ALMOST BY HEART
He was handsome, the kind of handsome that makes women wish they’d taken a little more time with their makeup, worn the tighter dress or top. I could see this with the young women in the class, and even the older women, including me. It was as if the moon were pulling us all into one slow, quiet yearning.
And he wasn’t having any of it. He didn’t need any of it. The one he called his woman was bound to be beautiful, something that couldn’t be said for any of us. Not that I allied myself with the women. I had the power of being the teacher, after all, so I could at least enjoy some sway over him.
I hoped when the first set of papers came that his would be passable. Really, I hoped for more than passable, but I was prepared. Someone that handsome could easily have gotten by on his looks. I saved it for last. I didn’t want disappointment or excitement to influence me too much for or against the others.
The paper was brilliant. Absolutely, non-stop brilliant. Oh, there were a few missing words, some strange punctuation, a syntactical lapse or two. But it was easily one of the best papers I’d had in all my years of teaching the freshman comp course. I wrote as much at the end of his paper. An A-. I expected an A the next time, I wrote. I expected anyone that creative to master all the mechanics of English. He owed it to his mind.
All semester, more brilliant papers. If he hadn’t been just 20 and me pushing 50, I think I might have lost my head. I’d fallen in love with students before, but I’d also read The Affair of Gabrielle Russier. I would flash back to my father, visiting me in my small apartment in the small upstate New York town where I’d first gone to teach, picking up the paperback, reading on the back jacket that Gabrielle Russier was a schoolteacher who’d fallen in love with a student and ended up committing suicide once the affair was exposed. My father looked up at me with undisguised panic in his eyes. They’d bailed me out, as he put it, out of a wild life where I’d had a child out of wedlock, a child who was playing at his feet. Don’t worry, my eyes said back. I’m not that crazy.
The last paper was so brilliant I couldn’t resist asking him to read it aloud. It was the last class before the final. One of the students, a white male named Christian, listened with disgust all over his face. He didn’t like the raw language, the slang, I decided. He was too uptight to let the message about the power of love and the lesser power of hate filter through to him. Too, ironically, Christian, I thought.
The class ended. A year went by, two. One day I happened to be crossing the campus at Cal, where the better students from the community college where I taught ended up. I don’t think I’d been hoping to see him, but it still gave me a jolt to see Christian, instead. We greeted each other, chatted. He thanked me for having taught him a surefire way to use apostrophes correctly. He thought of me every time he used one, he said. We laughed. Then he said, You remember Mark? That guy whose papers you couldn’t get enough of? I nodded, thinking he was about to tell me Mark was at Cal, too. Well I should probably have told you this then, only I didn’t want it to seem like sour grapes. You did only give me a B, you know, and Mark got an A. I figure you can’t have known this. That last paper? Where we had free rein and he did that monologue? It was straight out of Spike Lee. Do the Right Thing. Ironic, isn’t it? None of us did. You, me, him.
I watched until he disappeared down the path toward Wheeler. On the way home, I rented all of Spike Lee’s movies to date. All his papers were there, in one way or another. I ejected the film in the middle of the power of love monologue. No need to watch. I’d read it so many times I knew it almost by heart.
—from Rattle #37, Summer 2012
Lynne Knight: “I was once in a poetry seminar visited by James Dickey, who asked us why we wrote. There were seven or eight of us, and we all said the lofty things you’d expect of 22- or 23-year-old graduate students. No one said, ‘Because I love words.’ But that, according to Dickey, was the right answer, the one we all should have given. I remember being offended by his insistence that there was a right answer. I was even more offended by his insinuation that because we hadn’t answered right, there wasn’t much hope for us as writers. I had no way of knowing, then, how right Dickey was—how sustaining a love for words turns out to be for a writer, how comforting in the face of rejection, how available a pleasure.” (web)