17 July 2008

Another Ending

So another day ends. And in this case, another week and another class.

Most of my co-workers and I are on four-day weeks until the middle of August, when registration begins. During the four days on the job, we come in earlier and/or leave later and/or take shorter or no lunch breaks. I'm going in an hour earlier and taking a shorter lunch break. I really don't mind either (actually, coming in early I mind somewhat, but it's not the worst thing in the world.) And, of course, it's hard to argue with a three-day weekend.

Except that this won't be a real three-day weekend. You see, I have a whole bunch of papers to grade for the class I've been teaching. Officially, Tuesday is our last meeting day: that's when the final exam is supposed to be administered. However, I'm not required to give a final in that class: Writing for Business. What do you give for a final exam in a class that has involved writing letters, memos, e-mails, reports, proposals and plans--and giving a speech?

So the class is essentially over. The campus will be a ghost town after next week. I'll probably enjoy the quiet and miss the students. That sounds contradictory but, as Walt Whitman wrote, "I embrace my contradictions."

Actually, I'm starting to miss the class already: They're one of the nicer groups of people I've taught. As in so many classes at York, the women clearly outnumbered the men: 20 to 5. This ratio is not so unusual at York, particularly in an upper-division course like the one I taught.

One of the males was one of the few students in that class who was under 30: Jay, who is the second student to take three diferent courses with me. Another, Ratesh, is just under 30 and left Guyana by himself at age 15. I enjoy talking with both of them, as I frequently did outside class, because they have experienced much but are very open-hearted and sympathetic. In that way, they're much like the majority of that class: Women in their 30's and 40's who are looking to turn their current jobs into careers or to move into other lines of work altogether--or, possibly to restart their lives. I'm sure that at some have had abusive boyfriends or husbands: I could tell that about one or two of them simply by looking at them, even though I could not see their bruises.

And then there's Dianne, an African-American native of Jacksonville, FL (not far from where my parents live now), who is around my age. As a child, saw a black man's body hanging from a tree while visiting relatives in Alabama and stumbled on a KKK rally near her home.

Where was I during that time? In Brooklyn, in a neighborhood bisected by the McDonald Avenue elevated tracks, where the F train runs to Coney Island or Manhattan and Queens. The boundaries, at least unofficially, of that neighborhood were an expressway, a cemetery, a New York City transit maintainence yard (full of rows of brick-red, black and stainless steel subway cars), the ocean and Ocean Parkway.

In our neighborhood, nobody starved but nobody had a lot, either. Sometimes my mother would make pasta with sauce and very small amounts of chopped meat, peas or beans--or sometimes even pancakes--for me and my brothers for dinner. I didn't mind those dishes at all; in fact, years later, when I started living on my own, I made such meals for myself and didn't wish for anything else. Why? For the same reasons my mother made them: To stretch the few dollars left until the next paycheck. And, let's face it, those foods are satisfying as well as filling.

In one sense--a very literal one, of course--those days ended for me, my mother, my brothers and my father--because time, and we, moved on. That's the chief reason why things end. But, just as important, those and other experiences form and change us. So, in another way, things have to end simply because we're not the same people as we were when they started.

One of the things I didn't know back then was that my family, and nearly all the others around us, were "working class." (Someone once said that once you learn you're working class, you aren't anymore. ) I didn't know anything different; nor did most people in the neighborhood. I saw starving children in Africa and India--on TV. That's also where I saw the rich and famous--again, in places nowhere near our home. The starving and the wealthy were so distant and abstract that I--and, I suspect, most everyone else in that neighborhood--couldn't compare ourselves to them.

Here's something else we probably didn't have to think about: That neighborhood, at least as I remember it, was entirely white. Most of us were Italian or Jewish; a few Irish: none more than a generation or two removed from the "old country." However, that neighborhood was so insular that neither I nor most of the other kids had any idea of who or what was beyond those boundaries I mentioned. All we knew was that we weren't supposed to cross them. Nobody told us that; it was something we simply "understood."

Many years later, after I'd moved to Manhattan, I took a Sunday subway ride to the old neighborhood. And I did something I never did when I was living there: I crossed Ocean Parkway, on foot. Sometimes my father drove us across it when we went to visit relatives in Queens or some other part of town. But I'd never actually set foot on the center lane, much less the other side.

Before that day, before I crossed Ocean Parkway, I had already crossed the ocean. I'd seen the other side-- England, France and the Netherlands--but I hadn't seen East 8th Street, the next street on the other side of the Parkway.

If that neighborhood hadn't ended for me when my family moved out of it, it was certainly done, finished, when I set foot on the opposite side of the Parkway.

So, dear reader (Could that be me?), you're probably asking what's changed tonight. Well, nothing monumental, or so it seems. Another workweek ends: That has happened hundreds, perhaps thousands (I haven't done the math.), of times for me already. Another class comes to an end, too: That's happened dozens of times. Another academic term--in this case, a truncated version. OK, that's no big deal either. In a few weeks, another semester will start.

Well, the class that just ended is the last summer class I'll be teaching for a while--possibly forever. All right: That's a small denouement in the scale of things. In a couple of weeks, I expect to see my parents: After that, I may not see them again until the surgery.

I guess every day is an ending as well as a beginning. And there's another boundary, street or ocean to cross. Some people talk about light at the end of the tunnel. What's more frequent, I think, are the lights where we cross. Sometimes I wonder whether I'm dashing (as much as I can do that now) through the intersection as the light's changing.

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