Sometimes one or another guy in one of my classes hangs around after class and doesn’t say anything but sort of looks sideways at me and I sort of smile at him, encouraging him to ask a question or make a comment or something. But he doesn’t say anything, and I gather my notebooks and walk out; and he follows me for a little, at some distance, and then, rather sadly, goes his way.
I don’t know what it means, but I’m moved by it, and I wonder if there’s a maternal something I’m giving off in class, and, if so, whether these young men, missing their mothers, want to be around a certain warmth they’re perceiving. Is the effect – I go on to speculate, wildly – deepened by my talking in literature classes about confusion and suffering and longing?
Literature classes are special, Mr UD often reminds me; they’re not like his political science classes, where they cozy up with constitutions and international law. Not even philosophy has these embodied characters aching for clarity and thrown back on mysteries.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for the strange intensity of the literature classroom – an intensity to which my students are highly responsive… That is, I mean to say, I’m grateful to my students.
I’m grateful for their resistance to me – the way a few of them will always, all semester, have a cocked head and skeptical eyes; how some of them will say “Why are all the stories you’ve chosen so dark?”
Which will make me think, and think hard: Am I choosing dark? I riffle through the table of contents of the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, desperately looking for happy stories I’ve missed. I want there to be a world in which that student is right, and serious art is as joyous as it is tragic. But even the one story that ends with a reasonably unclouded epiphany – Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” – gets there by way of the evocation of a fully despairing form of life.
I’m grateful for the class sessions when discussion is just dynamite — ideas and questions and jokes and anecdotes blasting away for an hour and fifteen minutes. Afterwards, my blissed-out head spins. My brain’s lit up. I feel the same way I do when at the piano I play non-stop – with some fluidity, some feeling, and even some proximity to the piece as written – through a longish composition. I’ve been engaged – with energy, precision, rapidity, nuance – and the result has been rather beautiful.
I’ve formed lifetime friendships with a surprisingly large number of my students. I’m grateful they let me watch their passion and disillusionment and then their rebuilding of passion. Some of them have terrible crises in which they sit in their stopped cars for hours staring through the windshield and wondering what they’ve missed out on and if they’ve made disastrously wrong decisions about what to do with their lives. I tend to tell them to calm down; that they’re still ridiculously young, and there’s plenty of time to make more mistakes… I try to make them laugh. They do laugh.
On the simplest level, I’m grateful to them because they’re so beautiful. I mean, just beautiful to look at as they gallop their city campus in skinny jeans and low boots. Their faces are ruddy with life.
But the deeper gratitude, the one I’m mainly trying to convey, involves what you might call intellectual vulnerability. It glitters in their eyes as they sit in front of me and begin to take in, in a disciplined way, the difficulty of being human.