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.

February 22, 2012

Tim: the displaced

My little rustbelt city has been hit hard by the recession. When I started teaching community college in the early aughts, very few of my full-time students were over 25. Now, there are displaced workers in every section of every class I teach. Many of them haven’t set foot in a classroom in well over twenty years. They have been set adrift from manufacturing jobs and laid off from shrinking companies. They are down, but not out.

Tim was an electrician in a manufacturing facility for thirty years before he was laid off the day before Thanksgiving 2008, when his company was purchased by a Chinese corporation. Even though his union contract guaranteed him severance, the new owners kept enough people around to fire up one production line every now and then until the contract expired, thus circumventing their obligation to the 120+ workers they had displaced. He was, for the first time in over 30 years, unemployed and without a paycheck.

Undaunted, he filed for unemployment and soon enrolled in school. He showed up in my English class at the end of his first year, having breezed through the first two quarters of our composition sequence in short order. He took the “hard” classes first: Math and English–subjects he hadn’t taken since high school.

He sat at the back of my classroom, a big guy with a shock of graying hair and a goatee. He wore jeans an army jacket just like a good college student should. While he was quiet at first, it wasn’t long before he started to distinguish himself, both in class discussions and in his writing. He had a poet’s ear for phrasing, and was a sensitive and appreciative reader. His papers were a pleasure to read. And although the math classes nearly kicked his butt, he started to see the power of mathematics in engineering. Going back to school, he told me, was harder than any job he’d ever had.

During his second year, he stopped by my office now and then to say hi, or to show me pictures of his new grandchild. To my delight, he said going back to school had kindled a love of writing, and he continued to do so, both for classes and for fun. When he graduated, he was in the top 3% of his class. He had made the most of his second chance at an education; he never missed a class, and the one tiny blotch on his otherwise perfect academic record was a single B in a math class that he just couldn’t quite beat. By all measures, certainly by the college’s metrics, he was the perfect “completer,” the “success” referred to on our marketing materials. Surely, his spanking new Associate’s Degree in Operations Technology had given him the skills and the resume necessary to compete in this job market. Surely the two years he’d spent in school would have been time for the economy to recover.

Tim and his family had managed to make ends meet while he was in school, thanks to a number of programs designed especially for people like him. He had done everything in lockstep: from filing for benefits, to enrolling in school, to completing every class successfully and on time, to graduating with honors. His TAA benefits (the Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits designed to help those who became unemployed due to the impact of international trade) kicked in exactly two weeks before he graduated. The minute he did so, the benefits dried up.

Over the next six months, he sent out literally hundreds of resumes, which resulted in a handful of interviews. Each of those, after seeming to go well, led to weeks of waiting, often for no response at all. With a resume and academic record like his, it’s hard to believe that his age didn’t have something to do with the lack of offers, but of course, no one says that. At first he applied for management jobs, but after a few months, he had to lower the bar.

Finally, in January, Tim was offered a job more than 45 miles from his home. In a manufacturing facility. Doing a job that he was qualified to do the day he was laid off over three years ago.

But it’s a job, and he’s happy to have it. Even with his wife’s income, things had started to get tight, and he needed to work. He was close to taking a job at a Home Depot or the like, just to make ends meet. And there may be an opportunity for advancement from his hourly union job to management. It’s not an easy leap to make, but it’s possible. I have my fingers crossed for him.

Still, it’s hard from where I sit not to wonder if the two years he spent in school did him any good at all. Our students, our state, and our President look to community colleges to retrain the workforce for bigger and better things.

But no one anticipated that the recovery would take as long as it has. In 2008, the idea of taking 2 years to go to school while the economy turned around seemed reasonable. That it’s taken closer to four was harder to predict. In this morning’s paper was an article about the mini manufacturing boom in Ohio, but they are not the high-tech manufacturing jobs Tim trained for. The tremendous optimism and hard work that accompanied his journey into academia must be hard for him to remember at the end of a long day. In fact, when I asked him if he wouldn’t like to tell his own story, he said:

“I will always continue to write, but for the near future I have to pour my heart and soul into this job to establish a foothold and maybe then I can advance. For the foreseeable future I am looking at lots of overtime, night shifts and a 97 mile round trip drive daily. As you can imagine, by the time I get home, I feel like a bird with no song in me.”

