Find Events Find People Find Jobs Find Sites Find Help Index


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. Incursions?

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.

I revisit the paradox between teaching and learning and I cannot get myself to start the dialogue. The air, thick with a hint of sulfur, a little like a psychiatric ward. In the midst of this silence, the apprehension about my chosen vocation perhaps determined when father’s sperm crossed the finish line. Or was it when Aunt Hazel, with her singular capacity to inspire curiosity, taught me how to read, making me imprint on my mind letters, words, sentences that would lead to another story, trapping me in the perplexity of a fable in search of the ending, of A Thousand Nights and One.

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 cardinal’s 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 year’s 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 Mary’s 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 evaluations.

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 Eric’s 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.

Eric’s 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


Back to Emory Report June 25, 2001