(Columnist’s Note: This reprint from 2016 is one of my favorite “introspective” columns, and it’s as true of high school as it ever was of college. Getting to adulthood is tough, and being there is even tougher.)
It is the time in the semester when my first-year students start learning the really hard lessons that it’s my job to help teach them.
I don’t mean the lessons about grammar and sentence structure and organization of paragraphs. I start teaching those lessons the first day of class and they continue, for most of my students, for the entire three-semester English requirement at my University, whether I remain their professor for all those classes or not.
For the smart ones, those lessons continue on into other classes and other requirements. No matter what field you go into, being able to support an assertion and communicate effectively and convince people you are educated and erudite and know what you’re talking about matters.
Those lessons may be hard to learn, but they are not especially hard to teach. I know the answers to questions like those. I know when to use who and whom. I know how to organize a paragraph around a topic sentence—in fact, I know several ways. I know how to construct a proper thesis.
If only college consisted primarily of those lessons.
By midterm of the first semester, however, the hardest thing about college for most students is the realization that you can’t accomplish everything. Some things suffer under the best of circumstances. For many students, the worst thing about this lesson is how very much it feels like a punishment.
For many of my very best students, the ones who have worked hard at school and had the luxury of consistently prioritizing their studies, it’s an especially bitter pill to take.
It is, for many of them, their first taste of real life.
This is the time in the semester when I have to explain that I grade product, not people. I will have students pull off As on work they’ve barely labored over because they have a natural talent in the subject or the assignment, purely by chance, plays to their strengths.
I will have students put hours and hours into a piece of work that was too ambitious for their skills.
And this is the time in the semester when I end up talking about priorities, over and over again.
My composition classes at the University of Kentucky included a department-wide attendance policy. I admit it took me a few semesters of living with this rule to get used to it myself. (I was pretty young when I started teaching.)
But I learned to love it after a while. It’s a lot like real life.
We all have times in our lives when we can’t make everything go the same direction at once.
We all have events that interfere with the normal workings of our lives and responsibilities that can’t be shirked.
And sometimes those responsibilities cause us to miss something else. You’d be wise to know what’s most important to you because when those conflicts arise, you sometimes have to decide very quickly.
Once, many years ago, I had a student come to me because his father, whom he had only regained contact with the past few years, was ill and wanted him to go to a classic rock concert of some kind. (I think it was The Eagles reunion tour, but it’s been a long time, and my brain is not as young as it used to be.)
It was literally a once in a lifetime opportunity, especially with someone who might not be around much longer. But it meant missing a test, and since it wasn’t an “excused” absence, it meant losing those points—a letter grade, give or take, in the end.
I knew what the kid wanted. He wanted me to tell him I’d excuse the absence, which I had no approved grounds to do.
In the end, I looked at the kid and said, “Are you worried about my grade or my judgment? I can’t excuse the absence, but if you need it, I can certainly excuse YOU. Which is more important to you? A letter grade in this class or your father? What do you think is the right thing to do?”
When did we get it in our heads that doing the right thing doesn’t come at a cost.
The lesson of history is that it ALWAYS comes at a cost, doesn’t it?
Adults make hard choices every day, or at least they used to. The job that would be a financial boon for our family might also take us away from them for months at a time or would make us hard to live with. In a perfect world, we don’t lose connection with our families while we try to support them, but it happens every single day.
We decide that one person needs us more than another, and we hope that the other person understands, but they don’t always, and even when they do, the lost time takes a toll, doesn’t it?
There’s a recent book out right now about the signers of the Declaration of Independence—all 56 of them, including the ones you’ve never heard of, some of whom were ruined by their association with it.
There is a price to be paid for every choice we make. Sometimes, we can’t even see the price until after the choice is made.
We all have only so many hours in the day and so many days in the week, and most importantly, so many years in the bucket. You can’t accomplish everything.
In the end, we get what we go after. People who sacrifice everything else for money are almost always going to get rich. People who are willing to do anything to be famous are probably going to get famous.
For the rest of us, it’s a balancing act. We decide every single day where our priorities are. It’s like the parable of the two wolves. Which one wins? The one you feed.
I think of that particular student often. He was one of the few who bothered to come back and visit. Before graduation, he needed transcripts to apply for some sort of professional school, and when he picked them up, he came by to see me.
He had completely forgotten what he made in freshman composition. Turns out it was a C, his ONLY C in his entire college career, and he had forgotten all about it.
“Must not have been that important then,” I said.
“No,” he said. “And my dad died, you know. That trip was totally worth it.”
“Well, consider that my graduation gift to you,” I said. “That’s how it feels to make the right choice. Never easy. Totally worth it.”
And I hope that for you, too. We all make difficult choices every day. When it matters, I hope you make the right one. And even if it isn’t easy, I hope it’s totally worth it.