Thursday, September 15, 2011

Excerpt (with audio) from "Cavalcade

She was a single woman in her sixties, a professor who had done graduate work in Paris back in her twenties. Now she was teaching remedial French to the churlish sons of second and third generation immigrants. I was one of the churls.

There were six of us. We sprawled, lolled, and slouched in the student desks in front of her. We exuded indolence, privilege, and a near-hostile reluctance to apply ourselves. We were big, young, strong and male. Had we been cattle instead of humans, we would have been castrated and turned out to the feedlot by now.

We could smoke in class and a particularly acrid cigarette stink hung in the air, mixing with the smell of whatever they were cooking for supper in the refectory in the basement. The slightest hint of the scent of lilacs lingered near the front of the room, as if the ghost of Blanche DuBois had flounced by fifteen minutes ago. This we attributed to the talc in her pullet-like cleavage.

We were among the first in our families to go to college, but education was lost upon us. We were just sitting there. Killing time, that was all. Waiting for the five o’clock bell to ring in the quadrangle hall. We were one clang away from escape.

There was a certain posture one adopted when killing time in those desks. You leaned forward, left elbow on knee, right elbow atop papers, cigarette smoldering between the fingers of the right hand. You stared at the floor, and jittered your right leg fitfully.

From the professor’s platform, it must have communicated close-mindedness; a sense of futility; an unwillingness to even try to assimilate the material. I am sure we didn’t intend it that way.

Sometimes, at night, when I review the long list of people I have offended over the years, I come to this woman. All these years later, I am sorry to have been so inconsiderate and disrespectful. It was rude.

I emailed this essay to an old friend of mine—another failure at French. We met in her class.

“I am sitting in the front row next to you,” he wrote back. “This shared experience is the start of a great friendship. Good that we can look back now with sympathy and respect for her contribution to it.”