Spying on Hope

I walked through the library at the college before heading home, and I talked to a few present and former students studying for finals, writing papers, eating bagels. I did not frequent the library when I was in college; I knew where it was though.

This time I sat at a table to read notes sent by an editor for a book project—ironically, about teaching college—and looked up from time to time this last week of classes. A few were on cell phones, but not many. Many were on laptops, but more were reading textbooks, writing, or talking quietly to other students with open textbooks and laptops.

My collegiate muscle memory kicked in and I thought, but it isn’t raining out, or snowing, why are all of these people in here?!

After about ten minutes, a young man, John, who had been a student for a few classes of mine some years ago and for whom I wrote a letter of recommendation for a Study Abroad in Australia, came to my table. We talked about his trip and about how he can’t wait to graduate in May. He sat down and before me was a young man only a few years older than last time I saw him but a world away from who he had been back then. It was his maturity, yes—eighteen to twenty-two is a leap unlike most others in life. But it was more. Experience, of course, travel, and the fact he was always an excellent student.

But it was also anticipation. He is just months from moving away from the bubble of dormitories and fraternity fellowship, and it shows in his eyes, the way when I asked his plans, he sat up, how he talked faster. I rarely get to see this part. I teach predominantly freshman and sophomores here, and they’re still ripe, high school residue still on their shoulders they do not yet wish to brush off, in front of them the camp that can be college when you’re away from home but not really. That’s what I stare at. I’ve been looking at twenty-year-old’s for thirty-three years, and the eyes of someone just a couple of years down the line are different. I never get to look into those eyes.

John’s eyes have that hope, they have appreciation, they have understanding. He said the polite, “I could not have done this without you, Professor,” but I know better. He could have, of course. Some students have an internal motivation that no one could defy if they even wanted to.

I returned to my manuscript written on and off through the years of teaching mostly unmotivated, unenthusiastic, unhopeful twenty-year-old’s, and I knew what I needed to do to sharpen the narrative. Throughout the work I dip into the idea of “possibility,” but sitting in the library looking at the students studying, sharing ideas, working, I noted the one aspect of collegiate life I missed out on in my thirty years of teaching first and second year students—hope. The ones at my previous place of employment as well as many of my freshman and sophomore students here move through the day like they were lucky to drag their asses out of summer break. But later, when what’s next is the next forty years of their lives, these same students will come to life, will discover what they are capable of and if they have the metal to make it beyond the confines of the classroom for the first time in their lives, which already are about a quarter of the way over.

Sitting at that table, pushing aside my own work to watch others, talking to John, talking to a few others I knew as I moved my way from the study area to the Einstein Bagels area, filled me with a sense that whatever might be wrong in the world, these people have what it takes to make it right, and for the first time since I walked by Friedsam Memorial Library at St Bonaventure in 1983 on my way to my life, things felt like they were going to be just fine.

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