Needless to say, our second trip was wonderful. It was so exciting to see places I’ve only seen on television or read about in books. My soul was awakened and my horizons became broader. I finally felt qualified to be a college professor, even though I had been one for years. I suddenly felt I had more wisdom. I no longer had to live vicariously through my students who were foreign born.
And that’s another thing—why was I always getting foreign-born students in my classes? Anita told me her schedule was changed because the bursar wanted her to be in my class. I have never met the bursar, so I have no idea why. Maybe it was that first successful encounter with Sam and Larry—word got out that I was patient with students like this? I have no idea. But the only student I was still in occasional contact with was Anita. I would help her by proofreading her essays and I would occasionally see her on campus, depending on our schedules. Ironically, Anita graduated just before Sophia and I took our cruise, so I would pick Anita’s brain about Germany and living in Europe. She was all too happy to give me advice and explain things.
It’s not like we were going to spending so much time in each location, but it helped her to share her stories with me.
“Zhe people here, zhe Americans, they’re really ignorant about Europe, eh?” she asked.
Anita was blunt, but she was observant. I then got to explain about the tunnel vision that afflicts many of my countrymen. But she was happy I was finally achieving one of my dreams to travel and gave me enough information for six trips. It would have been wonderful for her to join us, but she and her family were celebrating her graduation with a quick trip to Germany to visit her husband’s family about a month before our trip and then she was starting graduate school with the summer session. But she was my cheerleader and I was hers.
That fall was when I met Greta. This was the semester where my colleague Erin observed “every student was from Poland.” I was teaching another writing course, this one in the evening at a local high school, not on campus. Both were firsts for me. I was used to commuting to campus and teaching for 50 minutes, or for 75 minutes if the classes met two days a week. But three hours in one sitting was going to take some getting used to. It only met once a week, so the entire week’s lessons would need to be taught the same night. No time for them to reflect on work, or do it and bring it in two days later.
Ironically, Greta was from an area near Gdansk, Poland. Sophia and I were just there on our cruise! I thought it was more than an odd coincidence that I no sooner return from there and find one of them as my student.
Greta was in her mid-thirties, married with four children. Her youngest had just started kindergarten and Greta wanted to become a teacher. Her husband agreed, so she was taking one course to begin with. She knew she would be in her 40s when she finished, but this was a journey and not a sprint. And, as English was her second language, which she had only been speaking for about 15 years, she wanted to make sure she could comprehend the readings and adequately do the writings before taking on more courses.
It turns out this class of mine was perfect for her. Of the 18 students, nine of them were mothers—women with children (as opposed to what, you may ask) as opposed to the other students, male and female, who were “typical” college students—late teens, early 20s.And this came in quite handy about midway through the semester when I decided to do my “deserted island” lesson.
Where I got the idea for this, I don’t really remember. It had to be from a comedy television show. Maybe it was an improvisational comedy show. Anyway, the premise is this: Your group must begin civilization anew, or you’re forming your own country—your choice—and you’re allowed to have 10 items. What would you choose? What 10 items would you need to begin a civilization?
When I had done this exercise previously, I had divided the class into males and females. The females were more practical, choosing things like food, shelter, clothing, medical items, education, etc. For the guys, it was usually beer, beer, beer, beer, beer, beer, beer, television, women, beer. I then made them prioritize their list and we would discuss their choices, allowing time for proper heckling (mostly by me, but in a nice way).
The points of this lesson were many: organization, prioritization, combining, argument. Great qualities for any writer.
Well, this time I decided to try an experiment: Mothers vs. Others.
The moms chose the usual things my female students had in the past. As mothers, and as females, they were very practical and very nurturing items. Maybe it was because half the group was female, rather than it being an all-male group as I’ve had in the past, but the Others broke the mold and actually chose items in a similar vein. One of the items the Mothers had selected was a police force—something for protection and keeping the laws. A member of the Others, a young man named Paul, scoffed. With such a small group of people, why would you need a police force? Wouldn’t everybody know the rules and then know who broke them? For Pete’s sake, there’s only nine of you.
After analyzing the Mother’s list, we then began critiquing the Other’s list. Paul was the spokesman for the group. His groupmates were young and didn’t care; they just wanted class to be over with so they could go home and watch television. But Paul was just beginning to feel his young oats and was really enjoying this exercise and his newfound authority.
