There might have been mumbling in the background, and some students might have been glancing at their phones, but all the attention in the room poured onto the person standing on the platform.
She was small, by the standards of most anyone who saw women as beauties only if they were towering on endless, slender legs. But there was something about her voice, and how she met the students’ gazes, and how she called out questions and pointed to students to answer them. There was something that made her appear larger than life, louder than reality, stronger than her frame. Beautiful, even, if some were to be asked.
She was a professor, but there was something in her tone that made her more a mother than a dictator. On that afternoon, she was talking about research – her favorite topic, but not one necessarily loved by her students. Some of them pouted, one of them sighed, but no one gave up listening.
Her sense of humor helped, as did her scrawling handwriting that seemed to draw blobs and ribbons of ink onto the whiteboard. She frequently joked about how her penmanship approximated the bastard child of Mayan script and Chinese calligraphy. She was also cooking up a joke about how she would bring her students closer to God by making them all pray to the Virgin Mary, Undoer of Knots, who was also probably the patronness of Knotted Handwriting.
“Let’s leave Marx behind and talk about something a bit newer,” she began erasing the board, sending up dark specks of marker dust, “But to do that, I need to ask you all something.”
She stepped to the edge of the platform, put her hands in her pockets, and looked across the classroom, all with enough bravado to be in her own movie. It was appropriate, if anything; her students would one day make films or advertisements or documentaries, and it was her job to direct their creativity through controlled byways of logic.
“What came first?” She paused, with just enough time to hear one student whisper, “Chicken!” and for a corner of the classroom to giggle, “Think about this: what came first, the feeling or the name for it?”
The students looked up from their laptops and notebooks. Even Mr. Chicken stopped laughing, his eyebrows creased.
She looked across the classroom another time, and felt the students drifting away with their thoughts. She counted to five in her head, and guessed, as she did so, that the students were worried about the coming typhoon. Of course it would disrupt their lecture schedule, and her deadline for research papers, and the students’ entire semester, if the typhoon was strong enough to flood the metropolis. Typhoons were a reality for the Philippines, after all; the job of students was to work with changing schedules, and the job of professors was to keep making new class calendars, depending on the floods.
“All right, let’s put it this way,” she removed her hands from her pockets, stepped off the platform, and walked closer to her students, “Give me a word in Filipino for which there is no direct English equivalent.”
“Kilig,” someone answered almost immediately.
“Good!” She pointed at the student, as the rest of the class opened their browsers and consulted online dictionaries, “Define it for me, Zed.”
Zed was a boy with oversized glasses, twinkling eyes, and a voice that rose and squeaked with enthusiasm, “It’s the feeling you get when you see someone you like, or when you’re about to do something you’re excited about.”
“Then can’t we just call it ‘excitement’?” The professor drew back jokingly, as several hands went up in unison, “Look at all my babies, all awake! Go ahead, Yennie,” she pointed to a student in the back.
Yennie’s voice bounced and shook the front row, so that everyone turned to her, “You don’t get kilig from just being excited. It doesn’t even have to be about you,” she paused as Mr. Chicken nudged her, with a silly wink, “You can look at two people who just look good together and you could feel kilig.”
“Then isn’t that sympathy?” The professor countered, again to a chorus of raised hands, “Go ahead, Viv.”
“Excited sympathy – but there’s a French word,” Viv had a minor in French, and she spoke the word with a flip of her long curls, “Frisson.”
A line of girls in the back echoed her, but instead of glaring at them, Viv led a chorus of hair flips and “frisson”, much to the laughter of the people in the back row.
“All right,” the professor laughed along with her class, and even rolled her eyes in a show of mock disbelief, “So does that mean that only Filipinos and the French know what kilig feels like? Yes, Yennie?”
“No,” the girl’s voice reverberated yet again, “I can always describe it to somebody and then they’ll understand. I can say that it’s the feeling you get when you see something that really makes you…”
Yennie’s voice trailed away as her thoughts finally caught up with her.
The professor smiled as another set of hands came up. She held her own palm up, requesting that they wait.
