Present tense, the essay

Elenita did not ask questions in class, at least none that I remember. Of course, that was two decades ago. The memories are frayed. That was the semester I taught at a college in Torreon, a city within the vast Chihuahan desert. Driving to work felt like wandering to the edge of the world, to a clearing past where the last of houses fell away outside my car window, where land flattened out to wide stretches of dirt and stones, broken only by tufts of wild grass and cacti. I was 24, and life still felt like it was unfolding in front of me, not unraveling behind me. 

Elenita wasn’t one of my best students—not the kind who strained forward in their seats to catch the golden pieces of what I said, which now I can see didn’t happen often. My best students did half the work by asking good questions, by rounding out concepts I did not explain well to begin with, giving me credit for what they themselves added—things that I never said or even meant, but should have. 

Back then, I took credit when my best students thrived under my direction—when they wrote more complex and grammatically correct sentences with perfect rows of black-ink words, like good fences that keep out mistakes you want to forget. But in fact I was a mediocre educator at best: I didn’t know how to motivate the I-could-care-less students. That’s the mark of a great teacher. I thought I taught the entire class, but the truth is I focused on the few students like the kind I had been—who sat up straight in the front row, scrawled notes furiously, and raised their hands again and again into the empty air as if their arms had springs. It was to these students I handed pieces of my language—and encouragement, advice—in hopes that they would someday need and use them. Without realizing it, I gave up on the other students—maybe the ones I should have tried hardest to reach. Maybe the ones who were like me but in ways I could not see then. 

Students like Elenita. 

Elenita was Fernando’s, with his smooth caramel skin and chiseled face, and a gold chain that glinted just beneath the collar of his polo shirt. She was pale and had slender hips, the kind you only have at 18 and 19, that will widen with years but at the moment are still narrow. 

She scooted into his side, and the strands of her long auburn hair ran down his shoulder as if falling from his own black head of hair. She was his, by her own admission, his by what she never did, which was try really hard. She wrote what she had to: if I asked for a paragraph she gave me one with simple sentences, easy construction—no nuance, no complexity. And she couldn’t get her tenses down, eternally stuck in the present as if the past didn’t exist and the future would never come: not the widening hips or sprigs of grey hair, not the crow’s feet, not the falling out of love. 

I had a hunch she was smarter than the jumbled words on her paper, smarter than how she never raised her hand to answer, smarter than how she giggled—easily and happily distracted—when Fernando whispered in her ear during class. She shrugged off my admonitions. She frustrated me because she seemed to try so hard not to try. Was this the promise of a rich and steady boyfriend? That you didn’t have to try at English, or really anything because he would take care of it all? I wanted to jerk her off Fernando’s arm and yank her away, but instead I tried not to care, because what was the point? I was a teacher she had for one class, one semester, and I knew that by next year—if she remembered me at all—I would be a mere shadow of memory. 

But she never became a shadow in mine. After all these years, I remember her—that gum-chewing, those perfectly painted nails—better than most of my best students because a part of her was part of me. 

In her lean into Fernando, I saw my own burrowing into the boyfriend I’d been wanting to marry for months, though he hadn’t asked. In her absence on the page, I pictured my own vanishing.