I like to think we did right by him, but there’s a part of me that feels like we’re making false promises to students like Tim when we say their education will lead to a brighter future. Deep down I know education is valuable for its own sake and not just as a means to an end. When asked if he would do it again, Tim said he wouldn’t have traded the second chance at a degree for anything. Discovering a facility with words, the power of mathematics, and having the satisfaction of exceeding one’s own expectations are all benefits that none of our institutional metrics can quantify. For now, that will have to be enough.

December 1, 2011

Rhonda: the addict

I didn’t notice Rhonda for the first couple weeks of the quarter. A middle-aged woman who sat in the back of the room and listened carefully, she rarely participated. One evening after class (we met once a week for three hours, which was grueling enough, let alone that class let out at 9:45pm) she asked if she could speak to me.

She was, she told me, suffering from lupus, and lately had been having some pretty unpleasant symptoms. She held up her fingers, the tips of which were wrapped in bandages.

“My fingertips have split,” she said. “I’m not sleeping very well because of the pain, so if I seem out of it, it’s not you.”

Somehow I resisted screaming “Omigod your FINGERS HAVE SPLIT??? OUCH!!”

Instead, I offered a sympathetic and professional “Thanks for letting me know, Rhonda. If there’s anything you need or if you have to miss class for any reason, just let me know.”

“I will, Ms. Professor,” she said, her voice a little ragged and her huge brown eyes sunken slightly in her face. I wondered how I could have neglected to notice she was ill.

Sure enough, she was gone the next week. And the next. This was about ten years ago, before students communicated with me via email. She never called, and I had no way to reach her. Each time I saw her empty seat, I privately worried that something terrible had happened to her.

When she returned to class, she was like a different person. As tiny and waif-like as she had been, now her stocking cap and thick wool coat nearly swallowed her whole. She shuffled into the classroom, sat in back (as usual) and struggled to stay awake while I spoke. After setting the class to work on a group assignment, I went over to her.

“I’m glad you’re back, Rhonda. I was worried about you.”

She looked at me, her huge eyes glassy, her formerly clear brown skin mottled with gray. When she spoke, her speech was slurred.

“The pain got so bad I finally had to go to the emergency room. The medicine they gave me helped, though. It’s called OxyContin. They use it for cancer patients,” she chuckled, “it’s that strong. But at least now I can sleep at night. I can take care of my babies.”

Her “babies,” I knew, from her introductory paper, were nearly grown men: big, strapping boys of 16 and 18 who played football and adored their Mama. I hoped they were taking care of her.

At the time, I had barely heard of OxyContin. Just a few months earlier, another student had written a paper about this relatively newly available drug and its terribly addictive properties. He worried that it was being used indiscriminately when its original intent had been to treat intractable pain in patients too ill to function anyway, not unlike morphine. He wrote about a black market, about junkies crushing the pills and snorting them, about addicts hooked after a single use, about physicians prescribing it in emergency rooms.

The next week, Rhonda was even more out of it. She approached my desk on a break, and with eyelids at less than half mast, asked me to explain what I had just gone over.

“I’m not sure I understand the assignment,” she murmured, barely intelligible.

I did my best to clarify the details for her, but I could tell she wasn’t getting much. She barely stayed conscious the rest of the evening, then shuffled out the minute class was over.

I stayed behind to answer a few stragglers’ questions and pack up my bag, and just as I was leaving, Rhonda reappeared in the doorway.

“I can’t remember where I parked my car,” she slurred. “Can you help me?”

“You drove here yourself?” I tried not to sound as horrified as I was. I wanted to tell her she was nuts, that she had no business driving, that she was being overmedicated, that she needed help. But instead, I just said, “Why don’t you call one of your sons to come get you?”

“I have the car. They don’t have any way to get here.”

Had this happened now that I’ve been at the same school for 11 years, had it been at a time of day when not every single campus office was closed, had I not had a babysitter at home who had to be home by 10:30, had I been more willing to venture well outside the comfort of my usual boundaries, I would have called her sons or found out where she lived and taken her home myself. Instead, I just said, “Let me walk with you. I’ll help you find your car.”

I knew that there would be a security guard in the parking garage, and sure enough, one of the friendly regulars was there, bundled up to his eyeballs in the frigid February night.