“So we assume that everyone understands you in the way you intend, on the basis of a common language,” she began, only to pause as the back door to the classroom opened.
A man entered, in a white collared shirt, and a dark blue tie. He was carrying his coat on one arm, and a leather folder in another. The tie and shirt were fairly common on the university grounds, but the professor – and soon enough, all the students who turned to the newcomer – knew that he was a foreigner. He looked like someone from a neighboring Asian country, but with some other blood that made his tanned skin more pale than living, shaped his jaw into sharp, chiseled corners. He could even be considered handsome. But the coat – no one would brave the Philippine heat with a heavy coat, even with the winds of August crisp with a coming storm, and the classrooms all sealed with air conditioning.
The professor had half the mind to ask the man why he had entered, but she glanced quickly at her beadle, who then signaled that she had around half an hour left until the end of class. There was no time to ask what the visitor was doing. She decided to let the man stay. He had, after all, already taken a seat in a the farthest row, and seemed to await her next words.
“Right. Everyone, back to thinking,” she gave a single clap with her hands, drawing all heads in the room to her once again, “Are we assuming that simply telling people something will make them understand how we feel? Go ahead, Will.”
The boy named Will smiled widely; his hand had been up the longest, “We can only make someone know what we think, but we can’t really make them feel.”
“Says every bitter breakup song ever,” the professor interjected, much to the resounding howls of the class, followed by laughter. The man in the back smiled mildly, and continued to watch her lecture, “Sorry about that – continue, Will.”
Will had joined the howling, and he was still giddy as he spoke, “We can make them understand our words – oh my gosh ma’am, I got it!” He spoke the last words in a hurry, as though doing so would increase their brilliance, “They know what to feel, but they won’t really feel it.”
The class cooed as the professor beamed.
“So tell me,” she spoke, again with aplomb, and again with an air of both mother and queen, “What came first: the word or the feeling?”
Half the class answered “the word”, while the other half answered “the feeling.” What ensued was a mixture of debate and giggling.
“But people will know if we tell them well!” Someone from the back called out.
“You get the feeling first, then you give a name to it!” Will exclaimed, loud enough for the class to go quiet, and for even the newcomer at the back to crane his head to look at the last speaker.
“Good!” The professor pointed at him, “So tell me: does the word give meaning to the emotion, or does the emotion give meaning to the word?”
The class cooed one more time; and from everywhere in the room rose energy, flowing as both words and breath across the students and into the professor, hanging upon the class as the students leaned forward and listened.
She spoke through the flood of energy, loud, clear, so that her voice seemed to paint ideas across the walls.
“Let’s go beyond the hidden objective universe of Marx, and look at another kind of world,” the professor gestured to the ceiling, as though to peel away the doors between dimensions, “In this reality, we give things meaning by providing a name to them. But can everyone else know the meaning simply by knowing the word?”
The class shook its collective head.
“Why not?” The professor’s smile widened at the chorus of hands,” Yes, go ahead, Viv.”
“Because the word is the meaning?” She grinned at the very end of the sentence, as though realizing that she had much to say, but all her ideas were on a tight bottleneck.
“Close – yes, Tanya?”
“Because we give meaning to something when we give it a name,” a girl in the front row answered, one eye to the empty board, “And something exists to us when we have a name for it.”
The professor pointed directly at Tanya, voice firm, as though she had nailed her single word in place, “Reality exists because we give it a name, because we build it according to – according to what?”
“Language!” Will called out.
“I won’t ever curse again, sir!” the professor retorted, leading half the class to roll its eyes in mock irritation, and for the other half to mouth out a slow “ha ha ha” in mock laughter.
“And because nobody laughed at my joke, everybody will get a C today!” The professor smiled, so that everyone did laugh, this time sincerely, “But to the point – yes, in this worldview, we design a reality according to our language. But it’s not just language. It’s culture, norms, everything that makes you a person – it shapes the reality you perceive and what you believe to be true.”
She paused, allowing the students to write their notes or type on their laptops.
“So if you were to learn another language,” she said slowly, eyes traveling all across the room as she checked how the note taking was coming along, “Would you know someone else’s reality? Yes, Viv? I knew you’d be the first to answer.”
