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Student Steve

He stood in the back of my class and followed me around UCSD campus.

During the early ’70s, the war in Vietnam created upheaval at universities across the country. ucsd, where I taught, was no exception. Dissenters organized rallies in Revelle Plaza, committees of students met with deans to protest scientific projects that might aid the war, and once we participated in a candlelight march that started on upper Torrey Pines Road and ended at Cove Park, where one of the speakers whipped the crowd into a frenzy by quoting e.e. cummings: “There is some shit I will not eat.”

In addition to the antiwar frenzy, the university admitted many multiethnic students whose academic backgrounds were below the University of California standards. The theory behind this experiment was to integrate general students with those who were science and premed oriented.

Among other subjects, I offered two courses in Western civilization — the 19th Century, at Revelle College, and the 20th Century, at Muir College. Invariably, I taught Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and selections from The Interpretation of Dreams. The enrollment for this particular contemporary course was at least 125 students.

I had hardly begun my first lecture on Freud’s life when an uproar emanated from the back of the lecture hall, where additional folding chairs had been added to accommodate the crowds. Suddenly these chairs were kicked and overturned and shouts of “PIG, Pig,” “He’s the Man and you’re the Man” filled the air. Paper airplanes or paper balls were tossed at my head. Many of the multiethnic students stamped out of the room screaming, “You’re the Man.” Then as now “The Man” stood for authority, the police, and in this instance, they shouted at me, “You’re the Landlord.” With knees turned to water I walked down the steps of the podium and tried to make my way into the hall where chaos reigned.

At the door, his head lowered, stood a young man dressed in black construction worker’s shoes, black pants, black shirt, and a jacket styled like a Navy peacoat in rough salt-and-pepper material, frayed at the cuffs and collar. His skin was cinnamon color, his hair black, and he was slightly shorter than I. He kept his eyes down as he said, “This way.” I followed him to a side exit and he walked behind me protecting me until I reached my office. When I thanked him and asked his name, he replied, “Steve,” and quickly darted away. I didn’t know whether he was registered for the course or just an auditor.

Since I didn’t drive, I often took the bus down Torrey Pines Road, which was close to my house. On this day, I went home in a taxi and, still wildly upset, relayed the incident to my young, but sophisticated, sons. They urged me to hold my ground and suggested that I begin again with my own life’s story.

I did just that. The next time the class met, and with thundering heart, I described my childhood in a New York ghetto. From there, I launched into Freud’s early years, when he was often humiliated and accosted for being an outsider. My voice broke several times as I spoke, but I managed to convince the former rioters that neither Freud nor I was a Pig, the Man, or the Landlord.

Once we got into the text of the book, I gave the class a voluntary assignment. Freud claimed to have discovered free association by reading a paper in German that explained the therapeutic value of writing without reference to a specific subject, writing the first thing that came into your head and not worrying about spelling and grammar. The idea was to write for as much as a day or two to free up the mind. I suggested that anyone who felt like indulging in this exercise would find it useful. The names were not to appear on the papers and the students had to stay in their houses and not go out or watch TV. I said, “You’ll find that some sentences and paragraphs will leap off the page and you will discover something about yourself that will take your writing in a whole new direction.”

Steve Esmedina, who stood at the door throughout the lecture, flashed me a glance of unadulterated admiration, as if I had conveyed some arcane piece of knowledge unknown to the world.

More than 20 students were intrigued by this volunteer exercise of writing the first things that came into their heads, and they left their papers for me in a box in my office. I almost went blind reading one paper whose sheets were filthy, stained with coffee cup rings, edges crumpled. Worst of all was the handwriting. Tiny, unsteady, one word colliding into the next, many crossed-out lines, many chicken scratches. Turning over the page, one sentence struck me. “I DRINK SO I CAN BE WHAT I SHOULD BE.” With a red pen I underlined the sentence and wrote, “Begin here. This insight should start your essay.”

During my office hour, I kept my door open. In the identical outfit that he wore daily, Steve crossed and recrossed the hall before he walked in and blurted out, “You didn’t speak enough about guilt in Freud. Did you think we wouldn’t understand why civilization creates guilt?” He said this standing up. His breath smelled of alcohol. I wondered whether it took a few drinks to get up the courage to speak to me.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “I should have gone deeper into guilt, but I had to squeeze in The Interpretation of Dreams.”

Steve turned, went into the box that held the free association papers, and dug out the untidy mess held together with a twisted paper clip.

