Monday, November 6, 2017

The Math Instructor by SF Wright

A math instructor tentatively considers acting on his feelings of attraction to a student; by SF Wright.

Although Robert was an adjunct English professor, he also taught a course called GED Math. The mathematics wasn't difficult - arithmetic, geometry, basic algebra - and the class was always small; it wasn't uncommon for it to be cancelled because of low enrolment.

GED Math wasn't just taken by people wanting to pass the General Educational Development Test. Students also enrolled for supplemental help on the GRE math section, extra practice for college placements, and general educational self-improvement. One semester Robert had an older man take the class to "have something constructive to do."

The student Robert remembered most vividly from this class took the course for help with the GREs; Robert remembered her so clearly because he fell in love with her.



The moment he saw Hannah Rodriguez, Robert felt an attraction. She had soft brown eyes which contrasted nicely with her angular face, a petite figure, and long dark hair. Usually she favored less revealing clothes, but occasionally she wore tight sweaters which accentuated her full breasts. Upon first seeing Hannah, Robert surmised her to be between twenty-two and thirty-two. He was pleasantly surprised when he found out she was thirty-three, a year younger than he.

The class went from six to eight. Usually Hannah arrived early; because of this, Robert did, too. As he and Hannah waited for the three other students, they'd talk.

Hannah had graduated from a state university ten years ago with a broadcasting degree. She then decided broadcasting wasn't for her and got a job in the publicity department of a women's magazine. After becoming restless in that position, she sought employment in something else entirely: outpatient homecare services. Hannah was in charge of organizing and facilitating aids to go to clients' houses (clients being people without insurance who were well enough not to be hospitalized but still couldn't live alone without occasional assistance). Most of these people were indigent; many of their homes were in undesirable neighborhoods.

Hannah, though, was tired of outpatient homecare and wanted to do something else, and she decided that was audiology. Robert didn't think becoming an audiologist would be too hard, but, apparently, it was. Audiology graduate programs were difficult to get into and took four to five years to complete. Hannah was applying to two: Montclair State University and South Florida University. When she told Robert this, he felt - even though he hardly knew her - sadness about her leaving for Florida and hoped she'd get into and choose Montclair State. From then on, he found himself making gentle, subtle suggestions about the advantages of MSU.

The more Robert spoke to Hannah, the fonder he grew of her. Talking to her became the highpoint of his week. As the semester progressed, he became despondent about the class ending; he decided he had to let Hannah know how he felt. But he was afraid that revealing such sentiments would be a breach of college protocol. If something, though, were to develop after the class...

But even if Robert waited, he wasn't comfortable asking out one of his students. He told himself this was ridiculous; for one thing, they were the same age. And he was fairly certain he'd seen signs that Hannah would be receptive to such advances. But despite this reasoning, whenever Robert considered acting on his desires, he felt unwholesome, and he'd wonder why he couldn't have fallen in love with a fellow instructor or waitress instead.



As the weeks passed, Robert resigned himself to never seeing Hannah again once the class ended. She'd go on with her life, whether that consisted of moving to Florida or staying in New Jersey, and Robert would go on with his. He continued to talk to her at the start of class, savoring these conversations, as he was certain there'd only be so many more of them.

At the beginning of the penultimate class, Hannah was telling Robert how nervous she was about her applications, while Robert was urging her not to worry and assuring her she'd get into one of the programs, when Hannah revealed that she'd encountered a problem: she needed three recommendation letters, and though she had two, she'd been unable to get the third, as the professor who was going to write it had passed away.

Robert not only saw a chance to help Hannah but also a way to stay in contact with her. Trying to appear as though his motives were purely altruistic, and doing his best not to betray the opportunistic joy he felt, he said, "I know I'm just the GED math instructor, but I could write you a recommendation if you like."

For a moment Hannah seemed not only surprised but stupefied; Robert was afraid she'd thought his offer presumptuous. But then she said, "Would you?" Her voice was full of gratefulness. "That'd help me so much."

That class and the final one went by quickly, but the semester didn't end on the bittersweet note Robert had anticipated. Instead, as he said goodbye to his students and told Hannah he'd be in touch, he was filled with if not hope, then a sense of possibility. He'd been given a chance; he just had to be patient and prudent.



Robert wrote the letter carefully and painstakingly. He then reread it, saw a few places that could be improved, and revised it. He did this for the next draft as well. By the time he was finished, he'd gone through five drafts and had spent an entire day on the task.

He emailed Hannah to tell her that the letters were ready; he also wrote that he could meet her to give them to her whenever convenient. (It was better, he said, for her to have hardcopies with his signature, though he knew this wasn't necessarily true.)

As Robert waited for her response, though, he was overcome with a premonition of loss. He'd meet Hannah, give her the letters... but then what? He'd have to tell her then how he felt... Or he could email her afterwards. The latter option was more attractive, but neither felt right: he was afraid she'd think he was using his position to compel to go out with him.

Her response came; Hannah thanked him profusely; she also mentioned she was struggling with her personal essay and asked if he'd read it.

