By Michelle McClendon
The conversation with the young woman running the cash register at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Salina started the same way many conversations start with me:
Cashier (Ashley) – Have you been in here before? You look familiar.
Me – No, but I get that all the time. I have one of those faces.
Ashley – Are you a teacher?
Me – Yes, but not anywhere around here. I teach at Butler Community College in El…
Ashley – You were my speech teacher!
Me – I was?
Ashley – Yes! You liked me!
We talked for a few more seconds. How was she doing? Better – she transferred to Hutch the next year and put more effort into it because she was paying this time around. She remembered that she gave a speech about J. Cole. I vaguely remember that, but I still couldn’t place her face. I thought that was weird; I might not remember names, but I usually always remember faces. Then, I found out why I couldn’t remember her face.
Me – Did you finish my class?
Ashley – No (looking down). But, it’s not because you didn’t try (smiling.) You liked me!
What a wonderful reminder that students don’t care what you know until they know you care. She did not recall anything I tried to teach, but she remembered how I made her feel. I liked her.
Looking back, I’m beginning to remember who she was. I think I remember her sitting, a little sullen, in the (now-renovated) room in the 800 Building with the garage door in it. I think she was one I actually read correctly the first time around. Her attitude wasn’t “attitude.” It was fear. Maybe it was her first semester of college. Maybe she didn’t know anyone in the class. Maybe she had never given a speech before. I did not ask. I should have. As much as I cared, it was not enough. It breaks my heart when I can’t help students overcome their speech anxiety.
I have a feeling I learned more from Ashley in our two-minute chat than she did in the weeks she remained in my class. She reminded me of the following lessons: Care. Encourage. Persevere. Let them choose their own speech topics. Remember that even if they fail my class, they are not failures. Everyone works at their own pace and in their own place.
Thanks to Davis Laughlin, I begin the semester by telling my students that this course will change their lives. I clarify that I don’t think my class is more important than any other. It is my hope that every interaction they have changes them in some way. It’s not always a monumental change, and they might not always realize at the time they have been changed. But, it is my hope they become a little more humane. Ashley helped me recover a bit of my humanity.
As a side note: This was one of the few “you look familiar” conversations based on reality. Three days later, one of my summer students sent me an e-mail message asking if I had ever eaten at the Scholtzsky’s at Central and Woodlawn in Wichita. She used to work there and swears I must have come in. I’ve never eaten there. Me and my generic face!