Notes from The Professor

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.

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.

December 16, 2010

Franny: the little person

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 11:17 am
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On the first day of class each quarter, I have my students write an informal introductory letter. In it, they can tell me about their fears and hopes for the class, their kids, their pet pythons, or anything else they think they’d like to share. Some of the letters are stilted and dull (the ones who try to impress me the first day often bore me to tears), some over share, and some are just fun to read. But I can’t say I’ve ever before or since read a sentence like this one:

“I’m Franny, and I’m 27 inches tall…”

It’s not as though I hadn’t noticed this tiny woman in class, but when I was reading the letters the next afternoon, seeing the number was sort of jarring. “…in case you’re wondering,” she went on as if she were reading my mind. I would guess she’d been asked “exactly how tall are you?” by enough boors to just preemptively get it out there.

“I’m also 27 years old, an inch for each year. I live with my boyfriend. He is six feet tall. And yes, people stare.”

Once in a while, Franny would arrive at the classroom in an umbrella stroller pushed by a classmate. Sometimes she put her backpack in it and pushed it herself; her book bag was, after all, almost as big as she was.

“I can’t walk very far,” she told me once when I announced that we’d be meeting in the library (a pretty good hike across campus) next session. “…it’s my arthritis. But if I know ahead of time, I can get someone to help me.”

I was sort of awed by Franny’s frankness. She wasn’t the slightest bit shy about asking someone to give her a push to her next class or boost her up to her chair or get a book from a shelf. And why should she have been? Her stature was not an infirmity, it was a physical fact that she dealt with matter-of-factly.

Until the research project, that is.

For their term papers, I encourage students to research something that has some sort of personal relevance. If you have a kid with autism, learn more about it. If you lie awake at night worrying about global warming, read up on it. If you want to legalize marijuana, shut up already, I’ve heard it all. Franny, not surprisingly, decided to write about dwarfism. It was a little shocking to me that she had never done any research about it, but in retrospect, I suppose it makes sense. She did not think of her stature as a medical condition any more than I think of my eye color as being one.

About two weeks into the research project, she approached me after class.

“I’m not sure I can do this topic,” she said quietly.

“What do you mean, Franny? There has to be plenty of information out there. Maybe you’re not looking in the right places.”

“Oh, it’s not that. I’m finding plenty of articles. I’m just having a hard time reading them.”

“Oh, right. Those scholarly journal articles can be pretty dense. Have you tried some other sources?”

She was quiet for a second. Then she explained to me than that it wasn’t the jargon she was struggling with; it was that most of what she was finding in the medical literature regarding dwarfism was about how to fix it. How to correct deformities. How to conduct gene therapies that would eliminate the “risk” of this “defect.” How to ensure that people like her would never be born.

I didn’t quite know what to say to that.

Franny wound up writing a very different paper than she had planned. She used what she had found to show the biases of the medical community. She researched technologies that little people could use to adapt to their challenges. She wrote about intolerance and acceptance.

In the end, her paper was about the beautiful variety and infinite adaptability of human beings. I’m not sure she would have summed it up that way, but it seemed crystal clear to me.


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