From Marvin's Book: The Story of a Professor and a Promise, 2011. *******
In late December 2009 I was sitting on the sofa, holding my less-new leather journal—hugging it actually—staring into space when Zack interrupts my ruminations with “Please, will you play cars and tracks with me?” in a tone that implies I might not have heard him the first few times.
Yes, I nod, even though I don’t want to play with him, his cars or his new tracks.
I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to have fun. I don’t want to do anything at all actually, and I’ve been this way for weeks. I’ve spent the last month ordering take-out and watching On Demand, coughing and sneezing, alternately dayquiled and nyquiled, holding steamy coffee mugs to my stuffed up head.
Still, I say “yes” to my son, mostly because I read in a fantastic parenting book that “no” should be used sparingly.
Example: “Can we go to McDonald’s?” “Yes, but not today.”
And: “Can I have a sleepover with Friend X?” “Yes, when you are thirteen, if she invites you and you still want to.”
And: “Can I join a rock band?” “Absolutely, good luck, that sounds like fun. Definitely learn to read music first.”
Also: “Can I build a roller coaster in my room?” “Absolutely, when you learn how. What kind of engineering should you study?”
Zack, well trained to expect a conditional and unsatisfactory “yes” puts one pleading hand on my thigh, leans his kindergarten-sized self over so his long curly eyelashes almost touch my glasses.
Not saying “no” (at least, not verbally) I shake my head. “I’m not sure, I just want to finish writing this… I can’t stop and play in the middle of this train of thought, but when I’m through….”
He understands and nods. “Are you writing about Zoe putting my electric race cars on her head—and getting them tangled in her hair?”
I shake my head.
“Are you writing about how at first you kept eating that piece carrot cake instead of going to help her while the wheels kept running and spinning and tangling into her hair?”
I shake my head. I’m trying to write Marvin’s book, but I’m stuck. I don’t know what to write, so I take Zack’s bait.
“Do you think I should I write about that?”
He nods his head, then adds, “And remember you said you were going to write about how you ate the entire box of éclairs on Christmas.”
I start to shake my head no, and then remember to save the no.
“Yes, I will. And they were mini-éclairs.”
Satisfied in his mission, Zack takes his hand off my thigh and straightens up. “OK Mom, take all the time you need, then come play with me. Take two hours.”
“Thank you. I might need it.”
“Or, you can just take one hour.”
“Thank you, thank you for understanding. I never know how long the writing will take. So thank you.”
“I understand Mom. I’d rather you came to my room and played with me sooner than later, but I absolutely understand,” he tells me, patting my thigh again and kissing me on the cheek before backing away.
He heads back to his room, tap dancing down the hall while humming a Lady Gaga song.
Relieved to find a window of time alone to write, I re-open my journal and flip to a new page, which I title, “The 30 Éclair Affair.” Then I closed my journal and got up off the sofa, lured away by the generosity of Zack’s patience.
I have a secret confession. I love my kids. I love my office. But I do not like bringing my kids to my office. My office is my quiet space, my grown-up space, the one space anywhere in my life (right now, at least) I don’t have to share.
And also, my office is decorated with the coolest things, some of the best of which I stole from my children. Paper lanterns hang from my ceiling; Christmas lights line my walls. You get the drift.
On a particular March morning last spring, I had Zoe with me on campus, swinging through on the way to a dentist appointment. After three minutes of “Hey!.... That’s my lava lamp! Hey!... There’s my froggie!... MOM! And... what??? ... So there’s Zack’s nutcracker!” I offered to take her to the Student Union for lunch and her demeanor snapped back to adoration.
It was only after she had eaten and we cleaned the table that I saw David Lowe was also eating lunch, sitting in his chair at a table alone. If I’d known he was there, I certainly would have invited him over to join us.
My eyes went, as usual, to his legs, metal works of art and science where his knees and calves once were.
Then, I waved and smiled and went straight over to see him, Zoe in tow.
“Come meet my friend, my student. He’s a Vietnam veteran like your Grandpa Carl.”
Because he was sitting in his electronic chair and she was standing, they were face-to-face, eye level.
I introduced the two of them—“David Lowe, this is Zoe; Zoe, this is Mr. Lowe”—and noted that she waved hello instead of offering her hand to shake his.
After quick small talk, he asked me something about an online quiz for his class.
“Oh, yes, I knew that would be confusing so I sent an announcement about that quiz through
Blackboard, earlier. It should have come to your email by now... Didn’t you get it?”
He shook his head. “My computer is at home.”
“What?” I asked, “How can you survive all DAY without a computer?? Don’t you just check email on your phone? Or your Blackberry?”
And then he gestured, and explained. “Only one arm. One hand. No thumbs. Makes texting while holding on to the phone kind of hard...”
We laughed at his imitating himself trying to text without dropping the phone. I explained when the quizzes close and what they’ll be worth.
After saying goodbye, I took Zoe’s hand on our stroll back across the grassy square toward my office.
“I like him a lot,” she said. “He’s a cool shiny man.”
I told David, and he liked that.
