In the days before the memorial service, I keep cycling through where Micah sat in each class. Creative Writing I: the middle of the back row, between Sam and Michael. Creative Writing II: the back right corner, between Thalia and Sam. Special Topics in Fiction: the back right corner, next to Sam. Always in the back near his friend, Sam. Micah was deep-thinking, quiet, funny. The kind of person who has whole cities tucked inside of him.
If I work hard enough to picture Micah there, maybe he will return.
I keep turning over two memories: the first is when we workshopped one of his stories about werewolves taking over a town. In the story, two kids hide in a rickety treehouse while the werewolves pace below, swiping their claws at the tree trunk. It felt like Stranger Things meets Karen Russell but with a voice that was unmistakably Micah’s. Another student said, “God, I love this story. I don’t mean to be a fangirl, but I am. I love all your stories, Micah.” Everyone agreed, nodding. Micah looked down, smiling painfully, looking like he wanted to burrow into the desk.
The second is an essay he wrote about his diabetes. He wrote about his backpack, how he carried a blood tester and supplies for shots in there, and that he didn’t mind. He made some joke about how it was a good excuse to wear a backpack all the time, so he had more room to carry stuff than just his pockets. I read that line in a rush of grading, and I stopped and put down my pen. A window had opened onto his life—what it must be like to be so young and to carry this illness with him everywhere he went.
I try to find Micah’s emails, but I can’t log in to my university email. A message in a little box tells me to contact an administrator. Instead, I go looking for more of his writing in the folders of saved work on my laptop. I find some stories, poems, and essays, a reflection from our fiction class, the journal he created in our Literary Journal Practicum course. If I read it more closely now than when I was rushing to grade, to just make sure he had revised, will I see something I missed before? Will I somehow know him better?
Micah was born in the spring of my freshman year of college. I started teaching him in the spring of his freshman year of college. He had wide hazel eyes, and brown shaggy rock-star hair. His eyebrows were almost permanently raised, which made him look surprised or gently skeptical. He’d often mumble something under his breath that made everyone sitting near him crack up. I’d half-smile and ask, “What did you say?” I remember thinking that if I were his age, I would want to be his friend.
He would push his hair back behind his ears and gaze intently at his computer or his paper. He mostly avoided my gaze when I asked questions of the class. He rarely talked. When I required that everyone give a presentation on their favorite writer, he began by saying, “I hate talking in front of people, so I’ll be short.” Everyone laughed, then leaned forward to listen. He didn’t realize he was good at public speaking; he was so clearly himself.
I saw Micah at the little café on campus near the end of last semester. His hair was longer than I remembered and his eyes were focused on his computer. I thought about going up to him and saying hi, asking how he was, but I was busy. I pretended I didn’t see him. I focused on wrapping my scarf and clearing the crumbs off my table. If he had said hello, I would have stopped and talked, but I didn’t want to bother him. Or, I didn’t want to stop and talk.
The kids are finally asleep. I put my feet up and take a sip of peppermint tea. I haven’t had a moment to talk to anyone about Micah since I heard. His face, his obituary, his voice had been buzzing in my head, making it hard to remember what to set up for my daughter’s birthday party. I had to look at my list three times before I actually fished the candles out of the junk drawer.
I text Sara and arrange to go to the viewing with her. She was his advisor and taught him in several classes. I post something online about Micah, and one of my former students who was in class with him writes, “Please let me know about any ways the school will memorialize him.” I start to text Sara, then remember I’m not teaching there this spring. How do I grieve my student when I’m no longer teaching there?
One of the givens of teaching is that you’re never sure what you’re saying or doing matters. With a quiet student, that unknowing is amplified. You wonder constantly what’s going on in their heads, asking, Are they getting it? Or, the more important question to me, what do they need to hear right now? Or to say? What are they carrying inside that I might help them bring into the world? Since Micah was quiet in class, we had a largely epistolary relationship studded with brief conversations and the occasional head nod. I tried to reach him through my notes on his drafts, or through an email that I hoped he’d read, since he never replied.
Micah was from the town next to where I grew up, and there was something about him that felt kindred to me. Micah was his age in some ways, and in other ways older than his years, maybe because he was a natural observer, or because he had to cope with a complicated illness his whole life. He must have had thousands of awkward conversations in his twenty short years.
I remember feeling bad when he had to turn down the cookies I brought to class, and then worrying if he did take one.
How did you know Micah? his brother, his cousin, his best friend, his parents will ask. Were you his professor? they will say.
I worry I will say, “Just his teacher, not a real professor,” letting my thoughts about myself linger too long at exactly the moment when my thoughts are supposed to be on someone else. I coach myself beforehand, so I won’t utter the words that are always on the tip of my tongue: Yes, I was. No, I wasn’t, not really.
When you’re an adjunct professor, you’re constantly aware of your position on the periphery of the department and the university. As you move through your days on campus, or work in the campus coffeeshop, you wonder: is this invitation to teach an upper-level course a hint that soon I might be invited closer into the circle? You carry an id card in your wallet, but your title—Adjunct Instructor—places you in a poorly paid no-man’s land between the graduate students, who carry their world in a backpack like you, and the “real” professors, who have offices where they can hang their coats and scuffed desks where they can store their favorite green tea. You still teach and mentor and write letters of recommendation and help plan student readings, but nobody asks, “Would you like to be on this panel? What are you writing these days?”
