It was just a regular day at the office. Then the power went out.
It was just a regular end-of-the-day at the office when the power went out. This development, or counter-development, was surprisingly humbling. The switch in mood was so abrupt it actually startled me: I shifted from the buzz of logging grades and updating calendars and answering emails with care and thoughtfulness unnecessary for a person at late-stage career, to being immobilized. No computer, no lights, barely enough daylight to see.
I should explain that my office is partly subterranean, one of two that look over the loading dock in the back of the building. The gray cement hedge that is its roof blocks most of the daylight. A sunny day may as well be overcast for all that it registers where I sit at my desk. While I do have a window, and I can see mountains in the distance to remind myself that I am not just a drone, it is always dark in there.
For some reason I have always liked it. I take cozy comfort in the constant dusk, broken in spots by my lamps. I don’t use the overhead lights because they are too stark, antagonistic almost, making the office feel communist-era interrogative. I feel foolishly secure and safe sitting in my expensive office chair that my department secretary managed to order for me years before when I was having back trouble. I especially love the end of the day, classes over. Maybe a student will drop in for office hours but mostly they don’t. I’m finishing up the day’s work, and the time melts away with what little sun seeps in. Sometimes a colleague or two will pop in to debrief: a juicy rumor or a difficult student. It’s my favorite part of the job.
Then the lamps went off, along with my computer, the hallway lights. When I started this job, I had no computer, though there was one in the main office for anyone who was precocious enough to use one in those early days. But in current times, the power going out meant there was nothing to do. I could play with my phone, but that, like squinting to read student papers in this near-darkness, would result in a next day’s headache. I could nap, but that would be awkward if by some chance someone stopped in to whisper in the darkness like a campfire gathering.
I was defenseless against this cut off in power. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see anything at all, but the room had become late-evening instead of late afternoon. Forging ahead was futile. So, as if I were waiting in an emergency room where my ailment was the least of the emergencies, I sat while nothing happened, expecting a return at any second of the day-to-day world. I felt a bit foolish, but simply had no desire to leave before I was supposed to leave.
How was it then, that of all of the people on that campus who could have made his way to my office, a student named Tanner walked in as if this were a typical afternoon?
“Are you busy?” he asked, though clearly I wasn’t since nobody would be.
“Not at all,” I said, my usual answer for this kind of exchange, since these were my office hours and unless I was working with someone else, it didn’t matter if I was busy.
“Good.” Tanner sat heavily in the chair for students adjacent to my desk. He must have been six-four at least, and, thin as he was, he didn’t carry his weight easily. “I just wanted to say I loved your class.”
He had been withdrawn for attendance, something I could have prevented if I’d had any faith in Tanner. But at the time, six weeks earlier in the semester, he was just another annoying jock-ish boy who showed up whenever, often unprepared. He’d been hostile when, after a class where he’d reappeared after a long absence, I’d had to tell him of his withdrawal. I did have a coward’s bunker to hide in, since I was basically enforcing the college’s rules, but I was intimidated by his reaction. Then, as students will, he recited a list of life challenges that had kept him from class, and assured me they were all in the past and that he would be able to attend every single session from that point on. Again I said it was not my decision, that the state surveillance of state universities’ attendance issues was intertwined with financial aid and other issues, none of which I truly understood. I didn’t add any of the professorial nuances we were allowed in making decisions about whom to drop.
And now he was here with me, in the dark, and no one else was coming in to save me.
“Thanks,” I said. For a second I thought to pretend I barely remembered him, go into the bit about how I have nearly a hundred students a semester to keep track of and how it’s easy to forget those who fall along the way. But I was sure he could see recognition on my face even in the twilight.
“Thanks,” I said again. “That actually means a lot.”
“I’m joining the navy,” he said. “I guess school just wasn’t for me.”
He was not here to ask for the impossible. Suddenly his praise did mean a lot.
“Maybe not yet,” I said, feeling like I had to salvage something of his attempt at college. “We’ll always be here. We’ll be here when you’re ready.”
“No. I don’t think so.”
He did not speak with self-pity. And I had the strangest sense that we were ending a relationship. We were both sure it was over, and there was some relief in acknowledging it, no recriminations. But there were no words for me to find in that.
“Well, good luck,” I managed. He didn’t respond and showed no inclination to go, so I added quickly, “When do you leave? For basic?” It sounded clumsy, this attempt. I had no idea if basic training was a universal military term.
Now I thought it was possible he had a gun. A knife would be more survivable, but either way I was positioned in my darkened office such that he was between me and my sole means of escape. Even with my door open — and it was always open when I was with a student — I could hear no other sounds of life outside this room. I considered how easy it was for me to be killed in an office that barely allowed in daylight.
But I didn’t really believe he was here to murder me. It was as if he had a few final moments on the campus where a dream had begun and withered, and he wasn’t sure how to savor them.
All methods of reparations cycled through my head: offer him an Incomplete, for example, though that would mean going to great lengths and some real deceit in first reinstating him in the course. I could ask him if he’d eaten, and offer to take him to the cafeteria for something. But the power was probably off everywhere, and anyway it would sound like I was trying to seduce him. Offering money was out, too, though commuter students always needed gas. A souvenir? My card, so he could keep in touch? Why would he want to do that? Every idea was more futile than the last.
Finally he said something: “Do you have an old copy of the book? The text? That you could give me?” Tanner had made it three weeks into the semester without buying the memoir the course was centered on, and I’d presumed it was just another element of his disinterest.
“Uh, sure, I think.” I actually had two or three old, marked-up copies. I wasn’t going to miss any of them.
“I didn’t have the cash when I needed it,” he said, “but it sounded really interesting.”
“Of course,” I said, and clumsily bending toward my bookshelf. I handed one to him. For some reason I thought I should sign it, as people do when they give a gift. But that was also an inept gesture, and besides there was plenty of me in the margins if he really wanted to a memento, which he likely did not.
He flipped through the pages quickly. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “You know, when there’re no deadlines, I’m a pretty big reader.”
He got up. My eyes had adjusted to the darkening but it was still absurdly murky to be having a casual exchange in. We managed to shake hands. At that moment I wanted to apologize for not having saved him, for having been such a rigid stooge; wanted absolution for having been dismissive of any student in my teaching history. I wanted to shower him with all kinds of encouragement and reassurances, such as that he was surely bound for great things. But no, not in the dark.
I stood and we shook hands. “Take care,” I said, as he moved like a shadow toward my door.
“Yeah, thanks. You were a really good teacher. I would definitely take something from you if I came back.”
He made his way out. I sat back in my executive chair, realizing how seldom I heard such encouragement from a student.