Lisa del Rosso, December 9, 2023
I am haunted by one of my students.
Not the kind of Halloween-costumed, scare-the-bejeezus-out-of-you, ghosty kind of haunting, one that only happens annually sort of thing.
Which would at least be entertaining.
I am a professor at NYU. I have taught freshman writing for 15 years, and hundreds if not thousands of students have traversed my classrooms. Why one should haunt me is a mystery.
Still, here I am. Still haunted
About 10 years or so ago, a student – let’s call her Nicki – enrolled in my writing class. Nicki was about 5’7”, with medium length, unruly auburn hair, green eyes, pale skin. She hailed from Virginia, without a trace of an accent. She was a “military brat,” I believe, and had been raised in many places, never long enough to acquire an accent. She was smart, sharp, used words like “incongruent” in her general lexicon, and had a sense of humor.
I liked her immediately. The feeling was mutual.
How do I know this?
Nicki found out that I was a writer/teacher.
Sidebar: When I began at NYU, my mentor, Walt, said to me, “You now have to decide which you are: a teacher who writes, or a writer who teaches.”
I chose the latter, or it chose me. I remain an adjunct professor, one who has published two books, three plays, and countless essays. Time vs. money. That is the trade-off for being a writer who teaches, one I have never regretted. One benefit of this trade-off has been that my “job” has never felt like a job, like a hassle, like a burden. When I have been asked when I want to retire, my answer has always been the same: Never. Why? I love what I do.
Anyway, Nicki found out that I was a writer/teacher. One day, I was walking through Washington Square Park to get to class and I saw her running full-tilt toward me, perplexed but also a little concerned that she had forgotten how to use her internal brakes.
“I found you!” she said, breathless, just before colliding with the bookbag I was now using as body armor.
“Yes,” I said, “No easy feat on a gorgeous autumn day, when the park is chockablock with bodies galore. What can I do for you?”
Nicki bent over, hands on knees, catching her breath. “I…”
Nicki straightened up. “I want to be a writer!”
This was not all that unexpected. She was excelling in my class, a straight-A student, had a strong voice, and had no trouble translating that strong voice from her brain to the blank page.
I said, “Excellent. I think you have the talent to do so. Shall we talk about majors, courses, where to go from here?”
These are boring, academic but necessary conversations. We chatted for a while, and I said, “We can talk later if you like, meet for coffee and make a plan. I do have to get to my next class, though, the one you are not in.”
Nicki laughed and said, “Oh I’m sorry, I’m blabbing and taking up all your time…”
“No, no,” I said, but yes, yes, she was.
“But I’d love to meet for coffee and you know I’ve read everything you’ve written and I love your writing and…(Author’s note – from what I can remember, an embarrassing amount of praise).”
“Well, thank you, that’s… that’s very kind. Thank you for reading my work.”
“Okay, I’ll let you get to class. Thanks for listening, thanks for your encouragement, it means a lot, you know.”
I said, “Of course. Email me and we’ll set a day and time to meet.”
Nicki said, “I will. That’s great, that’s great.”
Just as we parted, she turned and half shouted, “If I’m going to be a writer, then I want to experience everything!”
“Not everything!” I half shouted back. Nicki laughed. I was not laughing. I meant what I said. I just hoped that she had heard me.
The first essay I assigned that semester was Something That Changed You. I no longer have Nicki’s paper. There are a few essays by students I have never forgotten. Nicki’s is one of them. What follows is a recollection of what she wrote, but in her voice. Meaning, it’s written by me but from Vicki’s first-person POV. The impact will not be the same if I explain in 3rd person. Oh! In the event of complaints: If Jamaica Kincaid can write The Autobiography of My Mother – which you technically cannot do but she did it anyway – then like all good rule breakers, I can do this:
Something That Changed Me
You ever look back and pinpoint one moment when you made a decision – or not – that determined your whole life? And if you had decided differently, you would be a different person now, in a different skin living a different life? I don’t mean other people fucking you up so therefore, they made your decision for you. No, I mean, this was your decision. All yours.
Mine was deciding to avail myself of a five-finger discount at American Apparel with three other friends. We’d done this before. Many times. We were pretty skilled at getting the disks off the clothes without the material tearing and without the ink exploding. We had the right tools to dismantle censors. Bonus: all of us are white, good-looking, clean, and don’t attract attention. We had never been caught, so, you know, pros.
