Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bad Student for a Day

No one cares that I was racing to class this morning with my BlackBerry pressed sweatily to my ear because of an urgent phone call from a family member about a crisis-in-progress. With my pocketbook cutting grooves into my left forearm and my computer bag bouncing against my right thigh I flew across Amsterdam Avenue, barely minding the traffic turning from W116th Street, concentrating only on the conversation and the fact that I was surely going to be late for my 9:30 a.m. Art and Culture seminar.

Our professor, an exceptionally nice guy, has made it clear that the one thing he really hates is lack of punctuality.

So, when I arrived, panting, four minutes late, he was not pleased.

Sinking into my seat, sunglasses fogging up from my rising body heat (thank you, menopause) I wished to blurt out the reason for my tardiness, the amazing fact that I had arrived at all, the revelation that I actually felt like a heartless bitch for hustling off the phone call to attend to something as relatively unimportant as an art and culture class, that sometimes it was freaking difficult to be an adult student, that is, deal with everything that goes along with having serious connections and responsibilities -- aging parents, kids, a husband and friends who were getting sick suddenly and whose own parents, siblings and spouses were dying at an alarming rate.

But graduate school means never having to say you're sorry but...so I just swallowed my discomfort and blocked out the crisis.

The seminar was good, great in fact, with Mark Harris, the film critic and author (Pictures at a Revolution) and lots of entertaining movie clips and a generally relaxed atmosphere. There was lunch with HOBB at Cafe Nana, a visit to Dodge to scout for a student to profile for a forthcoming class assignment, speed-of-lightening responses to pressing emails, retrieval of phone calls, conversations with family members about the crisis, plans to get to NYU Medical Center later that night and then, Evidence and Inference at 2:30.

I made it a priority to arrive on time. Today's session featured a lecture by a Sudhir Venkatesh, an ethnographer, that riffed on the excellent book Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc and the various techniques of getting people to talk about their lives. I thought of my penchant for having perfect strangers reveal deeply intimate matters and was moved to ask whether one ought to being wary when one evidently possessed a particular knack for getting people to talk.

While our professor reframed the question to illustrate the difference between the ability to elicit a response and the ability to extract valuable information from a subject, Venkatesh's response was cutting. He noted that many first-time ethnographers had a narcissistic belief in their own abilities. There was some laughter in response. Was it directed at me? Did my question reveal me as to be a narcissist? I was surprised and not a little bit hurt.

Hours later, exhausted by the emotional trajectory of the day, returned from the meeting at NYU Med, thinking over the numerous calls and emails, trying to figure out when I could fit in a phone conference with Little Babe's History teacher and how to get Middle Babe the Trader Joe's gift card by tomorrow so she could buy food for her college dorm in Towson, Maryland and whether I could slip out early from my History of Journalism class tomorrow night to catch a friend's book talk, I realize that my four-minute tardiness and my possibly boastful question makes not a whit of difference in the grand scheme of life. What matters is the material under discussion in the classroom, the takeaway from the lesson, the experience of meeting important scholars, the kernels of valuable guidance, the revelations that come, unbidden, in the middle of class as concepts bloom around you and you skip happily through the fragrant field of thought, selecting your signature bouquet.

2 comments:

DebraNussbaumCohen said...

Good post, She-Ra. I hope everyone is on the road to better health. Your post brings to mind my very young, very self-involved Talmud teacher a couple of years ago....hers was an all-afternoon class, and most days around 4PM, I'd step out of the room (I was sitting closest to the door) and call my young kids and/or check in with the new babysitter, who was prone to not showing up. Around Pesach this teacher went crazy on me, yelling at me that I wasn't taking my studies seriously enough....she had spent her whole young adult life, practically, with her nose in a sefer in the beit midrash. She had NO CLUE what we mother-students juggle. Thanks for posting!

She-Ra, Princess of Power said...

Thanks...Debz. Yeah, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. So much I couldn't put in this blog. I recall unbelievable drama/conflict when my kidz were younger. That teacher has taken the worst of male perspectives and the only term that comes to mind is "callow youth."

Thanks for reading BB!!!!