Notes From The Classroom
The Week in News
My tea has grown cold. I am in my fourth hour of conferences, and Yoon sits slumped across from me. His slight frame and messy hair interrupt my office wall with its pinned-up poems and corkboard postcards. I am hungry, and he has been bad. I want to shake a ruler at him. No more tardiness! I want to go home. “I have problem,” he says.
When I am not so tired, I correct my students, gently. “A problem,” I say. “You have a problem,” but it has been a draining week. Any bit of passion, I have left in me goes to my students, but today I’ve got nothing. I take a sip of my grown-cold tea. “Stars,” he says. “I see stars.”
Yoon is from Korea, and while I’m almost certain that seeing stars in New York City is about as likely as seeing stars in Seoul, I look up and listen. I imagine Yoon climbing to the highest, darkest place in all of Manhattan, unscrewing the lid of his soup-filled Thermos and settling in for a night of tracing constellations. Perhaps we have finally found something to work with in his writing. “Say more about these stars,” I tell him.
“In my eyes,” he says.
“Oh,” I say.
“They are inside my eyes. They are everywhere.” Yoon lifts his hand as if to show me where the stars are. He blinks. Outside, the clouds are beginning to collect; snow seems certain. “I need to visit doctor,” Yoon says, “but I don’t know any. Don’t know anybody. New York is lonely city.” “A lonely city,” I say. “New York is a lonely city.” We look at each other for a long moment. When he is gone, I notice that I have absentmindedly scribbled stars all over his paper.
A hundred years ago, when I was seven, we set up a stage in the front yard. I remember my brother Joe pulling rabbits out of a hat but it was so long ago maybe he was only flipping cards. He waved his magic wand. “Abracadabra,” he said.
Melanie and Eric and I wore dresses and curtsied, and I begged my brother to saw me in two. The neighbors clapped. When I think of those days, the music I hear is old cartoon music, the kind when Boris and Natasha are speeding away in a fast car while a buxom brunette tied to the train tracks kicks her arms and legs, waiting for someone to save her. And someone always did, I’m pretty sure, but this morning I can’t remember who.
We spent the whole summer that way—flailing about, waiting for the train. This was before I started drinking tea, before Joe was divorced and Melanie was living off welfare, before Eric was dead. Before he died. Which was yesterday. Yesterday, Eric died. So did Evel Knievel. Yesterday, Eric and Evel Knievel died. Today, I am checking and starring papers. “Keep going,” I write in the margins. “Push yourself.”
III. Pretty Please
In Texas, several weeks ago, fishermen discovered a plastic tub; inside the tub, was a little girl. Baby Grace, she was dubbed by police and the press. Please help us find Baby Grace, the chief said with his terribly sad eyes. He held up her shoes. They were purple. I felt sick to my stomach, sick because she was dead and sicker still because it felt like a poorly written commercial to me.
Today it is being reported that she was killed for not saying please. Her mother, Kimberly Dawn Trenor, and stepfather, Royce Clyde Zeigler II, were arrested Saturday. During questioning, the couple admitted that they beat the girl, Riley Ann Sawyer, for being impolite, for failing to say “yes sir” and “thank you.”
When I was almost fourteen, my mother tried to de-program me. She had paid off her government loans, and we weren’t living in apartments anymore. “You don’t always need to say ma’am and sir,” she told me. We were driving to the mall; the windows were up.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, ma ’am, sir, it—well, I don’t know any other way to say it—it classes you. You don’t want people to think you’re something you’re not. Understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. The Tulsa sky was winter bleak. “I mean, yeah.”
IV. The Knock
It is Molly. She is a pretty young woman who writes about experimental art and not being pretty. She is good in class: she nods when I want them to nod, laughs when I hope they will laugh. “You busy?” she asks. My cursor blinks; I am in the middle of a sentence about being in an overly heated car with my mother.
“Come in,” I say.
She unwraps her scarf, pairs her mittens. The snow has left dots of dampness in the purple fibers. I think of Yoon and how snow would look through all of his stars. Molly doesn’t want to be a writer. She’s told me this.
In her essay she writes about Marina Ambrović, the Yugoslavian-born performance artist who, after twelve years of satisfying collaboration with her partner, Ulay, decided their final performance would be saying goodbye to each other. Each walked half the length of the Great Wall of China—Ulay began in the Gobi desert and Marina at the Yellow Sea—after 2500 kilometers, they met and parted and never spoke again.