Soon after that, with only a few weeks left in the semester, David Lowe had to drop out of school after suffering a traumatic fall and breaking his leg. He was exiled to the VA nursing home in Lake City.
The students in his class missed him so much they decided to try to ransom him back from the VA by sending a carful (my car) of puzzles, chips, board games, blankets, candy and DVDs to fill the back of my car.
David’s six-week exile turned into a three-month sentence.
My summer school students pulled together a king’s ransom and sent me back to the VA with an overflowing truck full of office supplies, books, chips, candy, more books and more good wishes. I took pictures. I posted them on Facebook, and we all felt a little more connected.
We’d had every reason to believe David would be back in school by Fall 2009.
So I asked my fall semester students to bring games, toiletries, snacks and DVDs to ransom David out of the nursing home.
The day before Halloween I lead a caravan that included Chris, a recent Army vet and new straight-A honor student, and Morgan, one of David’s former classmates and the person who gets the credit for deciding the class needed to send something to “Mr. David.”
After we unloaded boxes of toiletries, a football signed by the entire FSU team, wrapped gifts of puzzles, games and DVDs, candy and office supplies, we joined other residents of the VA sitting in a circle having a pre-lunch chat.
We met Father John, a World War II veteran who survived the Bataan Death March and the prison ships and wrote a book about it. He gave me a signed copy of his book and I swooned.
A large man told a story about how cold he was in the Korean conflict—being dropped behind enemy lines wet and freezing and staying that way for months.
Chris chimed in “That’s what you train for,” and all the men agreed, training was worth it.
I don’t know if you imagine a nursing home to be a sad place.
I’m sure everywhere has sadness, but not all suffer.
The men there in their world seemed to keep each other good company.
Chris and I felt good leaving that day, knowing every single resident received a care and comfort package from Tallahassee Community College (TCC) students on Veteran’s Day.
It wasn’t enough—the VA still wouldn’t let him David come back to college.
David stayed through Thanksgiving and football season.
He was still there through his birthday in December, past Christmas, and was still there in January 2010, when classes started without him, again.
I made sure his absence did not go unnoticed, especially in my “big class”—the classroom that he had been in, an auditorium-like room I totally love because I can run up and down the stairs with impunity. One day I might trip and fall. I’ll probably laugh and write about it.
Anyway, in Spring 2010, translator Carol Strickland joined me in the front of one of my classes to translate for hearing-impaired students who coincidentally took up chairs in the same space where David Lowe had sat.
I absolutely love having a translator, more than I should. I don’t know if this is a sin or not, but in past semesters when we’ve worked together, I’d stop talking during a particularly fast-paced lecture and let her catch up to me. When she finally joined me in my pause, I’d ask her “What do you think happens next?” and she’d laughingly admit she hadn’t been listening.
Not listening? I’d act all indignant, but I understood. The words moved through her; she couldn’t keep them in her head and plant them. She was always a beat behind me, saying what I’d already said while hearing what I was going on to say. This was an aerobic feat for which she was especially fit as a black- belt-sporting marathon runner.
Also, she was a single parent raising a teenage son, which she admitted gave her even more courage and patience than she could have thought to pray for.
In that large class every single one of the students were new to me, and in the first classes they felt stiff, starched, anxious, sometimes blank-faced. Good thing they opened up in their essays.
Ethan, Destined to Be the First
Fantastic student!! Ethan is a motivated student. This student is very eager to learn. Ethan participated in playing basketball all four years of high school and made the varsity team starting his sophomore year through his senior year. He was captain of the varsity team both his junior and senior year. Ethan told me that someone once asked “Why are you going to college?” this student believes that unless he further his education with a college degree, the chance for him being able to get a good paying job to make a living would be very slim. Furthermore, to accomplish this challenge in his life would be very rewarding to not just Ethan but to his entire family. Ethan would be the first grandchild out of seven to receive his college degree and also is the first grandchild out of seven to be born!
Crawl, Walk, Run Ron
As a member of the Florida National Guard and prior Active Duty soldier I was able to take the skills I learned in those professions and apply them to my college commitments. Now I do admit that there were times when my occupation over stepped my scholastic priorities and I was unable to complete assignments at the scheduled time. How ever, this did not prove to be a major problem. Just as missions on the battlefield, I adjusted fire, re-situated my time, and completed work in all my classes. I realize I am not the best or brightest student that has ever graced the halls of Tallahassee Community College. I know that I have leaps of improvement awaiting me. I will rest at nothing to ensure that I achieve nothing but the best. I am not there yet, but as my Drill Sergeant said, “Crawl, walk, run son. It’s the only way you’ll get it done.”
Kira, Optimistic, Outgoing and Vibrant
Kira is an optimistic, outgoing, and vibrant young women. Even in the worst situations you will see her smile. Smacking is the only thing that will make her cringe. Teachers who can keep her attention deserves a medal because she is very ADD.
She loves to talk even though she makes no sense at all sometimes. English was a second language to her, grammar is terrible. Reading comprehension makes her frustrated. She is embarrassed to ask questions and answer in class.
She probably knows the answer but she wont answer because she hates being wrong. She will over explain things because she thinks you won’t understand what she’s saying and does not want to be counted off. She looks really nerdy partially because she is but she is not the most studious student.
