Saturday, April 25, 2009

Classroom Miscellany

I have three more classes before my teaching career comes to a close. Here are some random things I have seen in classrooms during my relatively short teaching career of 15 years, including 10 years of graduate teaching (KU, Brown, Wesleyan, USD):

1. I once had a police officer deliver a subpoena to a student during class. It was an Honors class.

2. In my first large lecture course (67 students), in the second week of classes, I almost blacked out while lecturing. I just kept talking slower and slower, trying to read my notes through the little bright flashing lights and the tunnel through which I could see. Finally, a student in the first row jumped up and made me sit down; then I started sweating profusely.

3. One of my students wrote an entire in-class essay, two single-spaced pages, on how much he dreaded my class and expected soon to see my "rising star" fall hard.

4. A world-class ballerina attending college under a pseudonym cried in my office because she could not understand an essay on Lacan's mirror stage.

5. One semester I failed a quarter of the students in an American Literature survey course.

6. A student in an upper-level course for majors confessed to the class that he had to close the door to his bedroom in the fraternity house one evening because he found himself moved to tears while reading Maria Cummins's 1855 novel The Lamplighter for our class.

7. I rarely showed films in class, but I once showed a movie without first double checking the running time; I started the film in the second half of one class meeting; the movie extended over the next two meetings and into a third.

8. I have apprehended eight plagiarized papers.

9. In one particularly likeable class, there were a couple of young women in the front row who routinely sat with their arms around each other, heads on one another's shoulders, or legs intertwined, and another student who wore a bathrobe to class once a week because he was in an unstructured-dance club that met and cavorted about the green in various stages of undress just before class.

10. I once realized about ten minutes into a lecture that my pants were unzipped so I made a big production of being about to sneeze, excused myself, and ran out of the room. But then I was afraid that the class would know I was just pretending to sneeze, so I darted into the bathroom adjacent to the classroom and noisily pulled a bunch of toilet paper off the roll, which I knew they could hear and which I thought would lend verisimilitude to the phony sneezing. When I got back and started to talk again, I realized that I'd been so concerned about concealing the sneeze that I'd completely forgotten to zip up my pants, so I thought, what the hell, and just reached down and zipped them. But then, it occurred to me that the class might now think my sneeze had been so powerful that it had forced the zipper down on my pants. For some reason, this was intolerable, so I confessed the whole scenario. They looked at me as if I were insane.

And a sort of general note: students have a weird notion either that they are invisible or that the person yawping in front of them is utterly unconscious of what goes on three feet in front of her. As a result, they make faces, roll their eyes dramatically, yawn, pick their noses, scratch themselves and, my favorite, glare at other students. The dangerous thing is that while the professor can see what the students do, it's not always so easy to interpret.

Which reminds me of my own days as a student and two classes in particular, one when I was a sophomore at GWU and another when I was a grad student at Brown. In both, I somehow ended up having to sit next to a person who drove me absolutely bonkers. I recall being consumed with hot, irrational, screaming-inside, almost uncontainable hatred. In both cases, my feelings were prompted by the other person's habit of picking at himself (both were male): picking at his eyes, his ears, his scalp, different parts of his face, his neck. These guys' fingers were so busy excavating their own disgusting surfaces I don't know how they ever took notes. My repulsion grew and grew: I was like a character in a Poe story. I remember in both instances finding some relief in putting my hand up around my face on that side to shield myself from awareness of the movements. I wonder now if my professors saw any of this playing out and whether they knew I was reacting to the person next to me and found it amusing, or thought I was unaccountably appalled by their lectures and found it depressing.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Easter Beer and Pizza

I went to church with my family on Easter. As I've said before on this blog, I was raised in the Methodist church, but I don't follow a religion anymore. Now that my brother's kids are at the age when the devil or wolves or something might get 'em there seems to be a new movement amongst us to go to church services, at least on major holidays.

Surprisingly, this Easter, even my dad went. My dad has been adamantly atheist since the IRS audited him 25 years ago and forced him into bankruptcy. He seemed unaccountably good-spirited about the prospect of attending church this year, although I did have to persuade him to change his clothes: he originally came downstairs dressed in charcoal gray and black. During the service, I kept looking to see if he was asleep or verging on a fit of some kind, but my mom's head was in the way.


