Mid-Winter: A life without students

February, 2008—written when I was away from teaching:      

It is mid-winter, mid-winter quarter, the grey half-way point in the academic year. In this mid-winter of the mind, one casts about for signs of a downhill slope. The surviving cherry trees outside McHenry library will soon explode into unseasonable showers of pink, and indeed the days are strangely warm, a breeze breathing encouragement. If we can find our way to week 8 without one more virus, we will be hurtling though March into the home stretch.

Starting in 1975, my life followed this orbit, from September’s anticipation and dread, when we are guiding first-years across the rope bridge from their past as children to their futures, through the winter’s rain when the body would trade anything for soup and some sleep, to spring’s reawakening, when the students are stable and silly and we anticipate so much, when we—just briefly—return to ourselves again.

Except that this year, my second away from teaching, I am not on this calendar. I have stepped off the ferris wheel at the bottom of its rotation and still stand below it, watching it lift my friends, my colleagues, the students I would have had, skyward. In my mind, I am still sitting in one of the cracked red seats, rising with everyone else. In my mind, I have a set of papers to finish and a class to prepare for tomorrow.

If you feel like I always felt, mid-winter, exhausted and a little desperate, you might well wish you too had only mental papers to read, only an imaginary class to design. But it is an eerie thing to have “real” life which is fundamentally intangible— to keep daily life moving forward for my son, with all that entails, and to launch a “new” life for myself which is entirely about words: Words in email; words in a query; other people’s words in journals, dissertations, memos; characters’ words; these words. Though it is a gift to make a life of words, it is harder and more complex than I anticipated when this life as a writer was my imaginary life, and the world of classes and papers my “real” one.

What I had not anticipated was that in living as I would live, as I do live, I would be shadowed by a sense of memory so vivid it is like a waking dream. It is not even memory, which by definition is of some actual past, but a projection, an alternate present. I can smell the damp redwood duff at Kresge strewn across the flat pathway lights and steaming in their heat; I can feel myself lodged in my Kresge office, looking for an excuse to step out of it and go downstairs where the Steno Pool is still there, a hive of gossip and warmth, and Laurel might just want to take a break from her siege of files, or just to visit in the hallway with Ringo or Leslie or Farnaz or Brij (or Mary Kay, long retired: in this projection, all pasts are one).

In my mind’s eye I am not in my own living room, watching the snow fall and listening to the dog licking his paws, scalded by the ice outside; I am in College Eight strategizing with the advisors, Lauren, Jan and Sara, my feet in their battered clogs up on a chair so my ankles won’t swell, worrying over a student who has shredded our multiple safety nets.

In the early morning, as I consider the day ahead, my first vision of it puts me in the perpetual dusk of the College Eight Red Room, where the lights never illuminated the room and the blackboard barely worked, sitting in a circle of sleepy students, trying to spin the web that would weave them in, one by one, to the provisional community that is a classroom. I can hear Heidi and Joy’s lilt next door, rounding up students to stitch their worlds out of colored paper and pens, making posters for the next celebration that will bring them together, and I am conscious of the other core course faculty doing their magic in classrooms at the same time, sparklers in the morning fog. Like an old-time slide show, the wheel turns and in an instant it is again dark Toronto morning, the bus wheels outside whispering through the slush, and I have another project entirely: To begin my son’s day and then my own.

Perhaps if I had taught that last class I was scheduled to teach, the spring before we left for Canada, when instead for too many days I was too sick with pneumonia to stand, I would not now be in what must be an extended mourning. In the way that sudden death protracts grief, this sudden end to a life’s work is dislocating. If I had taught that class, I would have been acutely conscious of how every session would be the last of its kind. Instead, I return to the previous class and re-invoke moments, conversations, faces—all that time I did not know I was saying goodbye. It is perhaps better for the students I would have had that last spring that they had a teacher who was in their real present, not a teacher lost in reflection: I remember the winter I knew we were losing the Journalism program, I kept weeping in class, astonished that anyone would want to see an end to the extraordinary thing we had invented. Those students in the winter of 2003 certainly knew they were dear to me, and I am still in touch with many of them. But I think it would have been better for them as thinkers and writers if they could have followed their own instincts, without the awareness of being an endangered species.

A life without students is oddly static. Though I do correspond with them, write letters of recommendation, comment on their applications for graduate school, get bits of news— and though it is glorious to have time to read friends’ manuscripts and proposals,  it is not like having one’s own students, who have more or less voluntarily entrusted their writing to one for a quarter. That moment of reading a paper and being able to see exactly what the student needs to learn is like no other: It is so rare to really know something about another person.

And conversely, to have students is always to be surprised, as they present us with a set of gifts and difficulties that are the first of their kind. Though some are as transparent as a still pond, the fallen branches reaching for the light almost painfully obvious, others are a tangled pathway or a mystery beyond maps or guidebooks. Can we release the potential trapped in the ice? Can we do it in a quarter, unlock 18 years of proscriptions, confusions, stubbornness?  One can only follow them until they begin to make sense, until after fifteen pages of their work, their peculiar gifts and their thorny natures become apparent. Who will the person be once she can argue, expound, illuminate, transform a reader? How will both of us change from the contact?

Year after year, one student or many will produce a kind of writing or a sequence of ideas I have never seen before. Even in that last class I didn’t know was the last, there was D., who came to class with masking tape sculptures fastened to his shoulders and whose work was somewhere between poetry and glossolalia; M., who wrote twenty or thirty pages when she was assigned ten, pieces trying to make connections between ecology, philosophy and perception, devouring the world in huge gulps; T., a grave Indonesian Jew whose essays were closed buds straining to open. To relinquish this, this chance of knowing D., M., T and their 23 colleagues, is a great loss. It is like not having lovers or children, not to have students—all the weight released and all the joy sifted out as well.

And yet to engage with them with the workload we have is to lose oneself, to go for months writing nothing of one’s own, surrendering only to the body’s most minimal needs for sleep and movement, sequestering friendship and family life to the cracks. Though no doubt someone knows how to do it, I never learned to teach without this submersion.

Without pictures of my students, I have these vivid flashbacks of classrooms I lived in for a time—a face, a clutch of students huddling over an exercise, a conference with a student who comes in stiff and anxious, her shoulders pointed upward in her thin sweater, but who gradually relaxes, talks, writes. I always see these scenes from outside them, hovering just above the carpet strewn with bread crumbs. They have the quality of slides projected; everything is translucent and the scenes are always silent. Still, in every one of them, I am present. Sleep-deprived, fighting flu, hard-pressed from a difficult morning at home, I am—not here—but there.