Robert saw this as another opportunity. He wrote a few responses, but erased all of them, wanting to make sure he conveyed the perfect tone. Finally, he sent:

Hannah,

I'd be more than happy to look at your paper. How about you email me a copy? I'll look it over and let you know what I think when we meet. How's Tuesday afternoon around one sound?

Best,

Robert

She responded within ten minutes. Once more she thanked him, said Tuesday was perfect, and suggested the Dunkin Donuts by the school.

Anticipation ran through Robert: it was like a date.

He had to remain professional. They were meeting so he could give her the letters and go over her essay. He hoped it'd lead to more; he just had to watch for signals and not be overeager. Then he could decide.



It was cold that day, less than a week before Christmas. Dirty snow crunched under Robert's tires as he pulled into the Dunkin Donuts parking lot.

Hannah sat at a table by the window; papers lay on her table next to a Styrofoam Dunkin Donuts coffee cup. Robert's heart lifted as he walked over; when she looked up and smiled at him, he felt it flutter.

After getting a small coffee - which, despite Robert's protests, Hannah insisted on buying - Robert gave Hannah the letters, which were folded in unsealed envelopes. He then took out her essay; although Robert said he'd give it a quick look over, he'd read and edited it multiple times.

They went over her essay for close to an hour. Hannah took notes and said things like, "Of course; that makes sense," "I understand," and, "Right; got it." A few times as she leaned across the table to see an edit Robert was explaining, her hair fell forward and tickled the back of his hand. Other times their wrists bumped. Often Robert caught whiffs of Hannah's shampoo, which made him heady.

He didn't want their meeting to end.

But end it had to, and when Robert started repeating suggestions he knew it was time; he told Hannah he could think of nothing else; she had her essay and letters; it was now just a matter of sending out the applications and waiting.

They walked carefully on the slushy snow. When Hannah reached her Jeep, she thanked him once more. Robert hoped she'd hug him; instead she gave him a wave and got into her car.

Robert started his Accord. He watched Hannah back out and slowly drive out of the lot. His heart felt heavy. He could've done more: tried harder, been funnier, shown more interest. But he knew he'd done his best. All there was to do now was write Hannah an email to tell her what he felt and then wait to see what she'd say.



He typed an email and erased it. He composed another but saved it and didn't send it. Finally, he revised the saved email and reread it:

Hannah,

If you need anything else regarding the applications, please let me know.

Also, would you ever like to get together for coffee? I really enjoyed spending time with you when we met last week. If this feels too awkward, then just don't respond!

Robert

His hand on the mouse, Robert reread the email. He was satisfied with what he wrote and the way he'd written it, but was the ending too jocose? Did he really need that exclamation mark? It looked almost giddy. But when he switched the exclamation mark to a period, the last sentence read as solemn, almost sternly final.

He sighed.

Then, knowing he could spend hours, days even, scrutinizing what he wrote, Robert took a deep breath and clicked on "send."



There then followed the waiting. Robert told himself he wouldn't obsessively check for Hannah's reply, but he spent the next few hours doing just that: checking his email, surfing the internet for a few minutes, checking his email again. Each time he was hopeful yet scared.

He questioned not only what he wrote but also the sending of the email itself: he'd made a fool of himself. In fact, he was worse than a fool - he was indecent, lecherous. She was his student. And why'd he think she'd even feel the same way?

There were their conversations, though. And during their meeting to discuss her essay, Hannah sometimes leaned so close he couldn't help but think...

And so what if he was her teacher? Their ages were a year apart. And the class was just noncredit GED math.

Robert was glancing through last season's Yankees statistics when he decided to check his email again, expecting once more to see an empty inbox.

But there was a reply from Hannah, received three minutes ago.

His heart beating fast, Robert clicked on the email.

Robert,

I truly appreciate all the assistance you've given me. I have no problem meeting for coffee as friends. Anything more than that would feel inappropriate to me. I'm not sure if I'm "reading" too much into it but I like to be both polite and honest.

Hannah

It was like that instant after being punched before the pain hits. But the next moment Robert was stricken by leaden heartache and the unshakable conviction that he was a fool. He couldn't bear to read Hannah's words again yet had to: they stung even more. All those weeks of thinking of her, fantasizing about a future with her - it was over; in fact, it'd never existed. Why'd he do these things to himself?

But before he could give himself over completely to his despair he felt he had to write back. He stated that he understood, he apologized. He also wrote - awkward as it felt - that if she needed anymore help not to hesitate to ask.

For some time, Robert sat at his desk. He wondered when he'd get over this. He knew from experience it wouldn't take long, but for the moment it seemed like he'd never feel any other way.



Weeks passed. Robert heard nothing more from Hannah, but he still had hope - unfounded as he knew it was - that she'd reach out: she'd been surprised, but now that she reconsidered she felt there was something, too.

But no email came.

The spring semester started; Robert had a new section of GED math. The class was in a different room, but the room was in the same building and looked similar to last semester's. The first few classes Robert couldn't walk into the classroom without thinking of the conversations he and Hannah had; always he'd be overcome with melancholy.

