Paisley Parker was the dark-haired, freckle-faced, green-eyed girl in Fitzhugh's freshman English class who had said nary a word the whole term. Even when Mr. Rainwater called roll the first day, she was the one student who answered neither "Here" nor "Present" but just raised her hand with a facial look bordering on fear. Fitzhugh noticed her that first class for being so pretty and petite but still preferring to sit on the last row and appearing way too shy and insecure for a gal blessed with her looks. She also stood out as the only student to wear a dress almost every class. She generally attired herself much more conservatively than most co-eds, usually sporting a long dress or skirt well below her knees. Despite a fetching figure, she never showed cleavage or wore anything to accentuate her physical assets.
Though she uttered not a word in class, every time Mr. Rainwater looked at her during the lectures, she always looked back. He also noted she was the one student who smiled at all his jokes and attempts at humor, even when they misfired. He only saw her lovely teeth and just how wonderfully attractive she could really be when he made her laugh. Even if the whole class roared, his eyes zeroed in on Miss Parker to relish her toothy, glorious grin.
Since he spent 100 percent more one-on-one time talking with most of his other students, Paisley remained the enigmatic maiden of mystery who most intrigued him that fall. Despite all the books to be read and papers to be written for his graduate courses, plus all the lectures to prepare and papers to grade for his own class, in quiet moments he sometimes found himself thinking about the almost ethereal, alluring gal in the back of his classroom.
Something else intriguing him early in the term was how she appeared to be paying rapt attention to his every word but never took a note. Could she have some kind of aural photographic memory? Or did she not think anything he said was worth writing down or, worst of all, was he actually boring her? Perhaps she was a genuine genius who didn't need notes and/or was a budding poetess or wordsmith who had already read the poems, short stories, and essays assigned.
Failing her first essay buried that idea. Still, though she had a weak command of punctuation and spelling, he found her paper's arguments touching since they betrayed an almost child-like charm. For example, in an essay on the CIA, after expressing her amazement at the agency's ingenious high-tech means of spying all over the planet, she concluded the essay on a note of cheerful awe, exclaiming:
"The CIA knows everything about everyone – just like Santa!"
It struck Fitzhugh as delightfully darling. After reading so many far better-composed essays which argued oh so ponderously or ever too passionately for or against the spy network's exploits, Paisley penned a paper just expressing admiration for all its tools of spycraft, as well as a naïve hope the CIA would use them only for good. How lovely if we could all keep such sweet innocence forever, he thought. Or maybe not.
It stung each time he circled yet another punctuation error or misspelled word, and he tried to be as gentle as possible pointing out her paper's poor organization and weak arguments. The essay read as if Miss Parker was at pains not to debate anyone despite the assignment being to write a persuasive, argumentative essay.
He found himself spending far more time on her paper than the others, not just to correct all her errors but to add as many supportive comments as he could, emphasizing every plausibly positive aspect of the paper, as well as pointing out its potential and hopes she wouldn't hesitate to let him go over it with her in the office. The one time he smiled grading the sweet mess was when he underlined her closing Santa sentence and wrote how cute it read.
How he dreaded returning her paper. She had made one of the worst grades in the class (57/F), and he felt awful at how upset she might be. Did I grade her too harshly? Was it really right to note every single error? Should I not have found ways to inflate her grade?
But he knew the ultimate cost of such cheating. Almost half the university's students never graduated, and he figured it was largely due to poor writing skills. To lie to this girl about the need to improve her prose dramatically would just perpetuate the problem as he imagined too many of her middle and high school teachers had done. How much easier it would be just to skim over papers and not really grade them, he noted. How much more time and less frustration could I enjoy – and how much more guilt and lack of sleep?
On the day he returned the first assignment, he studied Miss Parker's reaction as she received her essay, but her face betrayed no emotion. Instead, she reminded him of TV footage of criminal defendants in the courtroom looking stone-faced like silent film comic Buster Keaton as their guilty verdicts were read. Trying hard not to look obvious, he glanced at Paisley more than usual during the lecture to detect any change in her demeanor but saw none. To his relief, he noted she kept him in her gaze the entire class, continued to smile at his every attempt at humor, and even laughed – twice.
He felt better her second paper was slightly improved (64/D) but worried his written remarks praising her for going from a grade of F to D might strike her as effusive. He found himself desperately wanting her not to give up and to continue her positive movement. Still, she was a long way from the C average required to pass the course, and this was a class everyone had to get through to graduate.
When her third paper garnered a 67/D+, he decided to implore her to come to his office so they could go over her papers in person to try to jump-start her towards at least earning a C. Since she neither responded to his invitation on her first paper nor his plea on the second, he decided to speak with her in person after the next lecture.
