Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Message For A Past TA - From A Former Student, With Appreciation

John Travolta? In Grease? Anyone?

Ever had a TA who made an academic difference? So helpful, beyond measure?


In my second year at UofT, I had to take a required Political Theory course. And I did. POL200 wasn't bad. Actually, I loved it. My professor, Mark Lippincott, was fantastic, and made me love theory more than I thought I would (this was a pretty big deal, since I wasn't a fan of theory to begin with).

Anyway, as with almost all my classes at UofT, because we had a class of about 400 students, we had to attend smaller tutorial groups to discuss the material. But, the thing is, POL200 was funny in regards to tutorial groups.

Because, well, tutorial attendance wasn't mandatory.

I know, right? So that meant I didn't have to go, right?

Call me a nerd. Bring it. Because, heck yeah, I still attended.

Um. I wanted to learn.

Anyway, on that first day of tutorial, I stood around the entrance, and thought it was weird that no one was standing outside the tutorial room. Usually, we're all standing around awkwardly for the previous class to vacate the room. Well, anyway, once they did, I walked inside, sat down, looked around the humongous tutorial room, and thought it was weird that the room was totally empty.

A couple of minutes later, though, a guy walked in. And sat down. Nodded at me in acknowledgement. But said nothing.

We sat there in silence for, like, 15 minutes.

You guys, I'm telling you, sitting in silence with a total stranger in an empty, enclosed space is so awkward. So awkward. It's a situation that begs for at least some small-talk.

Plus, I stare a lot. And I stared at him in fascination for a really long time (more than I usually do), because, well, he looked really familiar to me. And I mean really familiar. I couldn't figure out why I thought I knew him.

But then it hit me. Drawing on my penchant for finding people's celebrity dopplegangers, I realized that's what he was. He looked like John Travolta, circa 1978, in Grease. Yeah, really. Only he was Greek. He had the black leather jacket and white t-shirt down, complete with abnormally tight, high-waisted jeans.

Uh. Hot?

No. No, no, no.

After ten minuets of awkward silence, I thought I'd break the ice and make conversation.

"Sooo... you're in POL200, huh? What year are you in?" I started hesitantly, glancing at my watch, "And wow, our TA is really late!"

"Actually, I'm a Masters student," he replied, "And I'm, um, your TA. I'm not late at all."

Oh. Foot, meet mouth. It all made sense now. Leather-Jacket-Too-Much-Cologne-Greek-Neo-Travolta was my Political Theory TA. Fantastic. This was coming along really well! Remind me again why I decided to attend a non-mandatory tutorial?

I think he felt bad about the awkward silence. But, in truth, I realized the silence was awkward because, well, he was a little socially awkward himself. I don't think he knew how to make small time! And, well, his own conversation starter wasn't any better than mine.

"So, uh, while we wait for more people to show up... how was your weekend?" Greek NeoTravolta TA (can we just call him GNTTA?) asked, "I, uh, got really drunk at a Greek wedding. Like, it was an all-weekend wedding. I may still be hungover."

What?! Oh. TMI, GNTTA. But thanks for sharing. You were at a Greek wedding? Did it, per chance, look like this?

After a few minutes, it became apparent that, you know, no one else was showing up.

And, yeah. So there you have it. Story of my second year at UofT. I was the only one who ever showed up for my POL200 tutorial. ALL SEMESTER. And they say UofT has huge class sizes? Pffft.

Anyway, needless to say, tutorial with GNTTA was more of a tutoring session than an actual tutorial. No one ever came to class. And so, all semester, GNNTA patiently explained everything there was to know about Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes. You know, the basics. He explained everything so well, and I'm was glad I got the run-down on Plato's Republic before, you know, the paper was due, and, well, I'd only read half the book.

On top of his awesome theory knowledge, though, GNNTA gave some pretty good academic advice. Which is why I'm writing this blog post today. He was, despite the social awkwardness and questionable choice of wardrobe, a good TA. I told him about my fear of public speaking, and therefore, why I hated participating in my other class tutorials (even though some participation marks were a massive 20%)! And why I was relieved I didn't have to engage in public speaking in his particular tutorial. Because, well, no one was there.

After this admission, I vividly remember him saying the following words on our very last tutorial:
"Why are you so scared about public speaking? And tutorial discussion? Don't doubt your intelligence. You know, I had that same problem in undergrad. And my TA back then gave me this advice. I'll pass it on to you: don't ever underestimate yourself. Don't be afraid to talk in front of others. Be confident. If you act confident, no one will ever know how scared you are."


I'm now a TA at Queen's.

I still hate public speaking. But I've learned to live with it.

And the other day, during my office hours, a student came in, knocking hesitantly.

After a brief chat, I realized that my student was, essentially, Mini-Me. Scared of public speaking. Scared of talking in front of other people.

And at that moment, I remembered GNTTA. And repeated those same words he said to me:
"Why are you so scared about public speaking? And tutorial discussion? Don't doubt your intelligence. You know, I had that same problem in undergrad. And my TA back then gave me this advice. I'll pass it on to you: don't ever underestimate yourself. Don't be afraid to talk in front of others. Be confident. If you act confident, no one will ever know how scared you are."

From GNNTA's former TA, to GNNTA, to me, to my student. That advice has been passed down, my friends. It might be simple advice. But it's a powerful, encouraging message for those of us suffering from that ever-present fear whenever we face the task of speaking in public, whether it's tutorial discussion or a huge presentation.


And so, GNNTA, I don't know where you are today. After that POL200 exam, you booked the heck out of that exam room for a flight out to Greece. You were a funny little fellow.

But, I'd just like to let you know that, you were a great TA. Beyond the high-waisted Travolta jeans, you were awesome. You were patient with explaining content, and, contrary to many of my TAs in undergrad, you actually made sense. You helped me understand political theory. For that, you deserve praise.

More importantly, however, I'd like you to know that you helped out a student more than you could possibly know. I still remember your advice about public speaking, particularly on the days where seminars scare me beyond measure and I want nothing but to keep my mouth shut and hide.

You made a difference with this student, GNNTA. Your advice was more helpful than you know. You will probably never know this, but regardless, I'd like to recognize you. For helping me out, I thank you.

With Appreciation,

A Former Student

"Everyone who has ever taken a shower has an idea. It's the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference."
- Nolan Bushnell

"Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why."
- Bernard Baruch

"Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them."
- John C. Maxwell

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