Monday, October 22, 2007

The Complex Nature of Two-Faced Sammy.

Sullen Sammy, my least favorite student, sent me a short and almost unintelligible email requesting a meeting after the midterm grades. I didn't reply, but did see him in class and told him that he could see me right after class. He acknowledged me, like he always does, with a bored sort of nod.

Sammy is the dullest student I've had in 8 years of teaching. He looks on the verge of death or heavy sleep at all times. His voice is never more than a whisper, and the slightest motion he makes looks so pained and lugubrious, that I often think he might be suffering from some malaise.

An hour after class he still hadn't shown up. (My office is 40 feet away from the classroom. I've measured.)

It was the end of the day and so I headed to my car to go home. Sullen Sammy came charging (still slow by ordinary standards, but an absolute gallop for him), and said, "I thought you were going to be in your office."

"Yes," I said. "I was there for an hour and fifteen minutes after class. Those are part of my normal office hours."

Sullen Sammy says, "Uh, well I'm here now. I really need to talk to you."

"Okay," I said. "What about on this bench?" We were in the middle of my college's lower quad, a gorgeous late Fall day, and it was quiet.

"Nah, I want to talk in your office."

"Okay," I said. "Let's go."

We start walking back until Sullen Sammy is now suddenly Sunny Sammy. "Yo, you go ahead. That's one of my bro's over there." And off he scampers, now at absolute breakneck speed, toward another student.

I watch while he greets the "bro" and starts an animated conversation. Sammy is unrecognizable in this new guise. He's laughing. His voice is full and loud. They are actually jostling each other, and their pleasure is palpable.

I get to my office, sit down in my chair and wait. After 15 minutes I decide I've had enough. As I'm getting to the door, Sullen Sammy arrives again, in his normal manner, with his normal dark cloud around him. I put the lights back on in my office and then go behind my desk, motioning him to one of the chairs.

I say, "Okay, Sammy, what is it you wanted to talk about? Were you wondering about the midterm grades? I'm happy to go over them and I could set you up with one of the department's undergrad tutors."

Before Sammy can force himself to answer, his phone goes off. He looks down at the screen and says, "Oh, man, this is one of my bro's. I have to take this." And then he does.

Again, Sunny Sammy reappears and the one-sided conversation is about a party later that week. It's all "Oh, man!" and "You're KIDDING!" I watch the clock and 5 minutes pass. Sammy is worked up and laughing and his bro's voice is coming through the phone loud enough to hear. The disembodied voice says, "Man, I love just shooting the breeze with you, brother."

And that's when I stood up. I motioned to get Sammy's attention, pointed him to the door, and watched a cloud of misery fall on his face.

"But, what about my grades?" he said.

"Some other time, Sammy. Some other time when you've got the time."

As I left the building, I could hear Sammy's voice from the hallway, ringing out. "Oh, bro. This party is going to be off the chain!"