Notes from The Professor

January 4, 2012

Stevie: the Marine

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:57 pm
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This is an Air Force town, so I have quite a few veterans in my classes: some have just finished their service, some have retired and are retraining for their second careers, and one (that I know of) was forced out of service by DADT. Almost without exception, they are great students. They are punctual, they don’t make excuses, and they don’t like bullshit.

Stevie, a Marine fresh out of the corps, was particularly intolerant of the latter — which is sort of funny given that he was full of it. He looked like a recruiting poster for the USMC: square jaw, high cheekbones, skin that looked like it had been buffed to a high gloss, a flat top you could balance a book on, and a Clint Eastwood squint. He wasn’t particularly big or tall, but he carried himself with a sort of puffed up machismo that made him seem bigger than he was. I always thought the diminutive ending of his name was funny–a bit out of sync with his tough-guy exterior. Not Steven, not Steve, but Stevie.

Not shockingly, he was a rabid conservative. He was in my class during W’s second term; it was primary season for the 2008 election. He was a Fred Thompson guy.

“Fred Thompson, Stevie? Really?” I’d say, and he would fire back with a joke about Hillary’s pantsuits. He would goad me about gun control; I’d counter with a jab about corporate greed. It was good natured ribbing, for the most part.

I appreciated the fact that Stevie (unlike some of his younger, more timid classmates) always knew exactly what he wanted to write about: global warming, the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq, the tax code. And he always knew where he stood: firmly on the right of everything. I’ve written before about the struggle to be objective when grading writing. It is hard enough to put aside my own biases about Cracker Barrel to assign a fair grade on a restaurant review, let alone swallow an argument in favor of the right to carry a concealed weapon.

Fortunately, Stevie was a smart guy and a very good writer. He did his homework. He did not ignore counterarguments; he addressed them with a level head. As full of bluster as he was in person, his papers were measured in tone and fairly well-researched. He didn’t change my mind about anything, and I did a lot of scribbling in the margins pointing out things he’d missed or failed to address or studies to the contrary. Over all, though, it could not be said that he wasn’t thinking critically, supporting his claims, or writing clearly. He did all of those things, and his grades showed it.

Not long after Stevie finished the composition sequence (I think he took all three courses from me) I had a visit at my office from an FBI agent. He was conducting a background check on a former student who was applying for a job with the Department of Homeland Security. I didn’t even have to ask.

“Let me guess. Stevie Smith?”

“Yes, ma’am. Do you have any reason to believe that Mr. Smith is anything but loyal to the United States of America?”

I almost laughed. Stevie loved America, his little boy, and his girlfriend, in that order. That much I’d read in his papers.

“None whatsoever,” I said.

“Does Mr. Smith have any known enemies?”

Again, I wanted to laugh. The only time he’d missed class was for a custody hearing.

“Does his ex-wife count?” I said, jokingly. The guy didn’t crack a smile.

“We are already aware of his marital situation.”

“No. Not that I know of,” I said, pretending to be chastened.

The guy asked a few more routine questions and went on his way. A few weeks later, I got an email from Stevie telling me he’d been offered the job he’d been coveting for months and thanking me for a good class. And he attached a global warming joke, just for old time’s sake.


January 29, 2011

Hassan: the other

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:15 pm
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Hassan sat in the back of the classroom each day, always in a freshly pressed dress shirt and sharply creased trousers. His short beard was neatly trimmed and shot through with silver, like his hair. He struck me immediately as the consummate gentleman.

Over the course of eleven weeks, he proved to be exactly that. His accent was lilting, the r’s rolling and consonants originating in his throat or tripping down his palate. His voice was gentle, as was his demeanor. Often, he would stay after class to ask for clarification about an assignment. Although his English was quite good, I am *ahem* a bit of a fast talker, and verbal instructions sometimes got past him.

Hassan was, in every way, the model student. He worked hard, asked questions, and met deadlines. And although he struggled a bit with English grammar and idiom, so different from his native Arabic, his writing had a poetic quality that I admired. His use of metaphor, even when writing expository essays, was lovely. I would guess that the rhythms of his native language found their way into his work.

As the quarter went on, I also learned that he was warm and thoughtful. Once he learned that I had children, he inquired after them almost every time I saw him.

“How are your little girls, Miss?” he’d ask, the initial “h” throaty and the richly rolled “r” in “girls” giving the word an extra syllable: “geh-rrruhls.” One day I asked him if he had any children, and his face darkened and lit up in the same instant.

“Yes, I have one daughter. Her name is Habibah. She lives with her mother.”

I didn’t ask for details; it was clear that the subject was difficult for him. But over the course of the quarter, things leaked out in his writing. One of his papers made an argument that Islam was not the violent religion that most Westerners believe it to be. In it, he cited passages from the Koran to show how extremists had perverted an otherwise peaceful religion. Another paper was an argument against the state, alleging that he had been treated unfairly by the court system in the custody battle for his daughter.

The latter paper was painful to read; the longing for Habiba was palpable in his words. But perhaps worse than the ache of missing his daughter was that his ex wife was using his nationality and his religion as ammunition against him in a custody battle, even though she shared both. She had shed her hijab for the hearing. She had denounced her religion openly, even though Hassan knew that she was still observant. When asked in court if she had any reason to suspect that her ex husband was involved in any anti-American activity, she said she didn’t know, but that it was certainly possible. This in spite of the fact that they had together faced discrimination following 9/11. Most of the attackers were, after all, Egyptian, like them. That Hassan’s attorney allowed such questions to be asked, let alone answered, left him feeling utterly powerless, and utterly alone.

Despite this, he never seemed angry. Grief-stricken, perhaps. Demoralized. But not angry. Not violent. In fact, he seemed grateful. Humble. Appreciative of the opportunities that were in front of him–opportunities that he’d left Egypt to pursue.

I have been thinking of Hassan a lot this week, as the news of rioting, internet blocking, and revolution have dominated everything from network TV to Twitter. Hassan’s country is trying to shake off the mantle of 30 years of authoritarian rule. His homeland is in turmoil, its future uncertain.

Certainly, one might think he could have a better life here. His daughter could be free of fear and oppression. His wife could be free of systemic misogyny. He could be free of the radical elements of his faith that had hijacked both the airliners and his religion.

And yet here, where we believe in fair trials and justice and freedom, we have branded him a threat. His own wife has already learned to exploit the ingrained prejudices of people who should know better: attorneys, magistrates and judges, to keep him from his own child. Here too, his home is in turmoil, his future uncertain.

It’s quite a trade.

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