(From Marvin's Book: The Story of a Professor and a Promise, 2011)
Eat, Sleep, Fork
My ninety-year-old Abuelo is sitting next to me on his shallow pool steps at his Pompano Beach home on a cloud-free hot July afternoon.
The kids dance and splash and invite us to join their game involving coconuts and shrieking.
He turns to me and says (unapologetically), “I’ve had enough fun.” I smile at him, and he continues, “I mean it. Ninety years of fun is enough. Put that in your book. I’m serious.”
I nod my head at the gravity of the moment, promising him I’d write it somewhere for him.
After that, we joined the kids in their coconut-laughing game anyway.
The rest of my summer can be summed up as Eat, Sleep, Fork.
One Saturday morning I packed the kids into the car for errands.
By noon we were back home, Zoe watching TV in her room, Zack positioned at the breakfast bar to watch me cook.
“Can I have a spoonful of icing?”
“Icing? No. I save that for bribing you or rewarding you for being sooooo brilliant. How about some muffins?”
“No. Yuck. Those are Zoe’s.”
“Fine. How about some grapes. They’re healthy.” “How are they healthy?” I get some from the refrigerator, buying time for a great answer. “Grapes grow from the ground. They’re natural.” I deposit a plate of grapes in front of him.
“Yes. Grapes come from God.”
He holds on up. “GOD is in this grape?”
“Yes!” I take a moment to coin the phrase “home-churching” and file it away into the many projects I’ll dive into after Marvin’s book.
Zack pretends to hug the grape, then eats it.
“Is God everywhere?”
“Is God in your boobies?”
I laughed and looked down to admire them, then turned to the cabinet and asked, “Would you like chocolate or vanilla icing?”
The best part of not having a laptop on my lap—and not spending the summer writing the book I couldn’t figure out how to write or how to end—was the massive amount of cuddle time I got to spend with the kids, one tucked under each arm on the oversize, stained green recliner.
We ate ice cream by the gallon, popcorn by the bowl and spent an inordinate amount of time at Olive Garden (mostly laughing).
I ordered M&Ms on everything (McFlurry, Frosty, margaritas…), and ate them plain (by the nibble; by the handful) in dark movie theaters cuddled up with my kids, laughing.
Meanwhile, something beautiful happened. After ten years of being awoken by crying infants, breastfeeding babies, screaming toddlers and happy bouncy children who couldn’t sleep past 7am on weekends, both of my kids finally slept late— wonderfully dangerously late—past Regis and Kelly, past Let’s Make a Deal, sometimes even past The Price is Right.
The house felt quiet those mornings while they slept, like the lovely silent pause after an intentional crescendo.
Because I couldn’t write, I spent my vacation mornings in a stupor watching seasons of On-Demand programs so vacuous their titles even now disappear deliciously out of my head like meringue melting on my tongue.
The only problem I came across in those delicious hours curled up on a recliner was a persistent and recurring itch on my back right behind my bra strap, right where I really just couldn’t scratch. I twisted, wriggled and squirmed against the chairs and the wall and such get the itch scratched but no luck. It just got stronger.
On a particularly quiet Tuesday morning in August while the kids slept late, I had next to me on the coffee table an empty mug of ice cream, a fork and a napkin.
I wiped the fork off with the napkin, and although I knew I was the only soul awake in the house, I looked around before leaning forward and slipping the fork down my back to JUST the right spot. As it hit the spot an involuntary “ohhhhh” slipped out me before I could purse my lips and look around.
No one. CLEAR. I exhaled a sigh of relief and kept scratching, moving the fork up and down behind my bra, shuddering with pleasure and relief, trying to keep myself as quiet as possible and mostly failing.
Again and again that day and the next while the kids were sleeping, distracted and otherwise gone, while I was alone, during repetitive commercials on On Demand that are too short to fast-forward through, I pulled my fork out (it is mine now, I marked all over it with a red sharpie so that its precious tines will never be immersed in another meatball) and found those elusive itchy spots and scratched them until a little line of drool ran down my chin.
After a week or so of eating, sleeping and forking, I called my Mom.
