The Ignorers and the Chatters

The train is sold out. I’m hoping for a seatmate who will sleep. I know people who have found their soul mates on public transportation, but I’m convinced I’m not one of them.

“Is this seat taken?” He’s about my age, nice looking, and smells good.

During my years of work travel, I discovered a universal truth I’ve held to ever since. There are two types of seatmates: Ignorers and Chatters.

“What are you reading?” he asks as he finishes putting his bag on the overhead rack.

I recognize this as a pivotal point in this relationship, which — unless magic happens — will be over in two hours. What if I make it clear that I just don’t want to talk, to anyone? What if I ignore him?

The best I can do is to hold up the book so he can see the title. Then I give him lukewarm body language. Bette Davis I’m not.

I grew up in New York, so you might think it would be easy for me to find one terse sentence that would let me travel in quiet. But it’s more chronology than geography. It’s growing up in the 50s, I think, that keeps me unable to say “Please be quiet!” to the loud talker in a restaurant or the smarmy salesperson on speakerphone in the airport. I’ve just never been good at it. It came with the territory of my WASPY polite family. Golden rule schmolden rule.

First hour down, and this is what I’ve learned: He is divorced, bad break up. He dates a lot, at least once a week. His son goes to Dartmouth. He has a Cocker Spaniel, and it has a name. I gave up and closed my book 55 minutes ago. Did I say he was a Chatter? He is King of the Chatters.

He does punctuate most of his sentences with: “Don’t you think?” But I realize 25 miles in that his “question” is just a place holder until he can catch his breath. The first few times he said it, I actually opened my mouth to respond, but my timing was off, and he just continued with his train of thought. Besides, it wouldn’t matter if I said: “Let’s get naked and see if anyone notices.” He is on an amazing one-way frequency in this conversation.

For the last 15 minutes of the trip, I retreat to nodding or shaking my head in response to what I guess he’s been saying. I take my cues from his facial expressions. Smile = nod. Frown = shake.

The doors are about to open at the station. I have just spent two hours of my life that I’ll never get back again. I have regrets about that.

“So, are you on Face Book?” he asks as we gather our belongings.

I want to say, “Everyone’s on Face Book.” I want it to be worthy of a Maggie Smith exit line as she harrumphs out of the library in Downtown Abbey.

In my head I can hear my parents, my grandparents, and all my aunts and uncles in some heavenly choir, coming at me from all directions. If you can’t say anything nice . . .

I pretend I don’t hear his question. He asks again. Then I smile. Of course I do.


The Magic of a Re-Admit

I arrived at my empty classroom and started rehearsing. It was my first day teaching a college class, and I felt the need for a dramatic opening line. I waited until my English 101 students had all filed in and sat down. I probably cleared my throat. “Ladies and gentleman, from this room you can go anywhere.” So an hour into my new career, and I had already walked away with the Full-of-Yourself Award.

For the first few weeks, my classes hummed along, and I believed my own hype. Then in the second month, several students dropped out. Then a few more disappeared. I liked the word “attrition” because it made it easier to forget their faces: The quiet, studious kid, who took copious notes but never came back when the paper was due. The young man who worked the night shift and couldn’t get out of bed for class. The ones who ran out of money or succumbed to their addictions or didn’t want to be there in the first place.

I blamed myself. A colleague, who had long since stopped taking it personally, took me aside and said, “Look, this is community college. Lots of kids bail.”

It didn’t help.

When I added tutoring in the college’s Writing Center a few hours a week, it became a panacea. I no longer got involved in students’ lives. In and out they filed, wanting an hour of my time, just a little slice of my expertise. “Can you help me fix this paper?” they’d say, and I would, and then the next person would sit down.

On the morning I met Annie, I spotted her leaning against the doorway, deciding if she should enter. Her head was shaved on one side, showing off dozens of piercings on her left ear. She wore army fatigue pants and thick black boots. A tee shirt tight across her chest bore the name and logo of a rock band I’d never heard of, for good reason. As she sat down, I realized she was anxious. She pushed three sheets of paper across the table and said nothing.

I started reading. Sometimes students plagiarized and made it easy for me. I could just hand it back to them and say something like, “Uh…William Faulkner wrote this,” and they would feign disgust and storm out.

But Annie’s essay didn’t have the telltale hints that it had been lifted from someone else. It was her work, and (okay, by community college standards) it was brilliant. Not only had she written this little gem, but she wanted to make it better. I didn’t want to fix everything. I wanted her to come back. The next week she showed up early.

Annie was a “re-admit,” someone who had dropped out years ago, and was now giving it another try. Tutoring was bumpy in those first few weeks. At times she seemed so frustrated with herself that I was afraid she’d give up and be sucked back into her old life. I lost track of how often I reached for clichés about Rome being built. But every Tuesday and every Thursday, there she’d be at the door. And then she’d step in and get to work.

After a few months, she was still coming to the Writing Center, but I was running out of things to teach her. One day the Director of the Center, a woman who’d been teaching community college students for thirty years, sat at the next table waiting for her appointment to show (or not). Annie and I were working on her latest paper. I leaned over, and, as casually as I could muster, said to the director, “Would you mind looking at this?”

I watched her eyes get bigger as she read. She looked at Annie and asked, “Did you write this?” Annie nodded.

She smiled. “Then we need to find you a better college.”