We decided to pregame in my dorm before the pillaging – because it’s Friday night after all – working out strategy, who was lifting what, the layout of the store. Janie wanted the dresses; Belle went for leggings; Jo fancied tee shirts – but AA had just come out with these backless stretchy jumpsuits, so who could blame me for wanting to upgrade my wardrobe?
Thrumming with vodka and Red Bull, we were on our way. It was around 5 PM, the place was packed, good, the more people the better. Everything went great. We brought piles of clothes into the dressing rooms, tried some of it on, and came out with slightly less. Jo and Belle used their knapsacks filled with used books and a few spare compartments; Janie put hers on under the dress she wore; and I wrapped two jumpsuits around my waist, then zipped the puffer, and away we went.
Janie got out first. I saw Jo and Belle head for the exit – the security guard didn’t even move. Fucking great! I made my way to the front of the store, passed through the security barriers without setting them off, and thought, I am so fucking high right now there is more high to get right after this as I pushed open the door into the cool crisp breeze of late fall – and felt a hand clap hard on my shoulder.
I turned to see the very large, Black security guard hovering above me.
“You need to come with me.”
He had not taken his hand off my shoulder.
“Wait. What? I don’t understand. Why?”
The security guard almost smiled, showed a glimmer of gold in between his teeth, but stopped himself. “Oh, ya don’t? Then explain why you have two tails sticking out from the back of your coat?”
I looked down and behind me, sure enough, there was a red leg and a grey leg from each jumpsuit dangling down the back of my legs, like chameleon tails.
Oh fuck fuck fuck.
“I’m, I’m so sorry. I’ll pay for them! I didn’t realize…I thought that…”
“You can save it. I know your posse stole too, I just didn’t catch ‘em. Only the straggler, you. C’mon now.”
I was guided through the store, to the back, up a long flight of stairs to an airless, white office, with three security guards, the store detective, and a few officious salespeople. I had to take off the puffer coat and remove the jumpsuits in front of everyone, so embarrassing and completely unnecessary, like I was a common criminal, and listen to the asshole store detective tell me how not smart I was, and why was I doing this, an allegedly smart girl (GIRL!) like me, a student at NYU, ruining my life, behaving like trash, causing problems for my parents… whom he promptly called.
Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuuuuuck…
Worst part of this whole debacle: My fucking father.
My mother on the whole is okay, she can be chill. Not him, though: Virginian, Republican, Conservative, why-has-Vicki-lost-her-accent-at that-fancy-prep-school, women are just holes to be filled…
Okay, he never actually said that last one. But I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts, he believes it.
The parents, who were at their upper east side pied-à-terre, arrive and boy do they look pissed! My mother yells a bunch of shit at me, kind of echoing the store detective, and I wonder if there was a consult or something as they were ushered through the store and up to the prison room I’m in.
But my father. My father is tense and quiet and red in the face, his hands balled into fists. I’ve never seen this before. But I’ve never really been here before, so… I do know this: I am lucky I’m just barely still a minor, still the edge of seventeen, so whatever happens no record, can’t we – I – pay for this shit and get the fuck out of this whiter than white room that I can barely breathe in? Lesson learned. I’ll never do it again. Eye roll. I just want to see my friends and get high so I can laugh about all this past shit. Which it will be as soon as I get out of here.
I’m not allowed to stay in my dorm this weekend. We are also not going back to the apartment; we are going back to the house in Richmond, like now. It’s a long, long, silent drive home in the SUV. Great. So, we are going home for what? So the parents can ground me like a kid again? For one fucking mistake (the one I was caught for?). We get out of the big, black SUV. The doors slam (so passive-aggressive, dad). No one is talking to me, no one. It’s not like I have siblings to share the pain. This is my weekend until I go back to NYU – please Jesus! – on Sunday. I fall into a dreamless sleep in my childhood bedroom, the one that still has all of my plush toys and bears and games and Barbies and the rest of my things. That’s a comfort. Always has been.
I wake up early to some kind of rustling, fast though, like a whirlwind, some kind of throwing shit around my room – and I know this before I even open my eyes. When I do, the first thing I see is the Mickey Mouse clock that says 8:05 AM, and the next is my father, looking like a demon Grinch, stuffing all of my toys, all of my bears, all of my Barbies – in effect, all of my childhood, into trash bags.
“What, what are you doing?” I say, super-alarmed.
My father stops, dashes to my bed, and grabs me by the neck of my tee shirt. “You think that little stunt you pulled was funny? You want to behave like this in the world of grown-ups, is that what you think you are? Grown-up? Well. There are lots of needy children in this state deserving of toys, so I’m making a donation in your name. All of it.”