Let me say, things have changed since I was a wee thing dolled up in Easter finery those bright Sunday mornings in spring. For one, few people in attendance were dolled up in anything approaching finery. Also, the Easter service, at least this year, at least in this church, was not held on Easter Sunday but on Saturday afternoon. There was no liturgy to speak of, and we met not in the church, in the nave, but in another room altogether, a carpeted gymnasium with a big stage and a screen. There was a band with a full brass section. People were dancing and clapping. I even saw some hand-raising. There was a video running above the stage. We saw a short film, a passion play produced like an MTV video. The service ended with a short clip from Desperate Housewives and a "tune in next time" joke.

I guess all of that was okay. People appeared to be engaged, energized, full of zip. I guess they thought about rebirth and redemption. The sermon was certainly forgettable--something very short and vague about the variations among the Gospels. I missed singing the Gloria-in-excelsius-deo song. I wondered, too, about communion. Truth be told, I like my church services one of two ways: either teach me something--give me a spiritual or ethical problem to chew on--or shut up and let me meditate (or sulk). In terms of organized Protestantism, that leaves me with the Unitarians or Quakers, I guess. I don't even mind hearing some politics, lamentation, or jeremiad--convict me, give me some thing to stew over. But this . . . variety show . . . too much song and dance. I was ready to go after 8.5 minutes. It didn't help that my niece and nephews, whom I love dearly, sat quietly for 8.5 minutes and then turned into tiny, well-dressed infidels intent on stressing me out. They discovered that they could stick their magic markers together into long, shaky poles which they then waved about dangerously near the heads of the two elder ladies in front of us, or they whacked the poles against the chairs so that the pens rolled into the aisle or under the seats. If you tried to dismantle the markers during construction, the child--whichever one was at hand--would utter a high-pitched sound of displeasure that seemed more disruptive than the potential disaster of poking the old ladies in the hair.

By the end, everyone else looked relaxed and happy, indeed, rejuvenated. My dad seemed in good spirits (which makes some sense: he dislikes the kind of church I prefer). The elderly ladies left without injury. The children recovered from whatever small traumas they sustained in having me growl and glare at them. In contrast, I had a raging headache which did not go away, even during Easter beer and pizza. Tune in next time when I will offer another long-winded, unenlightened and unenlightening account of my religous experiences: Easter service at the Syrian Eastern Orthodox church in Sioux City, Iowa, 2006.

Monday, April 20, 2009

On Becoming Aunt Nellie

The Russian has gone to Russia. He's looking for a way to become a billionaire--possibly, by manufacturing American barbeque sauce for Muscovites. I miss him, his funny ways, his Russian pride, his chefly way with steak and salmon, his kisses and hugs, the way he calls me, "Squooooorrrell." But I also find myself settling easily into a solitary life. It is familiar and quiet. I find myself becoming increasingly . . . mincing. I recline in my chair, looking around in calm satisfaction: every surface is sparkling clean, and each thing in its place. I eat neat, small, nutritionally balanced meals and wash all but the dishes I'm using before I even sit down. When I go to bed, everything is put away. Even the quilts on my bed lie over me square and flat and folded just so. I move from wakefulness to sleep as I move through the house, leaving no trace, no mess. In this, I can feel my great-great-Aunt Nellie growing under my skin, filling out my life like a balloon slowly inflating within a container.

When my dad was eleven, his mother Dorothy Emma died of Hodgkins Disease. Family photos show her in the year of her death to have had a pale, slightly bloated face, dark rings under sad brown eyes, a tired-looking smile. Dorothy Emma had an aunt, her mother's sister, named Nellie, and Nellie was married to a man named Howard. They never had children. Nellie worked for Ma Bell as a phone operator, a pretty good job for a young woman from the 1920s-70s. Howard was a security officer, although I don't know what he secured, a bank maybe. After my grandmother died, my grandfather, himself a police detective, began to drink heavily and was unable to care for my dad, so my dad was sent temporarily to live with his great-aunt Nellie and his great-uncle Howard.

I don't know much about these two. Here's what I do know: Howard was from the east but his family had something to do with the Native American Indian reservations in Oklahoma. Possibly, his mother or father taught at reservation or Indian boarding schools (we have pictures of assembled classes). When Aunt Nellie died, to everyone's great surprise, she left a hundred thousand dollars to Haskell Indian College, presumably at Howard's request (he was already dead). I have pictures of Howard posing for the camera in his security guard uniforms, or in overalls working in their small garden. My dad remembers Howard as a strong but gentle man, who paid some much-needed attention to a little boy, took time to show him how to do things. Unaccountably, I also have a picture of Howard standing with what appears to be a KKK rally a ways in the background; it is not clear whether he is attending or posing in front of the event. Howard died before I came along, so I never got to pose the question. But I do remember Aunt Nellie.