“Sir, this lady needs help finding her car and getting home. Perhaps you can find a campus police officer to help her?” I looked at Rhonda, wondering if she’d be embarrassed, but she was too far gone to care. Then I patted her awkwardly on the arm, told her to be safe, thanked the security guard for his help, and hurried off to my car.

Rhonda never came back to class, but I thought about her all the time. I took to skimming the obits in the local paper, wondering if I’d see her name, and what the cause of death would be: Rhonda Simpkins, age 42, of complications from lupus.

Six months later, I was in the college library with a research class when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Rhonda. I was so happy to see her I almost grabbed her and squeezed her. She looked great. Healthy. Alert.

“It is so good to see you, Rhonda. I was worried about you.”

She told me she had been through rehab and had been clean for a few months. That she had been so badly addicted to OxyContin she’d almost died. That she didn’t remember very well the last time she’d seen me or what happened that night, but she was sorry I’d had to see her that way. That she was reenrolled and starting classes anew. That her boys had been wonderful, and her lupus was under control. I was so relieved I wanted to cry. Then I gave her a hug and she went on her way. I haven’t seen her since.

I never found out what happened that last night she was in my class. I don’t know if her sons came to get her, if campus police took her to the hospital, or if she somehow drove home herself, God forbid. All I know is that I passed her off, and that things turned out okay either in spite of or because of that. That’s good enough for me.

August 27, 2011

Pete: the kid

It will make me sound like a fossil to say this, but I can’t always tell how old my students are. Everyone under 25 looks like a high school kid. What I did not know when I first started teaching community college is that some of them actually are. In high school, that is.

A couple of programs in our state allow kids to get a start on their college degrees and earn high school credits at the same time. It’s a great option for students who, for whatever reason, are not thriving in a traditional environment. Most of the kids who exercise this option are not the overachievers you might be imagining. They are not always super-bright kids whose academic needs are not being met by secondary education. Sometimes — maybe usually — they are kids who are just “done” with high school. They may be bored, at risk for dropping out, or balking against authority. Some are just kids who do better with more autonomy and a less rigid schedule.

Pete was one of these kids, but I wasn’t aware of it until I’d known him for a month or two. He was ridiculously tall and thin, well over six feet but probably 140 pounds sopping wet. He had nearly white skin and orange hair — not I’m-a-rebellious-youth dyed hair, but naturally bright orange. He was the reddest redhead I’d ever seen.

And he was a terrific writer. Funny. Insightful. Mature.

I learned just how young he was the day we were discussing topics for argument essays. There are many subjects I prohibit, some because I know I can’t be objective grading them, and some because I would rather gouge my eyeballs out with my own red pen than grade another paper about them. Two topics that fall into the latter category are favorites of the under-21 boy crowd: lowering the drinking age and legalization of marijuana. No matter how much they beg, I will not budge on this.

So Pete took another tack.

“Ok, how about this,” he said during our conference. “How about I write a letter to my mom persuading her to let me smoke pot?”

“Come again?”

“My mom is all over me about smoking weed. I want to make a deal with her to get her off my back. As long as I keep my job, keep my grades up, and stay out of trouble, it shouldn’t be any of her business if I get high.”

“Um, Pete?”

“What?”

“It’s illegal.”

He rolled his eyes. “I know! But you won’t let me write about how stupid that is. Man. I thought you’d be cool about this, but you sound just like her.”

I laughed. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“How old is your mom?”

“Too old to be cool about this.”

“How old is too old?”

“Pffft. Forty.”

At the time, I was forty, too. If this similarity occurred to him (or if it was a deliberate jab) he didn’t let on. Just as I thought everyone under 25 looked young, he probably deemed everyone over 30 ancient. I sighed.

We talked through the various pitfalls of the paper, how he’d make his claims, how he’d address her concerns and counterarguments. Even though it felt strange giving a teenager a platform to convince his mother to let him break the law (no matter how pointless and ineffectual) and endanger his own health, I let him write it.

And of course, it was funny, charming, superbly written, and quite convincing. I gave him an A.

“You know what?” I said to him when I handed it back to him. “If I were your mom, I wouldn’t be convinced. And you don’t get to use your grade as ammo.”