At the start of the following class, he returned the students' third essays. When Paisley came for hers, Mr. Rainwater whispered to please see him after class. The startled look she gave resembled fear.
"Don't worry," he immediately tried to reassure her. "You're not in any trouble."
Feeling guilty he may have frightened her, he repeatedly looked her way during the lecture to see if she seemed all right. For the first time, he saw her often staring at the floor or looking at length out the window. He found himself trying to formulate how to put her at ease after class while not losing track of the lecture.
At the end of class, after the other students had left, Paisley slowly approached him.
"Miss Parker! How goes it?"
"Okay … I guess. How are you, sir?"
He noted she was one of the first students to call him "sir" and that she had the voice of a little girl. With her shoulders hunched and her head down, she gave the impression of thinking she was an inconvenience.
"Have you been studying all the comments and corrections on your papers, Paisley?"
She silently nodded.
"I think you have, too, since your writing has improved with each paper. I'm proud of you, Paisley."
Suddenly she looked up at him, surprised, and smiled.
"But for you to pass the course, you have to earn a C, and I'm concerned you really need to significantly improve your next several papers to do that. So could you please bring your papers to the office sometime soon so we can go over them? I think that might help you more."
She smiled slightly and nodded but then quickly looked at the floor again and said nothing.
"You don't have to if you don't want to – I certainly can't make you. But I really think it would be worth your while. If you can't stop by during office hours, let me know when you can, and I'll get there earlier in the day or stay later. You've already shown real improvement with your last two papers. I just want to help you write better, Paisley."
It was his last words that finally coaxed a full grin out of her and an affirmative nod.
"Swell," he smiled. "I look forward to hopefully seeing you soon."
"Thank you, sir. I appreciate you."
They walked out of the classroom and said goodbye, and the whole way back to his office, Mr. Rainwater felt slightly buzzed by her last sentence. No one had ever said that to him. He was glad he had reached out to the girl and now caught himself worrying more about her emotionally than scholastically. She personified "painfully shy" and appeared far too insecure for such an attractive young lady. That her soft voice sounded much more like that of a 10-year-old child than a late adolescent troubled him too. Something about her left him feeling distinctly unsettled. But he was sure she was sweet, and he was determined to help her all he could.
Several days passed before he heard that little girl voice again. While bent over yet another disappointing essay, he was slightly startled to detect it was coming from his office door.
"Hello, Mr. Rainwater," Paisley smiled. "I'm here like you asked."
"Have a seat, Miss Parker." He stood and motioned to the chair in front of his desk. She smiled and sat.
"What a lovely dress. Yellow like beautiful daffodils," he marveled. Indeed, she looked lovelier than ever.
"I call it my William Wordsworth dress in honor of his 'Daffodils' poem," the suddenly beaming young lady smiled.
"Yes! That's my favorite of all his poems – and I love his work."
"Me too. I love the Romantic poets."
"'Bully for Miss Paisley,' as President Teddy Roosevelt might boom. Cheers, dear. I adore the Romantics and, if you check your study guide, you'll see we'll read a whole slew of them too."
"Do you like William Blake?"
"Totally. Paisley, I'm so impressed you enjoy poetry, and especially the classics."
"But I'm still a sucker for sappy romances. It's my guilty pleasure, I guess." She looked down and giggled.
What a genuine joy to have such a charming chat with her about our favorite poets and novelists, Fitzhugh thought, and he was elated at how much quality literature she knew and loved, including several works by John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"So who's your favorite author," he asked.
She paused and then smiled, started to speak, and then paused, lowered her head, and smiled again.
"Don't be shy. I promise not to laugh no matter who it is. Heck, I'm just excited a student is actually reading literature and even on her own time."
"L. Frank Baum. I love the Oz books," she blushed.
"I do too, Paisley! They're absolutely adorable – fabulously fun and whimsically witty. I still read them and appreciate their satire a lot more now than when I was younger."
"So my professor likes the Oz books," she grinned. "I thought maybe you'd laugh and think they're just for children."
"Hey, there's some wonderful children's literature that's lovely for all ages – the Oz books, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. And it was the Dr. Seuss books that got me excited to read."
"I love Dr. Seuss!" She smiled more happily than he had ever seen her.
After thoroughly comparing their favorite writers, they got down to her writing. It turned out she had never attended decent schools, had written not one term paper, and yet made As and Bs on the few essays required of her in high school – with almost no teacher comments or corrections written on any. And nearly all the tests she had ever taken had only non-essay questions, usually multiple-choice -- all the easier to grade frowned Fitzhugh.