I’m anxious about going to the viewing. I don’t want to think of him in a polished box when I am not yet sure where he is in my memory. I don’t want other memories to crowd out the picture I am holding of him.
I’m meeting Sara and some students and we’re driving together to the funeral home. I’m a few minutes late, as usual. The students hover like crows in the entryway in black tops and long coats. I feel nervous. I’m not sure why. Maybe because this is the first time I’m seeing other people who are grieving Micah. I keep thinking about the line in the book of James, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
Peter and Angela, two of my former students, climb in my car. The afternoon is cold and bright, so bright I have to wear my sunglasses, but so cold my toes are already freezing in my boots. It’s 23 degrees as we drive out to Bellevue, a town built into a hill along the Ohio River.
At the funeral home, we see the rest of our group right away. We bunch together awkwardly in the foyer for a while, next to a poster-sized picture of Micah in his red and white high school band uniform. I hug a few students. Nobody makes eye contact.
His grandmother introduces us to his grandfather, who then points out Micah’s mother. We stand around stiffly for long minutes while she talks to a few people. Then his grandfather guides her over to us. Sara and I shake her hand and tell her we taught Micah and she nods and doesn’t say anything. “We all loved Micah,” I say, but she isn’t looking at me. Maybe we shouldn’t have come, I think. I can’t remember anything else I wanted to say.
Sara guides Peter over, and Micah’s mother lights up and hugs him. They start talking about the terrible third roommate Micah and Peter had their freshman spring. She smiles and laughs a little. I overhear him say, “You did a good job. Micah was such a good person.” Her body caves in a little when he says that.
After we file out again into the foyer, we look at each other, then at the floor. “Does anyone need to get back to campus now? Or do you want to go to Eat n’ Park? I could use some pie,” I say.
We breathe out collectively when we sit down at the long table in the back room. I go into hostess mode, talking about how I love their pie, how I used to come here all the time in high school. The students seem tired and old. We order fries, mozzarella sticks, fried pickles, pie, coffee. Everyone talks about easy things like what classes they’re taking this spring, how their break was, then drift to talk about Micah, then flash back to something easy again. Micah should be with them, eating fries and cracking jokes. I miss Micah. I miss my old students, hearing about their lives. I miss being Prof Mohn-Slate. I feel like I’m having lunch with my ex, that pang of missing. A wall gone up suddenly between us.
We pay the check and are about to get up when a half circle of young men I recognize from the funeral home drift over to our table.
“Are you guys Micah’s friends from college?”
“Yeah,” a few of the students say. “Are you his friends from high school?”
They are shaggy, wearing button-down shirts, some with messy ties, a few with sport coats. Their hands are planted in their pockets. We talk for a little while about Micah. They knew Micah before any of us had even met him, when he was playing trombone in the band, writing his first stories, deciding where to go to college.
My students knew him in ways I never will. Because I read his writing, I knew him in ways some others never will. We all circled his life, describing the part we could see from our limited experience, feeling it was the whole truth.
After I drop the students off on campus after Micah’s viewing, I drive down Fifth Avenue toward home. I think back to how we told Micah’s grandmother we would send her some of his writing. Shit, I think, I shouldn’t have told her that. I know we can share work he published in the student literary journal, which she probably hasn’t seen yet. But I can’t share work that he turned in for class. He turned it in as an assignment, for only my eyes, for a grade. I can’t make that decision for him.
And then I think: I will mourn those stories he won’t have time to write, and the letters of recommendation he won’t ask me for.
Thinking about Micah’s stories brings something into relief for me: In this world where we pass into and out of each others’ lives like a mist, I was his teacher. And that is a role that at least gives some order to things.
My students and I sat in a circle together twice a week for two years. We sat there after having read the same things and we talked or didn’t talk about them. But we were there twice a week, in that dingy room in the second floor of Falk that was always either too hot or too cold. We connected in large and small ways, some of which had to do with our shared love of writing, and others that had to do with something more mysterious, like the gift of being alive together.
My students didn’t care that I was only an adjunct professor; they never once signaled that they did not value what I shared with them. What had hobbled me about being an adjunct wasn’t the lack of an office or the poor pay (though that mattered), but my view of myself as someone who didn’t deserve respect without a particular title. And I could change that, if I decided to, couldn’t I?
Months later, I log on to Facebook and one of my former students has posted an audio recording from our class two years earlier. It’s a game that I always used to start my fiction unit—I start with a character named Margie who wants a glass of water, then each student has to advance the story in some way.
I close my eyes and listen, seeing each person’s face in my mind. It’s mid-summer, the air is thick with humidity at my attic desk. The story moves from left to right around the circle. Once I hear Sam’s voice, I know Micah is next. His voice is steady, sharp: “But he was an old hippie, so he didn’t have any money.” Everyone laughs then the voices drop away, and the story moves on.