He laughed. “No worries. I’m never going to win this one, but it was fun to write.”

It was fun to read, too. I doubt he ever made any headway with his mom, but since he went on to take two more classes from me and transfer to a university with a 4.0, I think he’s probably doing just fine.

June 29, 2011

Olivia: the basket case

“Ok, I have all my sources for the research paper. Now, what’s due next time?”

Olivia had stayed behind to ask this question despite the fact that I had spent the last twenty minutes of class explaining that very thing.

“The research proposal is due next time, Olivia. You shouldn’t be gathering sources until your proposal has been approved.”

“What’s the research proposal?” She looked at me blankly.

“The short paper I just assigned. Just now.”

“So we’re not supposed to be conducting research for a research paper?” she said accusingly, looking at me through narrowed eyes and brushing aside the lock of hair that perpetually hung over one of them.

“Of course you are–just not yet.”

An exchange like this one happened nearly every time Olivia came to my twice-a-week class. She made it most days, but almost never without being 15 or 20 minutes late. She made a lot of racket coming in, and noisily settled herself at her computer. If I was speaking when she came in, she would go straight to her seat, but if the class happened to be working on something, she’d come up to the front of the room where I was seated at the instructor’s podium and start in on an elaborate explanation — always in full voice and peppered with way too much personal information. She spoke entirely in run ons and nonsequiturs.

“My son woke up this morning with welts all over his legs we’re pretty sure it’s bedbugs so we’re going to have to move out while the exterminator fumigates the place but my mom just got evicted so we can’t go to her house and my boyfriend isn’t exactly on speaking terms with his family so I have no idea where we’re going to be living over the next week or so so I’m not sure what I’m going to do about getting my school work done and my car is in the shop and my boyfriend can’t drive because his license is suspended so I may have to bring my son to school with me next week if I can even get a ride because we can’t really afford daycare and we can’t be in the house with the bedbugs so it’s going to be sort of a weird week.”

I waited for her to take a breath, nodding sympathetically and trying divine one single piece of information that was at all relevant to her performance in my class.

“Sorry you’re having such a tough week. How can I help you?”

It is not unusual for my students to need a break now and then, when their families, jobs, transportation issues and health interfere with their schoolwork, but Olivia needed one every single week. More frustrating, though, was that she never, and I mean never, paid attention in class. She was always hard at work, her keyboard clacking loudly, but she was always doing the wrong assignment, the next assignment, or the assignment that was due the day before.

“Olivia,” I said one day, exasperated, “you have got to start paying attention to what’s going on in class. If you will just stay with us, you’ll be fine. Reading ahead to figure out where we’re going isn’t helping you. If you get too far ahead, you’re going to have to redo a bunch of your work. It doesn’t make sense to do research before you have hammered out your question. Trust the process.”

Or, that’s what I wanted to say. In the course of my plea, she interrupted me at least three times. “But I don’t have a computer at home. But I already know my topic. But I already know how to do that.” You get the picture.

I’m not a my-way-or-the-highway kind of teacher, and if I had thought Olivia were equipped to go it alone, I probably could have tolerated her refusal to conform to my schedule. But she wasn’t. She was obviously bright and curious, but her writing was a mess — often tumbling out in the same haphazard stream of consciousness her speech did. I found it nearly impossible to communicate with her.

Other students started to notice her, too. They were annoyed by her tardiness and by the fact that I would frequently have to interrupt class to ask her to stop typing when I or one of her classmates was speaking. When she did participate in discussions, her contributions were often overly personal reactions to the material that derailed the conversation. In short, she was exhausting.

The day she insisted she was going to write her term paper her own way, I finally had enough:

“Olivia. Stop,” I said. “Stop talking. Listen to me. I am the one who is grading your paper. I am the one who designed the assignment. If your paper does not meet the course objectives, you won’t get a passing grade. Do you understand that?”

This pulled her up short. She looked at me, again with narrowed eyes, her thin face pinched. Finally, she sighed.

“Well, okay,” she said, and turned on her heel.

Apparently, something had finally sunk in. She managed to get through with a C. Her final paper was really quite well-researched and informative, if a bit disorganized. Still, I was somewhat relieved to see her go.

