Monday, December 20, 2021

The brows of grace

“You’re an angel, Dr. Moffitt.”

I was taken aback. All I’d done was provide potato chips. “You can’t watch a movie without salty snacks,” I demurred. “They’re mandatory.”

“You’re still an angel,” my student beamed. She was masked, of course, but we’ve all gotten good at telling when a mostly hidden face also wears a smile.

Teenagers are given to hyperbole; I did not really save anyone by bringing little bags of barbecue, sour cream & onion, salt & vinegar, and “classic” to the last day of the semester. Probably the even bigger seraphic deed I’d done was not give them a final exam; instead, we were watching Warm Bodies, which is basically Romeo & Juliet & Zombies. This is not something a teacher can do all the time. Not even in film studies do you watch movies every day; at some point you’ve got to tackle semiotics and the male gaze. But this was a class about Shakespeare’s plays and the great many adaptations thereof, so the film fit, more or less, plus I figured they should have at least one stress-free class at the end of the term. I admit this worked out well for me, too: no exam for them to take means no exam for me to grade. Win-win.

Indeed, win to the third power, because this was the last day of one of the best classes I’ve ever taught. Gosh, that was fun. I would dearly love to say my superior teaching prowess was the reason, but I can’t. This is not false modesty; this is not even real modesty. I’ve been teaching at some venue or other for over two decades, so I generally know what I’m doing most of the time and can fake my way through the rest of the time, but I never do know how any given lesson is going to go over. Classroom fireworks one day become duds the next. As they say in financial services to gloss over the fact that the stock market is legalized gambling, past success is no guarantee of future results. At the same time, the reverse is true: past failure is no guarantee of future doom. I’ve failed spectacularly throughout my life at a great many things—at one point I very nearly failed at life itself. When my student called me an angel, a weird thought came to me: Am I? Did I actually die ten years ago and all this time I’ve been a Clarence trying to earn wings? Is this the parallel universe where I lived, and am I here to help other people so they don’t go through what I did?

Naw. I’m no angel. I just like watching movies and eating potato chips. (Classic for me; chips should taste like salt and potatoes, coffee should taste like coffee, and don’t get me started on crimes committed in the name of pizza.) I also like engaging discussions, new ideas, creative expression, and sharing knowledge that few other people know. Now when Taylor Swift sings how daddy says “Stay away from Juliet,” each of my students can be the well, actually person who asserts that in the real play, Capulet says no such thing—doesn’t even realize Juliet knows Romeo, much less that she marries him. Everyone hates the well, actually person, but just remember they hate us ‘cause they ain’t us.

The point of all this being that doing good need not be about self-sacrifice, self-abnegation, and overall saintly aspirations. Some people who suffer bear the world a grudge. You can’t blame them; generosity, empathy, and humility are luxuries. We can’t insist on them in others but only call upon them when we ourselves are able. Humbling others is bullying. Humbling yourself means, more or less, knowing that you are small part of the vast grandness of things, and it’s actually quite pleasant, not, well, humiliating.

Like teachers everywhere, I enter a classroom having no idea how things will go but hoping both the students and I get something out of it. Learning is humbling; it often means you just got something wrong. It is also never one-size-fits-all, and the current state of the world demands curricular flexibility. Thus was I determined to make the entire class low on stress and high on enjoyment, for them and for me. We’d just returned from a lost year; no one knew how long we’d be together for this one. “I don’t remember anything about last year,” a student told me early in the semester, and it just about broke my heart. He wasn’t only talking about academics, either; for all that adults like to grouse about kids being glued to their devices, staring at screens all day took a heavy toll on everyone in nearly every way. Nothing could make up for that, but at least I could make what time we had together going forward a positive experience.

Success. For now, anyway. A self-serving win, as mentioned, because I needed it too. No, I haven’t got wings. Nor have I exorcised every demon that occupied my cranial cavity; they’re still lurking in there, gobbling up the precious serotonin before I get my share. But I get by well enough, I keep learning, and I know there are no angels; there’s just us, doing what we can.