We got through items 1 through 5 fairly easily. Items were more common sense and very similar to the Mothers’ list.
Then we got to No. 6: Military.
“Why a military?” I asked Paul and his group.
“Because you need someone to enforce the rules,” Paul replied, matter-of-factly.
I looked to the Mothers, who looked at me. Didn’t we just have this conversation?
And more specifically—didn’t we just have this conversation with Paul?
“But why a military,” I persisted, “and not a police force?”
Paul explained his thinking, but I wasn’t fully convinced why you would have need for a military and not a police force. Wasn’t a military a little extreme? I kept trying to rephrase the question, the Mothers took a stab at it as well, trying to ask him the right question to unlock the mystery.
Paul was a very sweet young man. He was 19 and beginning to find his voice. He was developing opinions and was learning how to share them. The problem was, he was 19.
As the questioning continued, we could tell by the look on his face that he really hadn’t thought this idea of a military force through. It made perfect sense to him, but under the glaring light of reality and the questions from others, he realized he missed something. And the more he thought about it and tried to explain it, the more frustrated he became. I thought he looked as if he was ready to concede. He wasn’t.
How does one save face?
“Communism!” He banged his hand on the desk. “That’s what we need! A communist government.”
Greta, who grew up under Communism, without missing a beat very politely said, “Oh, no, you do not, and here is why.”
I don’t remember sitting down, but at some point I sat behind the teacher’s desk and watched the tennis match ensue. Greta explained her position, Paul explained his, and back and forth they went. Very politely, very determined, never raising their voices. All of our heads bounced back and forth between the pair. It was probably a good thing they were seated at opposite ends of the classroom. After a while, the other students looked at me. I was dumbfounded. All I could do was shrug my shoulders. I had no idea what was going on. I had never seen anything like it. They don’t teach you this shit in college.
This went on for 10 minutes. Then 15. Then 20. Then 25. Finding the briefest of lulls in their discussion, I told them to go take their evening break and threw them all out of class. As this was a three-hour class, we would take a break at about the half-way point, which it now was. They ran out of the room as if their lives depended on it.
I tried to think of where I was going to go from here. This night definitely was one for the books. I’d never experienced anything like this.
Within just moments, no more than 15 seconds, Paul returned to the classroom. He had a bag of candy in his hand, retrieving one at a time and eating it. (If it were me, I would have poured the whole bag into my hand and then put the entire contents into my mouth. Or just bypassed the hand and dumped the entire bag into my mouth. I am both fascinated and annoyed by people who eat each item individually. I guess I’m just normally a glutton.)
But why was Paul here? Of all the people, why was he back in here so quickly? My heart sank. I really needed a break. What happened in the hallway? Was I going to have to get out of the chair and … be a responsible adult? I didn’t hear any commotion, so I was hoping … hoping what I don’t know. Hoping I didn’t have to get out of the chair, I guess.
“What happened?” I asked, dreading the answer.
Crunch, crunch. “I didn’t have enough money for the vending machine.” Crunch crunch. One candy after another he pulled out of the bag, popping each one individually into his mouth.
I looked at him—if he didn’t have enough money, how did he buy the candy? The crunch crunch continued. Crunch crunch.
“So how did you buy the candy?” I asked. Please, God, don’t let him have taken his frustration out on the vending machine …
“She gave me a nickel so I could buy my Skittles.” Crunch crunch.
“Her.” Crunch crunch.
Crunch crunch. “Yeah.” Crunch crunch.
By now the other students, still shell shocked, were slowly filing into the classroom.
Do you mean to tell me that the fate of Western Civilization was saved by a nickel and a bag of Skittles? Where’s Kruschev and his shoe when you need him? Does the U.N. know about this? Think of the billions we could save in military costs each year!
When everyone had returned, I picked up from where we left off, with Number 6. Within 90 seconds, they agreed with a final order of items and we were done with the lesson.
Skittles, huh? I guess Moms know what kids need and when they need it.
On our class syllabus, Central Heights University insisted that all professors give their students contact information. I included an e-mail and my cell phone number. Even though I still had a landline, there are some times when you need some privacy. I could always turn the cell phone off.
Greta would occasionally e-mail me. She would ask questions about the assignments, but often she would see a picture or a cartoon and share that with me. She loved my sense of humor and I was flattered she would take the time to scan an item in and e-mail it. This was during the dark ages of the time before Facebook and iPhones and people still regularly read newspapers. It was the best of times.
