the student I wrote about in my previous post. She did get her paper posted–one minute before the deadline–and it wasn’t terrific, but she did it. Here was her submission message with the final draft of her essay (I always ask students before using their words, incidentally):

“Well, here it is. It’s obviously not the work I would have liked to do, but I am just trying to get through the last week. Having a baby is crazy! I knew it’d be tough, but wowza, even finding time to shower is a huge time zapper in the day. I really enjoyed the class up until now, and I’m sorry my effort was so poor. I did the best I could to finish all my classes. Thank you for making me laugh through all your posts.”

So, despite adjusting to her new reality, she managed to soldier through (I feel like “mother through” would be a more apt phrase here) and finish the thing out. She is one of the many happy endings who came out the other side of “junk” classes, having learned something–mostly about herself.

And look at a few of the things students gained from taking a literature class–ideas and information that will change the way they function in the world forever. The paragraphs below are excerpted from the final question on their final exam. I asked students to consider all the many readings from the semester and to highlight what they had learned, culturally–to provide a few cultural tidbits they had gleaned and that would stick with them.

One student wrote:

“One of the biggest things I took from this class was from the various readings coming out of South Africa, particularly ‘The Lemon Orchard’ and ‘The Return.’ I never knew things had been that bad in South Africa, in most of our History Classes here in the states it seems like anyplace that isn’t the U.S or Western Europe gets passed over, especially Africa. It’s rather shocking to know that a system so similar to our Jim Crow Laws was still in existence in South Africa, a place with a heavy Western influence.”

Apartheid. Violence and injustice in Africa. Introduced to a young man through literature.

Another student wrote:

“There are a view stories where I had those ‘learning moments’ or times where I put a few things together and realized, ‘Hey, this is actually real! These are real people, this is a real thing that is happening somewhere around the world!’ I feel that too often when we’re ‘learning’ about a culture or a group of people that we forget that these people are humans too, and not just facts in a text book. Therefore, I was extremely grateful to be able to read literature written by these people around the world. There’s emotion, conflict, feeling, and meaning in literature, something that I couldn’t get from a history book. However, with the knowledge of history, I got to learn what happened and how it happened, and together with this class I learned how people FELT when it happened.”

Empathy. Connection. Compassion. Introduced to a young woman through literature.

Yet another student wrote:

“‘Kicking the Habit’ stuck with me the most, as I really have never considered speaking a second language could be so troublesome, as there are many people at the college from different cultures that speak English as a second or even third language. In the poem, the frustration of the narrator is uncovered in the first eleven lines (‘Late last night, I decided to/stop using English/I had been using it all day–/talking all day/listening all day/ thinking all day/reading all day/ remembering all day/ feeling all day/ and even driving all day/ in English–‘). This poem illustrates a person who is forced into a specific outline which makes them a person who they are not, someone synthetic, temporarily robbed of their identity. He explains that he is so accustomed to English ways that he grew an addiction that masked who he was (‘So you might say I’m actually addicted to it; yes, I’m an Angloholic, and I can’t get along without the stuff: It controls my life. Until last night, that is. Yes, I had had it with the habit’, line 36-44 on page 141), so he quit to regain who he “was”. At the end of the reading, I felt a sorrow for people of different cultures that are forced into speaking a second language that plagues everyday they have to use it, I was totally oblivious to the psychological effect and toll on the mind. I will forever remember the meaning of this poem and will exercise extra care and understanding when speaking to someone who does not speak English as their primary language.”

Dawning understanding that language is power. Immigration is traumatic. The psychology and dynamics of personal identity. Introduced through literature.


Ultimately, my new friend in the endodontist’s office sweetly tried to distract me from my nerves. She didn’t succeed.

She did succeed in driving me to distraction.

And while I was in that distracted state, monologuing as if to save my life, I was reminded that there is power in my everyday work. The pain of a root canal will fade over time; certainty that lives are being transformed through education…well…the joy of that will be with me forever.

Put another way:

“Junk” classes? My ass.




