In the graduate education program: one mooch of a future math teacher who ate whatever food we brought for our own lunches and then said he’d help us with our computer logo if we paid him twenty bucks; one aspiring middle school history teacher who opened a can of tuna during each class. Once, at an otherwise pleasant dinner, he discovered I was twenty-six and single. “Aren’t you worried,” he asked, “that at your age you’ll be so settled in your ways, it will be impossible to find someone to marry you?” One sweet man who spent a few minutes in the chaos that can be a high school classroom and decided to return to the legal profession. Other assorted characters who believed what the university promised: One year for your teaching masters.
In exchange for tuition, I worked as a program assistant with one other woman. The professor in charge of the graduate education department (I’ll call her Dr. Jane), called frequently to say she wouldn’t be in — left us alone to deal with people who hadn’t gotten into the oversubscribed required courses and now had to be told those courses wouldn’t run again until next fall. For anyone doing the math, that’s longer than one year. Any student who had a question about transfer credits, tuition reimbursement, scheduling issues; any professor who needed a different classroom space, a salary adjustment, Dianne and I had one reply: As soon as Dr. Jane comes in, we’ll let her know.
Even on course registration day, Dr. Jane didn’t make it in. Instead, Dianne and I attempted to schedule a few dozen people into overloaded courses via a paper and pen registration system that was the technological equivalent of an abacus. So many angry people. So many demands we could not meet.
We had no control over this mess of a graduate program, of course, but Dianne and I were the (worried, creased, sickly green) faces of it. The only break we took was to run back to the cubicle to call Dr. Jane’s voicemail and ask, again, “When will you be here?”
And so, Rob at first seemed invisible. Uncomplaining. Unassuming. Capable of finding suitable courses. Lucky enough to be able to register for them. It was one of those times in my life when I thought: Thank GOD for people who demand nothing from me.
One night, the graduate students met at a Chinese restaurant. The Tuna Man, the Nice Man, The Mooch, and Rob who, it turned out, with a little alcohol in him, was very funny. Silly even. Irreverent. Hmm, I thought. Wish I could get to know him a little better.
We were assigned to student teach together at Boston College High School, part quality Jesuit education; part 1950’s sitcom where the men call all the women “dear”; part Lord of the Flies. Rob, who had been teaching in a Catholic school for a few years, quickly assimilated. For his doting cooperating teacher, he ran off reams of papers, suggested viable and rigorous additions to the curriculum, covered classes at the last minute in the seamless way only true veterans could. Each afternoon, he climbed into his one door gold TransAm and headed off to lifeguard at a local pool.
Meanwhile, I struggled. When I reported a boy’s rude behavior to the Dean of Discipline, the Dean said, “Do you suppose he has a crush on you?” My students insisted I needed to add some pastels to my wardrobe. My cooperating teacher left campus completely. And by left completely, I mean he retreated to his home several miles away to write more episodes of The Love Boat and to leave me in a Piggy-like position where, at any moment, I felt someone would surely crush my metaphorical glasses.
Rob’s response to my crisis: Cadbury chocolate bars, mostly melted, in the front seat of the Trans Am. He’d throw open the driver’s side door during a mutual free period, scooch me over and then climb in himself as I unwrapped the foil.
“I can’t do it,” I would say, licking my fingers. “I mean it.”
“Here,” he would say, “Have more.”
Eventually, we got invited out for drinks with the faculty at Amrhein’s Restaurant in Southie. We had a class later that night: Something about the psychology of education. By the time we strolled in, we had all kinds of theories about human behavior.
The next time we received the invitation to join them, Rob had to work at the pool.
“Call in sick,” I said.
And he admitted: “I’ve never done that.”
This called for a serious intervention. “Rob,” I said, “Please. I need you.”
The Trans Am bit the dust just before we finished student teaching, but we had gotten jobs — minor miracles for English and history teachers — and this allowed Rob to buy a new car, one in which a neighborhood cat immediately climbed in to have sex with multiple partners. For the end of the year party, I left a bag of clothes in his backseat and smelled like cat semen for the duration of the celebration.
When we got lonely in our adult lives, we grabbed a bunch of beach towels from the lost and found at yet another pool where Rob lifeguarded part-time, and brought home two puppies from a horsefarm in Dover. Our dogs were the only ones who were not blind or suffering from severe tremors and we had no idea how to be pet owners, but Rob had recently begun dating a veterinarian and this seemed like a good enough plan to us.
We have more than fifty years combined experience in the classroom now, but being together with a bottle of anything still makes us as silly as that night many years ago when we first sat next to each other in the Chinese restaurant.
Rob saved me once, long ago. And his friendship has saved me several times since: When my father died, my mother said, “You take good care of her when she gets back to Boston.” She had no idea that she had just given an assignment to the world’s most conscientious student. We spent every Friday night of 1991 together because of that. For my birthday, he took me to restaurants that he claimed were just around the corner. My birthday is in January. An hour into our trek, my limbs frozen, we would still be laughing, heads down to resist the windchill. Our dogs grew old and died six weeks apart. Our relationships changed. We moved several times. We found new jobs.
We don’t see each other as often these days. But sometime this weekend, I’ll hear from him. It’s the beginning of the school year: he hasn’t missed one yet. We’ll complain about colleagues or schedules or mandates like DDM’s, MCAS, the new eval process, the mooches and kind men and Lord of the Flies characters still hovering in the halls of certain institutions. We’ll remind one another how many years (not many now) we have until we retire.
Rob, I’ll say. Remember all the chocolate you had to feed me?
He’ll say, You know I didn’t miss a day of teaching last year, don’t you? That never, not once did I call in sick.
And I’ll be thinking: We definitely need to spend more time together.