My Class Empowered an Abused Student to Reclaim Her Life
“Professor Barton, I need to talk to you for a minute.”
“Of course. What’s going on, Avery [not her real name]?”
“I left my boyfriend today. I wasn’t sure if he might come to campus with a gun. Or at least key my car parked outside the building.”
I’ve been told I have a good poker face. And that I would have made a good therapist. Both of those traits served me well in this unexpected moment.
I think I successfully managed to temper my three colliding emotions:
Fear. Had this student, myself, and the entire class of community college students been in real danger during the lecture I just finished?
Annoyance. It would have been nice to have known this before class began rather than afterward. I would have put the campus police on alert.
Pride. Well, good for her!
I tried to maintain my composure, gently prodding for details.
She was the kind of student not every teacher — or other students — would have noticed.
Quiet and reserved. Understated, not flashy.
I recognized my younger student self in her, though, so she had been on my radar.
But I had no idea the horrors she had been living!
One nondescript day midway through the semester, she came to my office hour.
She’d spoken to me after class once or twice before so I didn’t think much of it.
I complimented her performance in class and inquired whether she was thinking of becoming an accounting major. I reassured her that I thought she had the intelligence and natural gift with the subject matter to become a CPA if she had the inclination.
The conversation took a turn I never could have predicted.
“Professor Barton, when I began this class in January I didn’t think I was very smart. My [live-in] boyfriend tells me I’m stupid. And ugly. And worthless. And I’ve believed him.”
She looked me in the eye, adding:
“He hurts me.”
I’m sure I attempted to interject, but she continued:
“I know how hard your class is. I believe you.”
(I am unapologetically old school regarding my approach to teaching. It’s hard to pass my class. About 1/2 of my students fail. Often it’s closer to 60%. Only a few kids make an “A.” Intro to Financial Accounting is a notorious weed-out class for a reason.)
Me: “Yes, you know that I tell you guys the truth. This class is hard. But you’re very bright, Avery. Your boyfriend is wrong.”
Avery: “Well, yes. Exactly. I realized that I was doing well in your class. And if I was making an ‘A,’ then I must not be dumb. I must be smart. Or at least kind of smart. And suddenly I realized that my boyfriend was wrong. I wasn’t dumb. And then I realized that if he was wrong about that, maybe he was wrong about other things, too.”
At that point, I shared: “Avery, I’m sure I’m not supposed to say this, but you are a very pretty girl. I want you to hear me right now.
And you know I’ve told you several times that you are smart.
I would say nothing if I didn’t mean it.
You are smart. And you are pretty. I think your hair is so lovely.
Your boyfriend is wrong!”
Avery never cried. She was matter-of-fact during the conversation.
I encouraged her to consider accounting as a major and reassured her that she could do very well in business if she felt called to stay on this track.
And off she went.
I didn’t check in with her. It didn’t seem my place.
The semester chugged along and she continued to do well.
“Professor Barton, I left my boyfriend yesterday. He’s drained both of my checking accounts. I made the mistake of not closing the accounts before I told him I was leaving him and moving out of our home.
He took everything.
But I don’t care.
I’m not going back to him. He can take the little bit of savings I’ve scrounged.
I’ll start over.
He’s so mad. I really thought he might come to campus today. I don’t know if you noticed me glancing back at the door during class.”
I’m usually pretty observant, but I hadn’t.
At the end of the semester, Avery came to me a final time.
“Professor Barton, I’ve gotten into [a university in another town]. I start in the fall. I’m moving in a few weeks.
If it hadn’t been for you and this class, I would have never believed I was smart.
I don’t know if I would have figured out that my boyfriend was wrong.
That I would have had the courage to leave him.
To believe in myself.
That I could go to a full-time university.”
I extended my heartiest congratulations, reassuring her that she was doing the right thing. That she deserved a fresh start!
I reminded her that she was pretty. That she was intelligent. And that she had a bright future ahead of her!
I never saw or spoke to Avery again beyond that last day of class.
But I think of her from time-to-time.
She has been one of the most profound reminders that:
You never know what someone is going through.
You never know what impact you might have on someone.
I had no idea this quiet student was being treated like trash on a daily basis by someone who was supposed to love her!
I can’t believe my class, my tough love, my words were the beacons of hope, truth, and inspiration this girl needed.
Our lives intersected at precisely the right moment!
Sometimes I get discouraged. Don’t we all wonder if we’re doing enough in our careers, for our customers, for our clients…in my case, my students?
I have a lot of self-confidence regarding my subject matter and teaching. I’ve studied accounting for decades and have 29 semesters of teaching under my belt!
But sometimes a bit of self-doubt creeps in.
I misspeak. Or the class isn’t connecting to the material. Something’s a little off.
Am I pushing my students too hard? I really can be a hard ass in the classroom!
But then something life-altering happens for even just one student, one person you come in contact with and you realize:
Yes, what I’m doing matters.
My words are making a difference.
Sure, maybe not everyone likes or agrees with the message.
I have a trail of dissatisfied students!
(I’m smiling over here. And giggling.)
But a student like Avery reminds me that I am on the right path. My message is the right message.
I may not be impacting thousands (much less millions).
But I take a lot of pride in my random accounting class empowering a lovely, bright, hard-working girl to make her life significantly better!
By asking her to rise, not only did she meet my high expectations, she planted her own seeds of self-worth.
I don’t know if Avery ever thinks of me. And the truth is it isn’t important if she does. I’ll remember her for the rest of my life.
Until her 40’s, Bonnie’s worst nightmare included writing and sharing personal stories publicly. At her friends’ suggestion, she bemusedly started Bonnie’s Mixed Tape on Medium in 2017. She remains shocked that anyone reads her stories and that P.S. I Love You, the Writing Cooperative, Redoubtable, and the Ascent have published her work.
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