Viv giggled, “You’d know what their reality is like,” she blushed, as the class cooed once again, “But you won’t experience it.”
“Good!” The professor chanced to look at the newcomer, and found him taking his own notes, almost feverishly, on his phone, “So will we ever be able to know all the details of someone else’s life, in this paradigm?”
The class shook its head.
“And can we ever tell someone else’s story with complete authenticity?”
Another chorus of shaking heads.
“Very good,” and this time, she began to write on the board, “Let’s now think about what the particulars of this paradigm are. In this paradigm, can we know reality if we just think objectively?” And here, she began to write on the board, so that her upper body angled toward her audience, “You can just call out your answers while I draw random letters that you may or may not understand.”
A voice came from the middle of the classroom, to the tune of clacking keyboards and scribbled notes, “We can’t know reality objectively because we can’t see it objectively,” the speaker said, “So we can’t see what’s real for someone else if we don’t talk their language.”
“Good,” the professor wrote more words on the board, “So does this mean that there is absolutely no reality?”
“No!” A row of students chorused, “We’re just not sure.”
“Exactly,” the professor used her free hand to point at the group, “So can we never get to another person’s reality?”
“We can try,” Viv called out.
“Exactly – and how?”
The professor turned her upper body to the class, the better to pick out Viv and greet the student’s grin with a show of the professor’s flexibility, “Thank you for the reminder on what this class was about,” the professor paused, as Viv laughed, “A little more specific. What kind of research?”
“Systematic?” Mr. Chicken Boy decided to make his presence known, only to try to hide behind a classmate when the professor turned and gestured that he should continue.
“Research where you look at how people make their world,” Chicken Boy’s voice was sheepish, as though he had already found his cave and was unwilling to evacuate it, “Like, what they see?”
“Close,” the professor hesitated, “But I’d like to latch on to something you said. You said ‘make their world’. All right, Zed, go ahead.”
Zed had been raising his hand all throughout Chicken Boy’s game of Hide from Teacher Behind Nearest Classmate, “People construct their world through their language,” his energy grew as the professor smiled, “So what is real to them is only as real as their language can make it. So you have to study their language.”
“But how?” The professor encircled the word “language” on the board, “How do you study their language?”
“You look at how they talk?” Zed asked more than he stated.
“You study how they talk.”
“By studying what they say, maybe – like – what they write?”
“Is that all?” The professor turned around again and began to encircle more words on the board, “I thought you couldn’t objectively see someone’s reality if you’re looking at it from the outside?”
Zed went quiet as other people began to chime in, with voices from a wide range of pitches and strengths. There was something about reading history books, to which the professor immediately shook her head; then something about doing fieldwork, so that the professor gesticulated that they should elaborate; and then something about interviews and discussions, which led to everyone contributing all that they knew about talking to “subjects”.
“By asking questions and engaging your participants in constant and repeated conversation about what their world means,” someone said, in a deep voice that the professor did not recognize.
“Very good!” She exclaimed, still enclosing words in boxes and connecting ideas with circles and arrows, “Wait – who said that?”
The class fell quiet as she waited, and as she finished the notes on the board. When she turned around, she found them gesturing – with either their eyes or index fingers – to the back, where the newcomer was. He smiled, then, as though guilty, grinned and began taking notes again.
The beadle signaled that she had twenty minutes left.
The professor pointed to the guest, “Exactly what he said – we speak, we talk, we look for reality in people’s words, the conversations they share with us, the sharing being one that is guided systematically even as it emerges almost effortlessly from a conversation,” she walked off the platform again, whiteboard marker in one hand, “You have to be a good listener, to see the exchange not as a way to gather data, but to gain a deeper understanding of people’s worlds.”
Will raised his hand, “But what about when people research, like, TV shows? Or movies?” He narrowed his eyes at Mr. Chicken Boy, who teased him for “advanced reading”, “You can’t have conversations with the characters.”
“Yeah, but you can see the movie as a reality and see what people construct as reality,” Zed said, from the other end of the classroom, “So you look at it as a way for people to construct reality.”
