M. Garrett Bauman
Crossing The Fine Line Between Teacher
The first day, his wheelchair was backed against the side wall, empty seats separating him from his fellow students. Knowing how difficult it is to maneuver a wheelchair in cluttered classrooms, I slid some desks aside and invited him to move nearer the others.
He wore wraparound, mirrored sunglasses and slowly panned the class, forcing down curious eyes. Then he turned to me and said, "I'm ok." He looked about fifty and wore a T-shirt with rolled sleeves exposing tattoos of snakes and the American flag on his Appalachian thin arms. When I reached his name on the roster and called “James,” he corrected me: "The name's Jimmy."
During the first weeks of our college writing class, Jimmy slumped in his wheelchair, taking no notes, grunting minimal replies to questions. He became animated only during a discussion of Vietnam.
Few of his classmates were even born then, so Jimmy described how his unit evacuated a flooded village. "A hundred people piled carts with stuff. Sarge says they can bring only one thing each, ‘cause the boat's overloaded. This woman has a baby under one arm and a pig under the other. 'One thing!' Sarge says, so the woman throws the baby into the river."
A young woman in class gasped, "What did the soldiers do?"
Jimmy's mirrored glasses were rock still. "Nothing. That's the way it was in Nam. A pig was worth something." The class shrank back as if a cobra had spit at them.
After class, Jimmy rolled to my desk. "My counselor says I got to find out why I been gettin' low grades." I pointed out that his papers were much too short and suggested he visualize more details, as he did with his oral story. He said, "I got nothing to say on these topics. I tell it like it is. After that it's just bullshit." I reminded him that he chose the topics. He sighed.
"Yeah, yeah. But nothing ever happened to me my whole life but one thing."
I sat to be on his level. My own distorted reflection shone in his sunglasses--bulging, insect-like. Is that how he sees me? I wondered. Or is it how I feel--the soft professor who never saw a child thrown in a river. Vietnam was so long ago. Yet I felt those years now, like an old shard of shrapnel grinding under the skin. As Jimmy's classmates were being born and I was raising a family and maturing professionally, he was stuck in the jungle. All those years he remained a teenager serving time in a broken, old man's body. I said, "So write about that one thing."
He barked a laugh. "No way!" Too much'd come out I don't want out again." He clenched the weelchair. I suggested a good paper would make something positive of his experience, that writing might even help exorcize it. He snorted. "Nah! You don't want that out."
Maybe not, but if education was to help him discover his strengths, it had to go where his energy was. In his curved lenses I watched my lips say "I do," and I wondered what my advice would cost him.
His next paper described his wounding, near the war's end, in meaningless fighting. Jimmy was shuffling to the latrine at night when the first rounds hit. "They couldn't even see me," he wrote. A machine gun bullet tore through his kneecap. Two more shattered two vertebrae in his lower back. He collapsed like a deflating balloon, his knee gone, both legs paralyzed. Jimmy said he was "stupid" to be crippled because he “couldn't hold a leak.” He concluded, "I got a medal, but I was no hero. None of us were heroes. We were just lucky or stupid. I was stupid."
I puzzled over stupid. Wasnt' "unlucky" the right word?
When it was time for the students to discuss their papers, I worried about how Jimmy would react to their comments about his work. A silly comment could light Jimmy's fuse. Yet after a few awkward moments, they hotly debated heroism and luck. They wanted more details to fill in their fathers' shadowy tales of Vietnam. At first, Jimmy bristled at what he took for patronizing. Yet by the end of class he seemed to sense that the students respected his authority. Nodding at suggestions for his paper, Jimmy acted as if he owned something valuable.
Having a real topic led him to sharper details, bumping his grades from D—‘s to C’s and B’s, and Jimmy tentatively edged into more of his mined landscape. His next paper described rehab and sagging through tedious years with other broken men in veteran’s hospitals.
"All for nothing," he snarled in my office.
"It got you to college."
He shook his head. "It was college or welfare, they told me. Politicians are tired of us hardbodies. I been draining the system 24 years."
"If you can take three bullets, you can take a few D's."
He laughed. "You don't know what all I took, Teach. You lay flat on your back for a year. Being crippled ain't just a thing that happens to you once. I got a son. Yeah. He was born while I was in Nam. I saw him twice since I been back. The last time he was nine."
