Sarah Bigham

Shut Your Mouth

I have worked with hundreds of students in my educational career, and listening to them has taught me more than they have ever learned from my instruction. By taking the time to listen to adult students who struggled with reading, I learned how those treated as second class citizens often fared in the educational system, and I used that knowledge to provide literacy programs that addressed the needs of a broader community. By making time to listen to middle school students who had been cast out of their home schools, I learned how some students can feel discarded, and I used that information as an incentive to continue my graduate studies and later work in a community college setting that provides open enrollment to all who wish to take classes. 

Despite this history of learning to listen, I have certainly had lapses. I am grateful to the students who have reminded me how crucial it is to pause, how important it is to listen. One such student appeared in my office on academic probation, thanks to failing grades in courses he attempted several years before as a high school student. Students on probation are only allowed to take six credits, but this student wanted to return to the college and immediately take twice that amount. I was exhausted and about to launch into the usual academic probation spiel, but I caught myself and paused. Why do you want to take 12 credits, I asked, when you know that the limit for students on probation is six?

The student said that he knew it was against the rules to sign up for so many classes while on probation, but he was not really going to be taking the classes. He just needed to show that he was successfully enrolled as a full-time student. Thinking this was another health insurance issue with a student desperate to stay on his parents’ plan (in the days before the Affordable Care Act), I was about to refer him to the student services office for information about insurance plan options, but instead I paused again. Tell me about that, I prompted. The student then explained that he wanted to enter the military, but his initial testing had not resulted in a score that would allow him immediate entry. He had paperwork from his recruiter indicating that if he could show that he had full-time student status at an accredited college, he would qualify to go to the basic training right away. I promise I will withdraw from all of the courses before semester starts, he said.

Over the course of the next half hour, I heard his life story. The student was 18 and homeless. His mother had died, he had not heard from his father in years, he had no siblings or close relatives of any kind, and he was achingly lonely. After six months of living in his car and digging food out of grocery store dumpsters at night, he went to see the military recruiters. He began running in between work shifts, showering at coworkers’ houses. He decided on the military, he explained, because he would have a place to sleep at night, three meals a day, and a family of “brothers.” His palpable excitement and relief about this possibility is something I will never forget. I signed him into those courses, all 12 credits, knowing that by virtue of my signature, the usual rules about probation would be waived. In truth, I would have signed him into anything he wanted to take at that point, anything at all. I handed him the only food I had in my office – miniature chocolate bars – and wished him well as he shook my hand tightly in gratitude for the signed form.

True to his word, the student withdrew prior to the start of the semester. I hope that his military career has indeed been the lifeline he so clearly wanted and needed it to be, that he so clearly deserved. I think of him when students come to see me with fears and questions and concerns. Listen, I remind myself silently, listen. I think of him when I see news reports of our military members, and am grateful to him and all who have served, doing jobs I cannot even fathom. I think of him when I greet new groups of students at the start of each semester, knowing that veterans are often part of each class. I think of him as I search these new faces, wondering if perhaps he will return to us and tell me his stories.



Sarah Bigham teaches, writes, and paints in the United States where she lives with her kind chemist wife, three independent cats, an unwieldy herb garden, several chronic pain conditions, and near-constant outrage at the general state of the world tempered with love for those doing their best to make a difference. A Pushcart nominee, Sarah’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of great places for readers, writers, and listeners. Find her here.
Read more from her:
In Their Small Faces, in Acta Victoriana

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