The Opposite of Dying in a Classroom

I sit still, in one of the few still moments that will happen this week of finals. The room of writers has emptied but for two, one of which is apparently writing slowly and with great anger. The other is meticulously detaching the ragged ends of paper left from having torn a scribbled page from his spiral binder. I know the student, one of those I’ve unsuccessfully tried to teach over the last fifteen weeks.

His writing will be adequate, barely, which is all he really wants it to be but much less than it could be. The effort it would take to organize his thoughts and make his sentences communicate clearly is more than he cares to do, not more than he can do. He will have a general topic, one or two sentences that will make me stop and guess at what he’s trying to say, a conclusion that is a mirror image of the introduction, and the most interesting things he has to say will be flailing digressions. But it won’t be dreadful.

The slow angry student finishes with a sigh that just eviscerates the room. Behind him, after nearly two minutes of pulling, the edge of the paper from the spiral notebook is clean and straight. Those two minutes might have corrected the comma splice or cleared up that confusing pronoun, but I suppose we each do the work that we’re inclined to do and let the rest fend for itself.

In Paragraph City there’s much talk about measuring results, but increasingly I’m more concerned with the individual moment. If I “do” each moment in a way that is somehow right, I trust the little boat of my life will eventually dock at some kindly port.  Over the last few days, I have loved this quote from Will Schalbe, writing  in the NY Times about the book he had not yet published, The End of Your Life Book Club: “But reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying” (

All the things that make up the opposite of dying, this is what I want each moment I “do” to be drenched in. The angry student and the spiral bound student pass this test with me: their writing class and my teaching and our conversations and all the assigned reading, it’s all been the opposite of dying, whatever they choose to make of it. I will never know what that is; somehow, to know would not be the opposite of dying.


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