In Writing

The campus writing center is hardly a likely location for a love story. It is brightly lit, and the furnishings are dominating by serviceable tables and bookshelf full of style manuals, guides to technical writing, and the occasional anthology. Conversation usually revolves around refining thesis statements and discussing the finer points of comma splices and academic diction. Sometimes things are very wild, and after talking about structure and organization, we try increasing the rhetorical punch of a conclusion.

He is a freshman, finishing up a mandatory paper for first year ethics class, in which he must give and defend his “life mission statement.” The professor, bless him, has offered extra credit for a visit to the writing center, and over the past week most of the class has trickled through our doors. It is the sort of assignment that seems great in concept–mission! values! fufilment!–and, in fact, this sort of self-knowledge can be the sort of thing that animates a life. But purpose is better to have and to manifest than to talk about.  In the hands of conscientious but inexperienced freshmen, the prompt has largely produced pages of untested cliches, the realest moments places where doubt seeps through.

He is nervous about grammar and offers the customary disclaimer that he’s bad at English, as though the tutors of the writing center stand ready to judge his soul on the offense of a misplaced comma. But his life mission starts not with “traditional values” or “giving back to the community,” but in the well-traveled experience of six younger siblings. Leadership, he says, matters to him because he cares what happens to specific people. And when I ask him to clarify a connection in one of his paragraphs, I can watch him seeing them.

Forty minutes later, his comma nerves are (somewhat) soothed and his organizational structure strengthened. I ask if he is going someplace warm for spring break. His smile is full of confidence: “Oh, I’m going home. It will be great.”

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The Professor

I revisited my alma mater last week, the first real visit in seven years. I wandered hallways haunted by people still alive and well in other parts of the country, but lost forever as essential pieces of this world, as essential parts of my own life. And, indeed, I am lost to them. Even the faculty had dispersed, scattered by bitter disputes and unsatisfactory resolutions.

Only two professors weathered the early storms completely, and that with a dignity that earned our respect.  One has remained a friend and a collaborator on projects throughout my graduate education and beyond; the other I hadn’t seen since I left.  As I went in search of the latter, I felt suddenly shy.  It had been a long time, and I’d given no warning of my visit.  Besides, he’d had many students since my time, and the three core courses I took from him hardly place me in the memorable category.

But he saw me through the window before I had a chance to knock on the door and jumped up to greet me with immediate recognition and pleasure.  “What brings you back?” and “Welcome, welcome!” waving me into his office under the arm that held open the door.  I’d forgotten how tall and how very thin he is, cheeks as gaunt as Lincoln’s and not at all hidden by his sparse white beard. He has aged since I was his student, but in such a way that I realize he was not so old then as I thought he was.  Now with crinkled eyes and short – but nevertheless unruly – hair, he more than ever fit my image of a professor, lacking only a tweed coat and pipe to complete the picture. As I settled myself into a shabby easy chair he offered me a cookie jar full of chocolates, just as he did the first time I came to office hours, and for a moment I felt very much like that seventeen-year-old freshman.

“You look very well,” he offered, “very healthy, very tan; California is good for you.” I laughed, knowing very well how unhealthy I looked in college. We exchanged pleasantries and I surveyed the still-familiar office. He’d added more bookshelves, and while everything seemed neat enough, the crowded room  gave an impression of barely constrained chaos.  After the briefest moments of small talk, he leaned back, pressing his fingers together and to his lips and closing his eyes thoughtfully.  His arms and fingers are very long, and his gestures slightly awkward but predictable, familiar even after all this time.

Quietly and politely, he began to ask more detailed questions about my life, my family, about loneliness and love and faith and doubt.  I remembered sitting here many years ago, with a tissue pressed to puffy eyes as we discussed a crisis of faith and he offered quiet words of assurance in place of answers to doubt.  A decade later I find the same assurance as I again fight back tears. He recommends a book to read – a little pamphlet by Tim Keller on self-forgetfulness – and takes out a 3×5 card to write down things he can pray for on my behalf.  “I won’t pray for you forever,” he admitted apologetically, “But do feel free always to ask.”

