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A note for the blackboard


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This is for the teaching assistant of my Russian History course at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill a decade ago now: I am sorry for showing up drunk to class. You led discussion with passion and enthusiasm, guiding us through Medieval Russia with vigor. And on that one day, I was beyond hungover. It's an anniversary of which I'm never proud.

You probably don't remember it, and that's OK. But what I want to say today is that I really did have a question after class. I was not trying to impress you or let you know that, though drunk, I was still with you. You see, I knew my job, and I did it well: I never skipped class. I always did the reading. I would watch the sleepy, C-grade suckers dutifully write whatever was written on the board before class, as if it were something they had to know for a test, as if spitting it out at the end of the term would make them better students. Instead of following them, I would decide why it had been written, what it meant, and why I needed to write it myself. I listened like a child at story time. My secret to good grades was easy: Learn for learning's sake, and I learned a lot, even on the morning I should have skipped your class. I was that jerk who busted the bell curve. That morning, I fear, I was just that jerk.

The night before was a familiar story of drinking too much with friends. The end came closer to morning than midnight. My hope had been that a quick shower, hot coffee and a steady walk to class would save my day. But my senses were full, loud, swimming. Once I took my seat and tried to take notes, the proof of my inebriation had a written record. I could barely get anything down. What I did manage to scribble made little sense. But I made it through to the end of the period and then confidently up to your seat in the front row. You answered my query, but I could tell from your reaction that I reeked of a place you didn't want to be. The currency of great thoughts impressed you. The courage of a still-drunk undergrad did not.

So why am I apologizing now? I've kept something about your look that day with me. I felt more than embarrassed. I felt like I let something more than you down.

So thank you for not chastising me. Now that my college days are long over, I've realized that a safe balance between work and play is more tenuous even than it seemed on a college campus. But that galvanizing moment told me I was not invincible or above the rest of the world. Sure, the A that I earned on the final essay was redemption that I should not have had to hold up for anyone but myself. It shouldn't have been a quest for redemption though. It should have been just a test. But your look that day challenged me to make it something more, and I wonder now if you noticed.


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