Every semester in my 8 AM course grandparents die. Their funerals result in missed classes, late papers, delayed plane flights and once the reading of a Will when a grandfather—an American expat living in Bangkok—left my student an Alligator Garden and a Thai Hotel. (Who could make that up? My grad student Patricia Prooster. That’s who.)
This fall my class meets at 11 am, so grandparents are spared. There’s only one missing essay when Jason Panno slouches into my office to tell me his apartment caught fire. He describes his charred computer and the smell of smoke like burnt rabbit fur. It is a vivid assault on my senses and sympathy.
A month later, Panno’s new apartment fared no better as the fire reached his second-floor studio. He escaped minutes before the ceiling disengaged from the apartment above and with a huge roar met his floor below. He has a wide forehead, freckles, hollow cheeks. I like the sound of “ceiling meeting floor,” and I forgive his second incinerated essay.
Near the end of the semester, another fire—I dare think “another”—consumed his newly rented place. “I suspected my room was too close to the kitchen,” he says, then mourns another lost paper. Though unashamed of my skepticism, I lament his third missing paper, acknowledge his near-perfect attendance, his agile class participation, and say his grade alas will be a just-passing D. Then I post grades and plan what to pack for my Christmas break in Oaxaca.
Three days later I am summoned to the Dean’s office. Two policemen flash their IDs and say they have questions about a student named Jason Panno? Did I find anything suspicious about his behavior? Anything alarming?
The Dean nods that it is okay to answer.
Yes, I say and explain that he did not turn in my courses’ three required papers. “Three,” I say.
The younger policeman dismisses these offenses with a flick of his pen. He exchanges a glance with the senior officer who says that Jason Panno is a person of interest in multiple cases of arson.
My hand to my throat, I say how terrible, I hope no one was hurt, thinking never mind dead. “Luckily no one was hurt,” the officer assures me. “But anything you can tell us…”
I imagine days spent in court, the judge’s amusement at the passing grade of D. A cancelled vacation to Oaxaca.
“He was my student,” I say, “But I barely remember him. Sorry I can’t help.” Imagine Jason Panno and Patricia Prooster teaching me!