“Mom, I’m sorry I haven’t called, I’ve had nothing to say because I haven’t done anything because I’ve just been sitting in this chair watching TV and scratching my back with a fork.”
She laughed. “Are you calling for absolution? Is this confession!? You’re forgiven.”
“Oh no,” I answered, quicker than she’d expected. “I do NOT want to be forgiven, lady! I’m calling to BRAG about the fork....”
From there, the conversation went to the kids, to Project Runway, to Abuelo.
A red package of takeout Chinese chopsticks pulled my eye and distracted me from my Mom’s story.
“Mom, I have to go.”
“OK,” she said, not asking why, just letting me be free, because she’s easy like that.
Because she didn’t ask me, I decided to tell her the truth.
“Mom, I have to go because I just found some chopsticks I want to tape to my fork to make it even longer....”
The kids came home before I could find tape, so I didn’t follow through on my plan, deciding it’s some spiritual principle to accept the fork just the way it is.
That night turned into the next night, which turned into another week and then another, which now I’ll remember as the summer I spent away from writing, happily eating, sleeping and forking.
The new semester starts and as usual I spend the first day giving a lecture that shows the scope of the class and explains all the connections.
In one particular class—the one that met in the same room that David Lowe’s class had met, and in the same classroom that Carol and Aaron had been in—a student wearing an army uniform crosses his arms as I explain the wars the US has been involved in since 1991.
He raises his hand when I finish and asks, “What if we already know all this?”
I laugh—not at him, but just at the cockiness of the question. “Well then you can sit here while the rest of the students learn where we send our boys these days and why, and they’ll better understand and support you.”
His name was Jordan. He was pleased.
During the third week of classes, after the newbies understand how classes run and things start going very smoothly, I explain to the students that we are going to try to ransom David out of the VA, and we are going to send Victory Boxes to Iraq and Afghanistan.
They ask the same questions that three semesters of students asked before them.
“What do I write? What should I buy? Which project should I pick? How much should I spend? Can my Mom do one too, I told her and she’s excited....”
I tell them the same thing I told the students before them. I say, “This project should be fun, and you should give as you are called to give.”
Jordan wonders why we are sending boxes to Afghanistan, not Iraq, where his buddies are. I tell him to get me the address, and he does, but only after he has to go away for a few weeks of training.
He misses everything between Reconstruction and World War I, but people in the class help him with notes and tutoring and he catches back up.
In case you still need a reminder at this point in the story, my students wrote these essays, about themselves and I left their spelling/typing errors just s I found them.
Hello, J. is an exceptional student. When he doesn’t feel like he is in his comfort zone, he tends to keep to himself and doesn’t try to bother anyone. He attempted to start as a freshman in college back in 2007 but didn’t finish his semester b/c he volunteered and joined the army. He went to Iraq and was fighting on the front line for 6 months. Two days later, he was called back to active duty to be deployed to Afghanistan for what would be his second tour and would be gone for 15months. When he came back to the states in 2009, he started up college once again. But this time the army had a different plan for him, and had paid for him to attend what was known to “the top soldier competition for the east coast”. So leaving in the middle of the semester, he went to Washington dc and competed against 160 other people. In the end, he came out to be placed 8th out of 160 soldiers and was awarded a medal for being in the top ten. In his life he calls the army his home where he has a number of people that he proudly calls his brothers and would risk life or death for them.
Ray, Who Likes to Attend Class
I myself am very quiet. I don’t like to study much but I like to attend class.
Bella, Who Sometimes Daydreams
Bella is a hard working sophomore at Tallahassee Community College who loves energetic teachers who don’t treat her as if she were still in high school. She believes that if the subject is interesting she will enjoy the material better and learn it faster. An under the table racist and highly opinionated instructor turned her off to American history for the longest time. She admits she gets bored easily and may drift off to one of her common daydreams or deep thought of the day.
Camron With a Million-Dollar Smile
Camron is sophisticated, intelligent, outgoing and handsome young successful man. His creative thoughts, analytical mindset, and humble nature makes him a extraordinary person. His charming personality and million dollar smile makes the girls go bonkers. He is a role model in his community, and he’s the only one of his homeboys in college. Camron plans to graduate from T.C.C and transfer to U.F. in another year. Before he dies he wants to visit Africa.
