The Arkansas Times got a visit this week from some folks teaching a class for LifeQuest of Arkansas, an outfit that puts on continuing education courses for older folks. The Observer was a teacher for long years out at the college. I may yet go back to it. But the visit from the LifeQuest folks got me thinking about the first class I ever taught: a weeklong Elderhostel seminar on memoir at the University of Iowa during the summer of '97. Elderhostel is something similar to LifeQuest. That summer, the folks in The Observer's class — who must have had an average age of 70 — got stuck with Yours Truly: 24 years old, greener than gooseshit and babbling like an idiot.
I can tell you without hesitation that I learned more from my students than they learned from me. I'm sure most of them are dead now, but they live on in my heart, in a special, sunlit room. I think of them often. One of them was a professor from Sweden, who taught newbie doctors physiology. He told the story of how, as a young man, he'd been trekking on a glacier with his brother when his brother had fallen into a hidden crevasse. He told of how he was too weak to pull his brother up by the rope that connected them, and how, rather than allow his weight to pull them both into the abyss, his brother had taken out a knife, cut the cord that connected them and fell to his death.
Another was an older surgeon with a prodigious mustache. He wrote of how he had once removed a sailor's appendix on a table inside a Navy destroyer during a typhoon in the South China Sea, the ship rolling so hard the patient had to be strapped to the table, one nurse holding the light, another bear-hugging the good doctor's knees and butting the top of her head firmly into his bony ass to keep him from falling over.
And then there was the saddest story I ever heard. It came from a little old lady whose name I remember as Ruth, though that may be wrong after all these years. She'd grown up in a large Jewish family in a Midwestern city. Her mother had been employed as a nurse to an old man who had once been wealthy, but lost everything along the way. By the time Ruth's mother went to work caring for him, all he had left was a crumbling mansion. In my mind, it's a vast, sodden wedding cake of a house, layered in peeling paint, rot, turrets and balconies from which Ruth's family can appear and shout. When the old man died, he had no family, so he left the house to Ruth's mother as a way of saying thank you for seeing him through.
Ruth's parents were from the Old Country. In the 1930s, they saw that things were going bad in Europe, so they wrote to their relatives and told them: We have room! Come! Live here until you get on your feet! Flee! And so they did. Soon, The House of a Thousand Rooms was full from basement to attic, babies in dresser drawers and kids sleeping out in the backyard, men snoring in the eaves and mothers and fathers bunking in hallways, new kin rotating in as others moved out, the dinner table surrounded by family. Love! Light! Music, and the drip of rain in pans. And, of course, an escape from looming horrors.
But then, Ruth said, she and a cousin were under the porch smoking a cigarette. They were little girls. I see their sun-dappled faces, striped with light through the floorboards and lattice. I see them frowning at the taste of the tobacco, then dropping the cigarette butt before scurrying out. Then: the hateful orange whiff of flame.
She and her family stood in the street in tears, clutching each other and whatever they could carry, and watched The House of a Thousand Rooms go up like a pyre. And all those years later, in the classroom of a green, dumb kid from Arkansas, she wrote of the crushing guilt she had felt every day since. Of the nights she had lain awake and stared at the ceiling while her husband slept beside her, wondering how many of her kin back in Europe had died because they had no home in America to escape to. How many had perished in despair because of a mistake she made when she was a girl?
And that is the saddest story I ever heard.