The Politics of Touch

By Albert Sek

We live in an era of distance, where any violation of this principle is enough to raise eyebrows. Looking at the person next to you can bring charges of sexual harassment along with a restraint order; Teachers who pat students are in immediate danger of litigation; and any act of small-town kindness is met with suspicion.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the University. Not only had the relatively close, intimate atmosphere in which I need all, or at least most, of my peers evaporated; in its place are volumes of students, lecture halls with 400 students, professors who cannot recite a single student’s names, and TAs who could care less about students. Naturally, I found all of this daunting—who would I ask for help? Where? When? Would they remember me? Would they care or just roll their eyes, and condescendingly refer me to some page in the textbook?

Of course, college isn’t like high school. There aren’t 15+ weeks to read a few chapters, write a 2-3 page paper (at most), and take a few tests. No, it is rapid fire. Chemistry Midterm, Calculus Midterm—same day. Next week, read 200 pages and write a 4 –page paper. Two weeks to pour through volumes of academic journals to write that 10-page research paper. Then finals. Late-nighters, early classes, back-to-back schedules—where does it all end?

In writing this, I have a specific person in mind—my Chemistry TA last quarter. Yes, you could point to the fact that I failed Chemistry or to the fact that I didn’t understand any of the labs, or even to the fact that I had no idea what was going on in the class at any given moment—much less attend the class, as a reflection of my TA, but I’d like to think of it more as my personal shortcomings. My TA was always there—the day before the midterm to answer my questions (that reflected just how little I actually knew) and even to smile when she asked, “How far are you on studying for the Midterm?”

The first quarter of college was definitely stressful for me. Friends here and there asking to study chemistry with them in anticipation that I would bring the knowledge—how do I tell them that I didn’t study, that I wasn’t ready, and that I wouldn’t be ready in time for the final?
Once behind, always behind. It’s a perpetual game of catch-up, under the overwhelming pressure to succeed or at least hold onto that last shred of dignity—that as a student, I had the capability, or potential to succeed academically.

All the others, see, of course, is the D or F on that midterm-- they judge harshly and never second-guess that judgment.

On the last day of lab, as we put our lockers back into the slots and waited for the TA to initial our lab reports, she shook each of our hands. When it was my turn, she looked at me, smiled, initialed and then shook my hand firmly yet knowingly of all the struggles, of all the stress that I had encountered.

In that one moment, I knew that somebody, even if it was just one individual, was watching my back the whole time—and wanted me to succeed.

Weeks later next quarter, I ran into her on my way to class. I waved to her, and asked her a simple question—do you still remember me?

“Yes” as she pronounced my name.

I was ecstatic. Yes! I was no longer a nobody; I was somebody—and somebody here, between the concrete and the brick buildings, knew my name, my face, my story.

I told her about how I failed Chemistry 2A and that I had to repeat it again, this time with Toupadakis; I had hoped that she would TA for Chemistry 2A again, but she wasn’t one of Toupadakis’s TAs this quarter.

She offered advice on doing well, telling me of the importance of professor office hours, TA office hours, and chemistry workshops—the importance of getting in touch, because we don’t have to remain lost and confused. There are always people out there to help—Always.

I know, I replied, “ I just came from Toupadakis’s Office Hours”.