Unexpected gifts

February 13,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

It was one of those early mornings; you know, the kind of morning where everything just looks a flat shade of gray, instead of colored and dimensioned as it should be.  I woke up with a sore throat, the kids just couldn't get moving, T. threw herself down on the hallway runner, stark-naked, and in full tantrum mode while I raced around trying to pack school lunches, find an outfit for her, find matching socks for myself. I forgot to kiss my husband goodbye and here it is, almost Valentine's Day.

Traffic was heavy, the wind blowing cold and unrelenting as I tried to carry an armload of books, a heavy bag, an umbrella (rain promised for later), and some papers from the car to office without having to make two trips.  In my 8:00 am class the students were heavy-headed and tired, the skin on their faces drooping towards their desks, pulled down by the force of gravity and too little sleep over the weekend. As I stood there, in the front of the classroom, I imagined them melting, slowly, and imagined too that by the end of the 50 minutes the students would be gone, only  puddles on the desks, and I'd still be talking over their heads, droning on about something or other related to stuff you read and write about.

What did you think of the poem?  I asked them, early on in class, in still-hearty tones.
 
Did you READ the poem?
 
Did you OPEN the course packet?
 
They stared blankly at me, as if I were speaking in another language, or had asked them a series of outrageous and completely irrelevant questions.
 
Student M., who tried to take my class last semester and ended up suspended from school, slumped deeper into his chair at the sound of my voice. He is a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde person, this kid, which might be what got him into trouble.  Simmering underneath his too-cool exterior is another person, waiting to snap at you if you "cross" him one too many times. 
 
I have no patience for him this morning-I had a run-in with him last week that has left me still-smoldering; I have no patience for his slumping shoulders and the person hiding inside of him.  I have no patience for the drooping faces of my students, or for the sound of my own voice, as I try hard to win their attention.
 
I trudge out of class, steeling myself for more of the same at 9:00 and maybe at 10:00, who knows.

The wind is still howling outside, and the strap on my bag slips open, spilling some still-to-be-graded quizzes; I can't find my office keys.  I dribble some Trader Joe's triple-shot espresso coffee on my pants; the elevator is broken.
 
Coming out of my last class I run into a student who calls out to me.  So mired in my own grouchiness I wince, wondering--a little resentfully, I'll admit: who is she? What does she want from me? She turns out to be a student I taught my very first semester here, at this college, when L. was two and I was nervous and filled with self-doubt.  She's in graduate school now, and working at a school for the blind and, when I hear this, I feel the storm cloud around me begin to lift, just a little.
 
She has a paper to turn in on Friday and needs a quick refresher on annotated bibliographies and APA format.
 
I take her down to my office and pull down a new style guide a rep has recently sent me.  It's shiny and fat, and virtually untouched. We look up bibliographies and citations and she's just so amazed by this style guide, and holds it uncertainly, as if it will fall apart in her hands. 
 
You take it, I tell her impulsively, and a little off-handedly, because it's such an easy thing for me to give away--it costs me nothing.  You've just GOT to have one of these if you're in grad school now.  It's my gift to you.
 
She stares at me and then, suddenly, her eyes fill with tears.

Now, it seems, on top of everything else, I've made a student cry!

What's wrong?

No one's ever given me a book before, she says.  EVER!

The wind still hasn't stopped blowing, the rain still falls in persistent spurts, I still have that coffee stain on my pants, and the stack of quizzes to grade and a sore throat but, as that student left my office, clutching the book to her chest, I was left wondering what I'd been so grouchy about before anyway--when I'd been the one to suddenly get the best gift of all.