There’s one in every class. That one student, so desperate for a top grade they’ll do anything to stand out. Every year it’s a fresh set of faces but it’s only a matter of time before That One makes his presence known, and I never have long to wait. Like an exuberant puppy tripping over feet that haven’t yet grown into its body, That One is so eager to please that he can’t really help himself.
Unlike a puppy, it stops being cute after awhile.
That One, let’s call him Baxter (which seems like an entirely respectable name for a teacher’s pet, canine or otherwise), is the first in class and the last to leave, innocently at first – a lingering question, a minor clarification, maybe a fawning compliment meant to entrench him in my good graces.
In class, Baxter is bright and attentive, as eager to ask questions as he is to answer them. Reminiscent of grade school, the hand waving, “Ooh, pick me! Pick me! Please pick me! I know the answer!” Occasionally, he thinks he’s got one over on me, beating me to the punch line or questioning my reasoning.
All in all, Baxter’s the kind of student you wish they could all be, except he seems to have the entire classes’ share of enthusiasm wrapped up inside him, like a little kid jacked up on too much caffeine and sugar.
Pretty soon Baxter is a regular at office hours but it seems less for his own benefit than mine as he seems obsessed with making sure I know just how terrific he is. The practised Baxter will pull it off under a guise of flagging self-confidence, “just wanting to be sure they’ve got it” but it’s clear they just want to make sure you know they’ve got it. In case they mess up later, they can always come back and remind you that you knew “they had it!”
Now, I like to see my students do well, but I also don’t like to let them off easy. I don’t subscribe to the “it was hard for me so it must be brutal for you” mentality, and I don’t go out of my way to dream up trick questions, but you better be on your game, and with Baxter, the game is cat and mouse. Shake him up a little, and then let him get away for another day, a little bruised but wiser for it.
Like many students, I used to believe that it was about egos, about a Professor’s need to assert his superiority. Roles reversed, and many Baxter’s later, I realize it’s more about making him aware of what he doesn’t know. I think of it as letting a little of the air out so there’s more room for substance. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all that jazz.
My teachers used to call it a “character building experience.”
I used to hate them for it.
But I must admit that I now take a strange delight in watching Baxter squirm as he writes his final exam. It’s a guilty mix of rooting for his success and hoping for the slightest hint of a stumble. Thankfully, true to Baxter’s personality, I need not wait long to find out how it went. If it goes well, the exam silently lands in the designated place and he is the first to leave. If it goes poorly, he lingers until the end, shifting nervously in his seat, relinquishing the exam only upon the last call of “Time’s up.”
And then the pre-emptive strike. “I know you haven’t seen the exam yet, but you should know that....”
Alone in my office at last, I mark Baxter’s exam first. As expected, he cruises through the easy stuff. Smooth sailing through the short answer, and I almost begin to think that this time, the mouse has slipped away unscathed.
Not so fast...a sign of weakness, a logical flaw that’s tripped him up after all. The tell tale signs of desperation, a sudden long-windedness that says, ”I don’t really know what the answer is so I’m going to write everything I know in hopes I accidentally hit on it.” Line by line, it slowly unravels...
I feel a guilty sense of satisfaction. This year, the cat wins.