He was an Iraqi vet returning home to the San Luis Valley on a new mission—college. On the first day of class, he was more than game, rearranging my hand with his grip and barking out his name. In fact, his is the only name I remember from that class, Andre.
Unlike Andre’s wise strategy to introduce himself and sit front and center in the first row, every other student in that class sat as far away from me as possible, some setting their dreambodies adrift out the windows like wind-blown clouds, some crouching furtively near the door as if to make a quick escape, others seeking the safety of corners or bulky bodies to hide behind.
I’ve noticed over the years that student evasiveness and general all-around stupor can be especially bad during spring semester when the weather is warming, even though the wind scours and pummels every tender green thing. I call it “the thud factor,” so named because when thrown a metaphorical ball, the students fail to catch it or even see it coming, hence it lands on the floor with a thud. Even if you won’t find the term in a teacher’s manual, I’m sure most teachers know what I’m talking about.
One windy day, Andre’s class was meeting in a third floor room in Nielsen Library and the thud factor was exceptionally high. With the exception of Andre, who sat at attention like the most decorated dog on a bomb squad, every other student sat in a partial state of dis-corporation—minds, spirits and souls disengaged, floating out the window or hovering by the ceiling while their bodies sat slack, slouched and sullen. Their thought bubbles all said variations of “I may look like I’m paying attention but I’m really not.” They still didn’t believe that I can read thought bubbles, even though I told them so on the first day of class. A couple of times when I had read their thoughts accurately, some had momentarily stirred from their slumber, but most of their bubbles had said “Lucky guess” doodled in big loopy letters, or “it must be a fluke.”
I’m not sure what we were discussing that windy day in class, but somewhere in the midst of realizing that I’d lost my students to the thud factor, I pulled a question from out of the blue.
I must pause here to mention that my father taught me at a young age the importance of knowing the cardinal directions. He did this by taking me on drives in his old blue VW bug and having me navigate our way back home. Because I wanted to feel the sunlight of his rare praise, I quickly learned to imagine the map of our journey from a bird’s eye view, picturing his faded blue bug heading northwest along the Potomac River, east to Chesapeake Bay, or south to downtown DC.
“Which way’s north?” I asked my students. They were dumbfounded, even the ones sitting by the window with the afternoon sun glancing off their right shoulders. It appeared that my question had only intensified the thud factor.
Foolishly, I blurted out a follow-up question. “When you leave the library onto First Street, what direction does the wind blow from?” Nothing. Nada. Zip. I should have stopped, but I couldn’t. “Doesn’t the wind hit the right side or your face? And doesn’t the spring wind generally blow from the west or southwest? So wouldn’t north be…” I finally realized I was getting nowhere fast.
It was then that Andre, who sure as hell knew where north was and which way the wind blew, turned around in his seat to face the rest of the class. He moved slowly and deliberately as if a sudden movement might detonate some C-4 ordnance. I could see him trying to make eye contact with the students in the room, but no one could match the scathing intensity of his look. In clear military script, his thought bubble said, “And I risked life and limb for the likes of you?”
For several seconds, he let his intense silence magnetize the room. “North is that way,” he finally said, sharply gesturing north. The students, awake perhaps for the first time that day, nodded and looked eagerly where he was pointing as if there were a big “North” sign they had somehow overlooked fastened to the wall.
Having made his point, Andre turned his back on them and slowly swiveled back to face the head of the class. He may have been facing east, but the needle of his compass never strayed. And thanks to him, the thud factor was mercifully gone for the rest of the day.