I want to write a love letter (well, not like that) to some of Paul’s students. The kids are mostly Moroccan, their backgrounds vary, I do not pretend to know the half of it. I’m reacting only to what travels home. Here’s the latest. Paul tells me about a student—a girl who’d talked to him about Virginia Woolf. She said she loved To the Lighthouse, loved Mrs. Dalloway (though her best friend couldn’t get through it). “I’ve read those too,” says Paul. “And The Years and The Waves—my wife spent a summer reading only Virginia Woolf for a grad school course.” Paul said she looked at him like, “You can do that?” I don’t mean anything like the stereotypical scene (you fill in the blank: old informing young, white informing dark, west informing east)—I only mean to notice and celebrate a cool little moment of revelation. Revelation because maybe your math teacher (who is a man) also reads Virginia Woolf and likes her, or there are people somewhere out there who get together expressly to talk about what they’ve read, and it’s what you’ve read too—that there are places and people beyond your immediate known world who resonate with you like you never knew was possible.
Paul said he was feeling glum the other day after one of those classes that makes you question the whole enterprise. He was sitting in the little back room off his classroom organizing his mind (as my best cousin Bill would say)—and a kid pokes his head in to ask if there’s a quiz next period. No. No quiz. “Are you OK, sir?” “Yeah, you know, just tired—that’s all,” says Paul. Not three minutes later, Paul said, a tumultuous gaggle of kids storms the tiny room:
“We heard you weren’t feeling so good!”
“Are you doing better?”
“Are you sure you don’t want to give us a quiz?”
Such a sweet outpouring, I was in a weepy way by the end of his telling. I love and lean into that genuine desire for connection. (That’s how I read it. I can’t tell you how many stories I hear from various teachers about how “My maid threw out my homework,” or “My driver forgot to pack my backpack,” or “My parents are gone for three weeks to Europe.” These are the most mild of the batch.)
So the other day Paul handed over our house copy of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (through much of which I unabashedly wept) to the same girl who loves Virginia Woolf. She comes in the next day and says to him, “Why did you give this to me!” This is how Paul begins the story and at this point I’m like—huh??!! “I didn’t study for my test!” the girl goes on. “I started and I couldn’t stop.” Earlier in the week, Paul had given Olive to a kid who wasn’t taking the quiz—took from his hands the kid’s Blackberry which he shouldn’t have had in class anyway, and replaced it with Olive. He said the kid loved it. “He’s a reader,” Paul adds.