The Drop Out

I noticed her from the beginning: she was above average height with a dark-skinned complexion bordering on Mediterranean and the kind of face that is usually referred to as “striking”. She always arrived punctually for my classes, neither too early nor late but exactly as I began teaching, and always sat at the back of the room. At the end of the class, she would pick up her expensive looking handbag and be out of the door and gone by the time I had finished speaking.

Normally I would have found this behaviour irritating although I would never have shown it outwardly.  You get used to the kind of students who sign up for evening classes. They have their dreams even if few have the stamina to pursue them. My role is to nurture those dreams, however unrealistic, and over the years I’ve become good at it.  I’m adept at finding the positive spin; an expert at the encouraging word. Criticism, when applied, is always a tonic: astringent, not harsh – bracing but not deflating. It’s what my employers want, it’s what is expected; ultimately I suppose it’s what keeps the students coming back.

From her effortlessly smart clothes and her slightly cool manner, I would have usually classified her as one of the young businesswomen who enrol for my classes in the same way they might book a Pilates session or an hour with their masseuse. They are rare creatures in my slightly seedy world but not entirely unknown. From experience, such women are only interested in the skinny version of what I serve. Their boredom threshold is low and, like orchid blooms, they never linger long. There was however a qualitative difference in the way she listened in class; a still attentiveness in the angle of her head that belied such an easy judgement.

It is typical of the generation of students I teach now that most have lost the habits of reflection and immersion that were once the gifts of leisurely education. Prolonged focus and concentration seem beyond them. They favour the pre-digested, the easily assimilated and, in the interest of survival, that’s what I give them. It’s taken years but I think I can claim that my course booklet, my hand-outs and my purpose built website all deliver a package that makes the customer feel as if they’ve got something for their money.

She, as I may have established by now, was different. When I am lecturing to a group, I am always aware of the energy levels in the room: who is receptive and who is not, the ones who smile at my jokes and those who are looking puzzled or bored. Like any performer, you become attuned to your audience and play off them, enlisting some as allies and trying to win others over.

When she attended, I was always acutely aware of her presence; sometimes almost overpoweringly so. Although I tried to ignore it, I could feel her cool and considering gaze as something almost physical. It was like a radio signal that drowned out the others around it. She didn’t just listen, she gave me her complete attention; gave it as a gift that could be taken back if she wanted but was unreservedly mine while I had it.

You may be thinking by now that I was smitten with her but you couldn’t be more wrong. There was a familiarity about her, a sense of intimacy, it’s true, but absolutely no sexual frisson of any kind. On the contrary, she made me deeply uncomfortable.

It’s difficult to pin down why exactly. The best comparison I can think of is the memory of being a child and having your parents come to see you performing in public. Being watched by someone who knows you too well robs you of the anonymity you need. It dilutes your power and diminishes your confidence.

As I recall she said almost nothing in class and I never tried to engage her or draw her out as I sometimes do with the quiet ones. I pride myself on making some kind of personal connection with even the most difficult students but in her case, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I found myself shying away from even making eye contact. We were like two magnets that mutually repel.

This bothered me. Week after week, I determined to do something about it but it wasn’t until we were three weeks into the first term that the opportunity came. I had just let the class go for their ten-minute tea break when I noticed she had stayed behind. We were alone in the room. She was reading something and, not wanting to break her concentration, I approached quietly.

“Not wanting to break her concentration?” she said suddenly, looking up. “Wouldn’t ‘hoping to slip past’ have been more accurate?” She put the sheets of paper down with a sigh. “But then perhaps that’s not astringent or bracing enough.”

I was struck dumb. I stood and looked at her without moving.

“At least you’re not ‘rooted to the spot,” she said, giving me a wry smile. “Though it would hardly surprise me. Is this really what you do now?” She got up and came towards me and examined my face appraisingly. “Strange,” she said. “I seem to remember more pride. Is this what came of the promises you made? Is this all you have to show from the dreams of your youth?”

She waited but I couldn’t answer. I will admit though that I burned with shame and grief at her words. She picked up her handbag and came to stand in front of me again. “After what you were given too,” she murmured. “ It’s a pity.” She patted my cheek gently and turned to go.

“Wait!” I blurted. “Will I be seeing you again?”

She didn’t reply but she smiled again and gave a half shrug that said “maybe” or perhaps “all things are possible”. My eyes filled with tears and, by the time I had blinked them away, she’d gone.

Of course, she never came back. The odd thing is that I could never remember her face. To this day I couldn’t tell you whether her eyes were green or blue. I can’t remember her name either. That is strange because it must have been printed in the register and I must have called it out and ticked it off – at least I assume I must have done. But when I tried to look it up later, there was nothing that fitted.

I am still teaching my class. I need the money but I have hopes that it won’t always be so. I often think about what she said. That’s why I keep writing and re-writing these pages. I want to be ready if she ever comes back. More than anything, I don’t want to disappoint her again. It’s a hell of a thing to get a visit from your muse and have her drop out in the fourth week.

© 2008

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