After Mr. Rainwater carefully explained all his corrections and comments on her papers, he looked at the work she had done thus far on her new fourth essay. It was encouraging to hear her volunteer ever more about how she could improve this sentence or that paragraph. Her writing really was progressing well, and Fitzhugh felt a sense of satisfaction he had not known. He wondered if this was how a parent felt.
After they finished with all the papers and he had given as many writing tips as he could – including gently encouraging her to take notes in class, something she had never done before – to his pleasant surprise she was in no hurry to leave. Instead, she preferred to comment on and ask about various posters of his literary heroes and books on the shelves. He was elated to discover such enthusiasm for learning from this heretofore ethereal elf.
He also found her steering their conversation ever more towards the personal. In doing so, she helped him better appreciate her academic deficiencies. She shared how she dropped out of school at 16 to work full time. Rapidly growing much more comfortable, she soon confided just what a chaotic family life she had endured with a father she never met and a mother who appeared to be either working all hours to support several children or merely missing. To escape a miserable family or lack of one, Fitzhugh was stunned to learn Paisley left it at 16 and had been totally on her own the last three years, going from job to job and town to town.
After a pause, she revealed how she had tried to escape this precarious existence by passing the state's high school equivalency test and doing well enough on the college entrance exam to get into Joe Wheeler University.
"Brava," Fitzhugh replied with a thumbs-up gesture. "How commendable."
She smiled slightly but then dropped her head to stare at the floor as she had done that day in class after he asked her to see him afterward. There was another pause.
"You might not think I'm so 'commendable' if you knew more about me, Mr. Rainwater. There's just so much you don't know," she remarked before dropping her gaze back to the floor. The sing-song child-like innocence of her voice stood out more than ever.
"That's true with everyone, Paisley," he tried to reassure her.
"Yeah, but I've got quite a past," she said gently.
"At 19? And who doesn't, dear -- unless you're just a total bore?"
"I did a lot of drugs," she stated softly. To hear those words emanate from that small child voice was a contrast Mr. Rainwater doubted he would ever forget. Though she lowered her head again, her eyes quickly looked up to gauge his reaction.
"Hey, who hasn't done drugs, Paisley?" He shifted in his seat. "I tried pot in college and once even hashish. Of course, Mr. Neurotic had to stop, though, because he kept getting paranoid. I had an awful experience one time out of town with some apparently pretty potent Maui Wowie weed. It got me so stoned I couldn't hold onto the back of my buddy Hemp – yes, that's his real name – to ride back home on his motorcycle. Every time I smoked pot after that, I would tell myself, 'Now, remember, remember, whatever happens, don't dare think about that terrible time with the Maui Wowie,' which was of course precisely what I obsessed about every time I smoked. So I had to stop. I'm just too naturally anxious."
Paisley laughed lightly at her teacher's revelation. She had never conversed with any kind of authority figure so freely and frankly. Emboldened, she decided to confide more.
"Did you ever do psychedelics, cocaine, meth, … or heroin?" She asked gently before looking down at his desk and then back up to his eyes.
"No," he answered, sitting up straight and trying not to look shocked or disappointed. "I was always way too scared to do any of those. I figured if I couldn't even handle marijuana, God help me with anything stronger. As much as I enjoy music influenced by psychedelics like a lot of The Beatles' stuff and other songs from the late 1960s, if I ever took LSD, I'd likely get so freaked out I'd be its' first user to die of a heart attack."
Paisley chuckled and smiled at him. Flattered he was making this shy, insecure girl laugh, he was simultaneously amazed at how casually revealing he was with someone he really didn't know and about some of the most personal and embarrassing episodes of his life. But did he really not know her? He suddenly realized he felt closer to her than to any of his other pupils and even to a slew of folks he had known his whole life.
When her delicate, melodic laughter subsided, she looked down again and paused. Fitzhugh found himself feeling more like a psychiatrist listening to a patient than a teacher. He felt like she wanted to say more, but he didn't want her to reveal anything she might regret. Before he could decide whether to change the topic, gently say he needed to get back to work – and there was plenty of that – or just let her continue talking, she did.
"I used to dance." She looked at him intently throughout a long pause.
"Who hasn't danced?" he asked incredulously and spread his arms. "The only reason I don't is that I'm afflicted with a particularly pronounced case of Caucasian rhythm. At a seventh-grade party, my dance partner Lovenia Turner laughed so at how badly I was flailing about that I walked off the dance floor and never went back. What a blue meanie she was too."
Paisley smiled suddenly and caught herself laughing again in surprise before resuming her sad countenance. She slowly spoke again, looking at the floor before raising her eyes to his.
"But have you ever danced in a strip club?"
