I am sitting on the last class of the day. Feet parallel, chin rested on right hand, eyes scanning the syllabus. My gray book bag lay flat on the tiled floor. The professor’s deep voice, brilliant intellect and great sense of humor engaged me and apparently, everyone else in the class too.
Suddenly, the classroom’s door was opened and a middle-aged man with unruly gray hair stepped in. He was huge, bearing an unkempt look. Fine wrinkles had formed on his forehead, signaling an age that wasn’t frequent on college campus. His voice was absurdly loud.
“Is it Introduction into Communication class?” he said, breathing heavily at the same time.
“Yes, it is,” the professor answered and continued lecturing so that the class wouldn’t be interrupted.
Even though he hadn’t settled in his seat, the man stood up, interrupting the professor again with his ringing voice.
“Could you please tell me what I missed during the first ten minutes of class?” he said.
“No, you haven’t missed anything important,” the professor answered.
The time the man used to utter each word prolonged from two to three seconds more than a normal person’s. His half-closed eyes, which hided behind glasses, were dreamy. He acted awkwardly, not conscious of how he was disrupting the class and giving everyone a slightly uneasy experience with his odd way of talking and concerns that would be better discussed outside of class.
“Can you sign your name on this attendance sheet?” the professor asked, giving him a sheet of paper, on which all of the students needed to find their names and sign. It was another way he chose to take attendance. Normally, in all of my other classes, the professors would call our names.
“I can’t sign on it. I can’t find my name,” he said. His voice displayed extreme anxiety and dismay.
“I know. Please, just write your name on this sheet then,” the professor said.
Yet, after he gave the paper to the professor, his name still wasn’t there.
“Did you write your name?” the professor said, confused.
“No, I can’t. I couldn’t find my name,” he said.
“Please, just write it,” the professor said.
“But,…” he said.
“Write it,” he professor pressed on with a tone of authority that made the man stop talking on his own.
Now to be honest, I don’t trust myself as a competent writer who is able to deliver the atmosphere in the class, so I want to make clear that the professor was very respectful of the man. He took time to listen to Mike (I would call the man with that name), answered his inquires and treated him with no difference from others. But frankly, there are two things that distinct Mike from the students in the class:
a) While we are mostly 18 to 22 years old, he is 55. He knows of historical events, movies, or T.V shows that our generation is not familiar with.
b) His communication skills are impaired. He shows lack of eye contact, facial expression and body language. Sitting before him, I was distracted by his mumblings. Every time he understood something, he would say: “Okay. Okay” or “Got it.” He is also very anxious. Later, when I asked him why he always had to carry a bottle of Coke, he answered that it helped him calm down.
When the class discussed about social media, he raised his hand.
“Excuse me, but I am a fifty-five year old man. I don’t know what Twitter means,” he would say.
“Okay. Actually, can someone explain to us what Twitter is?” the professor suggested.
After someone in the class explained to him, he waited for five minutes before raising his hand again and asked the professor.
“Yes?” the professor called on him.
“Do you mean that we all have to make a Twitter account for this class?”
“No, we don’t.”
“I am not a Communications Major. The only reason why I am in this class is because it is the last class…”
“We can talk about this later…”
“…and I want to graduate in May…” he continued.
The professor signaled him to stop, yet the man didn’t seem to pay attention. Some students looked at him and giggled, as if he were an odd creature who didn’t know any limits.
“You and I can have a conversation at the end of the class,” the professor said.
Witnessing such an unusual scene in class left me with deep impression. My thoughts lingered on Mike’s situation and I wondered if I should talk about him on our blog. After all, what points do I want to make? Is it a good thing to write about him? Am I emphasizing on his differences and thickening the wall between him and other students?
All those questions disturbed me. Because inside, I think different. I want to write to show that people like Mike need a lot of sympathy, respect and help from other students. I found it disturbing to see Mike complaining in class about his difficulty in using technology and no students reached out a hand to help. I also dreaded the gigglings Mike received.
For me, I was at first hesitated to talk to him, because I wasn’t sure how he would respond. But he turned out to be someone who is approachable, generous with the word “Thanks” and very honest. I was grateful when at the end of our conversation, he told me something that not many people said.
“Thank you Nhi. Nice to meet you. You are a very beautiful, beautiful person.” (I think the reason why he said that was because I complimented on the questions he raised in class.)
One time, I stayed after class and overheard a conversation between Mike and the professor. It turned out that as we were getting closer to the day students would be divided into different groups to do presentations, Mike revealed his fear that no one would let him join their groups. “It hurt,” he said.
Mike faced difficulties in understanding technology. He complained that the professors he had before as well as services in school weren’t very helpful. So when we had discussions on Blackboard, or had to submit documents through Turnitin, he was often lost. It is dumbstruck for me to realize that while most of us learn our ways to adapt to technology (by watching Youtube or reading instructions), students such as Mike had challenges. I spent more than half an hour explaining to Mike how to submit a document through Turnitin. It was tough. When I went through the steps, he would tell me, “You see, you are explaining things too fast. That is not good teaching.” I stopped and went over all the steps again. Several times.
Maybe, Mike should have tried to learn how to work with the computer, because after all, everyone wasn’t born knowing how to. But I really do wish that more people would reach out to him, so that he could feel belonged.