Aunt Nellie came to live with us in 1981, when I was 11, and she stayed for two years before she passed away. She was in her mid-seventies. The two years she spent in our house must have been a sort of hell for her, with my brother and I bounding around upstairs most of the day, although I would imagine life was better with us than it would have been in a nursing home. The downstairs in our split-level house was finished, had its own bathroom, good natural light, a fireplace, and my parents had had it renovated to form two rooms out of a single big one. When Nellie didn't want to eat upstairs--as was the case most breakfasts and lunches--my mom fixed her meals and took them downstairs on a tray. I cannot say for sure, but it seems like Nellie ate dinner with us most nights. I distinctly remember her smell, not a bad smell, just sort of papery and musty. Her mouth must have been dry, since when she spoke her spittle clicked and clacked like rustling celophane in her mouth. Her nose dripped, so she carried a pressed handkerchief with which she frequently dabbed the tip of her nose.

At dinner, Aunt Nellie liked to have a piece of meat, a soft vegetable, some bread, and always, a nice piece of fruit. Everything she ate, she cut into tiny, neat squares. Once my parents went out, leaving us in Nellie's care for the evening. She fixed hamburgers for dinner on the stove, cooking them in our smallest saucepan: two-inch-diameter hamburgers, one for each of us. The story is a legend in our family.

Now, the family teases me. They say I remind them of Aunt Nellie, especially when I eat. We are enjoying Easter dinner, for example, and I utter some cranky thing about the nuisance of birds and flowers and nature in general, mainly because I am allergic, or I cut my ham into perfect tiny cubes, because I enjoy the way ham slices so neatly under a sharp knife. Sure enough, out comes mom with, "Now, who does that remind you of!" And everyone else chirrups inanely, "Aunt Nellie!"

And, no wonder I am becoming Aunt Nellie. I must have stared like a little monkey at the poor woman throughout dinner, every night for two years. I inhaled her every move. I don't remember finding her especially delightful or repulsive, merely fascinating--precise and defined. Just as a child learns a language, soaking up the sounds and structure, so I soaked up the gestures, the small proprieties and inclinations of Aunt Nellie. And did so in concentrated doses. I had no other opportunity to observe her than at the table. Aunt Nellie had then, as I do now, limited patience for people under 18; she wasn't inviting me downstairs for tea and needlepoint in the afternoons. Even so, my memory was profoundly impressed by the tidy shape of her movements and the tight compass of her expression.

I feel my life at times developing along these lines of inference. And, they are only inference, since I have no idea what Nellie was in herself, to herself, with Howard, or even as a foster mother to my dad. Nor do my parents know any more than I. My dad was a child when he went to Golden City to live with Nellie and Howard, and he remembers only feeling safe and loved in their home. Besides, he only stayed for a year before returning to my grandfather's house. As adults in the early 1980s, my parents were struggling--not terribly successfully--to make ends meet and didn't spend much time with Nellie. I hope that she was not miserable or too lonely with us. She left no letters, no journals, no revealing manuscript memoir. What I am to know of her, it seems, I will have to remember and learn from myself as I get older.

I do have her books. Her legacy to us--to me, in effect--was a library of 200 or so volumes, including a slew of second-rate religious novels (Miss Mitford, Miss Read) as well as the much more congenial Little House on the Prairie series; Alcott's Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys; The Five Peppers, The Five Peppers Midway, and The Five Peppers Grown Up; a nice boxed Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass set; the collected works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the collected papers of Abraham Lincoln, and so on. Nothing particularly surprising, no James Joyce or Anais Nin tucked away to raise eyebrows. A copy of the Grimms Brothers is as racy as things get (that is pretty racy). Over the years, Aunt Nellie clipped articles from various newspapers about the books and their authors, folded them neatly, and enclosed them in the front covers. I read all of these--books and notices--consumed them. They had the flavor of Aunt Nellie.

Some nights, of late, with no Russian to watch basketball on tv in the evening, I pause in my reading to luxuriate in the quiet. The light from my lamp glows yellow on the furniture, the wood dustless, the sofa pillows angled in greeting. Things are in their places. My tea is steamy. I am waiting for my Russian to return, with or without his fortune. I am at peace, happy to be alone while I am waiting. But I am glad that it will end soon. What's that? I feel a tickle, a bit of moisture on the end of my nose. As I move to dab my nose, I bump the tea cup off the table with my elbow. Hot tea splashes against the chair, engulfs my slipper; broken bits of cup go bouncing along, falling into the ornamental grating on the floor. I jump to my feet, hurl my book at the wall, roar, "FUCKING HELL!!" and know with some certainty that whatever the future holds I am not Nellie yet.