These are the things that I will remember from this semester.
Seventy-five faces I did not know.
That joke I made about how Jesus’ last name is not “Christ,” and then seeing shock and confusion on my students’ faces. “No, I’m serious,” I began…
The first time I remembered a name.
Those long minutes spent back and forth in confusion over what I meant by the word “church.”
An angry, sharp question: “What do monks do?” I smiled: “They pray.” A scowl, and: “That’s not anything.” And I smiled again, a little sad.
Learning what a “Vegas secret” is.
Pretending not to understand that the chair I turned clockwise was the same chair from before. Shouting my confusion. The giggles. Our introduction to phenomenology.
Keeping a Vegas secret.
Spending forty-five minutes re-explaining themes from the past month of classes. Hearing the angry: “I still don’t get it at all.” Wanting to just sort of leap out the window and sprint away to the mountains.
That terror-scarred day I was being evaluated for teaching, and no one had read a damn thing.
Seventy-five faces shaped in mystery. With names now. And still a mystery to me.
A student, holding notes for a paper, hands trembling. Nerve-wracked in my office. And I leaned forward and said, gently, “You are doing very well. Keep going.”
Student: “You should do stand-up comedy.” Answer: “What?”
Seventy-five faces, and always I smiled when they walked through the door. Even if I did not want to smile that day.
The young woman, head shaved. The nervous way she ran her hands over the exposed skin. “My cousin has cancer,” she explained, “and we did this together.” The silence at the dinner table. The young gazes turned away in shame. Her strained apology at “making it real.” And then I straightened, stared her in the eyes, and said: “Do not ever be sorry for making it real.”
Question: “Which class is your favorite?” A smile, an answer: “You’re all my favorite.” Response: “That is absolutely not true.” Another smile.
More than once, I returned to my office with my notes in hand and shut my door. Leaned against the cool, closed door. Breathing against the dark. Flickering away to exhaustion and silence.
Seventy-five faces I had come to know. Some still veiled, removed. Most familiar. Shaded with details, interests, personalities. More-than-names.
That moment on our last day when they cried. My students wept real tears. One class, they cried. And they said to me, “We love you.” And I cried with them, cracking at the seams: “I love you too.”
I will remember them, especially then, their hugs and their sniffles, and the tenuous shape of our closeness. Professor and students. Our long semester brought to transcendence by the tears on their faces, and the fragments of my fractured mask held gently in their hands.