A Student Fails

James e-mailed this week to say he’d flunked out of Hinterland. I’d had to fail him in my lecture class that ended just before the holidays, and I felt a pang of sadness and guilt.


January 11, 2008

James e-mailed this week to say he’d flunked out of Hinterland. I’d had to fail him in my lecture class that ended just before the holidays, and I felt a pang of sadness and guilt. Also on the mailing list were other instructors, what appeared to be peers, and the chancellor. James thanked us for believing in him and making an impact on his life, and he thanked us again. He said it was an honor to be at such a “prestigious academy,” it was “heaven,” but that it showed him he wasn’t ready. He thanked us a final time and listed his home and cell numbers so we could call him whenever we want.

James (not his name) was gentle, sleepy, jovial, and an innocent. He once cracked up the rest of the class when he (genuinely, I think) expressed surprise into a microphone that Chris Crocker was a man. He always stuck around to talk after class, often waiting half an hour until other students finished asking me things. He was lonely and alienated, and I took what time I could.

Sometimes I was a little… Churmish with him, though, especially if it was clear he hadn’t read or prepared for class. I tried to be clear what was expected, and what was at stake, especially since he came from a disadvantaged city neighborhood and was the first in not just his family but in his entire social circle to go to college. We talked a little about being an outsider, which I think I understand to a degree. They were interesting and, I felt at the time, useful talks. But when I asked him in the next class what Heart of Darkness was about, he said, “There’s a boat, and it’s misty, then something something.” Just based on daily quiz scores, I knew he was going down.

He attached himself not only to me but also to visiting author Roy Kesey (who wouldn’t? Gee!), and Roy graciously traded several e-mails with him after his visit.

James once asked me, after class, if I knew why I was his favorite teacher. I did a bit where I said I was sure I didn’t know. He said, “Because you’re the only person here who told me you were my friend.”

I did and do consider myself his friend—the sort of friend too distant in age, experience, education, background, and interests to be a peer or even to have much contact, if that doesn’t sound moronic—but what I had actually said earlier was, “James, as your new best friend here at Hinterland University, let me tell you a few things about life….” I had been frustrated that he slept in class, hadn’t read the material, failed the quiz, and was about to fail a test in another class that, coincidentally, had also required him to read Heart of Darkness, and he still wouldn’t even try to read it, not even when I offered to tutor him.

I worked on a reply to James’s announcement of his flunking out (he titled it “Breaking News”) as if it were for publication. It’s still all wrong:


I'm sorry to hear it. Maybe you weren't ready, as you say. I wasn't, my first time around as an undergrad. But do finish your degree someday, okay?

A last story about Roy Kesey:

Roy wrote recently that while he was on book tour, he went for a meal with a bunch of friends, one of whom is a music producer, and was introduced to a beautiful, talented, young singer serving drinks in the beer garden. The producer wanted her to commit to music, and to recording with him. Roy wrote, “And while I was listening to them talk, I was thinking, Want it, Basma. Want it. And unfortunately—or not, maybe, because who knows how anybody's life will turn out—I don't think she really does. Not bad enough, anyway.” This made Roy sad, I think.

You have to want it more next time around. And I'll be sad until you do.

Now go out in the exciting world, and have some adventures, and fall in love, and grow older and wiser. Be well. And stay in touch.

Your friend,



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