When Life and the Classroom Meet

Contributed By Erica Jacobs

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This is my October 21, 1007 column for The Examiner newspaper.

Being a teacher is as schizophrenic as being a student. There’s class, and there’s life, and “never the twain shall meet.” Students pretend to focus on schoolwork between the hours of 7:20 a.m. and 2:05 p.m., but who are they kidding? Certainly not their teachers, who remember what it was like to be constrained emotionally and intellectually by schoolroom rules.

As a teacher, I expect of myself more focus and less distraction, yet sometimes life insinuates itself into my lessons. While my students have been distracted by homecoming, I have been thinking about a distinguished George Mason University colleague who recently died of cancer at the age of 57.

Hundreds of Mason students and teachers are mourning his untimely death, but my high school students know nothing of Roy Rosenzweig’s digital histories or of his many contributions to GMU and his Center for History and New Media, and so I keep my sense of loss private.

While talking about literature in the classroom, I have been composing in my mind an email to his wife, whom I have known for over 30 years. How can I show her compassion when I have not suffered the loss of a husband? What comfort can I offer when I don’t really understand the devastating effect of that loss?

Oddly, I found the answer to that question grading papers. School and life merged the moment I read my classes’ essays on “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which focused on the heroine, Janie’s, response to Teacake’s untimely death. What comfort did Janie find for the loss of her companion and the love of her life?

Student after student wrote that to Janie, Teacake still “lived” since his effect on her remained. She mentally projects her memories—“pictures of love and light”—against the wall of her home. She gathers up those memories and lifelong dreams and calls in her soul “to come and see.” Teacake “could never be dead until she herself finished feeling and thinking.”

Zora Neale Hurston’s words are Janie’s comfort, and were precisely the words I needed for Roy’s wife, Deborah. Roy’s books, teachings, and digital texts remain, and the memories of those who knew him are the “pictures of love and light.”

What also remain are the ways Roy changed others. Like Teacake, Roy treated people respectfully and graciously. His friends and colleagues have created a website (http://thanksroy.org) that reflects myriad instances when his personality and intellectual strengths made others wiser and stronger--“pictures” preserved.

Of course no website, no matter how moving or comprehensive, can begin to compensate for the loss of a husband or friend, a death that came decades too soon. But reading my students’ commentaries helped me see that books are often relevant to life outside the classroom, and that Hurston’s words have a function beyond my English curriculum.

Perhaps at a distant point in the future, some of my students will remember that a person’s “love and light” cannot die as long as they themselves have “feeling and thinking.” At that moment, they might realize that sometimes what we learn in the classroom can teach us about life. Sometimes “the twain” does meet.