Look, I'm almost 62. I think I've earned the right to call my students "kids." Some people--younger profs--think that my using that word is somehow pejorative or a means by which I belittle them, keep them infantile. Maybe, when I was 32. Not now. I'm sorry. When I look over their faces, and when I remember Robert Bly saying nobody should write anything until they're 35, I call 'em kids because they are.
I was gone for awhile, too blasted busy to blog. First vacation I've taken in three years from the basement here, and it wasn't a vacation at all. I did the first half of a little writer-in-residence stint at a small college for about a week, some night classes, 7-10 (I never made it till ten. Did I say I'm almost 62 years old?)
Anyway, other than the fact that it was hard work, it was a ball, not just because the weather was sweet down south (it was), but because I really liked the students. Forgive the metaphor, but I've always sort of laughingly thought about teaching as, well, seduction. You have to sweet talk--at least I do; you've got to put yourself out some; you've got be sweet and caring and even a little flirtatious. (I know I'm getting close to the "eeeuuuuwww" factor here, but bear with me.)
What I'm saying is, in a week with a class full of students, you're barely past the first date. But by the time I dragged myself to the little on-campus cabin I was given after that last night of class, I thought--I really did--that I, which is to say "we," didn't do badly. There's hope for this relationship.
At my age, one teaches basically for the eyes. If they're there, lit like halogen--if they're there, taking it all in--if they're there, bright and shining with whatever weirdness is going on (point of view, distance, voice, style), then and only then is the classroom is worth it. Otherwise, not. I'm at my worst when I'm throwing pearls at swine. Get me a job on a roof.
So things went well, methinks. It was a good week.
And then this.
Maybe the first people I spoke to after leaving were an older couple I really, really like. Old folks. I got a right to say that, too. We're talking deep and true respect, even love. Give me a tablet, and ask me to list five most saintly people I know, and I'll write in their names. I'm not lying. Wonderful people. Really wonderful people.
"Where've you been?" they ask, after a hug, almost the first crack out of the box.
I tell them. They smile.
"That college have a denominational background?" they say.
I say, yep, and tell 'em which.
"Oh," they say, "we don't like those people."
I could have cried. Honestly, I could have cried.
But I understand why they said what they did too. Way back somewhere, there was a divorce, and divorce, whether it happens in marriages or churches, creates scars that take years and years to close. Long ago, one denomination took a bitter hike away from another, and every once in awhile, even today, those who suffered still have to change the dressing.
I hit them just wrong with my answer, and what they said hit me just wrong. I loved the kids--I know it sounds sappy, but it's true. "We don't like those people," my good, good friends--wonderful people--said when I told them.
And here's what I'm thinking. Shit--you just can't avoid it. It's all over the sidewalk.
But then, I'm an Iowan, and I know this much: you kick it off and it does make things bloom and grow. Me too. Even though I'm almost 62.
This morning I'm thankful, once again, for life's little lessons, even the ones you have to keep learning over and over and over.