As the eraser arced through the classroom, I realized with a petrifying shock what a horrible mistake I had made. The student was sleeping in class. She was too far away for nudge or comment. Grabbing an eraser from the blackboard chalk tray, I had lobbed it upward, expecting it to fall gently in front of her or in her lap. She would wake up, everyone would chuckle, class would continue. Such was my fatuity. And now I could see that the eraser, in its arched trajectory would land right in her face. It did exactly that, knocking her glasses off, startling not only her but the entire class.
That happened 36 years ago. Shame has mostly purged my memory of what I said or did immediately after the eraser landed. The class, the term, the year went on. Neither my victim nor I ever brought the incident up. At graduation she introduced me to her mother as one of her teachers. Had she forgotten? Was she just being kind? It seemed better not to ask.
Years went by with no communication between us. I continued teaching (without further eraser misuse) until retirement. At the same time I contracted a mild form of Parkinson’s disease. Its main symptom is a tremor of the right arm, which I can usually hide, plus some loss of strength and dexterity. It did not keep me from agreeing to lead an alumni tour, a cruise on the waterways of Holland and Belgium, in May, 2009.
To my surprise, my erstwhile target signed up for this cruise, along with her mother. To my further surprise, the tone of her pre-trip correspondence was wistful and apologetic: "he may not remember me…. I was not one of his star pupils.” Calling her by her undergraduate nickname reassured her, I hope, that I did in fact remember her. Of course I did not bring up the most indelible episode of our relationship but I began to see the cruise as a possible site for redemption. That did not exactly come about but something much more fulfilling did.
Late in the cruise it became her and her mother’s turn to dine at the tour leader’s table. She was seated next to me. Our conversation:
"Do you have Parkinson’s?" (She had sussed me out.)
A little later:
"Are you having trouble with that meat?"
"May I help?"
And then the woman, at whom I had lobbed an eraser 35 years before, cut my meat.
Lauren Soth is professor of art history emeritus at Carleton College.
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