The student paused at the end of class. "You know," he said, "at first I was confused. But now I understand your plan."
Come back, I wanted to shout at him. Tell me my plan. It hasn't always been clear.
I think at times my plan was just to talk about Keats and get paid for it. Or Dante. Or James Wright. Or Emily. I want you to understand how poetry can make your life richer, I actually said to a class this past semester. They gave the old guy a smile. But in that class two people wrote poems without my prompting — two very bad poems, true, but that wasn't the point.
I'm grieving over leaving. I miss the way they sass me. I had the occasional foreign instructor think our students rude. Not rude, I'd tell them. Perhaps more casual than you're used to, interrupting your lecture midsentence.
Sometimes, of course, they are rude. Recently, a student with no rough draft to peer review decided to watch a movie on his laptop. With sound. "What will he do?" his concerned buddy asked. My "I don't give a crap" might have been the Lord's sign that my retirement decision hadn't been hasty.
But even then, there was a kind of intimacy. They can give so much. A shy student told me how much he had enjoyed the discussions in class, how surprised he was at their variety. His surprise touched me. When I was young, it was easier. If a young guy could get excited about ideas, maybe they could, too. As I've gotten older, some of them have gotten colder. I've had to work harder to make them see how much fun it could be.
But still I managed to connect to all sorts of students:
■ The older nervous woman who's come back to school, sure she's going to prove herself a dunce. My two last semester started with C's, ended with A's. Older women students amaze you. They ask you for advice and listen.
■ The cool young dude who likes ideas. If you show him that you're interested in what he's thinking, he'll tune you in. Sometimes you can get him to do something you propose. Half the time you lose him. But if you can help him discover that he can be in his mind and in school, too, you've got a student.
■ Two dudes gave me mixed tapes in a futile effort to educate me musically. I'm an old guy, but they thought me worth saving.
■ The quiet young woman with deep thoughts. Her experience is that males don't pay attention to quiet young women with deep thoughts. But you make her speak up in class. And she begins to get the idea that you want to hear from her. I had one last semester forthrightly challenge the articulate right-wing male — on a gender issue at that. He was left speechless. Literally. It was great.
■ The sloppy young guy or gal who needs you to slap them around a bit, but who really does want to improve. They're grateful though they do think you're a pain in the butt. "You're hard to please," a young woman said to me. I thought I was a pushover.
I tell them how to organize their thoughts, how to persuade somebody that what they have to say is important.
Of course, sometimes my advice has been on the fly. "I did what you asked me to," a young, very hyper guy said. "I took deep breaths after each paragraph." I looked at him. Had I actually told him that? "It helped," he said.
"I'm glad," I answered.
Who now will turn to me in a plaintive or even snarly voice, asking in panic or disgust, "What should I do?" Whom will I ever be intimate in this way with again?
But it was time to go. I just need to take deep breaths after each paragraph until I figure out my plan. I'll listen to the mixed tapes my students made for me. Now that they're no longer bugging me, now that I'm no longer bugging them, I'll still have them in my memory.
I hope I'm in their memories as well.