When I stood to leave he waved absently and turned back to his computer, without so much as offering a handshake in farewell, but as I closed the door behind me, I saw him pin the little prayer card he made into a space above his desk.  And in a moment and for a moment that small gesture of love from a professor to a former student made up for all the frustrations of those early disputes and of later embarrassments.

Part II

Sometimes there are long stories, stories that go on for nearly your whole life. And sometimes there are short stories, an afternoon, an exchange. But I’m particularly attached to the ones that begin again after years in between, joyously finding again at 30 what was there at 10.

It is this city that is the catalyst, though I think both of us were mostly unaware of it as children, at least as a destination. But here it is, with its traffic, population, and, most significantly, government and university jobs. And, with nearly 50 years of education between us (we counted the other night), here we are.

It is odd sometimes, to have this life re-merge with an older one. The details of what we know of each other are still there, known in some ways much better than someone who has spent much time out of the last five years with either of us. Perhaps this is because the essential core of a person is present in childhood, not yet refined into the presentation of self in adulthood, which is both deeper and modified by social acceptability.

Both of us were nerdy children, certainly not among the cool or popular girls. Makeup, now mastered when necessary, was a foreign topic. Although we could do just fine in the academic world, that hardly earned you points in middle school. She was athletic, though, and I, timid and easily frustrated by my own clumsiness, was not. Despite this, I was never left behind. Even now, I feel safer in her presence, it matters a little less whether the rest of the world dismisses me.

Nearly all of my best friends all through life have turned out to be the sort of people who deliberately push me to be stronger and braver than I ever would have been on my own. Then it was trying volleyball. Now it is finishing the dissertation that is the barrier to my joining her as a “Dr.” Still the best might be playing games and eating cupcakes and laughing at the pictures of our old selves which seem to invoke our childish spirits, bidding them to rejoin their bodies: “Don’t worry. You turned out ok. And I still like you.”

The Feast

Often she finds going to her parents’ rural church an exercise in extreme self-consciousness. She feels herself a poorly constructed appendage of her familiar family, showing up for holidays and occasional longer trips, but having been gone for far too long really. After the service, everyone gathers for coffee and baked treats. Here are the kind, inquiring faces from childhood, who assume things about a life in a city, about jobs. Another explanation that, yes, she was still in school seems almost unbearable. There is the embarrassment of trying to justify obscure study in a blue-collar world.

And yet, such discomfort seems self-involved, even in the moment. The “Sister” who hugs her and casually mentions (as she has for the last decade) what her grandson is up to, has known her for her whole life and genuinely means the set cultural phrases of greeting: “It’s good to see you.”

There is an old phrase for this still common practice of eating together after gathering for worship: a love feast. Here is it is humbly translated into mediocre church coffee and pretty good brownies or coconut bars. There is the buzz of voices, male and female, darting children, routine conversation about the week ahead, and sometimes continued prayers or tears.

And just before, in the adjoining room, there has been another meal, one that joined them all together past the awkwardness and the routine chit-chat. They had each gone to the front, one by one, and eaten and drank of that mysterious food, which presented in tangible form the highest love. And each face, some tired, some much worn by the world, some youthful and innocent, had encountered that love. It reached down into the despair of addiction, the pain and terror of abuse, the isolation of arrogance, and all of this ordinary, sometimes unpresentable humanity.

The words spoken, so familiar, so radical, recall a broken body and spilt blood. Which made communion between all these many people.

That One Student.

We did not exactly get off to a promising start.

I had just taken over as a permanent substitute and was overwhelmed by the chaos that was supposed to be my classroom. He stood defiantly by his desk, refusing to take his seat. I had not yet learned The Look given by all mothers and teachers (a skill, apparently, that is learned and not an innate gift of womanhood) and he was unimpressed by my authority. I was embarrassed and helpless and he knew it. But he overplayed his hand.

“That’s right,” he pulled himself up to his full height, “you can’t tell this N**** what to do!”

