June 25, 2001
Life in an Emory classroom
José Prats Sariol, a Cuban author, is Ford Foundation Fellow in the Spanish department.
Perhaps Willy, freckles, clown nose and a basketball height of 6 feet
8 inches, comes armed with a spicy critique of my neck-rubbing habit and
my flair for quotes. No rhyme or reason to them, the kind that gets everyone
off track, leaving Morningside Place, turning onto Lenox, over the creek,
up Rock Springs, to the spring in Atlanta where the drizzle of pollen
does not wash away my doubts, now reflected in the abyss of those 14 stares.
Twenty-eight eyes on the cutting edge, which I myself have sharpened to
cut deeper than the anonymous evaluation forms, and which they will now
put to use in this special class session I have convened with
the boldness perhaps no longer found in my research, yet with the same
rigor of my old books. An injection of new life into the routine of one
who knows it all, but lacks the stimulus to undertake new excursions.
Still, I hope Willy will not dare to remember the one time he started
to say something about my neck-rubbing habit, and I told him to watch
out where he was treading. But he knows that I detest demagoguery; that
his best opportunity lies right here and right now, after my pause, when
the course evaluations will allow him to score a basket exploiting my
digressions with the affectionate irony of someone who knows the professor:
a balding man with a growing belly, who fights against becoming sedentary,
yet drives his car to school.
What if yesterday, while in the attic where not even her boyfriend is allowed, Cristina wrote a comment about the time when I opened my briefcase and realized I had brought my notes from another class. And, of course, she will have noticed my ad libbing built upon imagination and questions. Or perhaps she will remember the day the neurotic awoke mounted on his Turkish saddle and turned the group into a panel of experts. She might also recall an individual session where, instead of going over the review of an article, I talked about an old essay of mine on the same topic.
Or is it that academia offers a security you cannot gamble on Wall Street?
The result of the financial needs of marriage? A lottery without tickets
or numbers where the big-game prize is the imminent end to this silence?
Who knows? Perhaps one goes into teaching, just like medicine, or police
work, or engineering? These insecurities persisted until the pine needles
and the cardinals song and my dog Heine finally demanded seriousness.
In a few seconds the professor will allow his work to be evaluated without
the interference of peaches rotten by vanity or of roads jammed with honors,
big-league style, so that next years students might enjoy classes
without the bad smell of inorganic dissertations and study as if they
were training for the next Olympic Games.
Like the captain of the Nautilus, who raises the periscope and observes
on the surface of the ship loaded with gunpowder and the sweat of slaves,
I will stick out my neck and ask the key question: What did you learn?
Zinnia, with the lively eyes, will balance that question between her
arched eyebrows. She and perhaps nine or 10 others have learned that strange
viruses cannot relativize the canon, that measures outside the arts cannot
be applied because goals are like hummingbirds, they fly like human rights,
above compromises and without depreciating. Through her green-almond vision,
Zinnia will perhaps comment on the high expectations, impossible to reach
up there in the clouds. And the joy Justin experienced reading the masterpieces
will stimulate his participation, removing any remaining disguises of
idleness, which, because of me, have been able to survive. there are so
many that neither fashion magazines nor costume museums would be able
to accommodate them all.
In a short while I would like Mary, if she feels like talking and remembering,
to mention the lesson about the absence of synonyms. To say that each
word introduces a nuance, a subtlety, an abyss toward intelligence. My
reiterations on Marys thick lips ...
I hope she will recreate my thoughts when she graduates and may life
keep on teaching her without the need for programs, exams, and teaching
Or will it be stubborn Christopher, who will complain about my requiring
some handwritten essays? Will he have understood that in the tracing of
each letter he pays tribute to the cabalists, to the mysteries of communication,
to the Carlos Museum? Will he insist in characterizing the requirement
as obstinate, old fashioned? In my obsession, my insolence, I wanted them
to love signs, beginning with ellipses and question marks, as if they
were azaleas, roses or bluebirds in flight.
Joshua will tell me, with the firmness and strength of a nobody, measuring
a little under 5 feet 3 inches, without muscles, that I did not instill
in them sufficient revulsion against blaming others and indulging in self-pity,
the two serpents of global political schemes that should always be between
parentheses, enclosed to check their bite. The difference between results
and desires. I know that Joshua or Maggie also have the right to criticize
my methods, which perhaps not playful enough, turned the lecture into
an antidote for the trivialization of daily life.
Well ... Daily life? I mean, I take myself too seriously. I know one of them will throw the feathered dart straight at the orator rolling about in his rhetoric like a horse does in the dust when he is let out of the stable. It should be Erics turn, the viking from Columbus, who laughs even at the reflection in his golden eyes, even at the deaf mute, because his laughter takes him beyond pity and hypocrisy.
Erics job will be to dismantle the circus-like aspect of this strange
class. He will take it to the Caribbean beach to let it be oxidized by
the salty air, recycled by the Gulf Stream. And I will thank him, with
the same heartfelt desire that I wish for the Georgia forests to flourish.
I clear my throat with the cough of a former smoker and look at them,
focusing on Lula, the poet who tears up her poems and writes them again.
On Karen, who has not yet returned the books on the Cuban Diaspora. My
eyes glance over a class that could have had more soul, love, God...
The abyss seems to grow larger, like the imminent summer. In fact, it just widened, ready to explode like another Big Bang. In less than a minute I will whisper excuses for not being able to convey anything, not even enthusiasm. Willy the basketball player raises his hand to protest against my neck-rubbing habit. I call on him, smiling.
Translated by Anja Bernardy