I am a rather elderly lady, an English teacher. I am aware that I am part of a blessed new minority – the aged. Though I am occasionally forgetful and I dodder a bit, current sensitivity to senior citizens’ rights protects my job, and I am infinitely grateful. I could not easily stop doing what I have been doing for more than forty years. It’s only with young people that I truly feel alive. With them my mind leaps to inspire then to imagine, edit, rephrase and parse. Retirement would sever the artery, the conduit of my intelligence. Retirement would destroy me.
I teach in a large, urban community college, which prepares undergraduate with irregular academic backgrounds so they can move on to four year institutions. Many of our students are recent immigrants; we welcome dropouts of all ages. Our tuition is minimal; we are a city college not a private school. Hopeful people often turn to us after they have been hospitalized or incarcerated. We specialize in saving academic souls.
Three days a week, I rise early, shower and dress meticulously then make my way to the subway with care– leaving ample time for I walk slowly. I purchase three roses for my desk vase, I keep rigorous office hours, I teach my English classes, and sometimes I chat with passing colleagues if they are not passing too quickly. I have ample time on week ends to correct papers. I pride myself on solving the myriad problems of the classroom. Except for Chang Kim.
He is no troublemaker. On the contrary, Chang is a very personable young man of Korean ethnicity. Long and lean, he is a graceful fellow with particularly notable eyes, a poet’s eyes: large, luminous, and very black. Each day, always walking with the same young lady friend, he arrives early, and he is the last to rise, gather up his books, and join her again at the door. He never misses a session. He is an attentive listener and often he offers insightful comments on what we are reading. “James Baldwin is bitter because they only let him review books about Negroes. They thought he only had opinions about Negroes. It is as if you only asked me about bokchoy.”
The analogy was not really a great one but the class loved it, a nd laughed and got his point.
Several weeks into the term he had not yet handed in a single written assignment. When I talked to him, he didn’t try to avoid my gaze nor did he turn his head away. Not even a blink during our first long conversation when I told him he was in trouble. He looked back at me unperturbed, and his gleaming eyes had the clarity, the serenity that bespeaks truth. His eyes said to me, ‘I trust you. I respect you. You are my teacher’. Like so many of my Asian students, h was faultlessly polite and deferential.
“Your autobiographical essay is two weeks late,” I noted
He nodded solemnly. “I am so sorry I will bring it next class.” He didn’t offer a lot of apologies and excuses.
“Is something wrong at home, Chang? Can I help?” I asked.
He smiled and shook his head. Whatever had caused the delay was settled now. “Nothing is wrong, Professor. Will you give me the assignment again?”
So I gave him the printout again and we read it together. He simply had to write a brief introduction of himself telling anything he wanted to, so we would know a bit about him. “You understand, Chang?” I asked and he nodded vigorously.
I went to the Registrar and looked up his transcript. This was his third English class. There had been a hiatus of two years in his schooling, but his previous English teachers had given him “A’s.”
Next session he came in and headed to his seat, passing right alongside my desk I put my upturned hand out as he passed, but he shook his head and moved on. The other students, by that time, had finished reading their autobiographies aloud. Listening, Chang was alternately engrossed and then animated. His hand kept shooting up and he commented after a funny essay, “You made me see you and you made me laugh so much. You are a talented humorist.” To a fellow classmate who wrote of losing his mother, Chang said softly, “I have no mother or father either and you have captured the pain.” Confronted afterward, he said simply, “I did not do my assignment. I know I am very bad. Please forgive me, Professor.”
“You cannot take a writing course and not do any writing,” I said. “If you do not write, I think you should drop the course. You can do that this early in the term without penalty.”
“I love the course,” he declared passionately. “It is my favorite course. Please give me the assignment again. I lost the paper.” So, for the third time we went over the assignment carefully. The weekend intervened. Then Chang arrived empty-handed and greeted me bowing in a courtly manner. “How are you, Professor?”
“I’m disappointed and angry with you, Chang. You did not keep your word.” I waved him on. At the end of the hour, I put it to him bluntly. “You need to drop this course, Chang.”
