A student struggling during a test had a lot more on her mind then the answers.

A student struggling during a test had a lot more on her mind than the answers.

by Hugh Gilmore

She was a genuinely nice young woman and noticeable at first glance for her wide brown eyes, straight nose and full lips. Her thick, dark hair framed an exceptionally pretty face. She was a full-size woman too. I always looked at her and caught myself trying to remember just what Italian movie actress from the 70s or 80s she reminded me of. She was smart also, and polite in a studied way.

She seemed more mature than the other students in my college anthropology class. She kept to herself. I could not tell if she acted that way because of shyness or a sense of superiority – I’d seen that often as a college teacher when people who’d already been out in the work force returned to school.

However, when I say “shy” I mean shy in the way of looking almost apologetic for her existence and for her large size. Though she was a kid, she felt like my contemporary. Anyway, I liked her, even though our interactions did not usually go beyond meet-and-greet.

The semester passed quickly. The final exam was given in class and students would be allowed to leave as they finished. I remember walking down the aisles, personally handling the stapled three-page test to the students. When I got to her desk, she looked up at me, tears rolling slowly over her cheeks. She gave a quick, apologetic smile as she accepted the papers.

I said quietly, “Are you okay?”

She looked at me and shook her head no.

I wondered: Love problem? Out of money? Grandmother died? Not prepared and afraid she’d fail?

I leaned over and said, “Do you want to step outside and talk to me now?”

Shook her head no.

“Will you be okay till this (the exam) is over?”

She nodded yes. I sensed she didn’t want to bother anyone else with her personal problems.

“Okay, we’ll talk. Hang in there.”

Later, the last other student handed in his exam and left. I went and sat next to her and asked, “What happened?”

In gasps and moans and paroxysms of crying the story came out. She got up early this morning to do some more studying for her exam. She went into the bathroom and found her roommate had hanged herself from the shower. She’d then been with cops and the coroner all morning. Then everyone left and she was alone. She didn’t know what to do, so she came to school.

How awful. I felt pity for her. What a shock that must have been. And what a cold, empty world it must have seemed when suddenly she was alone again in that off-campus apartment. Did she have no one to call? School, with its rigors and schedules and authoritarian grownups must have seemed like a safe, structured environment. Like a child after a bomb blast, she’d wandered over to school and to my class.

We talked for a bit. Who do you have to help you? Where will you go next? And so on. She seemed stunned. I had no idea what I should do. I said, “Come with me. We’ll go down to the counseling center. I offered her my arm and we walked across the small campus together, slowly and unsurely.

At the building I walked past the puzzled secretary and searched the hall till I saw through an open door a male counselor sitting alone. I brought my student in with me and told him what I knew. I hoped he’d offer her every kind of scholastic, legal and moral aid the school could offer. She still looked terribly shaken, but also relieved, like “the grownups are here now.”

I took her hand, put my other hand on her shoulder and kissed her cheek. I asked her to call me and let me know how things turned out. I had to run back and give another final.

A week passed. She hadn’t called, or come by. I was on a one-year contract and had to leave campus. I’ve never seen her nor heard from her again. But I’ve never forgotten that day or that poor shaken girl.

And this week, when cleaning out some files, I came across a class roster from years ago. It simply says, Anthropology 102. Spring, 1983, and lists the students’ names. Her name is on the list, so I couldn’t throw it away. That was 31 years ago.

She’s in her early 50s now, if she’s still alive. I always wondered if she went on to have a normal life (whatever that means – I guess a satisfying job and a loved one to live with)? I’m still feeling both curious and guilty I didn’t do more to help.

And now the story takes a weird, modern twist. I decided I wanted to know more. I Googled her distinctive Italian last name and the state where the college still is. If I found an address, I thought I’d send her a note, something like this: “Hello, I hope you remember me. Your (now) old professor has never forgotten you and your pain that day. And how brave and strong you made yourself be. I remember you warmly and hope you went on to live a good life.”

On Google I found a woman with her name, now married to a fellow with an Irish surname. She was the right age 53. She still lived in the same state. It had to be her.

But that wasn’t enough. I wanted to know what kind of life she lived now. I couldn’t find a current occupation, but saw that she’d worked for an arts center and a publisher in previous years. That pleased me.

She and her husband’s current address was listed. I hoped she’d landed far from the run-down, inner city neighborhood she’d lived in. I checked Google maps. I saw that she lives in a solid middle-class neighborhood with a waterway in view behind her property. I was happy for her.

To be sure, I set the little Google yellow-man to walk down her street, showing each house from a curbside view. I was almost shocked by something I saw.

Very rarely are people seen in Google satellite street-view pictures. But at her exact address, sitting on the top of three steps, I saw a barefoot woman of about 50. She looked like she was enjoying the sunshine. Her face was blurred out by Google, but her body size was still as I remembered. Behind the storm glass door two small dogs, puppies possibly, pressed their noses to the glass, as though wondering when their mommie was coming back in. I saw no children’s toys on the lawn. The home was neat and pretty.

I’m sure it was her, 31 years after that terrible day. Married and living in a nice house. Sitting in the afternoon sun. Two little doggies waiting inside for her. I felt that was my answer. I knew she’d be glad to be remembered by me, but what other emotions might my letter trigger? I didn’t write or send the letter. What would you do?

Hugh Gilmore is the author of “Malcolm’s Wine,” a noir bibliomystery set in the world of antique books. Easily found in paperback or e-book formats, most easily through Amazon.com.

  • Winnie


  • Kate

    In the caption: “…had a lot more on her mind THEN the answers.”

    I think I heard Hugh Gilmore’s head explode when he saw that. You probably heard mine when I did.

    [In case you don’t get it, it’s “…THAN the answers.” Sheesh.