When Your Student Dies During the Semester

Photo Credit: Kimba Howard

Photo Credit: Kimba Howard

Morning Glories Sensing Noon

Or: When Your Student Dies During the Semester

By Angie Mazakis

Before class, already you know that you are going to teach how the complications of humor and death in this story—the writer’s careful balance of these disparate emotional territories—make good writing, and you want to point out the specific piercing details too, you will go through and point out every metaphor (“they are all drawing their mouths in, bluish and tight—morning glories sensing noon,” the rhythm of “morning glories sensing noon”—three trochees—sang in your head all weekend), and then right before class, you’re in the bathroom three minutes before, and a student comes in and says, “I had to find you,” and you laugh because, it’s three minutes before class, and you were just in your office for three-and-a-half hours, and Couldn’t you have just waited until I got there is what your laugh is saying, but it’s also forgiving, because either way questions in the bathroom are funny, and you like every student in this class, you already know it is one of those classes you will remember—your one laugh is saying all that, and she laughs a tiny nervous laugh in response, and says, “You know A           in our class, who sits by me? He died.” And you cover your mouth in shock, because your student, a student in the class you are going to teach in three, now two, minutes died and will not be sitting at his desk, and she starts to cry, and says, “I just had to find you and tell you, because I couldn’t bear to hear you call out his name.” Couldn’t bear is what she said, and you’ve never heard anything more fragile, perforating right through you, from a student in any of your classes ever, not even in writing, let alone out loud to you in the bathroom in her sweet voice and tears, and you precipitously cry for her, with her, for just a minute, because it’s time for class, and all crying should now stop, and the short walk to class with her gives you time to feel transiently embarrassed about how facilely and involuntarily your tears materialize, and you go teach the Lorrie Moore story that is really in the end about death, but saturated with humor, and you meant to defend that humor, because in the other classes students thought that the humor was inappropriate in a story about children and death, but that’s “how I would respond as well” with that same dark wit in the face of death, you know (think) you would, at least ostensibly (you think later), and also you had already planned to read this passage, so you read it very slowly, because your voice could break at any one of the words, even though you didn’t even really know this kid, it’s only been three weeks, you barely knew him, but you had already planned to read it, particularly for how devastating, and therefore beautiful it is, but now with devastating being a reality in the room, the beautiful doesn’t seem as beautiful or beauty actually doesn’t seem relevant at all, or seems kind of very beside the point, but still, you read to them, “…he begins to cry, but cry silently, without motion or noise. She has never seen a baby cry without motion or noise. It is the crying of an old person; silent, beyond opinion, shattered.” You can barely get out the word “shattered,” which seemed to fall apart on its own. But you do. And then after class, the female student who stopped you in the bathroom is the last one after everyone has left, and you say, “This wasn’t the easiest story to talk about today,” and she says, “Actually, it helped,” and you are profoundly puzzled, one, that anything could help so immediately in class and not years from now when an image or a line comes to a student arbitrarily at the grocery store or while picking up their kids from school, but also that this story is so darkly humorous, and most students don’t seem to embrace its complications even when those complications seem eclipsed by the unequivocalness of  a death that just happened, but she says, “because there’s the part where the narrator is talking to the ‘manager’ and he says (and she quotes it exactly without looking at it, here in the third week of class; she’s brilliant), ‘To know the narrative in advance is to turn yourself into a machine.’” And then you frantically look for that portion of the story, because you just taught it—three times today—but you didn’t go over that part in class, and you don’t even remember that part, and you read what continues, “What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future. …There might be things people get away with. And not just motel towels. There might be great illicit loves, enduring joy, faith-shaking accidents with farm machinery. But you have to not know in order to see what stories your life’s efforts bring you. The mystery is all.” And you can’t believe you have a student so smart that she can apply the very literature we are reading today in class so instantaneously to the very consequential event that has so spontaneously happened, and has literature ever been so functional? You don’t think it has, and she should probably teach this class instead of you. And all you know about teaching is how you’ve been taught to teach or what you’ve learned from what others teach, and this kid who died, of course he is the kid who stayed after the first class to ask you more questions about yourself, of course, and was looking right at you eagerly or smiling every time you looked up in the few classes you’ve had so far this semester, and of course no one ever said, “When your student dies during the semester…” or explained how to maybe wait one more week (you’d already waited two weeks for all the drops and adds) to write their names into the grade book in ink, because now you’ll have to mark the absence forever.

***

Angie Mazakis’s poems have appeared in The New Republic, Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, Best New Poets 2008, Drunken BoatNew Ohio Review, Everyday Genius, and other journals. She has received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and prizes from New Letters, New Ohio Review, and Smartish Pace.

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