He released me and continued filling those horrible green trash bags: Steiff bears, monkeys; Teletubbies, BRATZ, Legos, Grover. I couldn’t believe how fast he was moving.
“Dad, no! No! That’s my stuff! My toys, not yours or anyone else’s!” I said, getting out of bed.
“Oh no, Nicki, no. Not yours anymore. This is what we’re doing and doing right now,” said my father, shoving me back down onto the bed. I think he left a mark on my shoulder. That hurt.
With that, he tossed five trash bags down the stairs, leaving me breathing hard in a now-nearly empty room. I went after him.
He was in the driveway, throwing the bags into the back of the black SUV, furious, unhinged in a way I had never seen him. But I was angry, too.
“Dad, no! No! These things are mine! They’re not yours to take!”
I grabbed one of the bags in mid-throw, actually tearing it, spilling the toys out onto the nicely appointed slate driveway that masons had been hired to create, and then all my parents did was drive over all that lovely rock, which never made sense to me, but who cares? These were toys I planned on keeping. Because they were mine. Mine. I bent over and began picking them up, carrying as many as I could as fast as I could. I’ll get up and run to my room, I thought.
But that is not what happened. What happened was, I felt a hand grab my neck – I felt it before I saw it, and then I couldn’t breathe because the hand squeezed and then I couldn’t see and then I was gone.
I came to coughing, choking back tears, hearing my mother screaming, “John stop, what are you doing, John, John STOP! STOP!”
My father looked at me, still lying on the slate-covered driveway, and said, “You are such a fucking disappointment.”
Then he got into his SUV and drove off with my childhood in the back. I never saw it again.
* * *
I may have been wrong about Nicki’s accent, or lack of an accent. I can no longer remember whether her father was a military man or not. I can no longer remember whether the reason for her lack of an accent was because she moved around so much, or because she went to private school. I don’t think those details matter, though. In the end, what matters is the incident she wrote about that changed her.
Her first sentence of the “Something that Changed Me” essay I disagree with, though, or would amend: “You ever look back and pinpoint one moment when you made a decision – or not – that determined your whole life?”
Nicki made more than one decision that determined her whole life.
* * *
After Nicki told me she wanted to be a writer and to do that, she “had to try everything,” she settled down into my class. Her essays and assignments were all A work. She gave me no trouble about revision (some students do this, at 18 years old, because they believe they are absolute geniuses and they know more than I do. What they fail to grasp are two things: The writing course is about revision – Dostoevsky: “Revise, revise, revise!” – and, I am the one who assigns the grades. Genius indeed.)
Nicki wrote funny, adventurous New York Stories, a weekly forum designed to get students out of their dorms and exploring the city. She participated in all literary discussions, and what she had to say was always thoughtful, perceptive, intelligent. In every respect, she was a model student.
But she wanted more tutelage. Something more concentrated.
I run Scapegrace Writers Workshop out of my home, and also via Zoom for students not in NYC. I have been doing this for approximately 13 years, and I love it: the students are older, and committed to their work. The goal is to complete and to publish. At any given time, I have 10 different students working on plays, novels, short stories, memoirs, essays, novellas – work that is part of a larger piece but can also be separated and sent out for publication. The students are invite-only (by me) or by referral (by them) and because of this, I have had few problems with interpersonal relations.
I invited Nicki into Scapegrace, which delighted her.
By that time, it was December, late in the semester. Classes were ending and students were getting ready to head home for their six-week winter break. Professors were getting ready to see neither a student nor papers for those six weeks. Nicki only attended Scapegrace once and was her typical brilliant self, critiquing others’ work, and listening carefully to constructive criticism of her own. I knew she was not looking forward to going back to Virginia, and not only because this city is very good at making the towns and cities that freshmen come from seem small. And boring. And don’t forget: under the auspices of their parents.
I hugged each of my Scapegrace students goodbye, in front of my apartment door and two impatient cats. When I got to Nicki, she said, “Thank you so much for letting me into the workshop. This is what I want to be doing.”
I smiled. “I’m glad. I knew you’d fit right in.”
She said, “Yeah. I just… I don’t want to go back to Virginia. I really don’t.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I didn’t blame her one bit.
“If I can get back early, want to grab lunch or dinner or something?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be here.”
“Okay,” she said.
She hugged me goodbye and then she left.
* * *
The second semester began much the same, albeit in a large classroom that resembled a concert hall, funny for a writing class capped at 15 students.
