I gave a tutorial yesterday to Alumna Zacatecas. (I have changed the name to protect her privacy.) Zacatecas is an older student from Mexico, enrolled in my world civilization course, prehistory to Treaty of Westphalia. Tutorials are incongruous with state junior colleges. Instructors have large classes, students coming by the office rarely occurs because of jobs and family. Zacatecas was different. She wanted to know things and, of course, there was the final examination on Thursday. She was blocked in deciphering Omar Khayyám The Rubáiyát [Edward Fitzgerald’s translation, 1859]. She had questions.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Just what does Khayyám tell us in these verses about the meaning of life?” Zacatecas added.
Older student in her thirties, asking this? She was serious about understanding The Rubáiyát . She looked perplexed, not dramatic in face, small wrinkles between her eyes in puzzlement. Zacatecas had a tattoo about two inches below the hollow of her throat, often hiding it with high collar blouses because it had been inked when she was a teenager. Physically, somatically, she was interested, but wanted to know quickly and then leave the office. Other appointments, a teenager to manage? Many plates in the air.
“Tell me what you think Khayyám thinks is the meaning of life,” I asked.
It began, the tutorial.
“Fill the Cup…Wine of Life keeps oozing…A Jug of Wine…Cup of forbidden Wine…Drink!” She said, forcing an answer, phrases cobbled together.
“The meaning of life, is to drink?” She went on. Zacatecas was not being contemptuous, I could tell. Still perplexed.
No, not the meaning of life, to drink.
In class, I will ask the students to read a passage aloud they do not understand. Maybe it would work in the tutorial.
“Read the first quatrain, and, read slowly,” I said.
“The Bird of Time has but a little way/To flutter–and the Bird is on the Wing.” And, so on.
We paused. Zacatecas pondered, “The Bird of Time….” Still no change of expression in her face.
“Go on. The second quatrain.”
“The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop/The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one….” And, so on.
“Continue, Zacatecas, the third quatrain.” I thought this quatrain would punch through her confusion since it is the most quoted.
She read the third quatrain, “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough/A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou/Beside me singing in the Wilderness–/Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” And, there she stopped.
“Is ‘Thou’ you or is it me?” She asked. This was not exactly the question or declaration I wanted to hear, but at least it was movement.
I’m not a Rubáiyát scholar, but I answered, “Both, depending on how you read it, what context. ‘Thou’ can mean any person, you, me.”
She said nothing. Still cramped, stymied. So, let us skip and go on to the sixth quatrain. She read.
The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes–or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two–is gone….
Zacatecas became still in her chair, smiling faintly, looking at the sixth quatrain in her book. The smile held, her body visibly relaxed, her breathing slowed. She held the book more gently, less nervous, caring. The tension left her face.
Zacatecas looked up at me. “It’s about living fully because life ends like snow on the desert.”
The sixth quatrain captured her, but did not ensnare. Zacatecas integrated the refrain, something echoing from the high desert of her homeland, Mexico, an analogy with that day in her life when she parted from others of her village, seeing things they did not.
Tutorial over. I concluded Zacatecas was beginning to know The Rubáiyát, felt the quatrains, had a new sense, a higher circle of confusion. She left the office after a few more questions. Gregorian chant? Merovingian dynasty? Slipping her books into her backpack, she pulled her dark pea coat tightly against the Texas cold, her blouse tucked high over the tattoo and walked out of the tutorial.
She will pass that question on Thursday.
I use Elsa A. Nystrom’s anthology of primary sources, Primary Source Reader for World History, Volume I: To 1500.
Undergraduates, generally, say little to absolutely nothing to their instructors. At least, that has been my experience. Therefore, I have focused on para-linguistic qualifiers, above and beyond what tedious pedagogues call body language, although that, too. The pitch of the voice, facial expressions, postures, breathing, and the eyes. These behaviors are often the only way they will communicate. I have young men and women from different cultures and know that different cultures embed different qualifiers for communication. Hence, my observations about Zacatecas take a rather focused picture in my essay. During a regular class, I will observe a few students and how they are reacting. Mainly, however, I am focused on the material. A one-on-one lesson differs substantially.
Using diacritical markings occurs by composing the foreign word in Microsoft Word, then copying words created in Word, and then pasting onto WordPress. Cumbersome, but gives literacy to the composition.
I have always thought of D. H. Lawrence coming out of the last canyon on the road from Santa Fe, seeing Taos Mountain for the first time, the desert. He had written about New Mexico,
But the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend.
The snows at Lawrence’s ranch linger longer than on the desert, but still melt in the spring.