The strength of my reaction would later surprise me. Why did I care what some pain-in-the-neck kid called himself? But I did care. Enough that my frustration changed to a remarkably quiet, stern anger.

“Pick up your backpack,” I said, amazed by the composure of my own voice. “I will not have language like that in my classroom.”

He was slightly taken aback, but still belligerent, “I can say what I want. ‘Sides, I’m black.”

“I’m a woman,” I answered calmly. “You’ll never hear me call myself a bitch.”

Some hesitation in my voice let the class know that the word was as unfamiliar for me to speak aloud as it was for them to hear from a teacher. They fell silent, all eyes on Ed and me.

“You’ve gotta respect yourself or I guarantee no one else will.”

Great. I thought. I sound like an actor delivering a line in one of those “inspirational” race-issue films.

He glared down at me. His anger was palpable. I returned his gaze, hoping he couldn’t see through my bluff. If he didn’t listen, there was literally nothing I could do.  At almost fifteen he was too old for his grade. He was half-a-foot taller than me and at least a hundred pounds heavier, already used to being in charge, to being intimidating.

I was fresh out of grad school, barely a decade older than most of my students. A week ago I had been full of the self-assurance of youth. Academically successful, excelling at all my previous jobs, I was excited to be offered a teaching position for the year: my own classroom, a place to implement my own pedagogical philosophy. The night before I started, I dreamed of introducing these under-privileged students to the world beyond this small town, helping them discover a love of history, guiding them in discussing the great questions that drive men and nations.

But that’s not quite how it worked out.  I inherited my classroom from a senior teacher who’d had a nervous breakdown.  It took approximately 6 hours to destroy all my self-assurance.  I left the school defeated at the end of the day, worked late into the night trying to catch up on lesson plans and make some sense out of the former teacher’s grade-book, and collapsed into dreams full of the hopelessness panic that defined my work day. Then woke exhausted the next morning to do it all again.

A week in, I had yet to teach a lesson.  I was fully aware that, for the first time in my life, I was facing real failure.

I prayed he couldn’t tell.

Our standoff lasted for seconds that felt like hours. Then he reached down, picked up his bag, and left the classroom (not without slamming the door).  I turned back to a strangely subdued class.  For the first time we completed the lesson.

The next day he was back, sullen but not defiant. It may be imagination imposed on memory, but things got better after that. I perfected The Look, and on the advice of another teacher, began making students line up outside before I let them into the classroom. It would take months (and endless prayers ) for my class to remotely resemble my early expectations (we never did quite get to eager shining faces and orderly discussions) but students at least sat in their seats, and we made it most of the way through most of the lessons.

One morning a few weeks later, a picture in the social studies book reminded one of the students of Barack Obama’s campaign logo.  “Isn’t he’s the best president?!” someone asked.

“If you’re into that Hope and Change stuff,” I answered wryly, moving the  conversation back to the 11th Century before we got too far off track.

By lunch, I’d forgotten my flippant political commentary when I looked up to see my young nemesis standing in my doorway.

“Hey, what’s up?”  I asked.  I’d established an open-door policy for lunch, and my room had become something of a haven for sweet quiet girls and little nerdy boys who needed a place to hide from bigger students. Needless to say, he was not one of my regulars.

He did not return my smile.  “Miss T.  We need to talk.”

He was very serious, but did not sound angry.  “Alright. What do we need to talk about?”

For a moment he tried to look dignified, but his boyishness got the better of him and he blurted out “WHY don’t you like Obama?!”

I laughed and turned the question around “Well.  Why do you?”

He shrugged ,“A lot of reasons.”

“Well then I guess you better come in and sit down.”

He sat on my desk. I quickly covered the papers I was grading.  And we began our discussion. Initially, his praise of Obama was what you’d expect from a young teen, “he’s the first black president. . . . he’s such a good speaker . . . I just LIKE him.”  But as I pushed him, his answers became more nuanced, more policy based, and – I noted – much more informed than I would have expected.

