Monday, November 7, 2011

Teaching as a Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Rebel Girl has taught Thursday nights at the college for almost all her nineteen years here: a fiction workshop which attracts the usual students looking for a few transferable credits and the unusual, those dedicated to a certain art, a craft: writing. Some already have degrees, some do not. Those students, those Thursday night regulars, who enroll again and again until forbidden by regulations, form bonds. Some of them become lifelong friends, and Rebel Girl follows them as they move on, continue to write, go to grad school, publish, fall in love, marry, fall out of love, have children, face one crisis or joy after another...

One of those students died last week and Rebel Girl thought of him all this long cool rainy weekend which found her observing the end of Dia de Los Muertos in Santa Ana and tending her own altar at home, a little overcrowded this year by recent departures, none as heartbreaking as her student.

Rebel Girl can still see his font choice: the old school typewriter block letters of a Courier style, his name, first and last, in the upper left corner and the story that followed it below, the shapes of the paragraphs, the openness of each word, sentence. She was never disappointed by the stories he wrote. They were always worth her time and everyone else's. Something was always at stake. The workshop always cared about his characters and what they would do. The workshop rooted for his characters even if they failed.

And he, he always cared about the workshop's stories too. Not everyone does, but he did.

Rebel Girl never saw the demons that his other friends have referred to in recent days. She thinks she didn't because when she saw him, when the student walked into the modest institutional college classroom, brightly lit and too chilly from the dark night outside and entered the workshop's clean well-lighted place, (a story he must have read with the workshop once, twice, perhaps three times), when he became not a stranger but a fellow writer, student, when the class made their own warmth around the tables they pushed together, when they sat there and read and listened, spoke and shared, what the class and Rebel Girl saw of him was perhaps him at his best, who he wanted to be. Any demons were left outside.

Whenever he came into the room, joined the circle, he was welcomed, warmly, for who he was, for who he was with us. As Rebel Girl mourns him, she is comforted by remembering this. This is what she tells the other students as she sends emails, makes telephone calls. We were there for him. We always welcomed him. We saw what was good in him and told him so, again and again.

Rebel Girl doesn't know where people came from before class or what they go home to. Sometimes she learns, sometimes she does not. She understands now that for this student there was pain, grief, an unbearable loss.

In the Hemingway story, two waiters, one young, one old, observe an old man while they finish their night shift in a café. It is one of Hemingway's Spanish stories and the language moves smoothly between English and Spanish. The old man drinks too much. The old man, it is said, tried to kill himself. The younger waiter is impatient with the old man, the older waiter less so. At the end of the story, the old man shuffles off, the younger waiter goes home to his wife waiting in bed and the older waiter says farewell:
"Good night," the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

"What's yours?" asked the barman.


"Otro loco mas," said the barman and turned away.

"A little cup," said the waiter.

The barman poured it for him.

"The light is very bright and pleasant but the bar is unpolished," the waiter said.

The barman looked at him but did not answer. It was too late at night for conversation.

"You want another copita?" the barman asked.

"No, thank you," said the waiter and went out. He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it's probably only insomnia. Many must have it.



Anonymous said...


Thank you.

--100 miles down the road

Anonymous said...

This is really a wonderful tribute. Your writing, as always, captures the soul. The altar is beautiful, as well. Thank you.

Greg B.

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