I hate it when students cry.
I can handle the surface level tears: feeling overwhelmed with work, upset over a grade, unhappy over a break-up. I can read how to manage those tears. Usually, I offer a tissue, offer some sympathy, followed by some tough love, and we’re back on track. They feel better for getting it off their chests; I feel like I’ve provided a little help.
It’s the real tears, the ones that come from dark places, that leave me flustered. I’ve had students cry from real pain – loss, identity conflicts, terrible choices – and I feel so helpless. I can’t offer any wisdom; I can’t do anything to help.
And it’s even worse with boys. At least my female students do cry. However helpless I may feel, they have an outlet in that moment to lose a little of their pain. My male students don’t cry; they come close but they rarely let the tears fall, and somehow that is more wrenching than waterworks.
Today, I asked a student a perfectly innocuous question after class. There was a mistake in an assignment; I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going off track with a bigger assignment. It seemed out of character, so I opened by asking if he was feeling overwhelmed, given that he’s carrying a heavy courseload this semester. And then I see the tears pushing against the lash line as he pauses before telling me it’s been a rough year.
I always tell students they don’t have to tell me anything they don’t want to share. I can work with generalities; it helps simply to know a student is struggling with something. I can be a little more flexible, extend office hours, let class participation slide. My expectations don’t drop – I still expect good work – but they do alter. So, students can get some support without having to tell me anything private.
The student today said the word “funeral” and my heart sank. I said I wouldn’t pry and, somehow, that opened the door: his mother passed away this spring, both grandmothers passed away in the last month, and he wasn’t able to concentrate on the assignment because he was at his grandmother’s funeral over the weekend.
So, what would you do? Standing in front of a 6’2″ male student with tears in his eyes who’s really just a motherless boy? Right or wrong, I asked if I could give him a hug. I told him how sorry I was, I gave a brief embrace, and I stood there with my hand on his shoulder while we finished talking.
I’m not exactly the touchy-feely type nor do I consider myself excessively maternal. I swear in class; I have a fairly sarcastic sense of humor; I don’t share my personal life. I care about my students, of course, but I’m their professor, not their counselor or their RA or their mom.
But when I see them struggling with real pain and loss and bewilderment, when they’re fighting back tears because they’re all grown up and aren’t going to cry in front of a professor, all I can think to do is reach out and touch them. Maybe it’s for me more than them, but it seems like, in that moment, the only thing to do is connect them to another human being who understands pain, too.