Although I am not among those who say they “love” teaching, one thing I genuinely like about my particular academic job are the students. I have so many interesting and marvelous stories and vignettes about them that I have a near total ban on describing them here, on the theory that if I began to do so, I would have so much to say that I would never get anything else done. And there were many graduation stories this year, happy endings to harrowing paths. But my own students’ stories did not surprise me, as I knew them ahead of time.
This is not a story about any of my majors or graduate students, but of a student I taught four years ago in a freshman course which falls to me every once in a while. And I have political reasons to find stories of striving and success like this one hackneyed and contrived, and I am afraid that by telling them I may be Affirming The System or attributing more good to the efforts of the university than we deserve. Yet I know at the same time that entertaining these wry thoughts is a luxury I may be able to afford and some cannot.
In my section was a young man from New Orleans East on a football scholarship, whose legal name was not [Edward or Theodore], nor even [Ed or Ted], but “Teddy.” He wanted this name translated into Spanish on the first day, and I was glad it at least had a direct translation: Lalito. “It is not a very grownup name in Spanish,” I warned. “But is it my name?” “Yes.” “That is fine, then. Call me that.”
Sitting at his desk Lalito looked like anyone else, but when I found myself standing next to him in line at the bookstore, I realized he was almost larger than life. A Rodin bronze walked among us. “You really are a football player, aren’t you?” “Yes.”
Experience has borne out my prejudice, according to which one cannot expect a great deal academically from football players, but Lalito did well. At the beginning I thought it was because we were covering material he had seen in high school, but when he remained strong after the halfway point in the term I realized he was studying.
One of the exercises on the final examination involved writing a short composition using certain structures which would force the use of tenses other than the present, and the formation of somewhat complex ideas and sentences: “I know that…”, “I plan to…”, “I believe…”. Lalito wrote in part:
I know that playing college football does not necessarily mean I will be drafted into the NFL, and even if I were, I could not play in the NFL forever. Therefore I will not get so caught up in football that I do not do well in school. I believe I can implement this plan without losing my athletic scholarship. I would like to graduate with two majors and good grades, so that I can work toward a professional degree later on, if I should so choose.
After that I saw Lalito around on campus occasionally, and we waved and smiled, but I did not keep close track of the football team, or of the years. As this spring’s graduation ceremony progressed through disciplines in which I knew no one, I took to examining peoples’ shoes.
Then I realized that a very tall student was approaching the podium and heard the Dean saying, “Graduating cum laude in [Sociology] and [Economics] … Lalito! And I saw the photographer snap his picture as he was handed his diploma, looking grownup and grave. And he was no longer really my student, but I found myself clapping wildly.