Friday, January 07, 2005


An ex-student (I'll call her Laura) came to visit me today during my off-period. I hadn't seen her in a few months, as she is studying back east.

"I need to talk to you about something," she said, the cue for me to boot all the other students out of my room. And when we were alone: "I needed to tell you how much your class has impacted my life."

I've heard this before:

boy, my writing is impressing my professors...
I've decided to become a teacher because of you...
I remembered something you said in class one day...
Your speech about choosing your own path in life has always stayed with me...
You were the one person who taught me how to...

If it sounds like I'm bragging, it's because I suppose I am. I'm a great teacher. I could teach circles around Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society--and still have time to grade some essays (how many papers did you see Mr. Keating grading, hmm?). So a student returning home from a first semster at college has been a frequent occurance, and compliments from kids and parents equally as forthcoming. Consequently, I make light of the nods in my direction. Today, I was reminded that making light of the good I do is not modesty but depracation of something sacred.

"I don't think many people knew this," said Laura. "But my father battled cancer all last year--ever since my freshman year."

"I didn't know that," I admitted, which was true. I did know a lot about her, but I knew also that she was careful about who she let in--and how far they would get. She has a strength of will, a "centeredness" I find in few people. She wants to stand alone not to push people away but to prove that she can.

"He got really bad over the last few months, and this December, he...he passed away." And then before I could figure out what to say. "Yeah, so we had some talks, just me and him, and we had one last talk before he really went downhill and became incoherent. He talked about what he would miss and about dying and some other stuff, and then he finished....he said everything he wanted to say to me. And then he asked me 'Do you have anything you want say?'"

She paused for a moment here, collecting herself.

"What am I supposed to say to THAT? I have no idea. My mind is reeling, and then I thought of something we talked about in class. I can't remember what exactly it was, I think a poem...but you talked about how you never really know the meaning of your life until the end of it."

The poem we had discussed was "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" by Robert Browning. I presented a paper I'd written about the poem to my AP English students in which I explore the way the poem mystifies us by not ever "stopping"; it ends with the beginning, and we never achieve a final "meaning" to the poem. In the lecture to the class, I mentioned that one reason we read is to enjoy that moment of the last word on the last page, the moment in which we can experience the final "meaning" of the book's journey. It's like a "small death" in a way, and, in that sense, we are seeking a glimpse at our own death--the moment of understanding the "meaning" of our lives.

"I told my father that death is really a gift, and that the point of death is when he gets to look back and realize the meaning of everything he's done, of what his life means. Later, I was talking to my Aunt--she had talked to him too. She said that he'd told her all about what I had said and that he was so proud of me, proud that his daughter--that I could say such things. I needed to tell you that's what your class gave me...the ability to talk to my father for the last time."


At 3:25 PM, Blogger ShOcKtArT said...

Wow!Thats powerful stuff. I wish I had teachers like you at my school.


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