My Students

I'm feeling a little down today, after another quiet chat with one of my students. He's such a nice fellow - good student, loving husband and father, talented guitarist and songwriter. But he's been having one of those years, where every time he turns around, he gets slammed with something else. He has gone from being the first one to the classroom in the morning (we begin at 8 ACK! emma), alert and well-prepared, to coming in late and once even nodding off. At least I know why, so I don't take it personally.

The hardest thing is reminding myself every morning that when a student
falls asleep in class, it may not be because he's a slacker & was up drinking last night, but because he's pulling double shifts to stay in school while single-handedly supporting & raising two kids and caring for his increasingly-senile grandmother who has a colostomy & keeps dropping & bursting her bag. That the reason another student hardly ever comes to class prepared or gets her assignments in on time is that she's still trying to find a safe place to live because her parents abuse her emotionally since they are strict Presbyterians & can't handle the fact that she's Wiccan. That the two students chit-chatting in the last row might be talking about trivialities, or one might be confiding in the other one about her continual feelings of guilt over having called the police on her father.

The first two are are among my favorite students, one present & one previous. The two chit-chatters - well, I don't know what they're talking about, & I've asked them repeatedly to stop, but I really do try hard not to get as angry as some profs do. Because you just never know.

That's life at a community college.



She's Baaaaack!

In the immortal words of Marvin: "Life . . . don't talk to me about life!" Okay, go ahead & talk about it, I'm delighted to hear all about yours!, but the point is, that's what has been going on at breakneck speed these past three weeks or so and kept me from blogging about mine. It's kept me from my mandala studies, alas, and I don't expect to get back to that in earnest till after May 6th (when final grades from all four of my courses must be turned in OR ELSE).

It has not, however, prevented me from reading, and today I want to enthuse about my discovery of a 2001 book by one of my very favorite authors, Daniel Pinkwater: Fat Camp Commandos. As with the vast majority of his books, it is a book for grownups thinly disguised as a children's book - or, alternatively, a book for children written as if they actually had brains.

In other words, Pinkwater has proved once again what a complete and utter mensch he is by expecting that all of his readers are menschen as well. But it takes one to know one, and this is why Pinkwater is not for everyone.

Only DP could manage to combine Deepak Chopra, Barnes and Noble, Gilbert and Sullivan, Weight Watchers, fortune-telling chickens and terrible potato puns and come up with a story that actually (sort of) makes sense. If you've got the right kind of sense of humor, it will make you smile right down to your toes.

My family has been reading Daniel Pinkwater's books since C was about 3 (that's 17 years, folks) and we bought a copy of The Big Orange Splot. We have since listened to his books on tape, read them aloud as a family, and given many as gifts (but only to very special people). He's part of our family heritage.

While I'm being light-hearted, let me tell you about another author whose menchity (menschness? menschiosity?) shines forth in his writing. Joann Sfar, who incidentally has the most bizarre-looking cat, is a writer and artist responsible for graphic novels about subjects as diverse as klezmer music, talking cats, lovelorn vampires and ancient dungeons.

Sfar blends pathos and comedy in his plots, while in his art he combines finely-detailed elements with silly, cartoonish figures.

I just finished reading Vampire Loves the other day, and I enjoyed it tremendously. Ferdinand the Vampire is a sweetie-pie - there's no other word for it, and he very carefully only pierces his victims with one tooth so as to leave marks that look like mosquito bites rather than fang marks.

And yet . . . he is such a clueless man that you just want to smack him upside the head for not getting the point! Very funny book, and very sweet. A similar humor to, though much lighter subject matter than The Rabbi's Cat, which I read two years ago and found quite a lovely treatment of certain aspects of Judaism.

I should be thinking about what to serve for dinner tonight.



Headbanging Time

This was one of those mornings I just felt like giving up & going back to bed. I knew it from the very beginning when I woke abruptly at 6:30 & realized that the clock radio hadn't turned on - great, no time for a shower, & I had 45 minutes in which to review my notes & get to campus. The feeling was reinforced when I tripped & bashed my knee on the table in the kitchen. Spilling coffee down my front necessitated changing my shirt, which meant rummaging through the laundry basket since I hadn't had time to put away any of the mounds of clean laundry, but at least there was clean laundry, right?

On the way to campus, I did a mental inventory of the problems I was likely to encounter in class (so okay, I was feeling pessimistic). This is the lecture I always hate giving, and this semester would be more annoying than most, since I have a number of very immature students this time around. We're finishing up Judaism in my Comparative Religions class and getting ready to move on to early Christianity, and that means I always get asked, "why don't Jews believe that Jesus was the messiah?"

My least favorite student came into class 1/2 hr. late, which is actually early for her. True to form, she sat in the back of the class chit-chatting, and for the second or third time in two weeks, her cell phone rang. I swear, next time it happens, I'm going to march back there & confiscate it - but this time the guy next to her took it away from her and turned it off. Then something struck her as funny and she began laughing like a loon. She pays very little attention in class (the little amount of time she's in attendance), and her grades reflect this (she earned 27% on her most recent exam).

But when another student asked why Jews don't believe that Jesus is the messiah, she suddenly sat up to attention.

After class, she asked to speak with me, and blurted out, "I just don't understand why Jews don't believe what it says in the Bible!"

"Oh, but they do!" was my response. She looked at me in amazement, and another student began to laugh and said, "I think, Professor, that she means the The New Testament."

"Ah, I see. Well, that's easy: Jews don't consider The New Testament to be scripture. Do you believe the Quran to be scripture?"

She looked shocked. "No, of course not! It was written by Mohammed, and he was evil!" Hm. Okay, I see I'll have my work cut out for me when we get to Islam - as will the guest speaker who is lined up to come to class. "But that's different. I mean, New Testament is truth. Why don't they see that?"

"Not according to Jews, it isn't. Not according to Buddhists, or Jains, or Hindus, or Taoists, or any religion other than Christians. I'm not trying to make you doubt your religion or change it, but you need to understand that non-Christians aren't deliberately, perversely DIS-believing Christianity. Rather, they are believing what they see is the truth. This whole course is dedicated to understanding what adherents of each of these religions, including Christians, believe."

She stared at me for a moment. Then she got this faraway look in her eye & said, "Okay, I guess I see that all religions think they are right, and maybe they are sort of right - NO! WAIT a minute! Mine is the only one that is right! But maybe they all think they are right . . . ."

No, Rachel, I wanted to say. All the other religions KNOW that Christians are right. But it's a huge, worldwide conspiracy: we pretend we don't know Christians are right because we know it drives Christians nuts when people don't believe them.

Of course, I couldn't say that, so instead I just smiled and said, "Yes, that's right, they truly believe in their own religions just as you believe in yours. See you Thursday" and left, trying not to shake my head too obviously.

I don't think she got it. For her, the world is made up of black and white, right and wrong, her view and everyone else's. Some days I just don't know why I even try.