Danielle, Good Company
Danielle is a great girl with a fantastic personality. Her most fear is her English language, she feels a little insecure about it. She is from Ecuador and she moved to the United States three years ago knowing zero English. School for her is a little challenging because of the language barrier, especially on writing, but she is always open for any advice or help so she can improve her English. Last but not least, there is a big percentage that anyone will have a great time and company after meeting Danielle and having her around.
Olivia, Who Dresses Mighty Fine
Olivia is one of a kind; she is a student every teacher wishes they had. Although Olivia isn’t much of an early bird, she understands that waking up early helps her get a head start on things and gives her more energy throughout the day. She is always on top of her homework and never procrastinates. Olivia is a great note taker and does very well on all of her tests; she would never be caught cheating. To add an extra bonus to this miraculous student, she is also a very cute girl and dresses mighty fine. She is always asking her professors if they need any help and sometimes she’ll even surprise them with yummy treats. Many professors get annoyed with their students over time, but not with Olivia. Every teacher who has had Olivia in the past always seem to compare their new and upcoming students to her and they never come close. She’ll make your life so much easier; therefore, you will become an overall tremendously happy and wonderful professor.
Karla, Who Pays Attention
Karla graduated top of her class. She enjoys learning new things, and having fun. She does all of her work, she comes on time, and lastly she is very attentive. Karla also doesn’t like to be late to class. She feels if she is late she misses out on her learning. Also she likes to get a good seat. She hates to sit in the back of a class. Mainly because she is short; so she likes to sit in the front. She my very mindful that she is in school to learn; she knows that school is a place to learn! Not a place to come and see what everybody has on, but a place to apply yourself. So when Karla goes to class she pays attention to what it is that her professor says, and then she applies it.
David, Who Hates Being Lost
I will always try to get a sit in the front of the class, for this reason, I will try my hardest to be there on time. I hardly ever miss any of my classes. I feel if I miss one day of class I will be lost in the next class. I hate the feeling of being lost in a class. I hardly ever speak in class but I always just listen and pay attention to what is going in class. The professor always has my full attention. My phone will never go off because I keep it off. I’m not a very good note taker but I understand my notes. My penmanship is not that good but it will do for now.
Leon, Who Doesn’t Smell like Cigarettes
This was a mysterious but engaging student.  It looked like he was sitting in outer space sometimes. His demeanor was so calm that sometimes I can’t tell if he’s serious, sincere, or totally blowing me off when I’m talking to him. Motivation is a day to day experiment with him. Also he does tend to procrastinate and overdo it on ESPN. In addition it to that if he seems like he’s in outer space it’s because he is; he doesn’t always smell like cigarettes. It seemed like he took too many classes or partied every night but he was quiet and detached in class.
Sophia, Nice and Tidy
Sophia is a very good student of mine who always turns in her work on time and is never late to class. She never misses either, unless it’s a true emergency. I wish that more of my students could have attitudes like her. All of her work is very nice and tidy; it’s always typed in good format. It’s never sloppy as if she was running late. She seems to be more of the type of person that it takes a while to warm up to. She takes a lot of notes; however, I think she may take too much sometimes. In other words, she tries too hard to write every word down, and when she goes back to review them, they don’t make much sense. She is very shy, but also a very sweet girl, who I can always count on to be in class, taking notes, and listening instead of talking.
Corey, Who has Always Been This Way
He’s always been this way and I’ll bet it’s the reason he isn’t at FSU already. If you look at his TCC transcript you’ll notice two things, A’s and B’s… and then D’s and W’s. It’s because he actually enjoys going to class when the teacher is exciting and engaging. Corey has also found success in a schedule that allows him to go out at night and have fun. I even heard him last year say, “the teacher is probably wondering how that hung over kid is acing my class.”