That would come, and when it did, it would be on a full scholarship. From there she was accepted into an English PhD program at a university. If she cared — and I’m not sure she did — she now had all the trailing ivy and Gothic towers she could ever want. She kept in touch. I was no longer qualified to give her advice on anything she was writing. That elated me.

When her dissertation was finished, she landed the only teaching position she wanted. Every fall, I picture the first day of the semester there, her nervous students waiting for their professor, in a classroom two doors down from the Writing Center. No grand and bloated opening line for Annie. All she has to say is, “I have a story to tell you.” And I bet that’s just the way it happens.


A Teacher’s Regrets

I was 23 and had landed a job as a teacher in Skaneateles, NY, a village that sits at the northern tip of one of the pristine Finger Lakes. I didn’t know much, but fresh from college, I didn’t know that yet.

I learned quickly that there were village kids and there were the farm kids. There were deep pockets of old money. And just as many folks on the outskirts of town scraping by.

Marcus Pendell was a student in my first class, a third generation farmer. Of all the absurdities of life, it turns out that he has been a grownup for a couple of decades now, and I’m on my way to visit him and his wife and kids. You get to do stuff like this when you become a “teacher of a certain age” and you’re now part of the nostalgia that takes over 50 year-olds’ lives. And yes, my former students are in their fifties.

I picture what Marcus might look like, and realizing he farms so close to a village known for its good taste and style, I wonder if he’s turned into one of those celebrity farmers, the ones who talk about sustainable sourcing and charcuterie. They show up on glossy magazine covers. They wear suede jackets. They pose in a field of flowers, holding a jar of honey, or with both arms outstretched, full of chanterelles.

By the last turn onto his land, I can tell I won’t be seeing organic herbs or morels today. Just a hunch he won’t be wearing anything from the J. Peterman catalogue.

Two German shepherds announce us as the car pulls up to the house at the top of a dusty hill. Marcus’s wife is waiting and she shoos away the dogs from under our feet. This is a dairy farm. Cows. Milk. Knee-high rubber boots from Sears.

“He’s still a man of few words,” his wife laughs, “but he’s excited to see you again.”

We wait in the kitchen, and after a few minutes, Marcus bounds into the room through the sliding door off the back deck. He’s still big and burly, now with a dark beard. He wears one of those big caps farmers wear with the name of a seed company on it. We hug.

He says, “You look exactly the same except you have short hair now.” I laugh. Then we both laugh. He was 11 the last time I saw him.

We start our farm tour by climbing into his big pickup. I’m still processing the idea he’s all grown up. That he could — if he wanted to — shave. He may be processing that I need a hand getting myself into and out of his truck. I can’t tell.

And then, sort of out of nowhere, he says, “I never forgot the first day in your class.”

I’m surprised by this because I don’t remember much at all.

“Tell me,” I say.

Apparently I had written on the black board: Write a composition about what you did over summer vacation. Marcus tells me he looked at the instructions and thought, Well, I didn’t do anything over the summer — milk, cut hay, clean the barn, feed cows, deliver calves — nothing. He figured it was going to be one of those years.

He sighed. He began writing. His opening line was “I’m a farmer.”

He says I collected the compositions, sat down at my desk and started reading them aloud. The one I read right before Marcus’s was written by someone whose family owned a 30-foot sailboat.

Then I turned to his. I read his opening line and stopped. I said, “Where is Marcus?” He tells me this was the worst thing I could have said because everyone knew who he was, and everyone (even the ones I thought were nice girls, he tells me) had made fun of him somewhere along the way since kindergarten precisely because he was a farmer. He raised his hand, but he knew no one would laugh because it was the first day of school and they all wanted to get on my good side.

He tells me I looked straight at him and said, “A farmer! Wow. You’re a farmer.”


This is the life of a teacher. Once in a while, you get stories like the one Marcus is telling me.

But once in a while it goes this way: You send a friend request on Facebook to another child-now-grown-up who also spent a whole year with you. And the person sends you a terse reply, letting you know in his first sentence that his memories are not warm. They’re not pleasant, or inspiring, or even mediocre. And even though a Facebook friend is not a real friend, he has no intention of being yours. It was something you said, trying to be funny, maybe, but he heard it as unkind. Maybe it was.

You want to go back and make it all better. At the very least you want to remember saying it, but you don’t. He is all grown up, with children of his own. But he still remembers what you said. You write a long apology back, and you hope maybe he will forgive you. You never hear from him again.


“Watch your step here,” Marcus says.

He is about to answer a question I just asked about tractors, but he stops instead and says, “I was proud that day, that first day, when you read my composition and asked all those questions about being a farmer. Thank you for that.”

Even in this moment — pretty much a teacher’s dream — I think of telling Marcus about the other boy. I want to let myself off the hook, maybe, by saying, “Too many kids, too many moments, too many words for all of them to end well.” But I’m still too sad about the kid who hates me to even talk about him.

“We better get back to the house,” Marcus says. Lunch is probably ready.”

The year he was in my class, Marcus taught me about farming. He schooled me — the suburban girl who didn’t know field corn from sweet. Lots of times he’d arrive in class and tell me about the calf he’d helped deliver a few hours before. I was always breathless during his lessons. I took more than I gave. He was always the teacher, though neither of us knew it then.

I want to thank him for being a kinder one, a better one, but I don’t. We go inside to wash up for lunch.