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07.20.07 3:27 p.m.

Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.  

-Og Mandino

 


Substance Abuse

It is the last class of the first session of Summer Institute for the Gifted. For the last three weeks, I had been managing five different classes in a row. I may have been the only person so blessed or blighted, but I managed well. My kids did projects and performed in the final show to much laughter. I felt fairly sure that, despite some lazy or impudent teenagers behaving exactly as they ought to at that age, I had done my job.

A group of my students hangs back, the more motivated and talkative ones and thus the ones I like best. If anyone ever told you that teachers operate by the same logic of parents and like all our students the same, let me assure you that they lied to spare your feelings - quite possibly because they didn't like you. All the other students had left to prepare for a final dance hours away, tittering and gossiping about who with go with whom and what they will wear, but not these four. I see them waiting but gathered my materials up no quicker. When finally I exit, they tell me how much they loved my class and that they will miss seeing me every weekday. We had spent fifteen Artificial Intelligence classes together with me claiming that machines were soulless and could only follow directives that superficially resembled love, if only to provoke them into contradicting. I don't know that they learned much more about artificial intelligence than I did, but I enjoyed their company and tended to look forward to my hour and fifteen minutes a day with them not simply because it was the final period.

I feel startled to realize I am actually choked up when I tell them that I will miss them as well, because I mean it. While I know I have told a series of students similar words in the past, going so far as to mentally rehearse a speech about what a pleasure it was to teach this class and then using it for all my classes, I have recited it almost by rote. It was not that I didn't like those to whom I have said this in the past. I guarantee I have bragged about teaching a few students, particularly those at SIG, but I kept my distance. I did not know these students outside of my classroom and I respected the rules that forbade it utterly. Even with these students, I obeyed the decree against divulging contact information (though a throng of Facebook requests and a notable increase in website traffic days after the session assures me that I am far from difficult to find). It is easier for them and much easier for me.

The issue is that this same distance that serves me well in Anemia and at SIG, that keeps me from the tar pits of involvement, has crept throughout my life. I can partly blame the Anemia job - how can one manage not to be emotionally distant when one lives at one's job and the campus community feels the need and right to knock on one's door on one's days off? - but I mostly blame myself for not catching it sooner. These four students (and several others) are now or are nascent amazing human beings, people whom I am truly privileged to know in this capacity. I should be thrilled instead of amusedly indifferent in their company.

I go so far as to avoid even praising students directly. Instead, I joke with them by declaring the opposite with a smirk, "My gosh, how daft you children must be!" or "Of course I don't like any of you. How silly that you would think otherwise." They get the joke, but I don't think that they get whom it is on. Will I ruin them by stating what I truly feel, that they are brilliant and creative? That my greatest joy in being a teacher is in the small moment when I feel a connection? No, of course not. But I would ruin this cracked veneer of professional disinterest, this fuzziness toward human emotion that leads me to pull back a little further each time. It is so much easier to deal with the children shrouded in ironic detachment.

The heartfelt regard of this quartet makes me feel like a teacher rather than a writer who teaches to pay the bills, cliché as I know that to be. Not because I taught them much by sitting on a table and rambling about full time cyborgs and Creationist propaganda, but simply because I made a connection to them that they suddenly force me to realize wasn't one way. I don't consider my work at Anemia to be real teaching. That is babysitting I do to work at SIG, which is what I do to subsidize my writing.

I will keenly miss them. They have a future and I am honored to have been a part of that. I am stunned when, in my creative writing class, a boy of no more than fourteen years unfurls a story from my writing prompt that is not only better than anything I have written in a while but anything I've read in just as long. Even if it discourages me that I do not have his talent, learned at the parchment knee of literary giants, I can at least hope my vehement insistence that he get a publisher and agent as soon as possible will earn me a passing mention in his groundbreaking tenth novel.

In my more self-indulgence moments, I pretend my detachment is synonymous with nonattachment, but it can't be given how badly I want to be attached to anything. If I can feel, if I look at the moment for what it is rather than the story it will make through the lens of - let's admit it - middling at best memorial writing, I can't possibly cope. Four of my kids, four that I especially liked and admired beyond their presence in my classroom, offer me the typical remarks and I can hardly stand it. It unleashes of whirl of emotion within me immediately, something that only grows as I realize how little I can find outlet, how little of this I can immediately purge upon the computer screen, as it were. I am half zombified during my dinner in the campus dining center, staring at my blank computer screen and ignoring the table of Powerhouse Theater actors I occasionally call temporary friends.

It means I am a part of something bigger than my aspirations or my dreams, and that is maybe why I cannot feel connected to the students I teach for the rest of the year. What I do for one of these SIG kids, a moment we share, can change them. Some small skill of refinement I put into them can result in their future success. No matter what I do for my kids in Anemia, nothing changes. It is cynically, or at least too objective to be comfortable, but I have a harder time envisioning the change many of them will bring to the world. It is not wholly that they have a learning disability, though I won't deny that this is a part of it. Rather, it is that they will never have to enter the real world. The tuition for SIG is several thousand per three-week session. For Anemia, it is fifty grand. Money can and has coddled the Anemia kids and, honestly, I am grateful that they have this support cushion when they cannot learn the work and coping skills needed to live day to day in this wicked world. But investing my time in nurturing growth will always feel more meaningful and I'm not going to start lying to myself.

I feel a part of me in the SIG kids, at least those with whom I managed to form a bond in these few weeks. I will the smallest vicarious thrill in their future accomplishments, but feel a likewise devastation should I hear of a single setback. I see more of myself in them, having been in their shoes. They are having these marvelous experiences, similar to one that decidedly shaped my life and I have the uncontested honor to be a part of that. Is it too strong to say I feel love for them as a group? I am that teacher who offers mild sarcasm, to deflect and defend against caring too much. I tend to withhold my approval if possible, because it is much easier to coast than be engulfed. The humor serves as a cushion, ensuring that I take misbehavior and disappointment in stride. At best, I taught them how I would with to have been taught, with liberal doses of humor, personal anecdotes, and whole class discussion. Given the amount of paper I expend on each class and the hours I spent preparing, I feel as though I did nothing whatsoever.

Without Emily as the parenthesis to my days, SIG has been my life and I have felt maybe a handful of moments of it. I fight this off in waves, pushing it away with one hand even as I pull it closer with the other.

Soon in Xenology: Performance art.

last watched: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
reading: The Light Fantastic
listening: Avenue Q

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Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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