Throughout the ten weeks of class, Steve never sat in a seat. He stood for the 50 minutes and rarely failed to follow me around campus. This was not stalking but a commonplace. Some students walked with me from class to class, waited with me at the bus stop, or drove me home. Steve always remained several paces behind me and never attempted a conversation.

My teaching assistant read the final papers. I examined most of them to be sure the grades were fair. I could spot Steve’s final immediately from the squirrelly handwriting and less than crisp paper.

He wrote on Solzhenitsyn. The writing was somewhat ornate, but the project was detailed, thoughtful, well organized. I wrote him a personal note thanking him for his efforts.

The next quarter I gave a course in the 19th-century novel. I didn’t notice Esmedina until the class emptied out. There he was, sitting in the last row, in his dull, battered outfit. His eyes did not meet mine as he scurried out the door.

In my smaller classes, each student had at least one conference with me. On the appointed day and hour for his conference, Steve did not show up. I didn’t ask him about it, because I knew that sooner or later, he would burst into my office. Burst he did, on a morning when he was particularly disheveled. He looked as if he had not yet been to bed.

“I hate Henry James,” he screamed, standing as upright as he could, though he was tottering. “Portrait of a Lady is crap. And his long, convoluted sentences make me sick. He denies happiness to all of his characters. He refuses to give them contentment.”

Esmedina rocked on his heels. I wondered whether he would fall on his face and what I would do if he did.

“Yes, the students hate James,” I said. “I should have assigned ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ and called it a day.”

“How come?” he finally asked. “How come it’s so easy for you to say you made a mistake? Once with Freud and now with James.”

“Family characteristic,” I replied. “My father always said, when he was about to make a negative comment, ‘Darling, if I’m wrong, I’ll apologize.’ And your family?” I asked.

His face turned to stone. It hardened, grew expressionless. I knew nothing personal about Steve Esmedina; where he lived, where his parents came from. Not only had I crossed the line by asking about his family, but I had thrown him into turmoil. He stamped out of my office and he stopped following me.

To my astonishment, he wrote a brilliant final paper on Henry James’s theory of fiction.

I don’t know whether he graduated from UCSD, but a year or so later his writing turned up in the Reader. He wrote about jazz and rock music, and occasionally he wrote a music review. At Christmas parties he either didn’t attend or fled after I greeted him.

Eleanor Widmer at class party circa 1970

Eleanor Widmer at class party circa 1970

About a decade ago at a Christmas party held in a restaurant, my boss gave me an assignment to write about a heavy-metal concert held at the Sports Arena that featured a group named Poison. I knew nothing about this kind of music with its electrical instruments and outrageous songs. I started to protest when a voice behind me said, “You’ll do great. Write it as you see it.”

Behind me stood Steve Esmedina in a perfectly laundered white shirt and snappy dark trousers. His eyes were laughing, his face relaxed. I couldn’t believe this was the same scruffy student I once knew.

He pulled up a chair and, as if he had been vaccinated with a phonograph needle, he talked and talked about his writing and how much I had influenced him as a teacher. Steve told me how much he loved the process of writing but that he despised deadlines. He reported that he was thinking of writing a book but didn’t say on what subject. His shyness, his reticence, his fear of me were gone, as if they had never existed. Suddenly he asked, “Do you like Mexican food?”

“Of course,” I answered, a bit hastily, wondering where this question would lead.

“Would you ever have Mexican food with me?”

“Absolutely,” I replied. “I would love it. Do you know Mario’s in La Mesa? He prepares the best tamales and the greatest albóndigas soup in the city. We could eat there,” I said.

For a long moment, the troubled Steve Esmedina resurfaced. “I can’t really eat with you, because I don’t have the right clothes.”

“You don’t have to worry about clothes.”

“I can’t believe you would do it. That you would meet me at a restaurant, eat with me as a friend.”

“Of course I will. Anytime soon.” From my purse I extracted an old envelope and wrote my name, phone number, and address. “Don’t forget to call me,” I urged. “I expect to hear from you in a few weeks.”

“I will. I will call,” he repeated with awe. “I mean, it’s great.” I pressed my hand over his.

He never phoned. I never saw him again. Nor do I know how he lived or what he wrote during the intervening years. I thought that one day he would find the courage to contact me.

When I heard he had died, these lines from the 17th-century dramatist John Webster in The Duchess of Malfi flew into my head:

“Cover his face. Mine eyes dazzle. He died young.”

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