Friday, April 27, 2018

taking leave

by J J Cohen

In the past few weeks I have been forcing myself to face up to some difficult au revoirs, again and again. Many of these farewells are small: people I know through business exchanges, or neighborhood rounds, or synagogue, or my daughter's school. Others are heavy with the weight of long acquaintance and (sometimes) the knowledge of diminishing attachment in the years ahead. A few farewells are joyful: I actually do never want to deal with certain institutional offices again and take some small joy in not having to file another report for them. (Yes I know they will be replaced in time, but still.) Most however are bittersweet.

It is time to move on. We have sold our home of twenty years here in DC. Next week we close on a new place for our family in Phoenix. We are not houseless yet because we've rented back for a while. But it's not ours anymore.

I thought the process of letting go would be more difficult. Last weekend though we met the family who will live here next. They have three young children, and to see those kids tumbling around on the grass by the front door made me think, weirdly, that the house wants this. I showed the father the various parts of the small yard, including the little herb garden and where the makeshift pet cemetery is located, with its memorials to hermit crabs, fish, a lizard, a hamster. He said "You are literally showing me where the bodies are buried." I think he will do OK here. I think this family will be happy, as we have been happy. Our house has been good to us: two children have grown up as we adapted and changed its contours and colors, more guests than we can count have slept inside its walls, the place has sheltered all kinds of writing and music and feasting and frolic. It's a good place, and saying good-bye to its warmth ... well, it is not only sad.

Yesterday I taught the last meeting of my "Literature and the Environment" course ... and my very last class at GWU. I'd been dreading saying good-bye to my students. Leave taking is difficult in an ordinary semester after 12 weeks of closely working together, but seemed especially freighted that day in ways that have nothing to do with those in the room. In lieu of a final exam I set aside the last class for mapping the terrain we had traversed together, articulating the knowledge we'd collaboratively generated about the intimacy of text and place; the rewards of sustained attentiveness; narrative as a technology for the changing of minds and hearts; memory and art; creativity and materiality; how the best learning unfolds at unexpected moments and generally outside rubrics and assessment models that capture and measure things well known in advance. I brought my students donuts and fruit, and because they are a "quiet class" (meaning, they hesitate: but I love that about them) I told them that the only requirement left was to come to the front of the room and take some food. And they did. Then they spoke with passion and good humor about how they'd pushed themselves to try new things over the semester, and had often found a talent or a voice or a possibility they did not know they possess. By the end of the 75 minutes I felt buoyed. All twenty-two students promised to email me in five years to tell me what they are doing and how much of what they spoke about today they've put into practice (and they were *so* excited to have something not special to me but very much to them: my non-GWU email address, as well as an invitation to call me by my first name. The dropping of these last formalities mattered). I left the room smiling. The future is in very good hands.

To my pleasure my son Alex, freshly back from study abroad in New Zealand, came to this last class and met my students (something both my children have been doing since they were very young -- but now he is the same age as those I teach, and there was something, well, beautiful about seeing him sitting among them). From my office window before we left for class Alex took the picture that I am using to illustrate this day. He noticed that the students in the plaza had accidentally formed into a line. I hope he won't mind that I am posting it here because it just seems so ... right. I like to think that for the students in the image and in my life this accidental metaphor is a line that points forward towards a more just future, the one they are going to make.

For me though it's a curve, because it is not as straight as it looks, and they are always going to be in my heart. I am departing GWU, my home of two decades, as fond of its students as I was on my very first day as a beginning assistant professor.

I could not ask for more.

No comments: