A beautiful hand-written card arrived in the post from a former student, wishing me a speedy and complete recovery. I picked it up when I went to my office a few days ago. She is a sweet girl, now a school teacher in NYC. I had always liked her as a student, and she kept in touch. I saw her in the summer of 2010 in NYC. She was delighted to go to an upscale restaurant which she then couldn't afford as a poor graduate student. It was fun hanging out with her outside the school setting, talking about boys and so on. News travels fast, and I'm sure most of the people who know me, including students, here or abroad, heard of my breast cancer somehow. But she seems to have heard it quite recently. The "thinking of you" card was still in my purse and I read it again. From the tone of the note it's clear that she is seriously scared for me. She probably wrote it and mailed it the first chance she got, fretting to get her best wishes through to me in a hurry. I relish her heartfelt concern. It is a lovely moment.
When I started chemotherapy and suddenly had to stop teaching right after the mid-term week in October 2011, a number of students wrote me, some of them repeatedly, asking how I was and wishing me well. They didn't know what exactly was wrong with me but probably suspected something serious was going on. Professors don't usually disappear in the middle of a semester. Regardless, these students were the first ones to send me a steady stream of concerned emails and supportive messages, for they were the first ones to notice that a serious illness pulled me out of my ordinary life, even before most of my friends did. Not all of those emails came from the ones I personally knew or recognized. Some of them I couldn't place. Still they wrote me. These students I teach are smart kids--they are accordingly very sensitive and conscious about their relationship with faculty, and wouldn't usually write to a professor who they weren't sure would remember them (except to demand a letter of recommendation and complain about, or plea for, grades!). Only a few weeks into the shocking sensations of chemotherapy, I was disoriented and distressed, to say the least, and unable to write them back. I simply didn't know what to say to them. I did read those emails avidly, however--sometimes crying, sometimes smiling, and very often both. The number of their emails declined over the months, but they kept coming. I never took them for granted. Each of these student emails was a fresh surprise, which opened a pocket of delight in the dark days of last fall and winter. I was genuinely sorry that their semester was messed up: apparently they weren't getting what they had signed up for, even though I'm sure the new, substitute instructors gave them what I couldn't give. At the end of December, the substitute professors sent final grades over to me; I could see that many of my students's grades suffered because of the sudden change of hands. Astonishingly, though, not one of the hundred and twenty plus students in my two undergraduate sections sent me a complaining or questioning email about the final grade. Not one. Instead, many of them sent me warm wishes for my restored health in the new year, and quite a few graduating ones wrote me about their new jobs and thanked me for what they read with me in class. As I got somewhat used to the chemo cycle and the entailing symptoms, I began to write them back, if only a few brief lines.
In reply, I write the girl in NYC that I'm all right now. Reading her card again, I remember all the other unexpected kindnesses from my students over the past year, graduate and undergraduate. When I went to my office for the first time in months in the spring, I was surprised to find cards and even gifts waiting for me there--a pot of orchid, chocolate, coffee, books, CDs, and so on. I cannot recount them all. Not knowing my home address, students had sent me these things to my office, hoping that I would get them sooner or later. Last month, two students sent me emails, both remembering that it had been already a year since I stopped teaching. They say they are waiting to see me again on campus in March, when I will come back to campus. One of them I know, but the other I don't. The latter's email is particularly precious for that reason. Not having a child of my own, I alwalys thought that it was my job to take care of other people's children in ways that their parents couldn't and in the best way I could. I still do. These student's letters made me feel that I didn't do that terrible a job of it so far. It is an exalting and humbling feeling, which even a kickass combination of chemo-induced nausea and insomnia at its height could not kill off.