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Ofelia: Student as Teacher by Barbara Ganley
 

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  • I’m standing in front of an imposing stone building in the center of a quadrangled New England college campus, sure I have lost my mind. Really, I must have lost my mind. The front of my white shirt will no doubt spring leaks right there in front of the twelve students I’m about to meet for the first time, a damp flowering like a crazy rorschach inkblot across my chest. Right when I make a crucial point about community and the power of writing to build relationships, voice and change. Right when I’m bonding with them.

    What was I thinking?
    A white shirt?
    What was I thinking?
    Really.

    I just left three-year-old N crying at her pre-school and E squalling at R’s office. She’s six weeks old.

    Honestly, what was I thinking?

    Last night and the night before and the night before that I dreamed a ridiculous scene of my milk-loaded breasts spouting a Roman fountain across the room as I introduce myself to appalled students.

    You see, it is my first day at this oh-so-prestigious college where I am to teach kids who might need help with writing to succeed here, kids who will redefine diversity and go on to change the community forever.

    I know all too well that this job is a fluke for someone who refused to follow the PhD route, that it’s now or never, and I’m not sure which I want, so I suck it up and enter the building. It’s hot. There’s no air conditioning. Sweat pours down everywhere it can. I’m a sight to behold.

    And there, crowding that too-small classroom, around an oval table that nearly touches the four walls, twelve faces as overwhelmed as my own stare at me. Faces from isolated prairie farms in the upper Midwest, from East Los Angeles and the south side of Chicago, from Queens and the Bronx, from the hinterlands of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, from China and Norway and Germany. They have never seen one of each other before. And they sure have never seen the likes of me.

    But here we are.

    So I do what any panic-stricken writing teacher does—I give them a prompt—Tell us a story of your name.

    I’ve made a mistake. They’re looking around at each other, out the windows, down at the floor as though there’s a right answer they don’t have to another test from this unfathomable world, and this one counts big time.

    I am way over my head here. I know nothing. Who am I to think I have something to offer them? What was the college thinking?

    And then I see a sweet, soft smile. A smile of recognition. Of empathy. Of excitement. At least that’s what I’m reading.

    Ofelia from East Los Angeles. 17. A slip of a girl. She’s hardly ever been out of the barrio. She writes in Spanglish. She is further from home than she could possibly suspect. How did she get here to this whitest of states, this uber-privileged super-expensive liberal arts college? How did I get here? Why would she want this? Why would I?

    Suddenly it doesn’t matter. She reaches across the table with that full look that tells me it’s going to be okay. She’s game if I am. In that moment we form a bond, a partnership, a pact to help each other out, to make this crazy experiment work.

    And help me she does. Over the next four years and way way beyond. To become a better teacher than I knew I could. A better mother. A better person. And I her I guess: to thank and forgive this place, to be herself, to write-- though now, nearly twenty-five years later, I wonder about that. I think the giving and getting were a bit lopsided.

    But here we are on this lovely Memorial Day weekend so many years later, sitting on the patio reminiscing and laughing and shaking our heads over that time when we were both so young and eager and clueless. She has come from the city with her daughter O for a few days. We’ve just Skyped with E who now lives in Italy. N texts us from NYC. R’s about to get on his tractor. O plays with butterflies on the grass.

    Ofelia looks over at me and smiles as if to say, You see, I told you it would be okay.
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