“Sam,” I began for what felt like the fortieth time, “What is going on with your thesis? If you don’t get it done this semester, all of your honors work will be wasted. Pull yourself together!”
With that, Sam sighed and settled more deeply into the guest chair in my office. He refused to meet my eyes as I glared at him and mentally judged him for his laziness.
Yes, Sam knew that getting the coveted honors designation on his diploma was based on taking a number of honors level courses in the university and then writing a culminating thesis.
That was the kicker: the culminating thesis.
It had to be, as described by official university policy, a “substantial contribution of original work” that was to be done by the honors student and supervised by a faculty thesis director.
In my years of supervising theses, it took most students almost a full academic year to do the thesis, and here Sam had frittered away most of the first semester. He was behind the proverbial eight-ball and I was determined to snap him into shape and force him to get the thesis done. After all, I had supervised over 30 theses over the years and every single one crossed the finish line.
How dare he challenge my perfect record when I was trying to help him!
Still, it didn’t work.
Sam sat dejectedly in his chair and looked down.
“Well professor, it is like this…” he began haltingly.
“My parents are getting a divorce right now and my younger brother is not handling it well. Plus, my girlfriend is sick and we can’t figure out what is going on. I have taken her to the emergency room three times over the last week for them to run tests and release her. Plus—well, look at me.”
And so I did—really did, for the first time. He had deep dark circles under his eyes, his eyes were red and puffy from crying and he could clearly use a shower.
Sh*t, I thought.
“Sam,” I began more softly this time, “I had no idea.” I started to slump in my chair as I realized my mistake.
“Sam, let me tell you about juggling…in life, everyone is juggling balls. One ball represents your work, one represents your friends, one represents your school work, one represents your hobbies and one represents everything else. For you, one of those balls is your thesis. The trick to being successful in life is realizing that, when you can’t keep all of the balls in the air. That is, you need to know which of your balls are rubber and which are glass.
Drop a rubber ball and it is fine. It won’t break and you can grab it again when you are able. Drop a glass ball and the opposite happens. Once you drop it, it shatters and can never be recovered. The trick to being a grown up is knowing which of your current balls are rubber and which are glass.”
With that, Sam straightened up and smiled for the first time. He no longer needed to keep everything in the air—it was okay to drop a ball.
He walked away and never said anything but we both knew: I was his rubber ball.
Author: Scott Dawson
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: LaurMG via Wikimedia