A few weeks in, Nicki missed a class. That was fine. She had, up to that point, perfect attendance. She maintained an A on average. Her work, handed in on time, was superlative.
Then Nicki missed another class. Then another. The next time she showed up, she had dark circles under her eyes and looked as if she had not slept in days.
Then she missed another class, and it was time to have a talk.
The day of the talk, the students were in peer workshops: they sat in groups of three, shared their work via laptop, then read, critiqued, and discussed each draft. I had planned on pulling Nicki out after class, when there was time and privacy.
Best laid plans…
As soon as I made sure that the students were settled, I walked back to my desk, turned to sit, and Nicki was standing right in front of me.
“I need to talk to you,” she said. Anxious. She seemed very anxious.
I said, “Okay, we can meet after the class if that works.”
She said, “I need to talk to you now. Can we go outside?”
I paused. “Sure,” I said.
I led the way. Nicki followed. That concert hall of a room necessitated a long walk past all of the students, and it felt like a long, trepidatious walk, too.
I closed the door behind Nicki. We stood facing each other. My arms were folded. Nicki looked at me and I looked at her tired, worn face.
“I’m addicted to heroin,” she said.
“Oh my god what?” I said. “When? How?”
At that time, in 2010, heroin was the drug of choice on campus. It was cheap: 10 bucks a dime bag. You could snort it, you could eat it, you could smoke it. Needles were no longer required. A walk through Washington Square Park yielded offers to buy one’s drug of choice. So many to choose from.
Nicki said, “I tried it once. ONCE. And I was hooked. It was at a party. I didn’t think… I didn’t think it would be a big deal.”
I said, “For how long?”
She said, “A couple of months. That’s why I didn’t… I haven’t contacted you. I did come back early. But this thing took over and…”
I nodded, stupefied.
“I’m in NA (Narcotics Anonymous). I’m going to a meeting right now. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t. But I am going to a meeting. Right now.”
Nicki walked back into the classroom, collected her bag, and returned to where I was still standing, inert, like I had been slapped in the head and was waiting for the world to stop spinning.
“I’m sorry,” Nicki said.
“I… um…don’t know what to say,” I said. “Other than stay in touch with me, and keep coming to class.”
Nicki nodded, and left.
There was a lot I could have done at that moment. I could have canceled the class and gone to the meeting with her. I could have followed her and made sure she was, in fact, going to a meeting, rather than going to score heroin, which is what I suspected. I could have taken her for a meal, which she looked like she desperately needed. Or a coffee, and talked to her. Listened to her. Asked questions. I could have said something useful.
But I did none of those things. Instead, I went back into my cavernous classroom and oversaw my students’ workshops, all of my students, all but one, the brilliant one who was now a heroin addict.
* * *
The second semester continued, as did my class, largely without Nicki. Her presence was sporadic, her papers incomplete if handed in at all. She went from an A student to a D student, which made neither one of us happy.
“A D? Really?” she said to me after final grades were posted.
I said, “You can’t hand in one draft out of three and expect an A.”
“Nicki. You didn’t complete any of the drafts. Yes, you are a gifted writer, but you still have to do the same work as the rest of the students. I don’t give out Incompletes as final grades, because the work never gets completed. You passed with a D. You can move on to your sophomore year.”
Nicki let out a hollow laugh. “That’s not gonna happen. I’m failing every class except yours.”
I said, “What does that mean?”
“It means I’m out. Not allowed to matriculate.”
“Yeah. Not what I had in mind when I came to NYU. I fucked up.”
I said, “Can you be reinstated?”
“Yeah. But that’s up to my mother. Because it costs money. NYU charges to be reinstated.”
“Your mother… Where will you be this summer?”
That was the worst possible place for Nicki to be.
As if reading my mind, she said, “It’s better now. My mother left my father, and we don’t have any contact.”
I sighed with relief. “That’s good.”
She smiled and said, “Yeah. It is good.”
Nicki went back to Virginia, and in the fall, she was reinstated. Her mother was incredibly supportive, and I say that because Nicki dropped out again, and her mother paid to have her reinstated again. The courses she failed were required, so in effect, her mother was paying for the same course twice. She no longer came to the Scapegrace workshops but had said she was working and was still in Manhattan. There were few details from her for about a year. Then she dropped out a third time and contacted me in the fall to meet for coffee at Silver Moon Bakery.
She was already seated at one of the wrought iron tables when I arrived, cappuccino in front of her. She stood to greet me and gave me a tight hug.
Nicki said, “It’s great to see you. You look great. You always look great.”
