There’s the questioning of myself: If I answer what this student just asked, will I prove I am less intelligent than she is? And how about she asks twelve questions that go into a diaspora of topics, each of which by itself would take a minimum of an hour to discuss? Annoying.
Somewhere in my nine years of academic advising at the university I’ve learned to flow with these grand minds. Answer only the questions they ask, one at a time. Slow them down. Tell them, Let's talk about that topic another time, stay with this for now. They look at me with sudden gratitude when I say that, as if only I can control their tortuous panoply of interests. This is a weighty responsibility for an adviser: How to rein in, but not deaden enthusiasm?
There is Catherine, for instance. She’s about the size of a small thirteen-year-old girl, with a young face to match and shoulder-length wavy blonde hair. She enters my office wearing her gargantuan backpack like a tiny turtle who inadvertently grabbed her father’s shell and left for the day. She painstakingly unloads it to the floor and sits. But don’t let her size and girlish countenance fool you. She is probably the brightest light I’ve ever advised.
I had a choice the first time we met. Resist, or flow with her. No matter what I advised, she responded with another, more ambitious idea. I had experience on my side, but she had vision on hers. So what if it took 20 credit semesters to accomplish it? She had so many things planned out. The intensive and demanding English teaching program was her main focus. But she wanted to add a minor in theater, study abroad in Malaysia, an extra teaching minor in Spanish, and a slew of other “electives” that would not contribute to her requirements whatsoever. I kept telling her, That will add another year to your time here, you know. “I know,” she’d reply. And we’d stare each other down.
Catherine is one quirky girl whose name I remembered from the second or third appointment. She doesn’t smile a lot, but from her words, you know she is smiling inside. Confidence oozes out her nostrils. Quickness and wit are her allies. She could stand on a stage and soliloquize Shakespeare or write a major paper on Joyce's Ulysses and convince you she interpreted both impeccably. She has no tolerance for silly and boring and will tell you so, in no uncertain terms. Over the years she gave me a litany of the professors who were intolerable for their blandness. She had that rare combination in a young person of high intellectual intelligence and common sense. Sort of Zorba meets Boss. (Or rather, Boss meets Zorba, Boss being the bookish, mind-driven one, and Zorba being the common-sense-gut-instinct-heart-driven one. Have you read Zorba the Greek by Kazantzakis? You should, I'm reading it now, it's brilliant. Thanks, George.)
So this week Catherine came in for her final check as a senior. Were all her ducks lined up all right before her student teaching placement next year? I panicked when I couldn’t find her file in my drawer. We had met a dozen times at least, and no file! Did the secretary accidentally purge it with the old files? All our checklists, my notes, her added minors, later dropped, our entire history, gone, poof! I stood at the drawer and frantically searched out of alpha order. How could this be? I ranted out loud, “I’m miserable, I can’t find your file!” while she sat on the other side of my desk and chippered in her droll yet sympathetic commentary. Finally I gave up and sat down, pulled out a new, blank checklist, and started all over again. What had taken three and a half years to produce with its scratches in three different colors of ink and highlighters was reduced to a clean form with entries made in one sitting. It felt wrong, because I was reducing the academic diary of her undergraduate years to mere facts.
She stood up in all her five foot two inches, picked up her fifty-pound bookish carapace and struggled to get her arms through the straps and settle it into place on her wee back. She stood in front of me, just on the other side of my computer. It was all I could do not to take her up in my arms, backpack and all, and carry her into the next stage of her life. But the thing is, she doesn’t need me to carry her. She's gotten the best kind of education: trial and error, trial and success.
Reluctantly, I told her I’d see her at Commencement in May. With a look of youthful, sentimental intelligence, she left.
Honors students can give you such a pang.