Cole in College
Same as everybody else in school, Cole suffers from procrastination. He has a real serious case that is why I chose the word suffer. He has the high school mentality in pushing everything to the last day. Everything including five page essays, studying for tests, and homework. He now realizes how stupid that was and need to get rid of that high school mentality.
Zack, a Third-Row Kid
Zack enjoys school. He seems to pay attention in class and is always interested in details. He is not very good at multitasking, sometimes he misses notes in a lecture, and sometimes he misses part of the lecture due to note taking.
Zack is inquisitive. He can be lazy at times. He is a generally a B student but could easily be an A student if he put in the effort. Zack will go out of his way to help a fellow student in studying, understanding notes, or even financially by giving lunch money. Zack seems to be a student who seeks knowledge in areas that interest him. If he likes a subject he will pursue it with interest zeal until he becomes enlightened. Zack is not slow, yet he takes time to process information, read, and listen closely. Sometimes, Zack can get ahead and make assumptions or jump to conclusions; consequently Zack has a tendency to get caught up in tangents. He is great at writing long essays because he loves detail. Zack is a third row kid.
Ava Gets Distracted and Starts Thinking
Ava is the girl who sits close enough to the front of the room that she can see the board without her glasses on, but never in the front row. She has pretty bad eyesight. She hates to be called on and almost never raises her hand in class. She is very, very quiet and shy. She is quite the procrastinator when it comes to homework but she almost always gets it done. Ava really just tries to get by in all of her classes without having to contribute to class discussions. When most teachers talk, she gets distracted by how bored she is and starts thinking about food.
I find it kind of hard to rate Taylor. She brightens up anyone’s day by her smile on her face. Sometimes it takes a minute for her to learn it but she will get it. She has a positive attitude about everything. She normally sits on the side. To stay clear out the way. She loves group discussions, will debate with someone in a heartbeat! She also likes to do group projects. Working with others is her specialty. She may not be perfect but she tries her best. She rocks!
Mira, Who Loves Helping Others
Mira is always early to class and likes to sit either in the front row or on the side of the room. She is very focused when she gets into class and it is all business until the very end. Mira is a diligent note taker and has extremely detailed notes that are organized, dated, and color coded. She is always willing to help a fellow classmate out if they miss a class and need to catch up. If they ever need a sheet of paper or a pen, she’s got them covered. For every test she always makes notecards and comes in ready to make an A. Mira loves helping others and is involved in many charity organizations such as Big Bend Cares. She is a joy to have in class and is extremely nice and funny.
Madison, Shoes, Chucky and Dates
Madison is the kind of student that appears shy but when she becomes comfortable with her surroundings, she can be extremely outgoing. Most likely you will always find her smiling.
Madison’s favorite thing to collect is shoes. She would buy shoes just to set them in her closet and stare at them. Her worst fear is Chucky the killer doll! Though Madison is not very good at memorizing dates, she finds herself extremely interested in learning and wont give up until the grade she gets is the grade she deserves.
Eric, the Underchallenged
If I could give any suggestion on making Eric a better student it would be challenge him to think. I feel that all teachers should challenge students to think more because that is why they are in school. Giving multiple-choice test doesn’t challenge students, it is interacting with the text and writing it on paper that’s going to help future successful students in the long run. I believe Eric has amazing potential as a student and would never second-guess his ability for success in the future.
Brittany, A Pretty Decent Student
She gets sick a lot and will miss class if she can if she feels like she can without it affecting her grade. But if it will affect her grade she will come in with a box of tissues and a 103 ever. She really wants to learn, not just for a degree, but because she wants to be an educated person and be able to have an intelligent conversation with anyone.
Danika, on Her 43rd Major
Danika is a very diligent and hard worker. She is very shy and you will rarely hear a peep out of her in class. She is an insomniac and she usually only gets four hours of sleep each night. Her favorite subject is English and she hopes to attend the prestigious Florida State University even though she is a University of Florida fan. (Go Gators!)
As of right now she wants to major in Sociology, but she is a very indecisive person and has changed her major 42 times. Her favorite president of all time is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Kent, Who is Discouraged
Ever since Kent graduated high school it seems like it has been one thing right after another holding him back, he’s continued to try but I think he gets discouraged. The most recent thing to happen, the diagnosis of his bone disease, I think has been both beneficial and detrimental to him as a person. He now has the support of those who before were skeptical but at the same time he’s let it defeat him. I think when the doctors told Kent that there was no hope for him getting any better; he just died a little inside. It’s like the last little bit of hope he was holding on to of ever being normal again had been stripped away, for three years he waited for answers but he never even considered that the answer might be one he doesn’t want to hear. If you knew Kent before the accident you would know how much pain he is truly in, he was never one to complain, or to cry, or to let the little things get him down. Kent tries his hardest to keep going in school and with friends & family but is getting more and more discouraged with every doctor he sees. You probably won’t see much of this for yourself because he is one who will attempt to keep a smile on his face, no matter how fake, just so others aren’t intimidated or discouraged by his pain and upset.