I said, “It’s good to see you, too. And you look lovely.” She did, in fact, look more like the Nicki I first knew two years ago as a bright freshman. She did not look drawn, or haggard. She looked healthy, lovely in a green sweater and oversized tweed coat.
“What’s going on?” I said.
She said, “A lot. This is the third and my mother warned me, the last time I will be reinstated, or re-enrolled, whatever you want to call it, at NYU. It’s a lot of money, and I feel guilty about all that money, but not because of her. She’s been incredibly supportive, but financially, this is it. I don’t blame her. Meantime, I’ve been working in a fancy doughnut shop to try and offset some of that money and I met someone! He’s Asian. Tall. Computer geek. We’re living together, so less of a burden on my mother. He’s funny and he’s good for me… But that’s not why I asked you to meet me. I want to study with you seriously one-on-one. I talked with my mother, and she allocated the funds for this – you’re like one of the few professors at NYU she respects… I want to make a schedule, meet weekly, and I want to write a novel. Or a memoir. About stuff that has happened to me. About addiction. Maybe fictionalize it? But that’s what I want. So…. I wanted to ask if you would be willing to teach me?”
I was still stuck on the part about Nicki living with a guy who works in a doughnut shop, and computer geek or not, not in college and not working in the computer field, but that is my own snobbery, so I tried to put that aside.
I said, “We can do that. Let’s hash out a schedule: Days, times, cost, when you’d like to begin.”
We spent the next half an hour doing just that.
Nicki said, “Can we begin next Friday?”
I said, “Of course. Come to the apartment, same place as the workshops, and bring whatever you like: an outline, a sketch, a chapter. We’ll go from there.”
As we hugged goodbye, Nicki said, “I’m so pumped to start! So great to see you, and talk to you. Thanks for… everything.”
Next Friday came, and Nicki did not show up. No call. No email. Nothing. Weeks went by. A month, perhaps two.
Then I got a letter from her. She apologized for “spacing out.” She detailed some problems going on with her computer geek/doughnut shop boyfriend, something about him wanting her to conform to a more gendered role with regard to cooking and cleaning, which she chafed at. But the next sentence said she was pregnant and was not sure what to do. She said nothing about writing. Nothing about getting together. The letter read like it was written in an agitated state, which given its contents, was unsurprising.
All I felt was dismay.
I never saw her again.
I never heard from her again.
I don’t know if she had the child or not.
I don’t know where she is.
I don’t know if she is dead or alive.
A year or so later, a private student of mine saw Nicki on the street, waved to her, and she waved back, and said, “Tell Professor del Rosso I said hi.”
That was a long time ago.
It is the not knowing that bothers me most. That, and the fact that I was not equipped to help her. Not equipped to intervene. Did not have the tools to change her fate.
I have fictionalized her, put her and part of her story in a book. I am not at all sure if this is helpful. In the book, which is set in Provincetown, she is a recovering addict, she has a child, and a boyfriend, and lives in a sea captain’s house on Commercial Street. The bedroom in the house has the best view of the ocean, and in the closet there is a ghost. The ghost is female. This is apt.
Nicki haunts me. I think she always will. She is the one student who needed my help who I could not help. The one student out of all of my students, the brilliant one who became a heroin addict.
You may also like
Eyes of the Beholden
Unspoken desires linger in the shadows of a teacher's life, revealed through art
Bessie's odyssey through stormy nights, lost love, and secret graveyards unfolds with haunting beauty in "Lost" by Sandra Dennis.
Amidst a flood, a woman grapples with the past, and confronts the consequences in this haunting narrative of resilience.
Book Review: White Nights by Urszula Honek
The debut short story from Polish writer Urszula Honek, White Nights, is akin to reading an account of a haunted place – one that is beautiful and devastating in equal
Beyond the Surface: The Multifaceted Lives of ‘American Fiction’
In essence, "American Fiction" and the experiences it draws from remind us that we are indeed more than the sum of our parts.
Beyond the Surface: The Multifaceted Lives of ‘American Fiction’
The narrative of “American Fiction” unfolds with a dual focus: it not only scrutinizes the unique pressures faced by Black creatives but also delves into the intricate and sometimes tense…
Uncle Bobby’s Funeral
Reluctant family faces the eccentricities of Uncle Bobby's funeral in swampy Chipley.
We Die for What We Believe
Amid a concealed gizzard surgery program, May's call for transparency sparks a tragic collision of beliefs, extraterrestrial revelations, and irreversible consequences.