“Just seems weird,” Molly says. “Why would they do that?”
“Art?” I say. My tea is colder still.
“But how could you just walk away from someone you loved for that long?”
“Art?” I say again.
“But who would choose art over love?”
V. All CAPS
I lost touch with Eric over the years and would think of him only in flashes—his love for peanut butter, mayonnaise and relish sandwiches; his habit of carrying—for luck—a shiny penny in his pocket; his proclivity for all things feminine. There was a rumor that he was arrested for impersonating a female officer, and then another rumor that he had AIDS, but by then I was living in New York, and I remember thinking, jeesh, give the guy a break, the nineties are dead, can’t someone be gay without people spreading word that he’s got a foot in the bucket?
But it was true. I have become so complacent in my complacency, so busy have I been boiling eggs and shaving my legs, pontificating about syntax and leaving sentences half finished that I have forgotten to look around. It is, I know, too perfect that tomorrow is World AIDS day, that Eric died yesterday, that when I click on cnn.com there is a warning that Americans have forgotten the fight against AIDS. I want to go home, take a hot bath, rub my husband’s feet. I don’t even want to write the word again, all those CAPS make my head spin.
VI. Rubber Gloves
In my kitchen I keep a pair of pink rubber gloves. I like to imagine myself elbow-deep in soapy dishwater, all Zenned out, composing whole poems in my head while simultaneously ridding our dishes of pesky Macaroni and cheese residue. My students’ graded essays—all vibrant and nuanced, the margins filled with probing and inspiring questions—sit on the just-dusted table. My husband is happy; my stories are published; my children know when to say please.
It seems a thousand years since college when I was in love with Derek Joe Brockett who drew bizarre pictures of us splattered with blood and ladybugs; who wore crooked hats and walked with a cane, gave me scabies and taught me how to say “I love you” in four different languages, only one of which I remember. My professor wanted me to marry Derek. “Get married now,” the professor said, “so you can get on with your poems. Don’t waste your time worrying about love. You need to be writing.”
VII. Perfect Peach
Several weeks ago, Yoon brought in a draft of his essay in which while reflecting on Annie Dillard’s “Transfiguration” he told a story of visiting Carnegie Hall where he fell in love with the violinist’s grace and beauty. “She played,” he wrote, “in perfect peach.”
I was delighted. I drew peaches on his paper. I imagined him in an orchard reeking of sweetness. I could feel the weight of a ripe peach in my palm and hear the music swelling through the trees. “Pitch,” I wrote in the margin.
And then there were my endnotes, barely legible: “What Is Dillard really trying to get us to understand?” I underlined really three times. “You’re giving us all these pieces, but you’re not making sense of them. You’ve got to meet your reader halfway, otherwise no one cares.”
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Yoon said after class. “Professor?” He was holding his paper. The harsh glare of the fluorescent light bounced off of my scrawled comments, and I felt suddenly aware of the fact that there were no windows in the room. “This word,” he said. “What’s this word?” The ‘a’ had no space in it; the ‘s’ trailed off.
“Cares,” I told him. “Like matters. You want to matter to the reader. Otherwise, there’s no point.”
“Oh,” he said, blinking.
“Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
VIII. “Hey ma, dad’s on TV!”
In Rochester, New Hampshire this afternoon a man walked into Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign office with a bomb strapped to his body. He had reportedly told his son to “watch the news.” Imagine the passion—so clearly directed. Look at me, I have strapped a bomb to my body and it is all because of this one thing.
IX. Another Knock
It is Molly again. I click off cnn.com, back to a Word document, as if I’ve been caught not writing.
“Forgot my gloves,” she says, and she has. There they sit, still perfectly paired. “And,” she says, “I brought this.” It is a cup of tea, a red stirrer, two packets each of sugar, Equal, Splenda. “I didn’t know how you take it.”
I thank her, truly grateful.
“Well, you said yours had gotten cold, and anyway, I was thinking about what you said, about art and love, and, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like you’re that way.” Her voice trails off; I tear the yellow packets and pour them into my tea. I wrap both hands around the warmth of the paper cup. It’s been months since I finished a poem.
“What way?” I say.
“It just doesn’t seem like you had to choose between art and love. Did you?”
The snow is getting heavier, and the city is suddenly this white shining thing, so pretty I want to put it in my pocket, want to wave a wand and keep it this way forever, want, if nothing else, just to be in it. “Let’s go for a walk,” I say to Molly, and we gather our things and go.