Not Yet And Maybe Never
By Jennifer Wortman
Almost a year after she’d taught him, she ran into him in the English department hallway. As always, the way he hooked his thumbs behind his backpack straps made him look young but orderly, all of him, even accessories, pieced together. She’d come to view that backpack, a brighter blue and rounder shape than typical, as his signpost, a hello as he made his way to his seat, a goodbye as he left, a wink across campus. Because of its unique look, she’d often wondered if he’d bought it in Europe, especially considering his name: Jurgen. Though he was, she’d learned, from Wyoming.
That first day of class, he’d coolly slouched in the back row, his farm boy muscles dwarfing the desk. Though she’d gone to graduate school for creative writing, she’d never taught a creative writing course before: it was the class she wanted to teach most. She was eager and frightened, and his white-blond buzz cut and white-grey eyes—features of the kind of man her grandmother said she couldn’t help picturing in jackboots—did not ease her nerves. Nor did the way he stared at her from the edges, at once shutting her out and taking her in. She developed a terrible anxiety about that class, and he was the face of that anxiety, the person she’d see when imagining worst case scenarios regarding her students’ opinions of her.
But as the class progressed, she learned he’d just been thinking and listening hard about writing, soaking it all in. He wrote a story about a boy covered in pig shit from the perspective of the pig shit and it was marvelous. She hadn’t expected Jurgen to write a story from such a surprising and strangely successful point of view. It was innovative, yes, but also soulful. She felt for the boy and she felt for the pig shit, whose character he’d developed with grace. Maybe there were a few places he could have slowed down or sped up, some sentences to fine-tune, a little grammar and spelling to correct. But who cared? He wrote a story from the perspective of pig shit that basically worked, while his classmates were writing about taking drugs and road trips and break ups. And some of those stories were pretty good, or showed the promise of goodness, but they weren’t successfully narrated by pig shit.
He saved her. Because at first, no matter how the class went, she could only focus on her fuck ups, like when she couldn’t find the right word in the middle of a sentence, and maybe it was just a couple seconds before she found the right word, but that moment of class, in her memory, became an eternity, defining the class, along with her teaching and language skills. She wasn’t, and would never be, what she’d dreamed.
But after Jurgen turned in the story about pig shit, she noticed other things. Like a lot of the students were engaged and learning and growing. And Jurgen most of all. When she’d start to get flustered, she’d focus on him and that unwavering gaze she’d once seen as judgment now seemed like love, not romantic love, but learning love. And the love she had for him was strictly teaching love.
He was oblivious to what he meant to her, as it should be, though she treated him well, as she treated all her students. Oh, she loved them too. They all had their own signposts: Amanda’s pink jacket, Carlos’s green mohawk. She’d see them across the way and remember she mattered because they mattered. But maybe she loved Jurgen most. She certainly did now, suddenly seeing him in front of her after all this time.
“Hello, Jurgen,” she said, taking on that motherly tone she couldn’t help, even though she probably didn’t have a decade on him. “How are you?”
“Great,” he said. He didn’t ask her how she was back, which seemed appropriate: their relationship had been a joint effort in his development.
She then asked him the most important question, the one that would tell her if their effort had stuck: “Are you still writing?”
“Yeah,” he said, “I’m actually taking a class right now. I forget the teacher’s name. Tall guy with glasses.” She knew which professor he meant. How didn’t he know his name? Did he know her name? “It’s even better,” he went on, “than yours.”
This strangely pleased her: even better for him was even better for them both, because if even better was the icing, her class had been the cake. Though she hadn’t much liked that professor, who was tenured and the author of many books. He’d been her teacher too once and told her to “just write a novel” and then she’d “snag a tenure track job.” But she taught twice as many classes he did for the fraction of the pay, and there were hardly any tenure track jobs out there these days anyhow. She barely wrote: all she could do was teach, athletically, with her whole thumping heart, while he, as she recalled, displayed a blatant disregard for his students, a contempt even, though somehow Jurgen failed to see this, or perhaps hadn’t even experienced this, maybe because he was a white boy or maybe because the learning eclipsed everything.
“It’s so nice to see you,” she said.
“You too, Ms. Wexler.” He had remembered her name and the way she wanted him to say it: Ms. No “Professor”: not yet and maybe never. He unhooked his hand from the backpack strap to shake her hand, as if they weren’t saying goodbye but meeting for the first time. She clasped his hand with both of hers and let him go.
Jennifer Wortman is a National Endowment of the Arts fellow and the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. She lives with her family in Colorado, where she serves as an associate fiction editor for Colorado Review and teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.