An Honest Exit
Thirty-five years after my father left Ethiopia, he died in a room in a boarding house in Peoria, Illinois, that came with a partial view of the river. We had never spoken much during his lifetime, but, on a warm October morning in New York shortly after he died, I found myself having a conversation with him as I walked north on Amsterdam Avenue, toward the high school where for the past three years I had been teaching a course in Early American literature to privileged freshmen.
“That’s the Academy right there,” I told him. “You can see the top of the bell tower through the trees. I’m the only one who calls it the Academy. That’s not its real
name. I stole it from a short story by Kafka that I read in college—a monkey who’s been trained to talk gives a speech to an academy. I used to wonder if that was how my students and the other teachers, even with all their liberal, cultured learning, saw me—as a monkey trying to teach their language back to them. Do you remember how you spoke? I hated it. You used those short, broken sentences that sounded as if you were spitting out the words, as if you had just learned them but already despised them, even the simplest ones. ‘Take this.’ ‘Don’t touch.’ ‘Leave now.’ ”
I arrived in my classroom ten minutes before the bell rang, just as the first of my students trickled in. They were the smartest, and took their seats near the center. The rest arrived in no discernible order, but I noticed that all of them, smart and stupid alike, seemed hardly to talk, or, if they talked, it was only in whispers. Most said hello as they entered, but their voices were more hesitant than usual, as if they weren’t sure that it was really me they were addressing.
“I’m sorry for having missed class the other day,” I began, and because I felt obliged to explain my absence I told them the truth. “My father passed away recently. I had to attend to his affairs.”