Before classes I sit at the desk and listen to students’ conversations. This isn’t on purpose; that is, I don’t take notes. But I like to arrive early and relax, which coincides with those students who also take their seats before class to unwind and catch up with new friends.
For the most part they are more awake earlier in the day. The eight o’clock classes talk about topics ranging from politics to rock. They talk about clothes, and through the years what outfits they consider cool have changed drastically. Hats have come back to the front, jeans are not as low on the butt, but cleavage is certainly more common. Piercing as an art form rivals tattoos, which have simply become like clothing.
Over the years I’ve learned of the student whose brother died in Iraq, the aunt who never made it out of the South Tower, and the student whose baby was stillborn. I know whose spouse is deployed, whose returned last weekend, and whose won’t be back. Sometimes the conversations are carried out on cell phones and I only hear one-side. Often it is amusing, sometimes embarrassing, and most of the time I try not to listen but people are louder than ever and the space is small.
Sometimes I hear where people are from. Many moved south from New York, many are locals. Several came from Pennsylvania, like Karen, a student who knew my sarcasm and got the humor. She understood what I meant on the first explanation and smiled when someone asked a stupid question. Once, she told a student she was from Pennsylvania, not far from where I had gone to graduate school. Her husband got stationed here. Like many displaced military wives, Karen took classes and found a part-time job to keep busy. She planned to write her cause and effect paper about living in Virginia far from family. I looked forward to it, and because of her sharp sense of detail and sarcasm, it certainly promised to be well written.
The day I received the paper I sat on my couch and read about her move. “I didn’t know people so close to my home state could talk so differently,” she wrote. She gave examples picked up while working at a local pub, the North Witchduck Inn. She didn’t need the job, she explained, but it kept her from feeling alone and bored. “I got lucky,” she wrote. “Someone got fired and they hired me.”
She wrote well. But that night, the fired waitress and her boyfriend returned to the Witchduck Inn and shot Karen and three others in the back of the head, execution style. I held onto that paper for quite some time not understanding what to do with it.
I listen too much, sometimes. I hear things I shouldn’t hear. I know about abortions, about pregnancies, a few times before the father knew. I know about little brothers and sisters with harsh diseases and grandparents with Alzheimer’s. I learn their ages, their birthdays, their income and the cost of their cell phone bills. I sit back and try and understand what’s on their mind when I’m staring at them ready to lecture, and I try to steer it closer to their generation, their understanding.
Sometimes I pick up patterns, rituals. Early in the semester conversations focus on course content or choice of professors. Some students complain each morning about spouses or children or parents, others start the week with weekend horror stories. Some students prefer instead to talk outside, smoke.
Some students drink Starbucks in class, talk on cell phones and complain about the work load. I hear their complaints, their excuses.
Still, sometimes what I hear heralds respect. One spoke of her father’s Alzheimer’s, her sick kids, yet her paper is practically flawless and turned in on time. One talked about losing a job, how he is behind in rent and rides the bus, but that’s okay because on the bus, he said, he edits one more time and gets the paper done. Behind him some teed off twenty-year-old talks trash about my teaching, about the course. “I ain’t got no need for no damn required English class,” he said.
“This course isn’t required,” I quietly tell him. His name is Mark. Before he objects I add, “Nothing here is required. You’re not a child. You don’t have to stay; you don’t have to pass. You don’t have to do jack. Go find a job, travel, join the military. Your options are endless but instead you sit here complaining. You can make a sign and sit on the highway begging for money. You can leave and tend bar in Tahiti. Nothing here is ever required. Nothing. If you don’t want to be here, leave. It really is that simple.”
Mark wore light blue boxer shorts. I knew this because his size seventy-four jeans fell past the crack of his size twenty-seven butt. His sunglasses reflected overhead lights. He had floppy blond hair, a dark tan, and a seventh-grade mentality. When I asked the class when Jack Kennedy was shot, Mark said, “1865” but he wasn’t trying to be funny. A week later while drinking his second Red Bull he complained about the cost of gas. A week after that I heard him talk about his new surfboard. That was the week I asked for his paper and he told me to fuck off.
“You know I can hear you right?” I said. He stayed quiet. I could see in his face he immediately wanted to suck his words back inside.
“I didn’t know what to write about,” he said.
I stared at him a bit, then said, “How about brain injury,” Everyone laughed because they thought I was joking. “I heard you say before class a few weeks ago a friend of yours was in a car accident.”
“How is he?”
“Okay I guess.”
I told him if he wanted to stay in my class, he should write the research paper that was due, and perhaps he could focus on brain injuries.
“Are you free at two today?” I was going to give a talk to the staff of a rehabilitation center for brain injured patients. He hesitated a second and said he’d be there.
I occasionally talked to volunteers and patients about attitude and staying motivated. One patient, Dave, had been a 4.0 student at the University of Richmond when a car hit him on his bicycle. Now he has no motor skills and the mentality of an eight-year-old. A woman, Marti, taught high school Math in east L.A. till someone slammed her in the head with a two by four and now it takes a week for her to write one paragraph to her daughter in Texas. Another woman, Michelle, was in a car accident and a piece of dashboard sent her brain retention and motor skills reeling back to pre-school.
Mark and I met and walked in. The rec room was filled and a volunteer welcomed us to say hello to everyone. Before I spoke to the staff, Mark and I both talked for an hour with patients I’d never met as well as a few that I remembered from last time, including the student from Richmond.
Dave tried to tell us he’d been wanting to walk, but his mother told him not to try, that he would only get discouraged and might hurt himself falling. He cried, as he did last time when he told me the same thing. “Bob” he said, with long drawn out emphasis. “I’ve got nothing else to look forward to.” This took Dave at least a minute to say. Mark’s eyes swelled just a little.
Afterwards we sat while the staff worked with volunteers. We listened to their conversations, their ambitions. I didn’t hear much complaining, none actually, and that made my eyes swell—not for them as much as for my students, and for me, for every single time I bitched about something challenging.
Right before we had planned to leave we overheard a guidance counselor, Gary, talk to a first time volunteer. Mark and I stayed silent. “Listen, Ann,” Gary said. “What separates them from you or me?” he asked her quietly, nodding toward the patients. Mark shifted his eyes from the ground to the counselor ten feet away and listened, his hands in his pockets. The counselor waited a moment, then said, “About three seconds. A missed stoplight. A phone call that held you up. A broken alarm clock. Three seconds.”
We walked outside and before Mark got in his car he apologized for not trying harder; and I did too, for losing patience, with him, with myself. Sometimes we just need to stay silent and listen to what the universe is trying to say to us.