(Part Two of Three)
I’d leave my office to walk the few hundred feet to a classroom and when I was still fifty feet away I could hear the overlapping conversations spilling out of the room, the students vying for audible space, the excitement and laughter and quiet discourse of a few less boisterous people; and all of them, twenty-three or twenty-eight or thirty-five, depending on the class, all of them talked to each other. No one had cell phones because there were no such things yet, and they introduced themselves or remembered each other from other classes, and as weeks went by they met for coffee or drinks, and some went out, and some even eventually got married. Everyone knew everyone else’s name. That was normal. It is where adult relationships started and the quick burst of life that was high school fades. It used to always be that way.
So when I sat in front of a class for the first time back then, I learned to listen to students before class started. In the first few days of the semester, most are shy, quiet, not willing to discuss anything to anyone in class. By mid-term, shutting them up takes scratching the board with fingernails or dropping a large text on the table. But those pre-class moments of seeming distraction were when I learned what I needed to focus on in class and sometimes outside of class. Students said things to each other during those minutes they might never purposefully say to a professor.
I learned about the best surf spots; which night clubs to avoid; which professors bored students, worked them too much, never showed up, never let them go early, gave pop quizzes, were cute, sexist, rude, arrogant, sympathetic, and menopausal. By listening to those students in the early days of my career, I overheard conversations about women’s cycles, men’s rejections, break-ups, breakdowns, hook-ups, the best places to get work, who drove to class and who rode the bus; who threw parties, who talked behind others’ backs. I learned who planned to stay just long enough to collect grant money, who couldn’t stand work or school, and who I offended with comments, who misunderstood me; who I misunderstood.
I learned which assignments students grasped, which they found simple and pointless, which they worked hard at and which they blew off. I discovered more than a few times which students plagiarized and which ones made up citations. I learned who hated me, who thought highly of me, who brownnosed me, who kissed my ass.
I listened to students’ conversations every week, and they were more alive earlier in the day. The eight o’clock classes talked about topics ranging from politics to rock. They talked about clothes, and through the years outfits considered decent to one group might not be considered remotely cool by the same age group ten years earlier. Hats swung from the front to the back and back again to the front, jeans are not as low on the butt as they were for a while, and tattoos are so common now they fade from view, and I learned to anticipate these trends and remain current in the vernacular of twenty-year-old coeds.
When students engaged each other and paid close attention to those around them in class, I learned whose brother died in Iraq, whose aunt never made it out of the South Tower, and the student whose baby was stillborn. I knew whose spouse was deployed, whose returned last weekend, and whose would never be back.
Sometimes I heard where people were from. Many moved south from New York, many were locals. Several came from Pennsylvania, like Karen Rounds, 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–and yes, there are such things as stupid questions. She just stared at them from behind, wondering perhaps what I wondered: What were you listening to just now? Once before class when she was talking to someone next to her, Karen told her she was from Pennsylvania, not far from where I had gone to graduate school. This led to their conversation in which she explained they had moved because her husband got stationed here before he had to ship out. Like many displaced military wives, Karen took classes and found a part-time job to keep busy. She planned to write her paper about living in Virginia far from family. I looked forward to it 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 at home 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 during her husband’s deployment. “I got lucky,” she wrote. “Someone got fired and they hired me.” I remember her conversation she had before class one day with another student who was a server somewhere else when she said she was thinking of not taking the job after all since she was afraid she wouldn’t fit in. And I laughed because I knew exactly what it was like to fall into a different culture.
But that very 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 listened too much, sometimes. I heard things I shouldn’t hear and became familiar with things I’d rather not know.
I knew about abortions, about pregnancies often before the father knew. I knew about little brothers and sisters with harsh diseases and grandparents with Alzheimer’s. I learned their ages, their birthdays, their income, and the cost of their birth control meds. I sat back and made notes on paper about what I might use for examples in my lecture, tried to steer it closer to their generation, their understanding. They were more human then, and the space between us didn’t seem so drastic, so distant. But that has faded as cell phones became apparent, then common, then simply an extension of their anatomy.
No one looks up, circulates, asks questions of each other, asks each other’s names. I had a student in the front row who had a cast on her arm for several weeks. Before class after about three months of this class three times a week, while everyone was looking down silently reading messages from their friends they’ve known since sixth grade, I asked one student next to the broken-arm woman if he knew how she broke her arm. He shook his head (no verbal answer, of course—verbal communication, according to one study by Pew and Duke University, shows that students actually communicate verbally seventy percent less than twenty years ago). So I asked him if he knew her name. No. I asked everyone if anyone knew anyone else’s name. No.
In these days, these tragically quiet and self-absorbed days, students don’t pay nearly enough attention to the people around them.