“Is it just to construct reality?” The professor cut into their conversation.
“Make meaning,” Viv answered for the boys.
“Good!” The professor pointed the marker at her, “You can also use this paradigm, this perspective to see how people make meaning of their world through the things that they create. Just TV shows and movies?”
“Movies, TV shows, books, photos, everywhere we make images and tell stories,” Zed answered.
“Good!” The professor encircled the word “understand” on the board, “We construct reality in different ways, but does that mean that we don’t have any objective reality?”
“We’re not sure,” the class chorused.
“So can we measure something we’re not sure of?” The professor held up both hands, this time to signal the caveat to come, “And by measure, take note that we mean looking for the abstract in the concrete. This has nothing to do with numbers. Therefore: what can we reliably measure, in this paradigm where we’re not sure about reality, but where we seek to understand the many ways we shape reality?”
There were several scattered shouts from the class, with answers such as “language”, “representations”, and “images.”
A student said, “Constructions,” which then made the professor smile, turn around, and finally write the word “Constructivism” on the whiteboard.
For the next ten minutes, there was something between an oration and a discussion. The professor wrote on the board when she talked, then pointed to a student who added to her words, then added the student’s ideas to the board. There was a quick debate on what to do when worldviews clashed, courtesy of a hitherto quiet student and an enthusiastic Will. Then there was a quick recap of the day seconds before the beadle signaled that there was one minute left before the end of class.
The professor dismissed the students just as the bell rang, but a few of them remained behind. Will was explaining the issue of objectivity to a classmate, all while still raising his hand and asking the professor for help. Another student came forward and asked the professor questions off a list, all of them having to do with his plans for his thesis – which was in a year yet, he admitted sheepishly – and all of them easy to answer, so that the professor simply responded to one question after another, without missing the questions that Will kept throwing at her.
But at the very start of dismissal, and as soon as the bell rang, a student from the front row got up, fixed her things, and then wrapped her arms around the professor in an embrace. She rested her cheek on the professor’s shoulder and hardly moved even with all her classmates asking questions and giving the professor their loud goodbyes.
“Are you all right, Tai?” The professor whispered to her, as soon as the list-wielding student had gone, and as soon as Will shouted out his, “Happy Friday, ma’am!” from somewhere in the hallway outside.
The girl tightened her embrace, “I just need a hug, ma’am Agnes,” she said, from the depths of her dark hair, “It’s been a rough week and I’m just so tired.”
Agnes returned the embrace, and did not let go until the girl loosened her grip. Tai had always recited before now, although the professor did not put too much meaning into her speculations; it was too early in the semester, besides, and school had hardly started. Everyone was adjusting to their new schedules, much in the same way that students did since she had first entered the university five years before.
Someone called out Tai’s name from the hallway. Agnes could still hear her students outside, all of them chatting about drinks that night to celebrate the new semester.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Tai finally lifted her bag and made for the exit, “I hope you don’t mind the super long hug.”
“Not at all,” Agnes smiled, picking up her cup of whiteboard markers, “Now go and relax!”
“I’ll try!” Tai grinned faintly as she opened the classroom door, so that her friends nearly spilled in, a bundle of hands and arms and toothy smiles.
“We love you, ma’am!” They giggled as one, as they set themselves to rights and pulled Tai out by one backpack strap.
“Bye ma’am!” It was Viv this time, waving as she closed the door.
“Bye mommy!” Was the even louder chorus from the rest of Tai’s friends in the hallway, so that Agnes rolled her eyes.
Every semester, and almost every class meeting, at least one student would mistakenly call her “mommy.” Other professors bristled, but she took the nickname in stride: most of the students hardly ever saw their parents, and she stood in as their maternal figure, whether they were showing off grades or bawling about their failed relationships.
This time, however, she remembered that there was still an unnamed guest in the room, and she was not sure how he would take her students’ (and her) open show of affection.
She had barely taken notice of him when he had first entered, and only knew that he was (admittedly) quite handsome, dressed formally, and was taking notes. As she had spoken with Tai, she sensed that he was coming closer to the front of the room; and when Tai left, she marked his chuckle.