We discussed the war in Iraq, the welfare state, education, federalism and levels of administration.  I was thankful for the example of professors who had pushed me to the limits of my arguments, who had respected me enough to disagree with me, and who had  sharpened my mind even (perhaps especially) when they did not change it.

He warmed to the conversation, becoming more enthusiastic than I had ever seen him, his face relaxing into a child’s grin, beaming when I acknowledged the validity of a point he made. We were both surprised when the bell rang. “Thanks Miss T!” He called as he ran outside, “that was fun!”

The following afternoon the buses had all left and I was organizing my classroom when he walked in.  “I’m staying for the after school program today, but it doesn’t start for half an hour.  If I help you clean up can we talk politics?”

I agreed, and we discussed environmentalism while he straightened the desks and wiped off pencil marks with a damp paper towel.  He told me about a tree planting he had attended and asked what I thought about global warming.  I admitted a lack of knowledge but a certain skepticism.

“But you ride your bike to work!”

I admitted that the bicycle riding had more to do with personal vanity and an unwillingness to spring for a gym membership, then added that I did think caring for our environment is important, but had more to do with personal responsibility and living within limits.  “We can’t just buy whatever we want, and throw whatever we don’t want away.  We need to think about the decisions we make.  Do I need this new t-shirt, or ipod, or whatever?  What am I doing with my old stuff?  Sometimes its easier to wear a ‘go green’ t shirt than it is to pick up your litter.”

“Like that,” he answered, pointing to some trash blowing past the open door, “But I still like my ‘go green’ shirt.”

We laughed and he promised to stop by again.

It became something of a routine on the days of the after school program.  He would meet me when I got back from seeing off the buses, wait for me to prop the door open, and then come in and help me around the classroom. Since he was taller than me, I set him to work cleaning the high cupboards against the back wall while I scrubbed down the bookshelves.

I don’t think anyone had really cleaned that room in years, and as we cleaned, I found I hated the room less and less. One day in early spring, he was taking an inventory of textbooks while I graded multiple choice quizzes. We were discussing the relative value of liberty and equality, and I was making the case for freedom. He wasn’t sure. “So you think freedom is more important even if it means some things are not equal.  What about education?  What about college?  Shouldn’t everyone be able to go to college?”

“It depends what you mean by ‘should be able.’  I don’t think everyone should go to college.  I think there are a lot of people who would do just as well if they never went to college, who aren’t particularly interested in higher education and who could learn what they need to for work at their job or at a trade or technical school.  There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that.  I think college might be one example of how a push for equality has changed the whole system – it means a certain type of education is dying out. And losing that could result in a sort of loss of freedom; certainly in the loss of certain ways of thinking.  But on the other hand,”  I added, “I grew up in a family that could never have afforded to send me to college, so I’m very thankful for merit and need-based scholarships.”

He thought for a minute, “Do you think I should go to college?”

“You? Yes.  I think you would love college.  You like our conversations?”

He nodded.

“That’s sort of what college is like, only for four years.  You’d be right at home.  And you’d get to write about all the stuff you think about.   At least if you get into a good college.  Which  you can, but it takes a lot of work.”

I said goodbye to him at the end of the school year amidst the intoxicating excitement of the sudden summer freedom. I wonder often how he is doing. He must be almost done with high school now. Has he kept up his grades? Has he thought more about college?  Maybe he’ll get a football scholarship (the kid was just so huge). I can see him working hard through college – maybe going on to law school.

I like to imagine him, years from now, as a federal judge, writing an opinion in a wood-paneled office.  And as he types the word “equality,” he thinks back to his seventh-grade teacher and how she would argue with his liberal interpretation of the law.  Knowing him, that wouldn’t change his ruling, but it might make him add a paragraph or two by way of explanation and justification, even if he knows I’d never read it.

Statistically, I know that even college is unlikely, given his background and the quality of the local public schools. . . but then again, I guess being even a mediocre teacher makes it impossible to really think of your students in terms of statistics. They are too exasperating, obnoxious and precious to be anything but themselves. And if, somehow, he beats the odds, maybe some screen writer will want to make a movie of his life. There’s always that line about self-respect to help it get a nomination from the Academy.

