Crisp: Mixed emotions at the end of a long semester

The spring semester at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi where I work has ended. Everyone, students and teachers, is happy that it’s over, but I suspect that more than a few of us feel other emotions as well.

I’ve written before that I have the world’s greatest job. I know of few other jobs that divide their work into the kind of distinct episodes that are represented by semesters. Two or three times a year a teacher gets to start over with a fresh set of students, with, one hopes, renewed energy and commitment. The mistakes and shortcomings of the last semester can be replaced by a determination to do a better job the next time around.

Every college class develops a unique dynamic; it’s hard to think of a comparable social situation. Over a period of 15 weeks, meeting twice a week, a group of strangers congregates, coalesces and then disburses, never to reassemble.

All sorts of interesting things happen. My discipline is writing, so we talk about commas and paragraphs and plural possessives. But we talk a lot about ideas and issues, as well, and when things are at their best, students encounter new perceptions that might inspire them, provoke them or even make them a little uncomfortable.

Because I teach in a community college, my students are more heterogeneous than at a four-year residential liberal arts institution. Some of them are traditional students, fresh from high school and on their way to a university after a local sojourn. Some have already been to the university, had too much fun and are returning to the stability of life at home and an institution that doesn’t offer quite so much distraction.

Other students are older and have been out of school for a while, working in various careers. Some students have been to Iraq or Afghanistan. Some have grappled with addiction, and a few have even been to prison.

But they’re all willing to put themselves in the unfamiliar, demanding, sometimes frustrating but often rewarding social dynamic of a college classroom, a place of potential change, improvement and empowerment.

In an engaged class, a certain social bonding takes place. Away from their families and their jobs, students have an opportunity twice a week to engage in activities that they experience in few other situations. They’re trying to learn to do things that are difficult and for which the payoff often isn’t immediately apparent.

Still, the ones who persevere share a rich but difficult common experience. A sense of community develops, and sometimes friendship, and occasionally romance. That’s why I look forward to the beginning of each new semester.

But good beginnings have endings, as well. So when they write their final papers and disperse for the last time, I suspect that the predominant emotion is relief. But I suspect also that many students are, like me, inclined toward mild melancholy and, on some level, reflection.

Did I work hard enough? Has it been worth the time and energy that I’ve taken away from my family or job?

And at the level where I teach — developmental writing at a community college — for many students the final reward for all of this work is a long way off at the end of a difficult path.

But let’s keep trying. Congratulations, students, on making the effort. Take a break, and let’s make another start, next semester.

Crisp is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.