Friday, April 3, 2020

Marvin's Book Chapter 11: Another Empty Chair

From Marvin's Book: The Story of a Professor and a Promise, 2011
The next week, on Tuesday afternoon, I check email and voicemail one last time before picking my kids up and turning my brain over to them.

A reporter on a deadline was trying to reach me.

My stomach soars.

It has to be about Marvin’s degree, I think, I just know. Then it dawns on me it could be about donations to Camp Alamo or ransoming David from the VA nursing home in Lake City.

I listen carefully to the voicemail saying they wanted a statement from me on how it felt to be “The eighteenth hottest college professor in the US” according to

I played the voicemail from my sofa, got right up and paced, and laughed at this flattering and hilarious and well-timed surprise that landed out of nowhere like a minty-flavored kiss of karma from the universe.

I called my Mom. 

I called my Abuelo and he got me off the phone so he could call Cuba and tell his sister.

After that, when I was good and ready, I spoke to the reporter and it went something like…

(Introductions. Laughter.)
HER: How did you find out about this honor? Or did you already know?

ME: I just found out in the voicemail about this interview. And I called my Mom, and my Abuelo, and he’s already on the phone with Cuba… This is great news!

HER: No one told you?

ME: (Pause) Who would speak to me about something like

that? That would be… awkward. HER: (Pause) I guess that’s right. So you know that you’re
Number 18, right?

ME: Yay! My new favorite number!!

HER: And you’re the hottest community college professor in America? 

ME: NO WAY, I didn’t know that. I need to go call my Abuelo again…

HER: (Laughter) And how does that make you feel?

ME: I’m flattered. And laughing. Both. Equally. I have often struggled with what to wear for the War of 1812 or the Treaty Versailles…. I guess I nailed the right shoes for the Cuban Revolution this year….

HER: (laughing) That sounds interesting.

ME: It is…. Always….

And after that, we get off the phone, and I laugh and kick at the air and in my heart my friend Carol laughs even louder with me, shaking her head.

Meanwhile, classes go on, almost unforgivingly. Josephine sits in Carol’s former seat and translates for the three hearing-impaired students who have not missed a single class.

When we look at each other, we see who is missing. It is hard.

I bring the candle for Carol to class every day, and we take turns blowing it out after lecture.

This goes on through the end of March and into April, past the Cuban Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, the Nixon Doctrine and into the 1980s.

I was ten minutes into a lecture on the Reagan Doctrine when the student who survived the motorcycle accident shook his head, rubbed his eyes, closed his notebook and walked out the classroom’s back door.

People don’t usually leave my lectures.

I am concerned. Actually, I am shocked.

I am also in the middle of explaining the Reagan Doctrine and tying it to US-Latin American relations, and I have a responsibility to the students who didn’t get up, who deserve 110 percent of my attention.

I pause, cross my arms and cock my head, like I have some sort of decision to make.

Of course there is no decision to make, I know this and shake the option away.

I have a class to teach and I’m teaching it.

As if answering a silent question I say out loud to the class, “No. I can’t go after him. We’ve got to keep going or I’ll lose the story, and this is the part where it just gets good because….”

The students who remain turn towards me, and we make it safely through the Iran-Contra Affair together and ready for the upcoming exam.

Professor Files
Take Back Marshall’s Nobel Prize
The Marshall Plan was to just attack anyone who was thinking about attacking the United States.
Berlin, the Magic City
In this picture I believe it shows the Berlin Blockade. The west part of Berlin has more power than the East side of Berlin. Germany borders East and West Berlin. Well, it is in the middle. The blockade itself was when Germany wouldn’t enter Berlin.
Soviets Figured it Out
Berlin had two parts. The Soviet Union had the South and the US had the North. The US would have to go on trails on the South to bring our troops supplies and food. In the end, the Soviet Union figured it out.
Random Acts of Truman
The Truman Doctrine said that there would be a war but not against anyone. Your children would be left without anything, as would your food.
Berlin Blockade of Korea
The Berlin Blockade was used to stop invaders from coming past the 38th parallel that separated Korea. The Berlin Airlift would drop down weapons and luxury goods which could not be purchased in Berlin.
This Explains Everything Else on His Exam
Vietnam, also known as India…
Japanese Involvement in Vietnam
The Tet Offensive was when Japan attacked the US during WW2 34 times at all US transportation spots unexpectedly. Johnson thought that the Japanese would be quiet for the one day of the Chinese New Year. He was wrong.
Mystical Religions of Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the Buddhists. They protested because many people didn’t approve of/support this religion.
The day of Tien is a special holiday for the Indians, which America attacked 36 times to get out of their country. The Indonesians wanted to escape communism and seek refuge with American help.
Tying it all Together
After our air war, Rolling Thunder, was unsuccessful, we offered the Tet Offensive. When we didn’t get what we wanted, we decided to bomb the major cities in Vietnam. After we did that, it caused some problems in the government because we thought we were winning the war. After finally coming through, the World Trade Centers were attacked on 9/11/01 and it was linked to Osama bin Laden.

Empty Chair
Exam day comes in the large auditorium class, Carol’s old class. The room is full of students twisting themselves into and around in chairs, writing, frowning, erasing, writing.

Someone is missing.

I look across the first row.


She looks up.

Someone is missing.


She looks up.

Someone is most definitely missing.

Another semester I wrote the students’ names on their exams so that I could see who didn’t pick their exams up.

I didn’t do it this semester.

I don’t know who is missing. I just feel the absence.

Students finish their exams and come up just a few at first, then in clumps, lining up to hand in their essays, asking questions about grades and finals.

When the room empties, I stack the exams and carry them back into my office, ready to alphabetize them and figure out who was missing.

But first, habitually, I check my email.

There is an email waiting for me, sent to four other faculty members, to let us know that one of our students, Aaron, was found dead. 

That’s who was missing. 
Now I knew. Aaron was the student who survived the motorcycle accident, the one who read the letter I wrote about Marvin's degree. He knew about Marvin. Now he was gone. 

Another empty chair.

I write back, numbly, finding some sort of humor in the universe, “Well, that explains why he missed my exam.”

Then I turn off my computer, pack my things and go home to cry by myself for a few hours before picking my kids up from school.

When I get back on the computer, I look Aaron up.

I needed to make sure he was who I thought he was, because sometimes I rename students.

 I thought Caitlyn was Ashley all semester, and another Ashley became Violet in my head. 

No picture for him, just the default school logo.

I look him up on Facebook. Nothing.

I pull up his work online. All but three students had submitted a “meetmystudents” essay—two of them dropped the class; the other was Aaron.

I can’t see him anywhere, but I knew him. Dark, much darker than me, dark like Marvin, with a charming fast smile that he sometimes covered with his hand as though he thought laughing during lecture might be disrespectful. 

Over the next week there is no obituary, no memorial.

I think about writing another impassioned letter to the president, begging him to mention Aaron’s passing at graduation, but the thought is washed away with hot tears of too much grief.

I keep collecting bloopers and telling myself I need to work on Marvin’s book.

In the days that pass, I find stacks and stacks of student exam papers, advice letters, “meetmystudent” essays, and self-grading letters from 2007 to 2010.

I contact former students, and see how they fare. 

I ask if I can use their stories in Marvin’s Book.
Every student I ask says yes, and they seem happy to be asked, happy to be found. We wish each other well. 

It is a small, tangible consolation for another empty chair.