The Present Tense, Damply

Living in the college classroom is a little like living in a train station. Everyone else is going somewhere, visiting you during a hilltop in their lives, but never staying long. You are part of the process, but never the destination, which is as it should be. Who wants to be a college first-year for most of their lives?

I think it gives the professorate a fixation on the present. Colleagues and family and friends all operate on normal time, grow and age and die, but in the classroom, it’s always one out of four semesters, the same four, over and over. Students are never the same, never repeat exactly as we shuffle from semester to semester, yet students are rarely all that different and as they move on they are so quickly replaced that most of them fade away in memory. Busy at the work we do in the present tense of the classroom, trying this time to get it better than we did last time, we retain snapshots of students.

Maybe these moments and exchanges linger in our minds as lessons. I haven’t squeezed out what I should know from this moment yet, so my memory locks onto it, and I replay it, looking for wisdom. Otherwise, why would so many of the moments be about failure?

For instance, why should I remember one moment with P. so vividly? I was teaching learning strategies to a developmental class, and I was walking up and down rows, returning papers. None of them were good, but it was an early, unimportant exercise. P had been one of the first to get her paper back, and as I walked past her desk, I saw she was silently weeping, the paper blotching with tears – huge tears, her face blotching purple. The class hushed and turned to her.

I sent her to get paper towels to dry off the desk, the tears pooling and running into her lap. She was relieved to get away and I shushed the class and pushed off into some lesson. I remember she returned holding a Mountain Dew and four feet of paper towels. I remember her parents explaining her retardation and how much they supported her. I remember she worked harder than anyone in the class, passed it, passed others. I don’t remember what I said to her, though, or why we all were still for a moment after she had left the classroom, her paper rippled in moisture, the ink of my comments runny, admiring her tears.

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