19 responses to “End O’ Semester and Dontists”

  1. Lil Avatar

    Indeed. How can you live, being so uninterested in everything that isn’t your constrained little world. What a sad life.

  2. kmkat Avatar

    When Smokey and I were in the Naval Reserve, we journeyed to Okinawa twice for two weeks each time. While we were renting a car and driving all over the island and shopping in strange places and eating weird food like it was going out of style, others were remaining on base 24/7 and saying, ‘Why should I go out there? There is nothing I want out there.” Such are those with tiny minds who cannot conceive of anything outside their own tiny world. One must pity them and rejoice over those (students) who open up to new experiences.

  3. Secret Agent Woman Avatar

    I hear this sort of thinking from some of my patients. And it offends me both as a teacher and as someone who was a student for so long. The sad thing is that she has likely passed that attitude about education on to her son.

  4. pam Avatar

    Oooo, before you even drew breath for your explanation I was thinking ‘good luck with that’.
    I talk non-stop if a nurse/doctor is taking my blood (usually to the wall as I always look away at the time)- I’m squeamish that way.
    I warn them first that I’m going to do that and ask them everything under the sun, family, travels, interests. Once a nurse said, “Actually I’m more interested in your story, so I’ll talk to you and ask you the questions”.
    Either a very nice person, or thinking “Jeez, this scaredy-cat is a tad on the nosy side!”.
    With root canal, only one thing keeps me going – the mantra “This too will pass.”.
    …and congratulations to you and your new-mother student…now she’s well on her way with the biggest assignment of all!

  5. vagabonde Avatar

    I was always surprised at how, most average people in the US, don’t value education. There is this intellectual phobia. Courses here, at least in Georgia, are not very difficult. I remember when my two daughters attended public schools I took them on Saturdays to Georgia State University for extra courses for gifted children, and gave them extra reading assignments too. They also followed courses at Kennesaw University while finishing high school. In France you have to take a year of philosophy the last year of high school, it is mandatory, here it is not. In my French high school we had to study 2 foreign languages – I took Italian and English and can speak both fluently, although I write better in French of course.
    I remember talking with two teens in Sierra Leone, West Africa who had just returned from a vacation in Chicago. They were not pleased. They said that the African-Americans they met in Chicago had never visited all the museums in their city and never took them to historical places in Chicago, and also made fun of the British accent of these African teens. The Sierra Leone teens said that the Chicago teens, even though they said they were African-Americans, knew very little about the history of Africa. But I have heard the same from teens in England who studied here – they like to study in the US because they say it is so easy. When I wanted to send my two daughters to France to study I was told that coming from the US they would have to take 2 years of remedial to be able to follow courses there! In Canada, it was only one year of remedial for US high school students then. I read “Just 6 percent of U.S. students performed at the advanced level on an international exam administered in 56 countries.” This could hurt this nation’s future economic growth.

  6. Jess Avatar

    All I want to know is if her son was planning on wearing his overhauls to the prom.

  7. chlost Avatar

    This type of thinking is becoming the norm, unfortunately. I think it is tied to the issue of employment becoming scarce. If someone needs a job, they are looking for education which can provide job skills, not brain skills. Unfortunately, that is what employers seem to be preferring as well. Our three kids all attended four-year liberal arts colleges, and have totally non-job related degrees….one music/English double major, and two with theater degrees. Even they are a bit frustrated to be paying student loan debt on jobs which don’t pay a living wage. Education is going to become a luxury which only the super rich can afford. And our society will lose so much….all due to the short-term thinking which pervades the ranks of our leaders.

  8. Robin Avatar

    Shut the front door. Posts like this are a great reminder for me that the world is not entirely populated with Carleton College graduates and their ilk. I am constantly re-learning that people view the very same world that I view from many very different perspectives. On the one hand, I know this intellectually and it is especially evident in election years. On the other hand, I am invariably stunned when I actually encounter such beings in the here and now, let alone the endodontist’s office. I’m with you, sister. Junk classes? Them’s fightin’ words.

