Thank You Times Two

A dear friend and longtime mentor is coming this morning to speak to my students about writing.  They've read the opening pages of At the Corner of East and Now, and they are prepared with comments -- phrases and effects they like, questions that filled their minds after reading, and places they wish were a little more polished, different or just plain gone.  But they don't know she's coming; they are expecting a quiz.  I'm bursting with the surprise, planning to leave the classroom at 10:15 and walk a few short steps to the lobby to bring her back.  At 10:14 I am literally putting my hand on the knob when a sudden fire drill horn shatters our eardrums and my peace of mind.

Did I swear under my breath?  I'm afraid I might have.  I swipe moodily at the attendance sheet on my way out the door.  It's already 84 degrees, and the sun is beating down on our necks.  We line up on the soccer field, which is down a treacherous hill that I will not even attempt in heels and on dew-moistened grass.  One, two, four, seven, nine.  Nine?  Weren't there eleven?  One is meeting with a teacher.  One is obviously absent, though I just marked her here.  Oops.

Back inside and slightly less ruffled, I smilingly deliver my news.  "I don't have a quiz for you today.  I have a surprise instead."  "What is it?!" they chorus.  (This response, although ubiquitous, never fails to amuse me.  It's about as absurd as saying, "Taste this.  I think it's bad.") They immediately begin guessing.  "A test! A pony! Ice cream!"

"I'll be right back," I say mysteriously, and sail to the lobby only to find it empty.  Visions of Frederica bowled over by zealous firemen swim before me.  What if she saw the trucks and just went home, thinking the school was ablaze?  Wouldn't she have more sense than that?

(Aside: This reminds me of my favorite untrue story about Frederica.  My mother had a famous dream, years ago, in which my father orchestrated a bank robbery with church members as accomplices.  Everyone had a role -- breaking windows, carrying loot, etc.  Frederica's job was to hold the door.  When my mother told him about this, he deadpanned, "Yeah, Frederica's never been real useful in a holdup.")

I dawdle outside the door for a few moments, but have to re-enter shamefacedly.  "It's not . . . um . . . delivered yet," I say.  The guessing has intensified. "Pizza! Flowers!"  To settle them, I invite them to read from their journals.  We get through one sentence, literally, before the phone rings to alert me to my visitor's arrival.

I re-enter again, triumphant.  "I'd like to introduce you to Frederica Mathewes-Green," I say. There are a few gasps, and I take note of who bothered to read the byline.  "She's the author of At the Corner of East and Now, which you read for class today."  Now they are all genuinely shocked.  Frederica takes the floor and they scoot up closer to hear her begin the story of how she began to write.

As I listen to her soothing voice, and the story that I know well but love to hear again, my eyes drift from head to ponytailed head.  This is my favorite part, I think.  I can hear them learning, and I get to watch.  The widened eyes, the absentminded smiles -- they are drinking this in, curious about the Real World, polite but prodding.  Everyone contributes questions and comments.  "What did your husband say when you told him?"  "I love what you say about Jesus being the center of our lives."  "How did you think to say 'my eyebrows were hovering near my hairline' instead of just saying 'I was surprised'?"  She is gracious in that way that only native Southerners can be, and for each one she has a small comment of affirmation, a point to elaborate on or clarify.  Her faith and life and work are all tied together with deep piety and piercing intellectualism, and I am grateful to her for using words like "dilettante" with a breezy charm that maybe, just maybe, will motivate someone here to learn next week's vocabulary list with joyful fervor.

The door closes, and they wheel on me en masse -- "How do you know her?" "She was so cool!" "Did her daughter really go here?" "What part did you like best?" "How many times did she change religions?" "Didn't you think it was weird that she talked about Our Lord and oatmeal in the same sentence?" "Thank you!  Yes, thank you!" I realize that they see Frederica as a stranger, but me as a confidant; they will tell me anything.  What did I ever do to deserve this?

My second class proceeds uneventfully: discussion, directed viewing, student presentations.  As I pack up my things, I realize one student is still there.  "Felicia? Did you have a question?"  I assume she's going to protest that I took points off her assignment, since she used the wrong paper and format.  I'm braced for the attack.

"No, I just wanted to let you know what's going on.  My dad's in the hospital with stage IV lung cancer."  Her eyes fill with tears, and I hug her quickly, before mine go the same route. "I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry."

"I'm trying to get all my work done, but I have to take care of my three younger siblings since my mom doesn't get home from work until late.  So I have a lot to do besides school."

"Listen," I told her, "Don't worry about school.  You can do school anytime.  Right now you need to be with your family."  She gulped, nodded.  "Thank you."

Today I have no moral, no tidy summary; just two moments, one happy, one sad.  Two thank yous.  And a world that's too big to make sense.