Cheryl McCormick
Adjunct Faculty/Instructional Lab Faculty
Center for Transitional Learning

She slipped into the classroom and took a seat, avoiding everyone’s attention. Frail and haggard, she suffered under shame’s yoke which weighed heavily upon her 100-pound frame. Her walk, stance, and disposition all apologized for her presence, so her gaze never lifted above waist-level.

After class, there CC stood, waiting and looking down, shoulders slumped and tears running down her face. “What’s wrong?!” I asked. She responded in a whisper, “I don’t think I can do this. . . I should drop.”

Immediately I sensed fear. “Why? We’ve just begun!”

But she was silent. I said, “I tell you what: give me a week. If you feel the same way after that, we’ll talk.”

So began one of the most powerful interactions I’ve ever had with a student.

CC had fled to Lansing to escape an abusive husband and now lived with a relative, who helped her while she forged a new life. LCC was part of the plan.

After that first day, CC attended every class and studied conscientiously. In addition, she diligently worked on her writing.

Regularly, we met during office hours, where it became apparent that she needed affirmation, so I sought ways to encourage her efforts and the strong elements of her writing. I also spurred her toward improving her work, which caused many tears of frustration. However, there was much laughter, too, and she began to relax.

This situation wasn’t perfect, but to me it seemed brilliant, for I saw its effect on her. She no longer avoided my eyes or stared down, but she looked at me and even spoke up in class. Then came the smile, subtle at first and broadening as the semester went on. In addition, over time, CC started holding her head up, smiling her gap-toothed grin at everyone, and walking as if she owned the school.

Very tangibly, I grasped the impact of creating an encouraging classroom where people experience freedom to make mistakes without shame or derision. This is the lesson I learned: the power of simple acts of kindness and respect.

At the end, when we discussed her grade, tears flowed, but this time not out of fear, but because she’d done it. CC had improved her writing, but more importantly, she’d been empowered. This was her place . . . a place where dreams begin . . . and she was determined to make it.