  9. Green Girl in Wisconsin Avatar

    Applauding you through this whole post. It’s a shameful thing to ever hear knowledge shouldn’t be valued. What the WHAT? You handled it eloquently and gracefully–and maybe even made her think a teensy bit.
    Off to watch “Come on Eileen” on YouTube now.

  10. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar

    It seems like a large portion of this country is of the opinion that thinking is not important. Sigh.

  11. Fragrant Liar Avatar
    Fragrant Liar

    I am contemplating the need for overhauling my overalls, though overall I think such an undertaking would be overhaulingly difficult. I think that last one is a most excellent variation of an otherwise ho-hum, if not misunderstood, Bon mot. But with my critical thinking skills herewith exhausted, I shall go wield something that needs welding.

  12. sweffling Avatar

    Words fail me! Do you have Life-long Learning over there? Yes we have to pay for it here, but not necessarily a great deal, and learning was always for personal development not just wage levels, although this and the last government have been/are trying to change this ethos. We still have the Workers Educational Authority which subsidises people up to age 25 and provides free creche facilities and some, though diminishing, Extramural Departments in some of our Universities. I feel we are following you in many ways now. You were so eloquent and restrained, I salute you:)

  13. lime Avatar

    this, THIS is one more example of why you are my psychic sister. i felt myself getting all teacherly in response to the receptionist’s remark about junk classes and could have spit out the defense you did with the same impassioned verbosity. reading what your students wrote brought me to tears shed in a sense of victory after a long hard labor, having finally brought forth a healthy baby which may now grow to maturity. you are a midwife to the intellect and emotional maturity of these students. and this is my goal in my little libraries with my little kids. it’s why i teach them a college level word like bibliophile because maybe they will roll it around their mouths and brains and find pleasure in it and use it and find out it is gratifying to know things and want to know more. it is why i point out that they have chosen an award winner when they check out a newbery or caldecott or c s king or pura belpre book….and then i tell them they have to promise to ell me whether or not THEY thought the book deserved the award and that there is no right or wrong answer.

    thank you. thank you. thank you. what you do matters so much.

  14. A Cuban In London Avatar

    Much food for thought here. The value of education escapes some people so often that I do wonder if we are raising the next generation to sport a T-shirt that shouts out: “Illiterate and proud of it!”.

    You’re right. Your everyday work is so powerful. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  15. Bone Avatar

    You had me at Dexys Midnight Runners.

    And I’ll hum this tune forever.

  16. Maria Avatar

    Did she have bad breath? Because I find it rather odd that most people who work in dentist offices seem to have bad breath. I mean, that is like me having to do something ten times in a row before I can stop at my office. I just expect everyone in the dental office to have really minty fresh breath. And since they are so up close and personal with us, I think it should be a rule.

    I cannot stand dental dams. And why are they ALWAYS pepto pink? I think I should at least be able to choose my own color.

  17. Meg Avatar

    Your students’ responses to your exam question gave me such a rush of gladness. You did it! YOU guided them to something and that something reached them. Sometimes leading a horse to water and providing encouragement to take a teensy little sip is quite enough to cause it to drink deeply from the trough. (Oh how I love me some tortured metaphor!)

    Oh, and my standard MO when I am facing frightening procedures is to inform the healthcare person to ask me a question, any question, and that I will speak incessantly on such topic until the frightening procedure is concluded. This doesn’t work so well in the dentist’s office.

    Finally, you must come to Cleveland so that I can take you to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where we shall sing and dance ourselves silly though all the decades of music. I embarrassed my children there just last weekend when one of them made a disparaging remark about the appearance of A Flock Of Seagulls. For shame.

  18. magpie Avatar

    you’re so friggin’ awesome.

  19. logo™ Avatar

    I’ve known too many people who thought that way… and they all drive me nuts. So glad you attempted to enlighten. It makes me feel better that you did; it made you feel better… even if it didn’t make a dent in her, it it was a net positive in the world. Well done.

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