“Hi, good afternoon,” she greeted his shoes more than him, as she had to check the room on impulse for anything that her students might have left behind, “Sorry I couldn’t talk to you – I needed to finish my lecture.”
“No, please – I should be the one apologizing,” she heard from the newcomer, in a neutral accent. She guessed Chicago or Philadelphia, somewhere Midwestern US, maybe someplace where there was a large Japanese or Korean population, “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt the class either.”
Agnes finally looked up and found a man old in the eyes, but seemingly ageless in countenance. He was a foot or so taller than her, with tanned skin bordering on pallor, and straight dark hair that looked as though he had fixed it for hours until all the strands were balanced. His jawline was sharp, so well defined, that his smile appeared gentle no matter how wide he made it; and his eyes appeared alert, even scrutinizing, no matter how far away his gaze was.
“You didn’t interrupt at all – we get lots of sit-ins and walk-ins – especially by people who mistake my classroom for that one,” Agnes pointed with her head to the hallway, “Dimly lit visitors’ waiting area with no sign, versus bright classroom with people.”
The man laughed mildly, low, as though embarrassed to admit that he was afraid of the dark, “Well, I’m glad I got to attend a bit of your class,” he raised his phone, “I hope you don’t mind that I took notes.”
“Not at all,” the girl held out her free hand for the shaking, “I’m Agnes Zamora.”
“William Lambskeep,” the man took her hand and shook it, firm but gentle.
“Wait!” She pointed at him with the cup of whiteboard markers just as she let his hand go, “Are you the new head of counseling?”
“Yeah – last interview at 6 tonight,” he answered at once, though apparently drawn back by her candor, “Did they send out a memo or something?”
She laughed, hand gesturing toward the exit, “I’m from the Department of Communication – right upstairs from you,” she added quickly, rushing to open the door, and then stepping aside as he took the knob before she could, “We heard about it a few months back, when they brought in counselors for one of our classes.”
He allowed her to walk ahead of him before he closed the door, “That was your department?” He draped his jacket over one shoulder, “Where all the students started crying?”
She stopped walking and looked at him sharply, eyes wide, “There was a class where everyone started crying?”
“Uh…” was all that William could say.
“No – no, it’s fine. Your secret’s safe,” she held up both hands in reassurance, rattling the cup of markers as though for emphasis, “We had a class on talking about crisis, so my students brought in the counselors to talk about mental health.”
William still did not say a word, although he did start walking once again, and in step with Agnes.
“I do know that there was a class last semester; philosophy, I think, that asked for counselors one day,” Agnes spoke again, sprightly, as though hoping to distract him, “We saw lots of people leave the counselors’ office and march to the building, that white one right across the park. I just assumed it was a suicide call.”
“Suicide call?” William stopped at the corner, where the staircase was.
Agnes leaned against the balustrade, her voice lower, grave, “We had a few attempts last year – maybe one a month? The counselors put out a hotline,” her talking slowed, “I’m sorry – I hope I’m not overwhelming you. I don’t know if your office told you about it.”
William looked like he was about to say something, but stopped himself mid-inhale. “They mentioned it – I just thought ‘suicide call’ meant there was an actual suicide that the students saw.”
“Oh no,” Agnes shook her head, eyes wide, “Anything as big as that would have made it to the evening news.”
William took his turn to glare, “Last thing we want is to get the media involved.”
“They like getting involved – anything to throw mud at this university,” Agnes retorted, “I hope the job won’t be too hard this year. The profs got your back.”
William’s smile was tiny, fleeting, “Thank you,” he looked as though he were pushing down a memory, “Keep up the good work with the students, too. I haven’t seen a class that alert in ages.”
“Thanks,” Agnes’ smile brightened her cheeks, “Most classes around here are like that, though.”
“Makes you wonder why some kids still don’t like it here.”
Agnes shrugged, “Way too many factors and way too many kids,” she took one step up on the staircase, “Things get better and all complications will be undone. Mama Mary Undoer of Knots.”
“What?” William exclaimed.
