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Tales from the Freshman Crypt


Ah, fall semester in Athens, GA. I’m reminded of my first day as a college student here after years of dreaming of following in my older brothers’ footsteps to UGA. Living away from home for the first time. Surrounded by people my age. Downtown shops and restaurants. Parties. Football games. The only thing getting in the way would be passing those classes so I could stay in college, and those classes were taught by the scary college professors my high school teachers warned me about.

My memories drift to that first day. I double-checked the campus map and left for class early, excitement tingling every nerve as I walked from Brumby Hall to my first class building on North Campus. Up the elevator, down the hall, past a wall of students lined up—Why are they staring at me?—as I walked into the classroom. Except it was a very private office, and I was suddenly in front of someone sitting at his desk, not looking up from his books.

“Oh, I’m sorry!†I gasped. “I thought this was my classroom!â€

“This is my office,†hissed the voice from its unraised head.

“Uh, yes, I see that,†I said, looking back down at my map. “Well, maybe you can help me. I’m looking for… â€

“I’m sure there’s absolutely nothing I can help you with,†said the immobile head irritably.

Icy, wet towel slap in the face. Ah. Yes. I backed out of the room, bowing along the way, closing his door in front of me, and turned to the still-staring-at-me line of students against the wall, their faces now revealing their upperclassmen age and disbelief. Not enough to have humiliated myself in front of one grownup academic, I just geeked out in front of the top two years of my fellow university students. Turning away from their aghast expressions, I now saw the name blatantly on the nameplate, professor something, head of the English department. Head of my major.

I was back down the stairs and out on the sidewalk as fast as my feet would throw me, absolutely soul-blown. First day of university education and I couldn’t even get the building right? My four-year college career collapsed into me moving out of Athens by the end of the week. My parents would be furious. I’ll be a cashier at Piggly Wiggly for the rest of my life. I kept walking to the correct building that a kind teacher I’d passed on my way out of Park Hall had pointed to on my map, wondering if it even matters that I would be late. But I ran anyway.

This time, eyeing the setup and population of the room before I entered, I saw my R.A. and her friends sitting toward the back—great, more upperclassmen—and I sat nearby and feebly returned her chipper wave. My ears were ringing, my head was pounding, I was still shaking and fighting tears, when into the room burst a shaggy-bearded, long-haired, balding, jeans-and-sandal-wearing, belly-peeking-beneath-his-thin-t-shirt man. His eyes widened as he exclaimed in mock valley girl, “Empty seats? Oh, mah gawd!†He welcomed us to his class, although he admitted he was a little freaked to discover there were freshmen and he’s used to teaching only upperclassmen.

The clouds broke. My pulse returned to normal. I could breathe—and actually laugh—again. That mean, mean man wasn’t one of my classes, he was just an incident. This guy would be giving me a passing or failing grade. Of course, this hippie prof was a departure from any of the modern faculty I’d seen walking the campus, and I suspected the prof of my dreaded science class the following hour would be more like the hissy, top-of-head guy.

The suspense built when I got to that class, which was in an imposing auditorium—much bigger than anything I’d seen in movies set at Harvard—and that professor walked in briskly. He looked like one of those mission control moon landing guys from the ‘60s newsreels: dress shoes, thin black slacks, crisp white short-sleeved shirt, horn-rimmed glasses and hair clipped back to within an inch of its life. He commanded the classroom with a dignified assurance of how the subject profoundly affected our lives and ended his address with, “All I ask is that you learn something while you’re waiting for the next University of Georgia football game.â€

Obviously, not all of my professors were comedians—although the exceptions were fodder for comedy back at the dorm—but a lot of them had a sense of humor, something I needed to get through the class. It also made them normal people, which didn’t change the fact that it all felt like hit or miss regarding giving them “what they wanted†in tests and papers. I wouldn’t understand that “hit or miss†was a myth until six years later, when I became a grad student teacher in English and saw firsthand what college students looked like from the other side of the classroom. If only I’d known that as a freshman.

The first myth thrown out the window—at least in my department—was the bossy grownup/ dutiful child relationship mentality. Instead, we teachers were looking for “colleagues†in our students’ work. Not fellow English teachers—we wouldn’t wish that on anybody—but students with enough life and thought in their work that you could have an intelligent conversation with them, either in your office or downtown over a beer. You know that man with the lifeless eyes behind the customer-service counter at Walmart whom you had to spend 20 minutes of your life waiting in line to talk to? Multiply that by 50 and you’ve got a teacher’s weekend of grading papers from students who don’t care. You want a respectable grade? Show some respect first. On paper.

Second myth: Upperclassmen are taken more seriously than freshmen. The freshman-to-senior time span may feel like a lifetime when you’re a student, but for a teacher, it’s a very narrow four-year difference. It all comes down to the work. When teachers are grading, their first thought isn’t, “Hmm, I wonder what year this student was born?â€

Third myth: Effort is half your grade. “But I worked all night on this!†the student (me included—hey, I had grad school profs at the time) wails, like anything matters more than the final product. Imagine your chef saying that after you bit into a half-cooked chicken, or your mechanic after working on your brakes. Teachers can only grade what you actually give them.

Newest myth: This plagiarism website is password protected. Having not taught for years, this was a new one on me that my teacher friends shared with much laughter. I’d been thankful to dodge this digital age of how on Earth do you know when your students are copying from the Internet? Turns out search engines work for teachers, too. Not only have they made it much easier for teachers to catch plagiarism, there are programs like Turn It In that bypass passwords for plagiarism sites.

So, take heed—or pass it along to our newest fellow Athens residents—because bad grades can stress you out and evict you from this town as much as missed rent. And we’re all in this together, even if we’re in the wrong building.

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