Jessica, Not the Brightest of the Bunch
Do you know the type of student that isn’t the brightest of the bunch but gets her work done? Well that’s the type of student that Jessica is. She gets everything done and turned in on time. She is determined to get good grades in school and it shows in her performance in the classroom. She does have a little problem with getting to class on time. I’m not saying she’s always twenty minutes late, but she does seem to slip in about five to ten minutes after class has already started
Bill, Who Has Room to Improve
As a person, I am not the smartest person walking, but I am smart. I know it is still in me because until my 11th grade year in high school, I made A’s and B’s and had a grade point average of 3.4 and not just because I was an athlete. Then I met my son’s mother and it all went down hill. I actually signed up to go into the army, but bad decisions kept me from going. Now I am trying to show that I can make it through determination and college, which is not in my family’s vocabulary. Overall I rate myself a B student because I have room to improve.
Gabriel, Glitter and a Shoebox
Gabriel is known as a perfectionist when it comes to his academics. He is a straight A student with a perfect attendance record since kindergarten. He uses his experience and knowledge of the theatre and film industry to assist in better explaining situations and answering problems. This has taught him to better understand poetry, increased his memorizing skills, and gave him confidence to be more outgoing. When it comes to projects, Gabriel goes above and beyond. He feels like he is a wiz when it comes to making the most out of some glitter and a shoe box.
During Prohibition, there was an urban rumor circulating that went something like this.
Once there was a guy named Mac who loved his gin and whiskey so much, he stocked up on a bottle a week (sometimes a bottle a day) during all of 1919 as the country faced the countdown to Prohibition.
Years later, when Mac’s supply ran out, he discreetly asked a few friends for a referral and had a few unfortunate disappointments before he found a bootlegger who brought him the smoothest, mellowest moonshine they nicknamed “Mama’s Milk.”
Just when Mac was coming to rely on his new treasure, Mac’s bootlegger gets arrested.
Or was it shot? Yes. He was shot. Dead. No more moonshine for poor Mac.
Instead of moping around, Mac got an inspiration. He filled a tiny shot glass with a sample of his precious remaining jelly jar of Mama’s Milk moonshine and had a courier deliver it to the local pharmacist in a paper bag with a discreet note (wrapped around a $1 bill) requesting all possible tests be done to determine the liquid’s content.
Three weeks later, a thin envelope arrived from the pharmacy: Your horse has diabetes. And she's pregnant.
When I finish telling the story to my history class, I pause for a second as students scribble pieces of the story down.
Hands shoot up into the air.
A guy in the back row sitting towards the lecture hall’s back door asks, “Was it horse pee? Really?”
I shake my head. “Urban myth. Remember? That’s how I started the story?”
Heads nod. Most of them understood.
A few girls in the middle of the room are still writing so I take another question.
A guy in second row from the back offers, “I peed in a bottle once. At a football game.”
I shake my head at the randomness of his statement and the class laughs.
He continues, “Well, these people kept stealing our beer.”
And this is it.
I fall on my knees dramatically in front of the class, looking to the sky (ceiling), gesticulating a question to the universe of something like “Why is this student telling us this? Why? Is this happening? Do I stop it? Can I crawl under the desk and call it a day?”
He continues, “You know those beer balls?” and continues his college-esque story about punishing some random thieves with urine and, well, I don’t really listen because as I allow him (this once, and only this once) to ramble on, I remain my knees, on the floor, holding my head like “I’m losing my mind, what do I do?”
They know I’m teasing.
I run my classes like a totalitarian dictatorship—no cell-phones, no computers, no talking, no tardiness, no getting up and coming back in. I do my best to not waste their time, so that we have digressed for less than a minute is forgivable in the course of a semester.
After we laugh together for a moment or two, I pop back up, brush myself off and redirect our attention to Prohibition, then to the Scopes Trial.
I’m not sure the class knew it (they will know it now) but somehow, when I fell down right then, I got back up whole again, laughing again and ready to write again.
Its no coincidence the healing happened in the class where Carol and Aaron had been last semester.
By the last week of October, this class—along with three others—had donated enough bags full of goodies for the VA that I have to slide over my desk to climb out of my office.
They have sent more than 100 boxes to Afghanistan and Iraq; they brought over 200 bags of comfort and gratitude, and from the looks on their faces, they had a great time.