And then she turned up in my lit class not two weeks later. It was not a course required for many majors, so I was surprised to see her there. And I wondered why, when she had been so disdainful of all my pesky requirements, she’d take another class from me.

The first day, she approached me when class was over.

“Are we really going to need the book?”

“Well, it’s a lit class and the book is an anthology. I don’t see how you can get by without it,” I said as good naturedly as I was able.

“Well, I’m on financial aid and I can’t really afford it.”

“Oh, well, you can probably get away without it for a week or so, but as soon as you get your money you’re going to need to buy it. In the meantime, I might be able to get you a loaner.

“Oh, no. That’s not the problem. I got my financial aid check. I just can’t afford to spend it on books. My boyfriend just lost his job and it turns out it wasn’t bedbugs but fleas and my son is allergic and scratched so much he got an infection so we had to get an antibiotic and we don’t have health insurance and we have to get rid of our dog…”

I didn’t have the energy to explain that using financial aid funds for personal living expenses was fraudulent. I knew she wouldn’t listen. And as it turned out, the point was moot. She didn’t make it very long this time. She showed up to class with her visibly ill toddler one day. Once her boyfriend actually stuck his head in the door of the classroom and said he needed to see her “right now.” By the end of the third week of the quarter, she had disappeared.

Olivia seemed to live in a constant state of crisis and upheaval that probably just overwhelmed her. And while I was relieved to get her through one class, I was sorry when she disappeared entirely from the second one. I had hoped she might persevere — that one class at a time, one crisis at a time, she might get herself out of whatever mess she was in. But sometimes, chaos wins.

April 28, 2011

Matt: the aimless

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:58 pm
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Lest you think I am a Pollyanna or a liar, I suppose it’s time to admit that there are some students I just don’t care that much about. I picked on the KKKKKs, the pleasant but indistinguishable young girls, a couple of weeks ago, so let me tell you about Matt, the indistinguishable young guy(s).

Matt schlepps into class twenty minutes late every single damned day he bothers to show up, which is a little over half the time. He’s wearing baggy jeans or cargo shorts, depending on the season; a hoodie or logo Tshirt; and some sort of headwear that’s supposed to camouflage his lack of hygiene, usually a stocking or baseball cap. He looks like he has just rolled out of bed, because he has.

Count on Matt to skip days when an assignment is due, only to show up the next class day and act shocked when I won’t accept it.

Matt: “Here’s my paper.”

Me: “Thanks, but it was due last time.”

Matt: “Right, but I wasn’t here last time.”

Me: “I know. But that’s when it was due.”

Matt: “But I was absent that day.”

You see where I’m going with this? Or not going, as the case may be.

Matt’s generically attractive face looks utterly blank when he’s called on. He does not have his book, or if he does, he has not read the assignment. When given class time to work on something, he will instead check his Facebook page and scroll through pictures of his pals back at the U doing beer bongs. (I know this because I can see all the computer screens in the classroom from the instructor’s terminal. Technically I can block certain sites, but they are chronologically adults, and I’m not a micromanager. Besides, sometimes the pictures are entertaining.) When I circulate around the room, he comes up with some earnest question to distract my attention from the fact that he isn’t farther along in his work. He is always very polite, despite his apparent disinterest in just about everything, with the possible exception of the girl who sits in front of him, and only if she’s a KKKKK.

Maybe Matt is here because he drank so much beer at the State University he could’t be bothered to go to class. His parents have yanked him out of school and sentenced him to a couple of quarters at community college–possibly to rehabilitate his GPA, or perhaps just to save the many thousands of dollars they were wasting on tuition, room and board only to have Matt fritter it away. Or, he might be here because he prefers playing Xbox in his parents’ basement to any future he might be working toward, and Mom and Dad have made school a condition for his continued mooching their continued support. Or perhaps Matt has decided that being a line cook at crApplebees isn’t the best terminal career goal. There may be many, many reasons why Matt has landed here, but one thing is consistent: he has very little idea of where he might be headed.

At the end of the quarter, Matt will be very disappointed in his grade. He won’t understand why, despite turning in some reasonably well-written papers, he did not earn at least a B. He seems to have completely forgotten that every paper was late, every draft incomplete, every in-class assignment done haphazardly, and that he was late or absent more than half the time. When he is reminded of this, he seems nonplussed that I am actually holding him to the standards that are clearly spelled out on the syllabus. By the end of the quarter, I’ll have trouble being polite to him.