The child-like voice now made him cringe. He desperately sought to find just the right words to comfort her while not sounding shocked. For all the times he had tried to reassure himself how hip and worldly he was for hanging out with Zada, Hemp, and Philmont and reading widely, he realized his little world had been distinctly sheltered. He had never – to his knowledge – known a stripper. Not even Zada had done that. The fact Paisley was just 19, and her exotic dancing was already past tense startled him. But he was determined to reassure her.
"Well.... I've been to a strip club – Hemp took me." He didn't know whether to smile or look serious.
"Yeah, but I also made a porno."
"Well.... I've rented one – but not yours! I mean, I didn't even know you made one. I had no idea. But even if I did, I certainly wouldn't rent it. I mean, you're gorgeous, but we're friends. I.... I just wouldn't do that. You know what I mean. I hope."
In spite of her general sadness, she couldn't help but laugh a little at Mr. Rainwater's discomfort and fervent effort to make her feel better. Surprised to silently chuckle in the midst of her own confession and grateful for what she so hoped and truly believed was a new friend, Paisley just smiled at him.
"No matter what you tell me, Miss Paisley, I'm not thinking one whit less of you, dear. That you endured such a stormy childhood and adolescence yet somehow summoned the courage to get off drugs, stop dancing, and go to college – especially when your schools hadn't prepared you – well, color me right impressed, young lady. Big time."
"Thank you, sir," she smiled again. "You make it somehow sound special."
"It is. You are, Paisley. Remind yourself of that and stop beating yourself up about nothing. You haven't told me one thing about you hurting anybody or anything but yourself. Stand tall, Miss Parker, and I think you're a whole lot stronger than you know."
She thanked him again and, for the first time that day, seemed to have run out of things to say. He noted how weird but wonderful it was to be surprised Paisley Parker, of all people, was suddenly speechless.
As he stood to wish her goodbye, he walked around the desk to shake her hand. Instead of taking it, she hugged him. It was the first time a student of his did that, and Fitzhugh had not expected it. But he knew reassuring this girl was the most important thing he would do that day and perhaps the whole week. He hugged her back and, when she didn't withdraw, continued to hold her, feeling she needed comforting more than anything. He also felt a little ashamed to hope no busybodies saw them to misinterpret the moment. But he knew not to care about that. When she began to weep gently, he didn't know what to do. So he just continued to hold her and gently pat her upper back.
"You'll get through this, Miss Paisley. The worst is already in your rearview mirror. You cleaned yourself up from drugs, and you made it into college on your own effort, and you're passing too. You've already overcome and accomplished so much in your very young life, and I'm sure the best is all ahead."
He said other things to try to buck her up but couldn't recall what. He sensed she just desperately needed a hug, some reassurance, and a friend. After a while, he gently let go first, she thanked him, and he urged her to contact a pastor and/or check out the campus health clinic for free counseling. She said she thought she would, and he assured her she was always welcome to stop back by the office with any of her other papers or if she just wanted to talk.
"If I don't have the answers, I can at least offer a friendly ear. And we can always compare notes on our favorite Oz books," he winked. She grinned and nodded.
After she left, he sat down and stared into nowhere, appreciating as never before just how little he had ever really ventured from Due South's cozy cocoon. Sure, he had known loneliness and insecurity his whole life, but he now found a new respect for both his parents and students, and he wondered how many more of the latter had battled the kinds of fierce dragons at home and elsewhere he had only read about. We're all carrying around so much more than most folks will ever know, he marveled.
He also realized how his teaching might prove to be far more than just a means to paying for a degree. He now understood what a duty he had to be available to his students, not just academically but on other levels. Perhaps precisely because he was just a young teaching assistant might make him all the more approachable for a troubled student too intimidated to confide in a more knowledgeable, albeit more intimidating authority figure.
Suddenly correcting his students' run-on sentences and split infinitives, critiquing their faulty arguments, and trying to make sure each word of his lectures sounded exactly right faded into the background. How much more important work was there to be done ministering to scarred souls, he speculated. Never before had he felt so much responsibility to be a role model in and out of the classroom and provide a helpful ear and some support to others in need.
Fitzhugh also figured perhaps a little less self-pity and a lot more gratitude would do him good. For all the frustrations with his workload and lack of romance, it was now much harder to be indignant about either. He recalled a few professors saying they had learned much from their students and, for the first time, felt he understood.
Finally, he wondered if he had taken himself and his work a tad too seriously. Yes, be good and try my best, but remember I'm not that special, he told himself. Everybody's got burdens, and mine suddenly seem pretty mild. Yet people can and do persist and even prevail. So he resolved to try to drown in a sea of positivity as much as possible and be available to anyone needing help. Perhaps I'm getting more mature in spite of myself. He smiled.