As our correspondence developed, she felt comfortable to ask questions from an educator standpoint. She wanted to be a teacher, so she was using me as inspiration. I’m not sure if I should be flattered to terrified. There were a few times when I was running late or had a meeting on campus and I asked her to get the class settled in and give them an assignment to work on until I arrived. She was so excited to have this responsibility and she did quite well. Her classmates were supportive because she seemed to know what she was doing. She already had the teacher persona.
Greta was thoroughly enjoying life as a college student. She was so determined to succeed. She worked so very hard and everyone in the class just loved her. During the spring semester, I was given a class again at the same high school, one night a week for three hours. This time it was a Wednesday night class. Greta was taking public speaking, which was down the hallway from my class, also on Wednesday nights. She would occasionally pop in before class or during a break to say hi and have a quick chat.
It was on Ash Wednesday when Greta popped into my classroom before class began that evening. None of my students had arrived yet and I was unloading the items I would need for the lesson from my satchel. It took me a few moments to realize there was something on her face and a few more to recognize what was on her forehead: a cross made of ashes.
Now, I didn’t grow up in a church or with a lot of religion. Ash Wednesday was just Wednesday to me. Sure, I saw the stories on the newcasts about Chicagoans going to Holy Name Cathedral on Ash Wednesday to have ashes placed on their forehead, but I was baptized as a Baptist. I didn’t know many Catholics, so I never actually knew anyone who did this quaint little ritual, let alone ever see anybody with this on their face. Most of the people in my community were Protestants and we just never ran into people who did this. The Catholics we went to school with went to church after school, so they wouldn’t have to explain the mark (or probably wouldn’t be made fun of because, after all, we’re teenagers and it’s something different). It’s just one of those things you hear about but don’t actually see.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I actually saw someone with the cross on the forehead. She was a former co-worker. After a few of our co-workers changed jobs, we started a sort of supper club where we would gather once a month for dinner somewhere and catch up on everyone’s life. We always met on a Wednesday, because that was pay day. So the one Ash Wednesday when we were out to dinner, Mary was sporting her ashes. She was an older lady, already retired in fact, but a very devout Catholic and just the sweetest person you would ever want to meet. That was the first and only time I had ever seen this in person. And Mary kindly explained to all of us Protestants at the table the meaning and ritual behind it.
It eventually dawned on me that Greta, being Polish, was also Catholic. Now it all made sense.
Until Patty walked in.
Patty was a blonde in every sense of the word. Sweet, funny, one of the Mothers from our class the previous semester. She turned 40 in November; we had class on her birthday and she made sure everyone knew it was her 40th birthday. Patty was also taking a class at the same high school we were at that semester, but she wasn’t in either one of our classes. Patty lived in a town that was predominately Baptist, I suddenly realized, as I ended up in the middle of a controversy.
“Oh, my God!” she exclaimed upon seeing Greta. “What’s wrong with your face?”
Greta looked at me. What does she mean? No one had ever said that to Greta before. Everyone Greta knew already knew what it was—they had the same thing on their face. Maybe it’s the language barrier that was confusing Greta.
“It’s Ash Wednesday,” Greta explained.
Keep in mind, Patty was blonde.
“So?” she asked. Greta looked at me again, starting to get a little desperate.
I was suddenly talking—how, I don’t know, because I was trying to comprehend all of this myself. “Some religions will place ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday. Today is Ash Wednesday.”
“What does that mean?” Patty asked.
“It marks the beginning of Lent,” I said.
And then we had to explain Lent to her. Greta again looked at me, more desperate, her big blue eyes growing wider by the moment. I think my eyes were getting to be as big as Greta’s as I tried to explain this phenomenon (and I was only one experience up on Patty) and was running out of things to say because, well, I didn’t fully get it either.
“Oh,” Patty said, finally comprehending. “When did they start this?”
Greta’s eyes were the size of saucers as she shoved her face toward me, pleadingly, to make this stop.
“About two thousand years ago?” I replied. Hell, I didn’t know. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation.
“Really?” Patty was amazed.
Mercifully, it was time for them to go to their classrooms. I still giggle every Ash Wednesday, remembering Patty’s reaction and Greta’s big blue eyes. Only in America.