“Oh no, please do not make me leave,” he implored. Just then I saw the young lady who always arrived with him. “I advised Chang to drop my course,” I confided to her softly. “He hasn’t done any of the work so he’ll fail.”
“You go on ahead,Chang. Wait at the bench,” she told him. “I’ll catch up with you.” To me she whispered, “I’m his escort. Professor, I think you should speak to the Disabilities Office.” She hurried after him.
I made the trip down from the seventh floor to the Disabilities Office on the street level, a major lunch hour expedition in a building of crowded escalators and elevators where you often ride with the trash barrels.
We have twenty-one thousand students and no school psychologists. Mr Peters and student aides run the Disabilities Office. Mr. Peters has a degree in Human Resources, He is legendary for his patience, his rumpled condition, his ruddy coloring, and his flaming red ties as though he were conducting a revolution with his chest. I am fond of him and he likes me.
“Ah, Professor, I was thinking it was about time I’d be seeing you. Please sit.” He fetched me a paper cup of cold water from the cooler. “This is not your best day,” he observed gently and when I looked startled he added, “Look at your feet.” I did and was appalled. Mismatched, laced walking shoes, one dark oxblood brown and the other identical but lighter – tan.
Mr Peters chuckled. “It happens to me too,” he said. “It’s the deceptive morning light. Surely, you’ve come about Chang Kim.”
“Yes. Chang is in my class. He does absolutely no work. I’ve checked his transcript and he had two “A’s” in earlier English classes, but he hasn’t written a line this semester. ” I edged my feet further back under my chair as I spoke
“I’m not surprised ,” he said. “What would you say if I told you he loves your class? He’s stopped in here a dozen times to tell me that. What would you say if I told you that he wants to write but he can’t?”
“What do you mean he can’t?””
“He can’t. Two years ago, he and his family were in a terrible car collision. Both parents were killed and he suffered severe head injuries.” Mr. Peters paused. “His memory was destroyed. He’s recovered physically. But he can think only about the immediate, and then in a flash, it’s gone.”
My shoes safely concealed, I sat silent for a bit trying to absorb the idea of an existence in which there are fleeting moments of clarity which constantly dissolve into murkiness. It was too terrible to contemplate: Chang living in his limbo of almost-remembered ideas, which he constantly struggled to retrieve, aware that they should be buried somewhere within.
“Why is he here?” I demanded. “What good is it letting him take a writing course when he can’t write — in fact, what good is it letting him take any course?”
“It’s a kindness — an indiscretion, perhaps – but I didn’t know what else to do. Two years ago Chang was on the Dean’s List. He loved school. Then the accident….”
I looked at the man in his bizarre red tie.
“The one thing he wanted more than anything else was to return to school. He lives now with elderly grandparents in the Bronx. Catholic Charities pays for the escort. His disability makes him eligible for tuition. So we allow him to enroll.”
“Why my class?”
“Because I thought you’d be sympathetic.”
“Then why didn’t you at least tell me?”
“Collusion. Should I send you a memo saying, ‘This is Chang Kim, who desperately wants to be in your writing class’? He can’t learn. He remembers things for a few seconds then they’re gone.’ Would you have accepted him?”
I know a rhetorical question when it hits me below the belt. I sat silent, shoes slowly creeping forward as I made ready to bolt.
“What do you want to do about him?” he asked. “It’s your class.”
“I want to collude,” I said.
It was the first time in my life I used the word and I loved the taste of it. “Chang may stay on the roster till the last day he can drop without penalty so he won’t get an ‘F’. But I will tell him and his escort to continue to come till the end of the term.”
“That’s very generous of you.”
“Not really. He won’t write a line, so I’ll have no extra papers to mark.”
“I knew I could count on you.” Mr. Peters’ smile was conspiratorial but I didn’t smile back. When I collude, I do it professionally. That was three semesters ago. Chang is still in my class. He has never missed a session. On the last day of this term, we will shake hands and he will thank me and tell me how he has learned so much that next term he will take the course for credit because now he knows just what I expect.
But I am too old for this game and I worry. What will happen to Chang Kim when I retire?