First floor, door on the right

There are two flags hanging on the inside of our front door because two decades ago, on opposite sides of the world, two little girls were learning to love reading and realizing they were pretty good at school. Fast forward to 2013 and we are both here, in this city, wandering between the third floor of Marist Hall and this apartment, exploring our campus and the world as we go.

We both keep late and somewhat irregular hours–the lights are likely to be on at 1 am with no one stirring at 7 (or 8). This means she is usually around when my life gets suddenly complicated, whether that means deciding if these boots go with this dress, figuring out exactly what it might have meant when this guy said this thing, or getting reassurance that giving a C for missing that point was justified, really, and, no, contrary to the claims of pushy, late night emails, I didn’t just ruin that student’s life.

Through links sent without comment from opposite ends of the apartment, we explore the far reaches of the internet together, the beautiful, curious, strange oddities of human life on this planet.

She is funnier than I am and braver.  I do know how to fix a blown fuse (our finicky kitchen dislikes having too many things plugged in at once) and can at least confirm that the American tax system is incredibly complicated, even if I don’t know what to do about it.

We survived taking our comprehensive exams in the same semester, although the tiny dining room of our apartment was overwhelmed by books and late night laughter. Now we are pushing each other through the long marathon of dissertation writing, one ordinary, awesome day after another. At the end I am sure there will be hundreds of pages of amazing scholarship between us and also defeated mice, washed dishes, late nights, venison and seaweed, snow storms, beach trips, conversations, and friendship.

Rare

A friend stopped by on Thursday night and I offered him some of the bourbon I was just about to drink. “I was conferencing with students all day,” I offered by way of explanation, easily dropping into the funny and exasperating stories that are part of teaching college writing: the student who offers cognac.com and a link to a blog post in place of an annotated bibliography. The one who thinks he can’t find any sources that talk about global warming.

But those stories skip over the better, less narratable moments of teaching. The flash of a smile when a student realizes he knowswhat he is talking about. The hesitating sentences that grow stronger as my devil’s advocate objection is answered. The excited report that “Areopagitica” was “amazing, why did no one tell me to read this before?”
For fifteen weeks they intersect with my life, their mannerisms, interests, and progress becoming mine in a way. A fellow young teacher tells me that she thinks of communication with students as a kind of communion, on a deeper level than simply imparting a set of skills. I am inclined to agree with her. I want to understand each of them and I want to be understood. That sort of attention and effort results in a connection, even within the set roles of teacher and student, that goes beyond words on a whiteboard and shades of B in a grade book.
Now here on the quiet Saturday at the end of this strange, full week I am thinking of the teachers of two other university students. One, a masters student close to finishing, the other an undergrad sophomore. One is dead and one is under arrest in a Boston hospital. From the hesitant attempts at character profiles published so far, they appear to have been very different sorts of students, as well as being victim and accused.  But I am sure that both of them had teachers who were eager for their success, gratified at moments of engagement and are now grieving a semester and a degree and a life cut short by the searing hate and destruction.
Because here’s a secret: even the most frustrating student, the one who appears to willfully embody as many stereotypes of not trying as possible, we love that student too. I’d trade all my funny stories for his success. And that student who, full of life and curiosity and hard work, gains intellectual ground in my class or even after. Or the average student, never soaring, never giving up, who offers a comment in class, or succeeds even in one place where she has struggled–those are some of the best things ever.
A student as a representative type for youth and potential is an old trope. This does not negate the immense truth of it. It is a truth that I have only slowly begun to understand as a I grow more and more comfortable with my role at the front of a classroom and more and more humbled by the responsibility and opportunity entangled in it all.
Each semester, as I look at my classroom, I realize every one of them matters. No matter how many students I have over the course of what I hope is a long life of teaching, each one matters and could not be replaced. A former professor of mine had the poem, “The Lantern out of Doors” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, himself a teacher, hanging on his office wall. It reads, in part, “whom either beauty bright / In mould or mind or what not else makes rare.”