Dell pulls onto the highway, past the one-lane wait where the long stretch of road is being re-paved, and she steps on the gas. The car moves forward, smooth and free, and she turns on NPR. What’s interesting this morning? she wonders.
“…they were locked in the hold?” asks the commentator.
The guest, identified as some kind of government inspector, demurs. They are not sure yet, he says; and they are still looking for survivors.
“The five they found,” the commentator presses, “are all crew members?”
“Yes…” says the guest reluctantly.
And Dell realizes only slowly that the others, the ones locked in the boat, were trapped in a fire.
A picture flares into her mind…of people stuck and terrified, of flames and screams and pounding pleadings at a locked door.
She turns off the radio and rides in silence.
She feels gut-punched.
Her first class is on the main campus in a little industrial city. Today is a grammar refresher, and the students sigh and roll their eyes.
“I know,” she always says, “that this is basic and that you know this stuff. But going through it gives us a common language. Then I won’t confuse you when I write comments on your papers.”
She reviews parts of a sentence. What a noun is. Verbs and tenses. Subjects and objects. When to use “I” and when to use “me.”
They groan and shift and they write down every word she puts on the white board.
Because they don’t all know this stuff: they have gaps and empty knowledge spaces, some of them. They guard their borders fiercely, but every once in a while, a student will sit back with that look on her face—the look that says, “Now I get it. Now I know how THAT works.”
She puts them in small groups—it’s an English class after all,–and they come up with nouns and verbs and create sentences. They add ridiculous strings of adjectives and adverbs, words and phrases; they craft sentences a whole page long. They forget their coolth, and they get silly.
They work so hard, and they finish so much, that she lets them loose ten minutes early.
On the way out, one of the young women, one of the most languid and bored of all the students, stops and shows Dell pictures on her smart phone. Her dog has just had its first litter. She’s thinking, this student is, how hard it’s going to be to give the puppies up. She’s talking to her mom about maybe keeping one, the little one with the white spot on its nose.
Dell comments on the sweetness of the puppies, and the student smiles. Then the veneer slides back into place, and she nonchalantly says goodbye and saunters away.
Dell’s next class is on a satellite campus, thirty miles away. She’ll drive on the four lane partway, veer off onto country roads, wind up on a four-lane again just as she gets to the satellite.
It’s a beautiful sunny day. The tires thrum. She decides to see if there’s anything uplifting on the radio.
She turns it on to hear about another mass shooting. Semi-automatic rifle; seven people dead, including the shooter, who had lost his job that afternoon.
The students at the satellite campus are unabashedly NOT city kids. They are enthusiastic and cheerful. Dell starts going through the grammar review. “I know you know this, but…” she begins.
She writes the definition of a sentence on the board. They talk about subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs.
“Wait, wait!” says one student in back, busily taking notes, so Dell pauses. In the quiet, one of the students slaps her hand on the table in front of her. She is a senior in high school, taking college courses through a special program the state offers.
She says, “I am SO GLAD we’re doing this! I forgot all this stuff!”
“Exactly,” says the young man next to her.
The students eagerly break into groups. They work up until the very minute class is over, and they stop on the way out to tell her what they’re doing on the weekend. One, an older student, waits until the others are gone.
“I think,” she says to Dell, hesitant and nervous, “I might want to be a writer.”
Dell can see how hard that was for the student to say, and they talk for a bit about some of the joys and the challenges of a writing life.
The next morning, Dell heads—a true Road Scholar—to another satellite campus, this one in a suburb of the large city. The radio is filled with news of a devastating hurricane, of the dead and the missing, of whole cities flattened, of people stranded with no food or fresh water.
Dell grips the wheel, white-knuckled, feeling sick. So much pain. So much tragedy. Chaos reigns, and she is helpless. People suffer, and she is powerless and sickened.
Many of the students in this class were born in other countries. They wear, some of them, ethnic dress, and they talk with various lilts and inflections, and they are, many of them, very, very anxious about succeeding in this class.
This is a lab session and they work at computers, answering questions about Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” essay. The students have many questions, both about the content of the assignment and about the computer, and Dell works her way as quickly as she can through the raised hands, directing and reassuring. She smiles at Nadja, a tiny young woman with a gauzy head wrap and a soft, soft voice.
Before she answers Nadja’s question, Dell rolls her head and stretches, and she realizes that Edwina, the tall, elegant Ghanaian with the warm British accent, is working with the students in the front row. As Dell cracks her neck, Edwina shows Deanna how to access the submission portal on the class website. Deanna sees it; her eyes light and she sits back and grins.
Dell bends down to listen to Nadja’s question. She explains how to complete the assignment, and she helps the student open a Word document.
“But I don’t know,” Nadja says, “when I am done, how to get it to you.”
Dell tells her not to worry. Just concentrate on getting the work done. Then they’ll submit it together.
Nadja nods, troubled, but she peers at the screen, pauses, and begins, slowly, to type.
All heads are bent over keyboards, all fingers flying. Dell gives Edwina a thumbs up thank you, then retreats back to the instructor’s space. She keeps an eye out for raised hands as she grades discussion board posts.
Just before class ends, Nadja raises her hand. “I am done,” she whispers, and she asks Dell to check her work. Her answers are thorough and thoughtful, and she has nailed the MLA format.
Dell tells her that, and Nadja smiles.
Then, together, they save the file and close it, open the college website and click onto the class page. Dell shows her how to open the assignment submission link, and suddenly Nadja brightens. Her fingers fly; she attaches the documents; she hits submit.
The class packs up to go, and she waves them off, reminding them of Monday’s work, and wishing them a restful weekend. They say goodbye and hurry out the door.
Dell turns to gather her things, and then she realizes that Nadja has turned back. She is standing, uncertain, in the classroom doorway, and Dell hurries over.
“What is it, Nadja?” she asks. “Can I help?”
But the girl is not troubled. She turns her face to Dell, and it’s illuminated, glowing, kindled with hope.
“The computer,” whispers Nadja. “I understand now. Teacher! Thank you.”
And she bows just a little, a head-nod really, and hurries off.
Dells watches as Nadja wrestles the big door open, a tiny woman in beautiful flowing clothes, a strong, determined woman who is going to succeed. And then Dell turns and hurries to the instructor’s desk, her back to the door as she packs up her things.
She climbs into the car for the forty mile trip home. It is a sunny day, and she cracks the windows open just a little, letting a breeze dance as she drives. She leaves the radio off.
She is not in denial. Dell’s eyes are open; she knows what’s out there. But just for today, she’ll ride home on the power of hope.