1. Someone has to drive
What would I do without students, their cans of Jolt and indiscernible needs, their wept-on poems and muddled brilliance? Twitching with meth, slumped in sweatshirts, numb from grandmothers’ slow deaths and boyfriends’ quick suicides, they crash into college like cars into phone poles. With one of my hands, I grade papers. The other I keep on the wheel.
2. For example
This is the true story of my student Anya. Soft sweaters, keen blue eyes, dense circuitous essays. For years no sugar in her tea and a sea full of water she could not touch. The bandits were thick by the Black Sea docks. The classrooms were cold with the smell of green paint. The bathrooms lined with dirty tile and girls smoking in black boots, fixing hair in tarnished mirrors. Everything echoed. She can still see the street kids in the train station, feel the one who grabbed her arm. He was the least of her worries.
I can understand why she married him, her right-wing conspiracy theorist. There are worse things than all the nice clothes you could want, tea with sugar and cable in North Dakota. No sea, but if there were one, it would be perfectly safe to walk by.
3. Cross-cultural dialogue
People have been sending messages to each other for millions of years, says a travel-hungry student in Oral and Interpersonal Communication. Only a stern probation officer keeps him in town.
Not that long, insists a young man who hunts, traps, and speaks sincerely with all the beauty and limitations of a 19th-century pioneer.
Well actually, says the traveler, they found Lucy in Africa, and her bones are three million years old.
Not that old, declares the home-schooler. Only the pelvis, which was miles away from the rest of the skeleton.
The wanderer’s face shows confusion. The pioneer remains adamant. I say we’ll discuss evolution another day, which is untrue except in the sense that we are always talking about it.
4. Art of persuasion
I understand that your mother was murdered, but you must keep coming to class. This is what she would want, her last thought before being dumped on the snow bank, for her daughter to prove the knife wrong. Don’t start something and not finish, like the student who disappeared after her mother won $10,000 in the state lottery. I know it’s material, the cash, the body, but the life of the mind is eternal. America’s Most Wanted is not.
Do it because you moved across the state line for school, remade all your plans, and I promise to add commas and take them away just like I used to. The computers will glow all around us, and you’ll learn that words, if nothing else, make sense.
I grade memos by welders while two university professors, one table away in the coffee shop, discuss Latin machismo in the context of queer theory. I always start my course with a text, typically a film.
I expend the day’s store of intellectual energy correcting misspellings like “studdering” typed by sleep-deprived auto tech students whose fingers leave films of grease on their keyboards. I want to stain my hands with ink, this whole body of work.
Every year in our faculty reports we write of what we will do, never of what we have done. I will teach ten classes. I will go to three conferences. I will get three haircuts and publish a book. I will climb the hill north of town and eat cookie dough while watching the northern lights. I will cut my finger with the blender – stupid accident – after teaching a full day of classes and grading twenty papers. I will grade in pajamas. I will sit on my bed weaving threaded discussions. I will teach at nine a.m. after daylight savings when it feels like eight.
I will close the door to my office, turn out the lights, and lie on the floor. I will breathe deeply and listen to a lecture on Custer through the wall. I will feel I have nothing left to give and the next day less than that, but then the days will get longer and I’ll promise to read papers for one more year. I’ll decide they will not scare me like they used to.
7. Role reversal
I don’t need students anymore. They are just other people, and if they write good poems, I am glad to read them. I can still find good words in bad sentences, end a class with praise, and show compassion for a snapped ligament. I know I’ll care again someday. I know I just need rest. Maybe a summer, a year, a whole decade working on my words, not theirs. Words are all I have left now – slipstream, snowflake, compress. I am their student, and my pants are full of holes.
The courage to keep entering the classroom, to go back in and meet them. The improvisations, alertness required. I keep coming back to snow and how quiet it is on my drive home, how careful and uninterrupted, like nothing else in my life.