On a whim, my professor changed the final assignment.
We were reading “What I saw” by Joseph Roth and thumbing the pages during our class discussion, he revisited something valuable.
“Why not let’s do this,” he said, waving his hands as though to stir up the proposal still taking shape in his head, “Yes, yes, this is much better than the original assignment I have planned.”
It’s simple: keep a journal. An urban diary of life – your life – in the city. Write it longhand if you wish, and for God’s sake don’t agonize over it. That’s what workshop is for. Try to write every day and at the end of the semester, turn in your best, your favorite 1500 words.
A few of us groaned. More writing on top of the twenty to thirty pages we were already expected to churn out each week for our thesis workshops. Also, we haven’t been asked to keep a journal since elementary school…
Today at recess I kicked a girl in the stomach...”
A girl from Egypt raised her hand. She is a journalism student with a concentration on arts reporting. What was the original assignment?
The professor looked at her with a curious expression that said, “Does it matter?”
He is a curious man with wild salt and pepper hair and a chin that protrudes slightly more than the rest of his face. He is well-dressed in a New York not-quite-young but not-quite-old professorial way: fitted, faded jeans, blazer, worn but probably expensive polo shirt in dark blues and greys. Sometimes he wears a narrow, striped scarf, the kind that makes me wonder: “Yes but…does it keep the neck warm?” It certainly does nothing to tamper the scratchiness of his voice.
On his narrow nose rests narrow black framed glasses and always at his ankles sits a single, slim briefcase, probably hand-stitched, the leather on the handles worn as well as the bottom, from being placed then picked up on classroom and subway floors. He wears no wedding ring, though he is reasonably handsome and reasonably successful, and it is only after our third or fourth class that I go home and Google him – he’s written two memoirs, one about his daughter’s mental illness and another about his struggles as a writer.
I once saw him reading on the subway, sitting between a fat black woman and a student not unlike myself, a young Asian woman with hair pulled back into a pony tail, wearing a light sweater and jeans, flats. She was reading a printout, dense with text. My professor, the briefcase now between his ankles, read a slim volume I couldn’t see the title of but was certain it wasn’t something he’d assigned for our class.
I stood half a car away and wondered if I should walk over to say hello – there was space in front of him – but decided to stay put because I felt it would be awkward to tower over him, my belly in his face trying to make small talk. I guessed he would get off the train at 96th and transfer to an express train – the 2 or 3 to Brooklyn where I swore he lived. I wanted to know where he lived so I could pat myself on the back and say my assumptions were right.
But he remained seated and I, disappointed, got off. I remembered what he’d said in class.
“When you write this diary, see if you can put your assumptions away.”
I pushed through the turnstile, momentarily jostled by a group of young musicians and their sleek instruments made unwieldy by nylon cases and hard shells, and wondered if for me, that was possible.