Of course it is unfair to generalize about young male students this way. Fortunately, there are only a couple of these guys in each class, and there are many other young men who do not fit this stereotype, along with some girls who do. But I am curious and a little bit alarmed by the difference between young men and young women. Anecdotally, it seems that guys suffer from a sort of malaise and lack of direction that does not afflict their female counterparts nearly as badly. Recent research has shown that college attendance and completion rates are significantly higher for women than for men. What is happening–or not happening–to these guys that makes them so, well, Matt-like?

April 3, 2011

Kayla Kelsey Kaitlyn Kendra Kailey: the girls

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 6:31 pm
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I have been asked how I can possibly remember all of my students. Some of them are unforgettable, and some of them stay in touch, but the truth is, I forget plenty of them once they leave my class. In a typical quarter, I teach five sections of composition. Classes used to be capped at 25, but now, with enrollment booming and class space at a premium, it’s more common to have 28 or 29 students in a section. A handful of these will drop, fail, or simply disappear, but at quarter’s end, I’ll still be looking at well over 120 faces.

The faces, I remember. The names are a little harder, but I make a point to learn them by the second or third week of the quarter. Unusual names or people are easy, but I struggle with the Kayla Kelsey Kaitlin Kendra Kaileys.

KKKKK is a young girl between the ages of 17 and 20. She can usually be identified by her hoodie, jeans, Ugg boots (or flip flops, depending on the weather), a ponytail, a stretchy headband, and a tan (regardless of the weather). She comes to class regularly, turns everything in on time, and almost always gets good grades. When it’s time to write a memoir, she writes about her grandpa’s funeral or her prom. When it’s time to write a review, she chooses a top 40 album or a chain restaurant. Her journal entries are written in fat, bubbly print (almost no one under the age of 30 writes in anything resembling cursive), and she compiles her portfolio in a polka dot folder. She writes research papers about preventing animal cruelty, the evils of beauty pageants, or the perils of texting while driving. I realize, with some horror, that I am old enough to be her mom, and that she probably sees me in that light. In other words, she is the typical American teenaged girl.

Typically, the KKKKKs come from big suburban high schools; some have not yet graduated, but are exercising the option to take college classes for high school credit. It may be my imagination, but I’m guessing that enrollment stats would bear me out: there are a lot more KKKKKs at my school now than there were ten years ago. Some of them write about how their family circumstances have changed in the past couple of years: their parents have split up, one or both have been laid off, someone’s health has failed. In other words, they hadn’t planned to go to community college, but they are making the best of it. Most of them will transfer to a university after taking their general education courses here.

I think I would die of boredom if I taught at a school where all of my students were 19, well-prepared, entitled, and hungover. I tend to gravitate toward lost causes or less traditional students who usually ask for and need more help, or write about issues that are more mature or memorable. They stay after class to chat now and then. But I like these girls, too. Twenty five years ago, I was one of them.

It takes me weeks to learn which K is which. By quarter’s end, I know that it was Kelsey whose dad died when she was twelve. It was Kayla who had to cut back her hours at the Cheesecake Factory when her grades started to slip. It was Kaitlyn who missed a week because of the flu. But they’ll all make it. They’ll get A’s and B’s, and they’ll smile and wave when they see me on campus the next quarter or the next year. I won’t forget them exactly, but I might not remember them, either. At least not their names.

March 19, 2011

Jeanine: the bereft

When I started teaching college twelve years ago, I had very few avenues through which to communicate with my students outside of class. As an adjunct instructor, I had no office or campus phone number. I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t even have my own email address, and since most of my students did not have an internet connection at home, it wouldn’t have done me much good if I had. So, I had to do the unthinkable: I gave out my home phone number.

My class met in the evenings, so when my phone rang as I was getting an early dinner on the table and shoveling squash into the baby’s mouth and trying to keep my clothes clean until class time, I could count on it being a student with a last minute question or excuse. (Once, my phone rang at 11:45pm. It was a woman who’d been absent for three weeks wondering when might be a good time for her to turn in the paper that had been due earlier that evening. I told her “never” and went back to sleep, but that’s another story.)

