[This is a piece I wrote years ago that will not let go of me. I post it now in honor of my colleagues in Community Colleges who still welcome and love 161 or more students each term.]
Letting Go of 161
I have just posted grades. The last of the 161. August 24th we began. Now, December 20th I end . . . or nearly end.
The one, the vet who wrote about seeing his two buddies blown up in Afghanistan, one when he went out to meet a woman carrying a white flag, who was really a man with a bomb under his dress, another . . . oh, I don’t remember, but there was also the draft about how this student learned to empathize with the traumas of others even if the others had not been through a war, and where is that essay? It didn’t come in, so he didn’t get credit. That draft was moving, brilliant. So, no, I can’t let go of him.
And one, who wants to file a grievance against me because she believes the grade I gave her was too low. She rarely came to class, though her character shown through in her writing and in her face—her anger, her fight to raise her daughters alone, her recognition of the racism surrounding her, her abandonment by her alcoholic parents, her decision not to drink herself. She is angry at me for not giving her credit for an essay that she didn’t write.
I am letting go of one hundred sixty-one, whose lives (many of them said) were bettered by writing or by meeting others in class.
I remember best those who hated the months with me—the one who said she got nothing out of writing about escaping from a violent boyfriend and about watching cats play in the yard, who stared at me during class with a mask painted over her face.
I remember those who disappeared—the Hmong young man who raised his siblings alone after his parents went away, who wanted to trust me, who gave me his stories, and then who went away himself.
Amina, who told her class of the 21 women who cleaned the streets in Mogadishu each day until they were killed by a bomb, who said that other women came back the next day to continue to pick up the trash. “The women are the ones who suffer; they are the ones who stay,” she told us.
Two Mormon men never sat together in women’s studies class, but together clasped tightly to their faith. One sat with his head down, front row, never looking at me during class. He sent me articles saying that climate change might not be happening and quoted scripture about God being the determiner of all wisdom. The last week, he sent a link proclaiming that climate change was, after all, real. He wrote, “It looks like we are already too late.”
The young man who found a dead body in a car in New York City when he was six, who watched his best buddy shot in the head when he was 16; a young man named Mohamed who writes like a published novelist already, and who has a year ago, he assured me, stopped selling drugs.
The woman who wrote three glorious essays once she had written the big one—about her disease of pulling out her own hair. The two young men in different classes who poured out their childhood longings for girl toys—Barbies and pink tutus—for makeup and bras. The mother whose children almost died in a car accident she caused. The man who stopped drinking after the car accident that almost killed him. The young man who wrote himself into ceasing to smoke.
The four different (was it five? maybe six?) who wrote with pleas that we all—that I—stop eating meat.
One hundred and sixty one are too many for me.
Two of them, maybe four, wrote their ways back to their missing fathers.
One wrote of the courage of her family to stand against the neighbors in Somalia who said her brother was possessed, who migrated over three different countries to finally arrive here and find treatment for his seizures.
One, Tibetan, who woke up one day in northern India to the news that she and her family would be moving to the US. She wrote of knowing what it was to live in a one room house in the mountains where they cooked over a fire and herded goats, and how to live in a California house with big screen TVs and five bathrooms, and how to live in a Minneapolis apartment.
Then too, Maria, recently from a village in Mexico, whose grandfather wants her to send money so he can build a road so he can take the rocks from the mountain and sell them because his farm has dried up, but she will refuse now because the road will take out the trees and dry up the spring, the only source of water remaining.
And the young man from the northside with dreads who held house parties, with a little to drink, so he could bribe his friends into listening to him talk about salt, about how it never comes out of the lakes once it goes into them, and about how they have to stop putting salt on their sidewalks. “They listened,” he said, “some said they will stop. We are going to have more of these parties.”
And then, the Russian who recognized in class that she and her friends stereotype the Chinese and who wants to go home and consider this again. “I thought only Americans were racist,” she said.
And the young Chinese man who sat in my office, hands shaking and smelling unusually of cigarettes. “I need to get a B,” he said. “You see, I went into depression and I stopped going to classes, and I got kicked out of the U, but now I am dealing with it, and I have come to class, and I need . . . Can I close the door?”
“Can I close the door? You see, my cousin was shot yesterday. And I’m trying to keep my sons from going out to kill the one who shot him. And I don’t know if I can hold it together so I just want to talk just to you.”
“Can I close the door? I don’t know if I should write about this, but I can’t write about anything else. It’s about abortion, and everyone thinks . . .”
The young woman who came to my desk in the classroom, proud to show me her paper and smelling strongly of alcohol. “N.,” I said, “I have to ask something else—have you been drinking already today? The smell is very strong.” And she began to cry. I held in my hands the essay of how her baby’s dad was undocumented and had been detained and she had lost her apartment trying to support him but now that he was out he wouldn’t marry her and his family was trying to take the baby. And, yes, she had been drinking, and, no, she had no place to live. –And now I wonder, where was that essay? It wasn’t among the ones she turned in at the end.
Or the Black girl whose mother got her to sing the lead in a show about Prince. Or the shy child with walking sticks who learned to talk in public by playing a drunk in a drama. Or the boy with pink hair who wrote about coming out and about having Asperger’s and depression and suicidal tendencies and about walking through downtown, getting stared at and worrying about the lack of snow this winter. Or the young man who never unzipped his down jacket during class and who turned in all his work after I had submitted the grades. And the young woman who developed a project of putting slips of paper with handwritten hints about protecting water and eating low on the food chain into random books in bookstores. And the dozen or so others who signed up to help her.
I am letting go of all of these.
One said, “Thank you. This class changed my life.” I looked at him and thought, “Which one are you? Which class? What life . . . I don’t remember.” I said, “I am glad you were with us. I am glad.”
They flow past me, faces, words, “after my suicide attempt” “Mom and Dad, why didn’t you care” “A Stranger Saved My Life” “my uncles who were killed when the soldiers came looking for my dad” “at the end of the month we had no food, so my aunts all got together . . .” “you shouldn’t give a six year old a cap-full of gin” “we never knew if our husbands would come home from the war” “I am going to work for the UN and change things for women” (I don’t think so; I don’t think so about that one, but I have been wrong before).
I am tired. They are so many.
“I will never forget this class.” But already I am forgetting you.
Still, I loved you, while it was happening. I loved you, looking into your eyes, reading your words. I tried.
One hundred and sixty-one are too many for me.
My hands open. I let them all go, even the ones I most loved, whose names I probably didn’t know.
Is this how it goes? Letting them go?