Monday, November 28, 2016

Night class

I was waiting to teach a night class — my least favorite kind of teaching. The class was to start at 7:30. I waited outside the room in a narrow hallway: low ceiling, bare lightbulbs, tile walls, no windows, basement-like. The water fountain in the hallway was combined with a urinal. The drain was in the floor, right next to the fountain’s foot pedal, so that pressing to get a drink would almost certainly have meant stepping into someone’s urine. Still waiting for class, I went out to walk by the seashore with my teacher Jim Doyle. I told him how surprised I was to learn — from reading his notes and marginalia — that he loved football. He’d written to the president about it and had received a reply. Jim’s voice sounded raspy. I knew that Jim had died, but here he was. I was happy to see him.

I started teaching at 8:00. I asked the students, “How’d it get so late?” No one knew. I was teaching a Dickens novel and had notes, of some sort, with me, but I hadn’t read the novel, or at least not for a long time. Among its elements: an orphan girl at school, an adjunct instructor, an evil headmistress, a mysterious woman. I described the novel as “a vast canvas.” Instead of beginning with the orphan, the first character to appear, I began with the mysterious woman. Comparisons to Ishtar and Circe — the dangerous seducer. This woman was also a damsel in distress. I showed a clip from a French film adaptation of the novel and wanted to go back to a moment in which a great many emotions play across the character’s face: fear, confidence, doubt, longing. But I could find only commercials. At some point I noticed a colleague — one of my least favorite colleagues — sitting in the back row, smiling. He had come to observe.

Time was running out. “Next time we’ll begin by talking about the orphan,” I said. Students were already leaving. Two students in a corner had turned on a television and were watching a cowboy movie. “I need one more minute to finish what I need to say,” I yelled. “Please turn off the TV.” I asked four times before walking to the set, unplugging it, and waking.

Likely sources: a tiled hallway in Widener Library (perhaps this one), rest-stop bathrooms, manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum (including A Christmas Carol and many Charlotte Brontë items), Jim Doyle’s videotaped reading of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” an NPR story about letters to President Barack Obama, Jean Stapleton’s expressive face in an All in the Family episode, academic politics, and who knows what else. This is the sixth classroom dream I’ve had since retiring from teaching. The others: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

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