Lost in space
It was way past midnight, and in my typical fashion, I was in my Lay-Z-Dope surfing the net, when I ran across an article in an astronomy magazine on Deep Space. I found it interesting, especially since I skipped all the scientific jargon and mathematic formulas. But I was stopped short by a reference to an international conference held in 1978. I read about the conference and while there was nothing noteworthy about it to me, some vague, indefinable something nagged at me.
After finishing the article, I headed to bed, looking forward to reading my new mystery. But I read with my mind only half on it. The other half kept going back to the Deep Space article and the conference of ’78, though I had no idea why. Finally, I said to hell with it, turned out the light and drifted off.
Then, a few hours later, I bolted wide awake.
Deep Space 1978?
Of course — Deep Space Grace!
Deep Space Grace was a Paul Smith’s College student back in its halcyon days. She was a nice kid, but very high on the hippy-dippy-trippy spectrum. She had one foot on the ground and the other planted somewhere in the Pleiades, thus her nickname.
Something unusual about PSC back then. While many colleges don’t have a lot of teacher/student interactions outside of class, Paul Smith’s was the exact opposite. Students and teachers interacted constantly, all over campus. Plus there was an air of familiarity that existed, so if a kid liked a teacher, they weren’t afraid to approach them and just talk about this, that and the other thing. Often, students would drop in a teacher’s office — whether they had them in class or not — just to rap and pass the time. That’s how I met Deep Space Grace.
She started coming in my office early in fall semester 1978 for reasons known only to her, and continued to drift in about once a week for the whole semester. She’d talk about the various goings-on in her life, and among them, inevitably, was one constant: At some point in the convo she’s stop, sigh heavily, and say, “You know, Mr. Seidenstein, I really wish I had you for English.” Then she’d sigh even more heavily and add, “I have Mr. Peterson, and he’s soooo boring.”
I was a fairly new teacher then and pretty ignorant of the fine points of pedagogy. But I knew enough to never take sides with, or even acknowledge, a student’s criticism of another teacher. So I said nothing, acted like I’d heard nothing, and let the moment pass, which it inevitably did. I also never told Kirk about DSG’s burning desire to be out of his class and in mine. He was, after all, not just a coworker, but one of my good friends, and I saw no reason to hurt his feelings.
The lowest rung
Now a word about Kirk. He and I go way back — a half century, in fact. We’re the same age, we started at PSC in fall ’73 and we retired at roughly the same time, some 40 years later. Or as he put it: “We went into teaching at the right time … and got out of it at the right time too.”
In addition to being a rock-solid guy, Kirk has a great sense of humor — dry, wry and witty. Plus his humor is never vicious — something I more than made up for. We shared a lot of laughs together, and we shared something else: He and I both huddled at the bottom rung of the English department’s status ladder. The Grand Poobah generously assigned us five sections of Freshman Composition every semester and every year, with no end in sight — Armageddon to the contrary … maybe.
If you don’t know, Freshman English is the Abattoir of Academe, the English prof’s equivalent of the Gulag. English per-fessors, those giants of intellect and aesthetics, loathe it to the bottom of what passes for their hearts. They didn’t scale the lofty heights of the Ivory Tower to end up reading essays with such intriguing titles as “My Boyfriend’s Face,” or “Spot: The Best Dog Ever!!,” or that absolute student classic, “How to Roll a Joint.”
Nope, they knew they were destined to amaze generations with their fascinating take on Etruscan Poetry, Icelandic Odes, or The Sado-Masochistic Symbology of James Joyce. Shoveling the dunghills of English was left to department’s dispossessed — in this case, Kirk and me. So our friendship, forged in the Trenches of Pedagogy, gave us a relationship of shell-shocked comrades of a losing army, which metaphorically speaking, we were.
My turn in the barrel
OK, so the fall semester of ’78 passed, and when second semester began, who did I find in my class roster but Deep Space Grace. It only took me a week or so to figure out why she was so bored in Kirk’s class: She was bored in all her classes. And the reason she was bored was because she was present in body only. She was someone who loved college — the friends, the parties, and the road trips. To her, the only down side of college was the classes, in which her performance was consistently lousy.
I know there are all kinds of educational experts who have all kinds of theories on how to motivate the most unmotivated of students. I’ve read a bunch of their literature and have sat through their lectures and workshops. Each expert has their own special approach to effecting their miracle — all of them different from the other. In fact, there’s only one thing they all have in common: They were written by someone who never taught Freshman English Composition at Paul Smith’s College.
Simple put, all their theories were either plain ole common sense or pure doo-doo. They were no more knowledgeable about motivating students than the rest of us, and probably a bunch of them were much less so. As far as I was concerned, only one person was fit to lecture about motivating the unwilling, namely Gunther Gebel-Williams. And he never taught English Comp. at PSC, either.
Anyhow, I had about 110 students other than DSG and since almost all of them were more motivated than her, I focused my energies and attention on them, and left her to her own devices. She earned an honest D- for her final grade and lived to space out another day.
At the school year’s end, after I’d tallied all the final grades and had played God the last time for a few months, I was always wiped out. It was just bizness as yoo-jool, but still, correcting a couple thousand student essays a year has a way of doing that to you. So there I was, wiped out, in my office, sprawled in my chair, thinking of a summer of fun and frolic, when Kirk walked in.
He looked about as spent as I felt and he sprawled in my other chair and we talked about the school year’s highs, lows and in-betweens. And somewhere in the middle of our chat he said, “It’s amazing how easy it is to misunderstand people, especially students.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “You have any specific example?”
“I do,” he said. “That girl they call Deep Space Grace.”
“Why?” I said. “What about her?”
“Well, I never had much of a relationship with her last semester and thought she didn’t like my class,” he said. But I thought you were one of her favorites, since she seemed to be in your office a lot.”
“She was that,” I said.
“But she never came in my office at all,” he said,“till just last week.”
“Oh?” I said. “What’d she want?’ “Just to hang out and chat,” he said. “Which since she’d never done it before, seemed a bit weird.”
“Deep Space Grace, a bit weird?” I said. “How surprising.”
“But she did say something that DID surprise me,” he said.
“What was that?”
“Like I said, I thought she didn’t like my class,” he said. “But she said she really wished she’d had me for second semester comp too.”
“Oh?” I said, my Sherlockian senses suddenly on high alert. “She say anything else?”
He paused, obviously searching for the right words. Then he took a deep breath and went on.
“Just that she had you for comp and found you boring,” he said. Then he added, “Which I really had trouble believing.”
“Well, Kirk,” I said “I have no trouble believing it — no trouble at all.”