One day I got a call at about 8:30 in the morning from Jeanine, a perfectionist who attended every class, met every deadline, and seldom got less than 95% on any assignment.

“I’m not going to be able to turn my paper in tonight, but I’ll have a friend bring it.” She sounded flustered but businesslike.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“My husband died,” she said, as matter-of-factly as if she’d been telling me that her car had broken down.

“Oh, Jeanine. I’m so sorry. When?”

“Just now. I’m waiting for the coroner.”

“What?”

“I’m waiting for the coroner. I just found him about five minutes ago. I don’t think I’m going to make it to class.”

I stammered my condolences, told her not to worry about a thing, that I didn’t need her paper that very day under the circumstances and she could just call me when she was ready to come back to class, but I could tell she wasn’t listening.

“Ok. I’ve got to go. I have to tell my family.”

I hung up the phone, trying to imagine the state of shock someone would have to be in to make such a call. It was as though she had immediately started running a checklist in her head, one that she was making up as she went: Take care of business. Make the easy calls first: 1) call coroner; 2) call English teacher.

Jeanine had told me about her husband one evening while we were on a break during the three-hour class meeting. She had been married for twenty years, since she was nineteen. She was studying to be a nurse; after all, she had been a caregiver for half her life.

The accident happened two weeks after her wedding. Her husband had been gravely injured. Shortly after she moved into the house they had bought together, she had moved a hospital bed into what would have been the dining room. In twenty years, she had never slept for more than four hours at a stretch, because she had to get up to check on him. I don’t remember the details of his condition. He was not on life support, but apparently there were things that could go wrong, things that Jeanine had to monitor, medications she had to administer. He was responsive, though. He could smile at her, respond to her touch. She read to him and sang to him. He was, she told me, her Honey Bunny.

I don’t remember exactly how he died. When I spoke to her a few weeks afterwards, Jeanine told me she had been up until the wee hours working on her research paper and had checked on him before turning in, but when she got up the next morning, he was dead. She wondered aloud if she had been so distracted and overtired from working on her term paper that she had done something wrong, forgotten something. And I (irrationally, I know) wondered if that meant I was somehow to blame, or (more rationally) if she blamed me. Everything is such a delicate chain of cause and effect: if the deadline had been different, if I’d given her more time in class, if I had not made the paper seem like too big a deal, maybe he wouldn’t have died. But of course, that train of what-ifs is infinite. I don’t know what the autopsy showed. It could have been an infection. He could have aspirated. It didn’t matter. He was dead just the same.

Jeanine came back to class about two weeks later. The quarter was almost over, and there was a lot of work to make up. I offered to give her an incomplete.

“Why not take your time? I’ll work with you on what you missed. We’ll get you caught up. There’s no need for you to do this right now.”

“What else would I do?” she asked. Her eyes welled up. It was the only time I ever saw her cry. “I have no idea what to do with myself. I have so much time, so much freedom.”

I waited while she dabbed at her eyes.

“You know,” she said quietly, “I mourned my husband twenty years ago. The man I married died in a car accident when he was twenty years old. But I loved this man, too. People always told me how brave I was for staying with him. Now they talk about how I can finally move on. But I need to grieve him again. He was my baby. I took care of him. I don’t know who I am without him.”

When gravely disabled or ill people die, it’s easy to say that it was a “blessing.” We hear platitudes about their suffering being eased or about their caregivers being released from obligation or about their being at peace. It’s all true on the surface, I suppose, but there’s something about those phrases that disregards the relationships that are born from loss or tragedy or illness or injury. It’s an especially complicated sort of grief.

When Jeanine started school, it had been something to do for herself. She knew that she would never be able to take a job as long as her husband needed her care, but since she was already an experienced caregiver, she thought that perhaps she could learn how to do her job better, and to prepare herself–as family and friends had urged her–for a time when he no longer needed her. She never imagined that time would come so soon.

Jeanine finished the quarter on time. She got an A. I never saw her again. I imagine she finished her nursing degree, probably with honors. She grieved her husband’s death for a second time. By now, she has probably made a whole new life for herself. I think of her now and then. I hope she is happy.

*An edited version of this post was featured on The Story with Dick Gordon, an American Public Media production that airs on NPR stations nationwide. Please listen here. The episode starts off with an interview with one of my students.

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