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The Riddle in the Front Row

Posted: 2008-05-22

from Chronicle of Higher Education, May 23, 2008

It is rare to witness a college professor writing about a student so powerfully.



When he handed me his first in-class writing for a composition class, Keenan explained that he had disgraphia ΓΆ€” a condition caused by slower-than-normal development of his small-muscle coordination. I scanned his paper. The letters, huge and blocky like a child's, sprawled erratically across the lines of the pages.



"I've had many problems," he said. These were evident in his palpable isolation from other students and the slash scars on his forearms. His obese face was peppered with pimples, his nose bridge pushed in, and his lips blubbery. He waddled with splayed feet and wore dirty clothes.



He continued, "I have neutralized most of my problems. I am too smart to let handwriting pull me down. I always study hard and know a lot."



I tried to believe him, but his pronouncement sounded like a mixture of good intentions and blind hope.



At first the class had snickered at his raspy voice. They soon stopped, and I paid closer attention. Politics, etymology, women's rights, energy issues ΓΆ€” Keenan knew his stuff and displayed it. Classes often rally behind handicapped students, but Keenan's class loathed him. He flouted a fundamental principle of social mythology: that intelligence correlates with hygiene, manners, likeability, and looks. The repulsive are supposed to be dull and cringingly apologetic, but Keenan offered no shy, pleading smiles to hang sympathy on. He didn't give a damn if the other students liked him. He scratched his crotch as he walked, and his unshampooed hair resembled a ragged carpet swatch. When he sneezed without covering his nose, as he often did, it sounded like a tub of margarine exploding. Yet he was the only one in class who knew who Harold Stassen was, the story of Isaac and Abraham, and what John L. Lewis meant for unions.



Here was a teacher's dilemma ΓΆ€” a sharp brain wedded to an offensive person. I appreciated his participation, but Keenan occasionally paused during perceptive comments to loudly snuffle phlegm in his throat, after which he would moan a contented "Ah!" Irritated once too often, I nitpicked one of his responses. Even as I sensed the class's approval, I hated my petty retaliation, my willingness to join the mob. Surely I could get beyond his rude quirks. I was ashamed.



Still, Keenan's refusal to conform to ordinary decency puzzled me. Why antagonize people predisposed not to like him? Why not blend in as best he could? No, that was more social mythology. What could he do about his misshapen face? He must have been mercilessly teased and abused for years. Who knew how his parents had treated him? Perhaps he simply could socialize no better. Or had he reached an existential decision? Maybe he had decided to behave exactly as he wanted, realizing that he would never be liked, no matter how "nice" he tried to be. Why crawl for condescending pats on the head? Perhaps he accepted isolation and dislike as the price of absolute freedom.



One day, as I wrote notes at the blackboard, I heard musical accompaniment, a kind of whistling hum that sounded classical. Mozart! I spun around. Keenan was playing an invisible flute ΓΆ€” not mockingly, but simply entertaining himself while I wrote. When I stepped toward him, he lowered his hands and seemed, for once, abashed.



Keenan often lapsed into deeper reveries. His mouth would spread into a clown grin, head bobbing, lips bubbling silent words. His eyebrows waggled, his face expressing great joy or ecstatic wonder. During these spells, which usually lasted a few minutes, his fingers would spring open and shut as though flicking water. Eventually his face and fingers would become calm and quiet again, and he would return to our prosaic world.



During one class, Keenan rose from his front-row seat and stretched his arms, cracked his knuckles, bent his fingers back toward his forearms, then bent forward to touch his knees. "What are you doing?" I snapped.



"I have to stretch," he said. "For ADD. My doctor will write a note if I need one." I told him to stretch in the hall. The following day, he complied. I heard his bones cracking as I asked the class if anyone knew who the father of modern skepticism and creator of the essay form was. From the hallway, Keenan's voice bellowed, "Montaigne from France!" I had to laugh.



When I assigned another in-class writing exercise, Keenan declared, "This is stupid. I'm not doing it." Heads shot up. A few students exchanged glances, happily anticipating a fight. I said, "That's always your decision, Keenan." We stared at each other for a long 10 seconds, and then he lowered his head to write. As he labored, I suspected it was less the intellectual task of writing that he hated than the physical act. Despite his outward indifference, he must have been deeply ashamed of his handicaps.



At the hour's end, he muttered, "Sorry."



"Why did you say that?" I asked, after the other students had left. He shrugged.



"Do you want me to be angry?"



"No."



"Kick you out of class?"



"No."



"Do you still think the assignment was stupid?"



"It was all right. I had a good answer."



I wanted to say something meaningful to him. More important, I wanted him to help me understand. He ought to trust me, I told myself, if only for the latitude I gave him. If he would just take one step toward me!



If he did, what would I tell him? Wear clean clothes, cover your nose when you sneeze, wash your hair, and people will like you? Accept the social contract, and you might not be ostracized? I'd just be another person telling him he'd be loved if only he wasn't him. Who was the ugly one? I focused on the scars on his wrists. This young man suffered, was suffering. Who more than Keenan wished to be someone else?



He waited patiently to be dismissed, like a horse at the pasture gate. Without knowing why exactly, only wanting to prolong the opportunity for intimacy, I asked, "What do you think about when you go away during class?"



He snapped to attention. "Huh?"



"When you daydream in class, what do you see and hear?"



He seemed unnerved at this rattling of the door of his happy refuge. There he was the prince, not the toad. Did he give inaugural speeches, rescue fair damsels, cure cancer there? I had no right to invade his private place. While most students blithely spill their lives in papers and discussion, nothing emotional ever emerged from Keenan beyond his blissful grin during reveries. I needed a clue to his inner life, so I could help him. So I could like him. I wanted to like him. He seemed so absolutely alone in an institution dedicated to the community of the mind. He said, "Do I have to tell you?"



I could demand his secret, for he obeyed authority. But shouldn't he take one voluntary step? I'm not sure if I hesitated from a sense of fair play, professorial ego ΓΆ€” or from fear that he would expose a secret I could not handle. He needed his refuge; could education replace it? Could I really connect him to the college community? I replied, "No, you don't have to."



"Can I go?" His eyebrows twitched until I nodded. Then he escaped ΓΆ€” and so did I.



M. Garrett Bauman is a professor emeritus of English at Monroe Community College and author of Ideas and Details: A Guide to College Writing (6th ed., Thomson, 2007).

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