Limberlost

Most of the students at the college, including Rose, are from Elsewhere. From good families and good pasts that seem to promise even better futures. Becky, on the other hand, is from here. “From here.” That’s how she said it when we finally spoke. Purple-Nailed Becky. Messenger-bagged Becky. What’s-In-Your-Head Becky.

She reminded me of Elnora Comstock from the Limberlost novel, set a hundred years ago but not too far away from here. It was one of many books from my own youth that I had arranged on a bookcase to read with Mia. We would read them together and then someday we would travel to the actual sites, places like Limberlost and the Laura Ingalls Wilder home. That someday would be now.

Becky reminded me of Poor Elnora, who arrives at school with old clothes and no books and thinks, “it was all a mistake; this was no school, but a grand display of enormous ribbon bows.” Ribbon-Bow Rose. I was projecting of course, but it made me sympathetic to Becky, curious.

When I got Becky’s first paper I still hadn’t heard her speak in class. What would she have to say? It turned out that she had to say exactly what she was told to say in exactly the way she was told to say it. And yet she revealed nothing at all. This was Composition. Put these two texts in conversation with one another. Make an argument about how they connect, how they diverge. It was brilliant, really, how she was able to satisfy the assignment, write more than a thousand words, and say nothing.

Soon it was time for student conferences. Winter had settled in, the long hard snow of it. A year earlier I’d lived in a world of music, merlot, and maps for a dissertation. Now my life was Mia and Composition. And Reliable Rose, whose conference took place at my kitchen table over cinnamon tea. Becky arrived at my office late for her first conference. Mia was nestled in her pumpkin seat at my feet, and each of my students ooohed and aaahed over her, asked about her age and sleeping habits, and stared at her through most of the conference. Except Becky, who hardly acknowledged her at all.

I didn’t need to discuss Becky’s paper, which would get an A. So I asked where she was from, hopeful to piece together some of her mystery.

“From here.”

It took a moment to register her meaning. Maybe because it was the first I’d heard her voice. But suddenly something, everything, made sense. “Which high school did you go to,” I asked. “President, saint, or poet?”

She didn’t miss a beat of what I thought was my own private joke. “President.”

“Jefferson,” I said. The worst of the schools. Yet somehow she’d learned to write perfectly meaningless A papers and get herself into this college.

I imagined the rest of the Limberlost details of her life: spurned by her own mother, unable to afford better clothes, eager for an education. This made me reach out to her, talk to her over coffee in the Student Union (where I learned details worse than Limberlost), and root for her. But it did not make me ask her to babysit.

Until the afternoon Rose had to cancel. Rose was a new member of the Student Government committee and they were hosting a campus event, a comedienne (and I only recall this now because the image of that woman on the poster with the date and time remains in my mind like the last bits of baby food that you can never quite scrape from the inside of the jar). Rose had to be at the event. She told me after our class together, and by that time Becky was the only other person in the room. My options were limited: I could either cancel class—a dicey proposition for someone whose contract expired at the end of every semester—or ask Becky to fill in. I liked Becky; I trusted Rose.

I looked at Becky. She looked at the floor.