Was I right or wrong?

Early in the semester I have students introduce themselves by identifying one thing that is unique about them and probably not true of anyone else in the class.  One young woman’s claim to uniqueness was that she sucks her thumb.

My immediate response was to express my concern that thumb-sucking is a habit that can ostracize her. I shared a story about a student of mine a few years ago, who sucked her thumb all the time.  She sucked her thumb in class, as she walked through the dorm halls (where, according to her roommate, she also trailed a blanket along with her), in the cafeteria – everywhere.

Other students, not surprisingly, made fun of her.  Eyes rolled and giggles were suppressed when she walked into the classroom with her thumb in her mouth.  Students didn’t want her passing their handouts, which led to some awkwardness for me as she always sat right up front.  I had to reach around her to give the stack of papers to the student behind her.  Even though it made me feel rude to do so, I understood the concerns of the germaphobes behind her.

So…. I shared that story as a caution that my current student might want to work on breaking herself of her thumb-sucking habit if she didn’t want to be judged because of it.  Tensions immediately flew into the air.  Two students verbally jumped to her defense, one saying that she too sucked her thumb to go to sleep (I quickly agreed that was a different matter if you only do it to fall asleep) and the other making the point that since the thumb-sucker was from a dangerous neighborhood in a nearby large city she was tough enough to be invulnerable to the judgment of others.

We moved on that day in class, but I worried that exchange around in my head over the weekend, wondering if my automatic decision to give advice had created the adversarial dynamic that blew up so quickly.  Even though what I said was absolutely true, was I wrong to share it in front of the whole class?  My feeling is that the answer is a resounding yes.

I did have the opportunity to explore the issue a little more deeply a few days later.  I meet with each of my students individually in the first two weeks of class, and the thumb-sucker (I am so sorry to be identifying her like that – let me call her TS!) hadn’t been in class for two days.  I was meeting with another student and in passing she mentioned TS.  I expressed my concern that TS hadn’t been in class for a couple of days and that I was worried it was because of what I had said about her sucking her thumb.  This student (who was friends with her two defenders) laughed and said “No, I’m sure that isn’t it.  You know how some students just think they can miss this many days of one class, and this many days of another?  That’s her.”

So, maybe it wasn’t a soul-scarring moment for her.  Good to know.  Nevertheless, I am taking this as a cautionary lesson about advice.  Think once, twice, three times before I make personal comments disguised as advice.  It is a tricky call, because I do feel that as a teacher/guide for under-prepared college freshmen it is appropriate more often than not for me to share my wisdom and experience with my students.  Talking to students about their attitudes, their habits, sometimes even their appearance (and the worst – their odor) can be an appropriate part of my role if it is done with love.  I think my mistake was doing it in class, and I should know better than that.  My best guess as to what derailed my judgment was that the isolation of my previous student flashed up in front of me and blinded me to the fact that this was the wrong setting to share her cautionary tale.

From now on, I will not only be more careful about how I respond to personal statements in class, but I will also do my best to ease up on judging personal habits.  If it doesn’t hurt them or anyone else and  provides comfort, who the heck am I to judge?  It is time for me to let go and move on.

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