When I asked for topics about strangeness, a couple loyal Readers suggested "weird things students have said to me," and that got me thinking. Students have said a lot of weird things to me over the years--oh yes, I've got stories. But even weirder than what they say to me is what they WRITE to me.
A long time ago, when e-mail was new and exciting, I gave a conference paper on the uses of e-mail in writing pedagogy. I had become fascinated with how much easier it was for me to help students with their essays when I was relaxed and comfortable at home, rather than under the gun in my office hours. It seemed like the internet had brought us an invaluable teaching tool. But with every new development comes "issues," and internet correspondence seemed to challenge students' sense of boundaries between themselves and their teachers. After all, if you're writing to your T.A. at 4 a.m., naked, slightly drunk, mouth full of pizza and AC/DC obscuring whatever is happening in the next room, you might be slightly more comfortable than you should be. Even if your T.A. is writing back to you in a very similar state.
I mention this because I received some really...INTERESTING e-mails from students in the '90s, back when people in general were still not clear on what exactly happened when they pressed "send." I could tell you about some of these, but instead I think I'll talk about one in particular, mostly because I happened to save it. Why did I save it? I don't remember, but I stumbled upon it a few days ago, and it's really quite impressive.
I received this e-mail on May 2, 1996 in the basement of the UCSD library (the telnet cache info tells me so.) The writer was a two-time student of mine named Paul, whose last name I can no longer remember. He was very, very pale and had those blue eyes so blue they looked like Otter Pops. I don't remember much else about him because he never, ever spoke to me. He sat silently in my writing class, and then a couple years later, silently in the poetry class where I was the T.A. I guess he had a lot going on in his head, though, judging from this e-mail, the full text of which exceeds three single-spaced pages.
okay, preface time : i actually haven't the slightest idea what i want to say here. i'm writing because, heck, i'm on a roll and know this stone is stopping in quicksand when it does, so i'm doing as much screaming as i can. :) actually, i suppose the reason is more that i wanted to get across a semi- cognizant sentence to you before i start receeding into memory again. that is, no more half-sentences whispered (i'd call them yelled, but i'm only good from my own perspective) across all 10 feet of our classroom. and i've started to worry that you might be starting to see things jane's way and start thinking i'm trying to avoid you out of disdain or some such thing, which just isn't true, at least in so far as i'm not trying to avoid you anymore than i'm trying to skirt around the edge of humanity altogether. :)
Okay, the guy is pretty funny, right? And smart, though he can't spell "receding." The first interesting part is that he is obviously compelled to write this thing for some reason, and feeling a bit poetic about it ("this stone is stopping in quicksand when it does.")
And he wants me to remember him. He worries (worries!) that I think he's trying to avoid me (the Jane part confuses me--she also taught writing, but I don't remember how he knew her.) And I love the bit about how he's not trying to avoid me "anymore than I'm trying to skirt around the edge of humanity altogether." Funny and lovely. And a bit scary, yes?
i admit, though, that this quarter of poetry was less awkward than i thought it would be having a t.a. who'd already been exposed to me. some of that was from only getting up the nerve to attend half the sections, i suppose, but, also, with so few things to turn in this quarter (or, should i say, so few things turned in this quarter?) there weren't many of those 'oh geez' moments where you'd have to deal with a paper of mine. ... so where's there's still the chance to not be disregarded, i wanted to pass on that it was nice to have you as a t.a. again, and in the 10 hours you taught (which is, what, like four days of muir 50?), you seemed to do a good job with the class. of course, any teacher who doesn't go around the class and make everyone introduce themselves is okay in my book. (even though i'm getting better at my 'speech' : 'hi, my name is paul, i'm a fourth-year computer science major at muir college', and if they want to know anything else they'll have to overcome the sense of closure i give to the word 'college'. :)
Exposed to him, huh? Emoticons were still cool in 1996. I hadn't remembered he was a computer science major--funny how I would marry one a few years later. I like how he's done the math of my Muir class (where I was the professor and taught 4 hours a week) and the poetry class (where I was the T.A. and taught one 1-hour section once a week.) And buried in there is a compliment ("it was nice to have you as a T.A. again") and another, sort of back-handed compliment ("you seemed to do a good job with the class.") Well, thank you, Paul...I guess. In the next section, he vents about the class requirement to review three poetry readings, which he did not do:
poets just strike me as intensely bizarre people, i guess, and my tastes are too midwestern or something (i ever tell you my life ambition to grow corn? no? thank the heavens for being spared that story, then. :) and it's not just live performances, it's poetry in general that i think it a bit wacky, but when an all-too-ordinary person stands in front of a microphone and wears trendy black and says things like 'wafting butterfly, wings of life!' i go right back to that 'ugh' sentiment. so, anyway, there wasn't a chance in heck of me being able to come up with a fair word about these people who were probably doing a good job at what they do when for the entire reading all i could do was watch the rain drip off of the guy's shoe in the seat ahead of me. (wait.. i've stolen that from somewhere, haven't i?)
I think he was serious about the corn. He struck me (just from looking at him) as someone who could be serious about corn. Which is respectable. And--speaking as an ordinary person who has stood at a microphone in black--I have to say his depiction of poets is accurate. But my favorite part is where he quotes me--yes, Readers, that's right, ME--with an allusion to my poem "Visitation During A Bookshop Poetry Reading." I can no longer remember how he would know it, since I never, ever read my own work to the class (that's a sure-fire way to lose any credibility you might have possessed to start with.) So that little mystery is lost to time.
that said, i'll say again that i got a kick out of spending time with 'lolita' (coming soon to a theater near you, starring.. melanie griffith?). i learnt a lot about symbolism by being able to take that book slowly and having a class format where we were able to understand how nabokov was constructing his story. (and that's important to me who's only writing after this class will possibly be the instruction manual for some database program? :) sorry to sound so bitter and geez if i don't dump on you when i write, :) but in my world of computer people i don't get to vent to many people who know Chekov is not 'king to G3'. (name that tune in.. five notes) i hope you found the poetry you had to grade rewarding and that not too many people pulled off what i did and were up at 4 in the morning the night before the stuff was due. :) ... i hope spring break it time enough to prepare for another quarter of teaching. i'd be interested to know, sometime, how your muir 50 class on new york is going. take care. ...paul (who has run this document through 0 spell checkers) ( 'my butterfly, in your fragile glass jar of life...' )
The Lolita reference is for the first class I taught him, and the "Chekhov is not 'King to G3'" is another "Sam insider" reference--I was in the musical Chess. Hey, wait a minute. I wasn't in Chess until 1998. So maybe he's some sort of computer-programming prophet? That's weird. The final epigraph seems to be a pretend quote of something.
Anyway, he wrote me a really, really long note, but there aren't that many parts of it that are genuinely strange. But it certainly seems like he said whatever he felt like, consequences be damned, and to send a non-spell-checked e-mail to your Literature T.A. is pretty bold. I wonder what ever happened to Paul, and if he's busy writing those instruction manuals like he predicted. Or growing corn. One or the other. Hope all is well, Paul. Glad you didn't disdain me; hope you still don't.