On Being a Student—Always: Rebecca Kelly ’15 [Honors Convo address]

Posted by Centre News in Academics, News 06 May 2015

Rebecca Williams ’15Rebecca Kelly ’15 and Joshua Jerome ’15 were the keynote speakers at the annual honors convocation held Tuesday, May 5, in Newlin Hall of the Norton Center for the Arts. The speakers are nominated by faculty and selected by vote of the senior class. Their remarks are a highlight of the annual celebration of student achievements.

Kelly, a Spanish major originally from Lexington, Ky., is a curriculum specialist for Centre’s After School Program, a member of Alpha Delta Pi and a student teacher of Spanish at Boyle County Middle School. Kelly studied abroad multiple times during her four years at Centre. She spent her 2012 CentreTerm in Ghana, her 2014 spring semester in Mexico, summer of 2014 in Costa Rica and Centre Term 2015 in Mexico. Kelly plans to pursue a career in Spanish education.

Rebecca Williams ’15On Being a Student—Always

It’s not often that you get the opportunity to stand in front of your peers and talk about yourself. I’m not the president of any club, I don’t have the highest grade point average, and I haven’t organized any major events on campus. Yet here I am. I don’t want to use this time to talk about myself; I want to talk about students. We have been students for almost all of our lives. Isn’t that crazy? For me, I’ve had to shift to a different kind of role in the classroom. The transition from student to teacher is not an easy experience. I was comfortable as a student, I knew how to learn in the classroom setting, but I had to learn to be comfortable on the other side—the teacher side.

I learned how to take control of a class. Last semester, when Zayne left One Direction, a group of seventh-graders wouldn’t stop gabbing about it. In order to continue the class, I had to fight the urge to be a part of the conversation. Then, I gave them the face we all know so well paired with the phrase, “I’ll wait,” and “Still waiting on you.”

I learned how to resist the urge to laugh. Like when one extremely resourceful high school student decided it would be good idea to use a Black Ice Air Freshener as cologne if he rubbed it on his skin enough in between classes. Even so, it’s better than Axe.

I learned how to embrace the overwhelming pressure that these kids actually think I know what I’m talking about. One student asked me how to say, “make it rain” in Spanish. Instead of dodging the question entirely, I attempted to explain that “making it rain” is an idiomatic expression used to express the action of throwing dollar bills in the air at a strip club. So if he wanted that translation, he’d have to look it up.

I learned how to cope with being frustrated. Frustrated with a student who is failing and frustrated with a system that is failing that student. I trained myself to wake up every morning at 6:30 a.m. while everyone else slept till noon because I couldn’t just skip class. I had to teach class. But by far the biggest challenge was understanding where my students were coming from, what makes them do the things they do, what were their experiences—and then cater my classroom dynamic to fit those needs.

I want to use this moment, this little slice of spotlight, to highlight my students. The following vignettes are just a few of my students who have in some way, whether they know it or not, taught me.

Patricia.* 4 years old, Bakpa-Avedo, Ghana. She comes to school early to help sweep the classroom. Her smile is as bright as her yellow and red dress. She sits in the front row and spouts answers to every question. We have a hard time communicating, she speaks Ewe and I speak English, yet that doesn’t stop her from touching my heart. Her wit is transparent. We give students a sprinkle of glitter when they answer a question correctly and Patricia is like a disco ball. At the end of the day, she reaches out her hand and says, “More of the sparkle, please!” She can recite backwards and forwards the entire book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? While we are singing you are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey, I realize that Patricia is joy.

Joshua.* Eighth grade. Little Wound Middle School, Pine Ridge Native American Reservation, Kyle, South Dakota. It is like pulling teeth to get him to turn anything in. He shies away from participating in class, no matter how much I pry. I know he is smart, but I have given up on trying to engage him in class. One weekend, I go to a community powwow, and lo and behold I see Joshua adorned from head to toe in traditional native powwow regalia. Later that day, I see him dancing in the powwow with such concentration and precision. His long black braids bob with his headdress as he keeps the beat of the drums in each of his steps. I am amazed to see Joshua so engaged, concentrated, determined, a side I’ve never seen in class. At the same time, I am so disappointed in myself for not being able to translate that determination to the classroom. Joshua wins in his age group at the powwow. Thank you, Joshua, for showing me that there is so much more to a student then how they perform in the classroom.

Jorge.* 7 years old. Third grade, La Escuela Manuel Cepeda Pereza in Merida, Mexico. Jorge sits quietly in his seat and watches me with curious eyes. I am a stranger to him, and I can tell he hasn’t quite decided how he feels about me. At recess, he comes up and asks me in Spanish, “It’s really cold where you live in the U.S., right?” to which I replied, “Yes.” He then asked, “There’s a lot of snow?” “Yes, lots.” “And ice?” “Yes, sometimes.” “And polar bears?” I had to let him down with this one. While I love telling this story to my friends and family, it highlights exactly why I want to teach. I want to be able to teach students that there are not always polar bears wherever there is snow and that Mexico has a vast and varied terrain other than desolate desert and that all of Latin America cannot be represented by shanty towns or Carmen Miranda style fruit hats. Jorge was disappointed I didn’t have a pet polar bear. I want to dispel these misconceptions and stereotypes in order to encourage the exchange of true knowledge, all while gaining a better understanding of the connectedness of the world.

At the end of the day, it was not about whether these students learned everything that I taught them. The main point was showing these students that they are worth being taught. They are valued. It was breaking any social barrier that was once built up and emphasizing that I am there to learn from them just as much as they are there to learn from me. For me, it’s not even about how much money I’ll make. Poet and educator Taylor Mali estimates his value as a teacher in his poem What Teachers Make. He says,

“You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a difference! Now what about you?”

– Taylor Mali

What about you? I’m not expecting all of you to become teachers, but whatever you end up doing, I challenge you to always be a student, to always grow, break barriers, understand where people are coming from. Learning never stops. I challenge you to challenge yourself, challenge your own beliefs because you won’t always have professors to do that for you. It’s not about making money. Make the interactions you have with other people matter. Make a person smile. Make someone else breathe easier for a day, or even a moment. Study the world. Make a difference.

by Rebecca Kelly ’15
May 5, 2015

*Names changed to protect the confidentiality of students.

View the entire 2015 Honors Convocation here.