Eventually he stopped longing for Hannah when he entered his classroom. And by the time the semester was half over he hardly thought of her at all. His only associations with that room were Tuesday evening at six, his students, and the work to be covered.

Occasionally Hannah did come into Robert's mind, and he'd wonder what she was doing: Was she still at the homecare agency? Had she gotten into either of the grad schools? And if so, was she going to Florida? Or had she already left and was long gone?

Wherever she was, it didn't matter; she was a fading person from his past.



Then, a few weeks before the semester's end, Robert got a surprise email.

Robert,

It's Hannah, from your GED Math class last semester. I'm just writing to let you know that, unfortunately, I didn't get into either Montclair or South Florida. I found out from Montclair a few months ago and I just heard from South Florida yesterday. I'm disappointed, but what can you do? Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for all the time you spent helping me with my essay and for the recommendation letters you wrote for me.

Hannah

Sympathy and remote sadness enveloped Robert, yet underneath (and he felt guilty and horrible for this) he experienced relief about South Florida's rejecting her.

But why? She'd told him she wasn't interested.

He wrote back that he felt very bad and understood how difficult this must be. Unfortunately, though, he said, many graduate schools were difficult to get into. To add something positive he mentioned that there was always next year. Finally, because he meant it but also because it'd leave communication open, he said he'd be happy to write her another letter if she reapplied.



A couple of days went by without hearing anything from Hannah. Robert was somewhat surprised; he'd expected some type of response. But he figured it was just as well. More communication would just make him pine for her again.

The following week, though, she sent him an email.

Robert,

I appreciate your kind words. They mean a lot. And once more thanks for everything you did for me.

Hannah

There was no mention of reapplying to graduate school or anything else for that matter - just the three polite, terse sentences.



The summer and fall passed. In the spring, tired of the pay adjuncts received and appreciating the near impossibility of getting hired full time at a college, Robert accepted a position to teach high school. Occasionally he'd drive by the college where he'd taught GED Math, and once he passed the building of Hannah Rodriguez's homecare company. He wondered if she was still there doing the job she disliked or if she worked someplace else. Maybe she'd reapplied to grad school and gotten in; perhaps she was going to school in Florida. Robert didn't know. And as the building disappeared in his rearview mirror he knew there was no point to wonder about it, let alone try to find out. Hannah had if not moved on, then proceeded forward in her life, just as Robert was doing with his.

10 comments:

  1. A tender, nuanced story - well written and credible. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. Lovely. Short and wistful with simple but believable emotions.

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  3. I agree with Ceinwen, it is a credible story underlined by the `should I ?` quandary. One thing I would add is that I felt there was too much superfluous information, a more compact story would, for me, have had more impact.

    Mike McC

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  4. Your story captures all the uncertainty and bitter-sweet mixed signals in a new relationship. One feels tenderness for the honourable Robert, knowing that somewhere in the future he'll have his 'happy ending'.
    Beryl

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  5. I hung on every word. I particularly like the way Robert is characterized by the 'proper' style with its precise choice of words and phrases; 'a sense of opportunistic joy,' 'overcome with a premonition of loss,' 'indigent', 'jocose' - his remorse and anxiety about his conduct which might be construed as being lecherous. It almost has a nineteenth century formality to it, spot on!

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  6. Thanks for this story. I enjoyed the simplicity of the language, the absence of trying-too-hard flourishes. The language fit very well a story of romantic disappointment that I expect brings readers to reconsider experiences from their own past. I liked it a lot...

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  7. A very enjoyable story with true-to-life characters. Better luck next time, Robert! We've all been there.

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  8. The intro worked, getting me interested in the story. The theme of this story is an old one: Boy meets girl, falls for girl, but girl isn’t interested romantically with boy. The paragraph in which Robert tells about his attraction to Hannah, might have worked better if it showed how Robert fell for Hannah. The impact of showing is much deeper than telling.

    I like how the author handled a female’s emotions when confronted with a male that was attracted to her. The scenes and emails sounded real, and Robert's hurt at his attempt to attract Hannah could be felt as the story finalized.

    Well written story and one that I enjoyed. Good job!

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  9. Enjoyed reading this. The style fitted the main character very well and the theme, though done to infinity, was well-handled and structured. Reminded me a bit of Stoner by John Williams in terms of style and the pain felt when attraction goes unreciprocated.

    Keep an eye on your telling, rather than showing. And when it comes to semi-colons, less is more in my humble opinion; sometimes a short sentence works better.

    Good job.

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  10. Oh, man, what a familiar feeling of waiting for a particular email to show up, for various reasons. This story of a somewhat unrequited "love" pinpointed that on edge feeling of waiting and then the sort of queasiness once the email arrives.

    I felt like I wanted to know more about Robert's inner mind, though, regarding Hannah, like what specifically did he like about her besides her looks and "enjoying" their conversations. Was she witty, self-effacing, irreverent?

    The fact that I want more details points to a story well told and inviting. Thank you.

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