(From Marvin's Book: The Story of a Professor and a Promise, 2011)
PS -- Because this story was painful to write, this is my first time reading it since I approved the final proof, and it is a complete surprise to me that I wrote about the praying yoga frog in Marvin's Book.
During the second week of classes in Spring 2010, I stand in the front of the room with Carol at my side and offer my students two specific ways to help. I make this part of their grade; just a little, but enough.
The class warms up when I tell them part of their actual grade will be doing a service project showing kindness, generosity, compassion and gratitude to a service member or veteran.
I put a picture up on a PowerPoint (PPT) slide of a former student—let’s call him Matthew—and his unit, in uniform, behind me. They are posed and happy.
Students stare at the picture above my head, squinting at the soldiers’ faces and the barren landscape behind them.
While they stare, I tell them about the TCC alum Matthew in the picture, deployed to Afghanistan, where he is stationed at Camp Alamo. When he was in my class (it seems forever and a lifetime ago) he’d already been to war twice. I promised him we would send him boxes if he ever went “over there” again.
Then I tell students about David Lowe in the VA and pull up pictures of David surrounded by boxes and bags of ransom from past deliveries.
Both of the men had been in this same classroom; both of them were in harm’s way, and we were going to make it our mission to send them support. They both served our nation, and now, we were going to support them.
Several girls in the class sit up a little happier at the patriotically romantic idea of getting to send a box to a soldier stranger.
I put an address for them to copy down then say it again, because no one laughed. I haven’t taught this class very much yet, and I know I can’t expect them to know a single thing in history (and sometimes, in the current world either) unless I say it out loud and watch them copy it down (and even then, it gets garbled), but I thought there would be some sort of a roar of indignation.
“Matthew is at Camp Alamo. Hello?? Do you get the irony here?”
Only one person chuckles, a guy in the front.
So I ask the front-row-laugher guy, “Why is it funny? Tell me you understand what’s so funny about that!”
He turns a little red, then shrugs, “Because the Mexican Army won the Battle of the Alamo….?”
I stomp my foot. “Yes! Yes!” and I stop there, because I know that to start to discuss the difference between Texans, Tejanos and Mexicans at this point in the semester would just be confusing to my students. They’ll get it sooner or later.
The class copies down the address, brainstorms gifts for the VA, and an invisible but very warm light turns on in the room between us all. Together, we’re doing something fun, something good.
By the end of the semester, every single student in every single one of my classes contributes something—a card, a banner, plants, sacks of food, boxes of karma and kindness.
Every student in every single one of my five classes that spring, except one, but I promise you I’ll circle back and tell you a story about him later.
What countries fought in the Spanish-American War?
Where was it fought?
What was the outcome?
What countries fought in the Spanish-American War?
Spain and the US (x33) *YAY
Spain and France (x14)
US and Britain]
Mexico and America (x7)
America and South America
Spain, England and America
Where was it fought?
It was fought over the location of Cuba.
Europe and Africa
What was the outcome of the Spanish-American War?
The US was allowed to free slaves
27 students left this blank
Spain gained territory
We get a limited supply of Spanish food.
We get Florida from South America
Mexicans were banned.
Spain won Cuba.
Spain became a US territory
The US gets territory E. of the Mississippi River.
I couldn’t tell you.
Pretend Google Earth Isn’t Easily Accessible
An earlier semester I gave a pretest question: “Name five countries in Africa.”
I put up a map, but it had no political boundaries marked on it.
Out of five classes, less than 10 percent could correctly list five countries that currently exist in Africa.
About 20 percent left their answers blank or submitted answers that did not include a single African nation, including the person who wrote “5 countries in South Africa” probably just to keep her pencil writing so no one else in the class would know she didn’t know the answer.
Many students correctly listed two countries: South Africa and Ghana, probably because the most recent World Cup had been held in South Africa and Ghana had a great run. Spelling “Ghana” seemed to be a challenge: Guana; Ghanda; Ghuana; Gonna; Guano.
A student who self-ranked at #40 out 45 wrote “Africa = Zimbobway.” And that was it.
Seven students listed Nicaragua in Africa. They weren’t sitting together, and they weren’t all in the same class, so clearly this is a rumor that needs to be squashed now.
A student who ranked himself #45 out of 45 wrote, “I don’t know anything accept [sic] Nigeria… Egypt isn’t a country… well at least I don’t think it is.”
#45 wrote “Zimbabwa, Wakawaka, Mombo, Mumba” (That was only four, but he/she was on a roll, I wonder why they stopped? I asked for five and I really wanted to see what the next guess was—Gumbo? Dumbo?)
#34 wrote: “Ghana, South Africa, North Africa, East Africa, West Africa.”
#32 listed only one country: Jamaica.
#25 wrote: Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Liberia, Siberia.
Here, in no particular order, is a parade of non-African nations listed in the pretest as African nations:
Love is Patient
January turns into February and I walk around with a pit in my stomach. I just have to finish writing Marvin’s book. I just have to.
No matter how cute my shoes or how great or bad a hair day I have, I think all the time about my one huge invisible failure. I have to finish the book by April, if I can.
It’s the second week of February. I am in my office, editing and compiling the chapters of bloopers for Marvin’s Book, alternately clicking between my large document and Facebook.
As a writer, I love Facebook because I get instantaneous high-fives, giggles or general camaraderie from my invisible friends.
I update my status to “Love is patient, love is kind. Love takes out the trash and puts the laundry away. All the way away, not just in piles. And love fills your tank and washes your car, happily.”
I click back into my document, feeling suddenly heavy and sluggish, like fat sheets of honey blocked my view of whatever story I was somehow trying to tell. I looked at my praying yoga frog, the one who queens over the shiny rainbow of lucky stones that grow in my office, and imitated her.
Mentally, at least.
Three exhales later, there was a notification for me on Face-book from Monica Scott, Marvin’s sister.
I hadn’t seen her in years, but we kept in touch through email and Facebook. She “liked” my quote.
I messaged her, told her what a coincidence it was that she popped up while I was finally making headway on Marvin’s book.
She told me she was glad I was doing well. Then she told me how important it was to her parents that all their kids had college degrees—all of them but Marvin—and she asked me if I could find out about getting Marvin’s degree for the family.
I told her I would be honored to; I didn’t know how I’d do it, but I’d try. I couldn’t imagine TCC saying no.
For about three days I think about how to go about getting Marvin his degree. Also, I laugh a lot and thank the good universe for sending me a happy ending to Marvin’s book, because I only write stories with happy endings.
If you enjoy this book about my former students, I hope you will consider supporting a current student, Marvin Cristopher Blanco https://www.gofundme.com/ydb92-marvins-kidney-transplant