Notes from The Professor

July 5, 2012

William: the disappeared

I read the obituaries every day. It’s a habit that started when I was in my early twenties, mostly out of morbid curiosity, and continues to this day for more practical purposes. I scan the names, then the ages, pausing over those who seem familiar or particularly untimely. Today, I came across one that was both.

William was in my class several years ago…really, when I say that it all runs together after a few years, I mean it. I have no idea how long it’s been. Maybe 2, maybe 5. I have thought about writing about him before because he was someone who stayed with me, but I didn’t know much about him.

Judging from the age printed in today’s obituary, he must have been in his late twenties when he was in my class. What I remember most is that he was polite, respectful, and extremely well-spoken. And he had a gentleness about him: a soft voice, a grace of movement. He was eager to please and eager to learn. I liked him right away.

In his introductory writing sample, he confessed to a difficult past. I don’t remember the details, only that he had done time in prison, a fact that seemed utterly at odds with my impression of him. I wondered how such a gentle soul would survive that environment — but then, it may be that he was not so gentle as all that to have wound up there to begin with.

At any rate, he was nervous about school, and I was eager to help him. I saw in him a genuine desire to do better. He showed me pictures of his kids — told me he owed it to them to do better.

His first paper, the dreaded memoir essay, was about his father. Or was it his step father? Again, I don’t remember. But I do recall that he talked about the scar on his back: a triangle seared there by an iron, applied as a means of discipline. He had cigarette burns on his forearms, too. He wrote about being angry as a young man and about learning to let go of the past — about forgiveness and separating the boy from the man. When I handed it back to him, I told him how much he had to be proud of. There were a lot of other things I would have liked to have said, but they hung in the air, too difficult or too personal to say in class. He nodded and thanked me. I hope he understood.

For about the first half of the quarter, William did just fine, but then he started to miss class. At first, he was good about keeping me informed of what was going on: his daughter was sick, he had a meeting with his probation officer, his grandmother needed help, etc.. But then he fell behind, and even the excuses came at longer intervals. I emailed him — told him he could still make up the work if he’d come meet with me. But eventually, he disappeared. This is not unusual, but it made me particularly sad in his case. I believed in him. I wanted him to win.

I’m not sure I would have remembered his name out of context, but because his obituary ran with a picture, I did. It said that he died in his sleep. I have no idea what that means. Did he overdose? (I didn’t remember whether or not he referred to drug use in his past.) Had he been ill? (No mention of this in the obit.) Was it just one of those times when an aneurism ruptures or a heart explodes or the body cruelly betrays an otherwise perfectly healthy person? There is no way to know.

Reading through the obituary, there are no clues. He is survived by his parents (no mention of a step father — maybe I just wished that) and his three children. It says that he attended college, but doesn’t mention whether he graduated. That’s the least of what I’ll never know about William.

October 3, 2011

Quincy: the gentleman

I’ve said many times that my classes are composed of unlikely combinations of people. Currently, my oldest student is well into his 60’s, my youngest not yet 18. Even as a veteran teacher, it is somewhat daunting for me to presume to teach anything at all to someone twenty years my senior. I know I have something to offer them, but I also know that they have an awful lot on me in terms of wisdom and life experience.

And yet, it is these older students — sometimes those with the least skin in the game — who are the best learners. Sometimes, they’re the best teachers.

Quincy was one such student. But it wasn’t his age that impressed me when I first met him; it was that he was the consummate gentleman. He wore a tie to class every day, and a Fedora. He would doff his hat as he sat down at his desk, perching it neatly on top of his books–a simple act that might have seemed foppish or calculated from someone younger or less elegant than he. He insisted on calling me ma’am, which I found somewhat disconcerting from someone old enough to be my father.

During discussions, Quincy took copious notes on a yellow legal pad in neatly slanted longhand. He listened intently to everything I said–to everything anyone said, and he nodded and sometimes even muttered a “yesss!” or an “uh-huh!” in agreement, as though he were in church. He asked plenty of questions, and I did my best to answer them, even though they were often prefaced by comments so tangential and rambling as to be unintelligible. I’d try to wait politely for him to get to his point, resisting the urge to make a “wind it up” gesture. His classmates sometimes rolled their eyes and glanced impatiently at each other telegraphing “here he goes again” to one another and squirming in their seats.

It’s always a challenge when there’s one student who dominates discussions or gets off topic or compulsively argues. I usually don’t have any trouble steering those people back on course. But for some reason, I found it nearly impossible to do this with Quincy. Moreover, I didn’t want to. He was so eager, so earnest, so genuinely seeking to understand and persuade, I just could’t bring myself to shut him down. Sometimes, he’d turn to his classmates, shake a slender finger, and preach right to them: about commitment, about racism, about hard work and sacrifice. I was not surprised when I found out he had been a minister.

His writing was as discursive and strangely poetic as his speech. When I worked with him on drafts, he’d listen intently and nod. I could tell, even as I spoke, that he often wasn’t following me when I talked about organization and unity and transitions between ideas. His vocabulary was good, and there were these lovely nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout his papers. But punctuation was a mystery to him. Trying to get him to write in any way other than stream-of-consciousness proved nearly impossible. I hated putting grades on his papers. I could’t justify anything higher than a C for most of them, so riddled were they with comma splices and nonsequiturs. I cringed inwardly every time I handed one back.

“There are so many wise insights in your papers, Quincy. You always say something I haven’t thought of or make me see something in a new light. But you understand, I have to take writing conventions into account when I grade…” I’d apologize as I showed him his paper, riddled with corrections and question marks and marginal notes in my handwriting.

He’d listen and nod, telling me he understood and not to worry–that he was enjoying the course and learning plenty, and that he wasn’t worried about the grade. Then he’d smile and pat my hand, put his Fedora back on, and tell me to “have a blessed day, Professor.”

I’m not sure Quincy’s classmates always appreciated him. I’m sure many of them thought of him as an eccentric old man, but I hope they listened to him, too. If they had been more patient, they might have noticed that there was another, wiser teacher in the room.

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