In my first year of university I struggled to keep up with the regiment of readings expected in my Foundation Year Program at King’s College. I was bright, verbal and a quick study, so I was able to give the appearance of having read the material but the truth was I only understood the concepts and larger questions. I had not done all the reading. Whenever the tutor in my small group would ask a more detailed question about the text my lack of specifics was an obvious indication that I was all talk and no work. The reality was this, in high school I could and did work hard one week and then coast for another two or three. It was easy. But in this university course load if you got behind in the reading it was virtually impossible to catch up. Only my verbal skills saved me.
But when you are 17 and used to things going your way looking at your grades and evaluations from this tutor, not much older than you, was challenging. It shook my sense of self, contradicted who I thought I was. And I did what most people in that situation would do, I got defensive, looked around to see bias where no bias existed. I was a day-student and most of the students in my tutorial lived on campus. These resident-students also involved themselves in the larger life on campus; sports, chapel life, choir, social groups, etc… So I told my tutor that these other students were being graded higher based on extracurricular activities and it wasn’t fair.
My tutor was calm, measured and point by point he undermined my feeble excuses. He did not raise his voice, he did not disparage me, and he did not tell me it was all my fault or ridicule me for immaturity. This tutor had the facts on his side, he explained things as they were and let me walk away to consider the way the world really was, not as I had pretended to myself it was. That afternoon was a reckoning of sorts, the conversation stayed with me for some time.
Who was I then, was I the high school academic whom teachers predicted would go far or was I overrated, all talk and no work-ethic, did I have the chops for university or not? Should I have opted for an easier undergraduate course load? When I turned 24 something happened to me, it was like a light came on. All of the discipline I had lacked academically poured into my brain with a vengeance. I suddenly worked and worked and worked, was organized to a degree that others worried I was overdoing it and participation in all settings was always based on first hand exposure to the assigned texts, all of them, every chapter.
I look back now and feel a deep sense of gratitude to that tutor that he did not try to apologize to me for my lack of effort, my low self-esteem, and my using grievance to excuse my poor performance. I am equally grateful that the tutor did not shame me or disparage me, he could have easily really hurt me when I was down and discouraged. Instead the tutor told me the truth, but in a measured, almost gentle fashion. That conversation remained with me, remains with me to this day. It was a powerful learning experience, made more effective because the tutor did not give in to a) my grievance and b) his need for revenge. The truth set him, and me, free.