Agnes pointed at his neck, where a thin golden cross hung on a faded chain, “A novena. You call out to Mama Mary Undoer of Knots, and she’ll untie all complicated things.”
“Oh – I see,” William said, solemn.
Agnes found herself halfway between embarrassed and perplexed, “Sorry – I just assumed you were Catholic.”
William took his (second) turn to be embarrassed, “Catholic – uh – yes,” he moved his jacket down to his arm, “Just not one for novenas.”
Agnes took a breath, then released it abruptly, on the verge of a joke, before remembering that she had just met the one with whom she was speaking, “You could try it sometime,” she gestured with her free hand, with controlled grace, so that William could not help staring at her fingers, “Just call out and ask her to undo the knots, and sometimes everything just falls into place right after.”
He smiled, with a faint shrug. Anyone else would have thought that it was a mere dismissal; but Agnes, in that split second, sensed something sad in William’s movements. It was as though he had too many knots to untie – or he had asked for them to be unraveled before, but had only watched the knots grow ever more entangled. He looked brightly pale, even in the growing evening light.
“Anyway,” she spoke up, as footsteps sounded from the floors below them, “You need to be at your interview, so I’m sorry to have kept you.”
“Oh, it’s – uh – not a problem at all,” William’s eyes widened, as though awakened from a dream, “Thank you for letting me sit in. Really interesting. Keep it up.”
Agnes felt her cheeks grow warm, “Thank you, and will do. Good luck with your new job! Welcome to the university!”
“Thanks,” William began walking backward, toward the counseling office, “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” Agnes smiled, just as William turned and walked straight down the hall, “See you around!”
She saw him raise his hand in a brisk wave that was both friendly and lonesome, as though she had called up memories that she had no license to ask about. She wondered at his pallor, and worried that she had offended someone so new to her university, someone who could leave if so offended at a time when the counseling officers were most needed. And then she began wondering if he would never, ever speak to her again because she had imposed a novena on him, and because she had no sense of tact and had simply assumed that anyone coming into a Catholic university would automatically be as deep in the faith as she.
The wondering and worrying took all of five seconds. Agnes forgot about her worries as soon as a gaggle of laughter thundered from the bottom of the stairs. It was half her thesis class: they all rushed forward, a cloud of gasps, to wrap her in an embrace. She would have greeted them had there been space in between the seven pairs of arms that completely surrounded her tiny frame.
“We promised to pounce, ma’am!” Someone exclaimed, “How are you?”
The giant, sparkling smile that had so easily escaped Agnes took effort to produce now. All seven students stepped away almost immediately, but did not completely let her go. One girl kept her arm around the professor’s shoulder, and another girl wrapped her arm around her friend, as though to make a wall against which Agnes could lean.
“Oh, ma’am, it’s ok,” a boy said, voice sing-song but soothing, “You don’t have to smile yet if you don’t feel like it.”
“I’m just tired from all the lectures,” Agnes replied, feeling the muscles in her cheeks tighten as she tried to release what she hoped would pass as a sheepish grin, “The energy will come back.”
“That’s not the reason,” was the chorus, strong and singing, as though it had been made many times before.
“Are you at least dancing?” One student piped up.
“And drawing things and composing songs?” Another added.
“And taking photos of sunsets and trees?” Came a voice from her right.
“And writing your novel?” Came a voice from her left.
Agnes had not realized it, but a tear had already rolled down her cheek. There were no more words: the students simply tightened their circle and wrapped their arms around her, giving her head space to lean on one shoulder, and her arms to embrace them back.
Someone whispered, low, about not giving in. Agnes could not help crying, in the same way she had done so periodically in the last few months, in the same space that her students had provided her, in their various permutations and combinations of groups. Her story had spread fast through a batch of students that she had almost exclusively handled. She had joked at first that she was the one that got away; the students changed the narrative immediately and took it upon themselves to surround her.
She was the one who had not been cared for enough to keep, and all because the stupid boy in question had found somebody else more proximal, and therefore decided to feed his interest – and before he even had the decency to break off his engagement with her.
They had called him a pig, and she had asked them to be more charitable. They thereafter called him an idiot, and told her that no one dared hurt their academic mother.