"Why don't you visit him?"
"Like this?" He slapped the chrome wheelchair. "He's better off without a daddy to shame him. I ain't dragging him down with me. The kid thinks I'm a hero. What a shit word. I sucked weed and got nailed going to the can. I mailed him my medals. They're better than the real me."
"He might see past the wheelchair," I said.
I was a teacher, not a therapist. Yet to treat Jimmy as a purely educational issue would be not only heartless but truly stupid. While it may seem best to keep academic and personal issues separate, it’s hypocritical. Personal heartaches, neuroses, and rage account for part of the vitality of great books and those who teach them. Surely it is the same for our students. Jimmy’s crippled body and psyche was an unhealed wound in our collective spirit and part of his intellectual contribution to our class.
Jimmy went on, "Yesterday, I was rolling to the river to fish, when I had this creepy feeling my Daddy was behind me. I could hear him
thinking, 'So that's my Jimmy. He looks so stupid with his fishing gear and beer strapped to that chair. He'd a been better off kilt, poor
sum-bitch.' I don't want my kid thinking that about me."
"Your son's in his 20’s. How can you be bad for him? You love him." I'd intruded where professors are not supposed to go, but did not care.
"I'm trash. Pin a degree on me, an' I'll still be trash."
"You don't have to be a rotten father because yours was."
He pounded his armrest. "I already am, dammit! If that's not stupid, what is? Yeah, I love the kid. I know he's a man, but he's gonna stay a kid to me! So what?" He pushed violently on his wheels and rammed the door escaping.
I collapsed into my chair. How little I knew of what it was to be him. Could I really teach him unless I did? I lifted my feet and shoved my hands against the desk so I rolled across the office. I stranded myself in the center where I could reach nothing. I told myself to remember that feeling.
Jimmy's writing sometimes transformed his pain into insight; sometimes it enraged him. I didn't have a plan, didn't know if I pushed him to deliverance or disaster. But we slogged together through the tangled places he'd inhabited for 24 years. He was eager just to move somewhere. No matter what else he did, he wrote, and I hoped we both might stagger into one of education's ordinary miracles, when learning ought to be impossible but happens anyway.
I told myself that shortly after midterm when Jimmy punched a police officer who had arrested him for selling pot. He railed in my office. "Who cares if I smoke dope? Am I going to be a doctor? Fly an airplane? Play shortstop?"
He was hunkering down in his miserable foxhole, and I prodded him. "You didn't hit the cop because he arrested you."
He slid off his purpled, mirror sunglasses, and I saw his old, exhausted eyes for the first time. The skin around them was sickly white from lack of sunlight. "That's right."
I rolled my chair closer and said what had been brewing in me. "Daddy's gone. The cops are not the army. You can't get even with anonymous bullets. Let go of what you were—that boy's dead. Live what's left!"
He laughed and rolled back a few inches. "This is life? See, my big problem is, what's a hardbody do with a diploma? Jerk off a computer all day? Wear a suit?"
"See your son. Write your papers. It's not what it could have been, but it's better than rotting in Vietnam the rest of your life." He sighed and nodded.
Jimmy's GPA turned ugly despite a C+ he was earning in my class. By December he looked exhausted. During finals' week, I heard the familiar whizzing, and Jimmy rolled into my office. "I got to tell you something."
"You're dropping out?" I hate students choosing failure, but I knew Jimmy was not surrendering. He was pricking the bubble of hypocrisy that said we could help, could atone for the loss he had suffered on behalf of all of us. And I knew he had fought harder and learned more than most honor students.
He shrugged. "Sure. But I finished your last paper. Here." He swallowed. "I also...uh...wanted to tell you...I ain't been honest with you. I got some leg movement. I can crab around with crutches; I just don't practice. Watch."
He slowly straightened one leg parallel to the floor, then the other. I had noticed them twitching before, but had said nothing. "I don't have to be in this chair."
"Show me," I said. Jimmy shook his head. My hand hung in the air between us.
"I walk like an epileptic duck," Jimmy said. I extended my hand closer and he took it. I felt the full weight of him as I pulled.