From that moment on, the students kept coming.
Agnes accepted the embraces readily, even learned to appreciate the gentle reminders to keep on dancing, writing, drawing, and creating so that the words and steps and strokes would fill in the spaces of her broken heart. She learned to laugh, albeit with a frown threatening to drive out her cheer, as her students pounced on her and embraced her whenever they met. She even learned to talk about herself to her students, who seemed to pop out of nowhere, and who never left her alone. They were always there to talk to her, and ask her questions, in the first few months, when they reassembled her narrative. As their enthusiasm tempered, so did Agnes finally realize that their story was truer: she had been abandoned, and she deserved someone who would fight for her.
And then the smiles began to come, and she began to feel the weight of her broken heart melt away. The going was extremely slow, which was no surprise for a relationship that had lasted long years; and for some reason, her students knew when and where exactly to find her, knew that she needed a long time to let everything go.
“I’m not talking to him anymore,” she said, on that afternoon, in the stairwell, wrapped in seven pairs of arms.
“Good!” was the chorus, low, almost scolding.
“And you never will ever again!” a student added, looking Agnes straight in the eyes.
Agnes felt a smile crack her wet cheeks.
“He cheated!” The entire group thundered back.
Agnes could not help laughing, in the embrace, in the waning light of the day. The last lecture felt as though it had been done weeks before, the last class conducted in a building miles away in another university, the exchange on constructivist thought in another life. Even the newcomer, William, seemed to exist only in her imaginings.
They eventually let her go, their professor, the one they jokingly called mom. She, for her part, made her way back to her office, to prepare for a long ride home. It was almost routine for a Friday afternoon, save that this time, no one noticed the figure in the corner, somewhat hidden by the shadows, who watched the goings on with both interest and surprise.
Never in his years as a counselor and psychiatrist had he witnessed such behavior in students. They tended to treat their professors with irreverent indifference, to call them by their first names as though they were machines to spit out grades, to ask questions as though their only aim in life was to prove everyone around them wrong.
He had called his own post-doc boss Brownie. These students would probably never dream of calling Agnes by any other name except “ma’am” (or, if the other class were to be listened to, “mommy”). Their affection was a curious thing.
He was on his way to the classroom he had left behind, to check if he had left his umbrella there. He did not expect to encounter the extremely rare sight of students wrapping a weeping professor in their entanglement of hands and arms.
He recognized Agnes, and yet did not. It was strange, too, to see the bright professor with her ideas and energy all deadened by something that her students alone seemed to know.
He was in an interesting place, to say the least: high depression rates amongst bright smiles and empathy, students treating professors as they would revered parents, professors embracing students.
He knew that Landon and his brother were somewhere in the Philippines, somewhere where there were trees, if Landon’s last photo to him was any indication. The brothers had been in the country for close to a year now, and had sent William short missives on how they had arrived in the Philippines after a rocky election season, how they were “stuck” editing transcripts and reviewing all their sessions in the US, how they were waiting to be called into an actual research group while the Vatican searched for priests willing and able to help them on their project.
Priests unwilling and unable? With Catholic universities reporting a rise in depression cases?
William thought of calling the brothers, maybe even surprising them. He had never let drop that he had accepted a job in the Philippines, only that he had been looking for work after his five papers had finally seen the light of day. He had not even mentioned that he had been hired by a Jesuit institution, once the home of Asia’s exorcists, if his friends were to be believed.
“The Philippines?” One had said, after nearly sputtering out a mugful of beer on one of his final pub crawls with other post docs, “That’s the last place I’d expect you to get a job. It’s far away from – everything.”
“They have everything we’ve got,” another post-doc had added, already swaying from four bottles of beer straight, “They even have their own Trump.”
William had to laugh at that. Of course he wanted a posting far away. Far far away. Far far FAR away. From everything.
He stepped back, on his way to return to the interview, and saw the office secretary walking toward him.
“Sir William!” She called out, “Your umbrella was under your chair!”
He could have sworn he had looked there and found nothing.
He resolved to call Landon as soon as the meeting was over.