Cassuto: "Is this teaching? In a way, yes. But the student is me."

This week, the Chronicle of Higher Education featured an essay by Fordham English Professor Lenny Cassuto on the way teachers' commitments to their students can extend far beyond the classroom. Its title: "'I Just Wanted to Hear Your Voice.'"

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Student debt has been receiving long-overdue attention, but what about teacher debt? College students may owe money, but what do their professors owe to them? I’ve been vexed by this question since a surprising phone call I received last year.

"Hello, Dr. Cassuto? This is Nashiko Mori, your former student."

"Hi, Nashiko. I remember you."

And I do remember. Nashiko (a pseudonym) stood out. Past 60 and retired from her job as a bookkeeper, she took two of my introductory courses more than a decade ago. She enjoyed the reading and writing, and she appreciated my teaching, so she stayed in touch.

Over time, I learned a good deal about her. Born in southern Japan during the late 1930s, she was exposed to radiation from the Hiroshima bomb. She grew up perilously deprived in the literal wreckage of postwar Japan. Her childhood of near starvation surely contributed to the stubborn determination that I noticed in her right away.

Nashiko proved a poor fit for the rigid mold reserved for women in Japan. Independent and adventurous, she left the country as a young adult. Though she remained in touch with her family and regularly visited her parents, she effectively renounced membership in her extended family and resolved to make her own financial way. Meanwhile, she traveled the world, sometimes visiting war zones.

She settled in New York in the 1960s and worked a long career before she turned up in my classroom. She took a handful of courses from others as well before she stopped in the early 2000s, but she would still come by my office sometimes. Inspired by her college experience, she started drafting essays about her past, and she sought help with them. I was happy to oblige.

But Nashiko soon demanded counsel that I couldn’t give. She had unofficially adopted a young man—call him Benjamin—who was down on his luck, and she wanted to give him a new life and new ambitions. For all her iconoclasm, she treated me as a kind of sensei—a teacher and something more—and asked for advice about guiding her new ward.

"That isn’t my expertise," I told her. I suggested she talk to a therapist. But she wouldn’t. She kept coming back, coaxing, arguing. Neither of us would budge, and I heard from her less and less.

Then, last year, I got that phone call. "I’m so glad you remember me!" she exclaimed. "I found your number, and I thought I would say hello."

"How have you been?" I asked.

"Not so well. My mother died. I was in the hospital. And now I’m getting old."

She spoke of being alone in the world, and she asked to see me. Certainly, I said, we can meet for a cup of tea.

Nashiko called again a couple of days later. "Hello, Dr. Cassuto?"

"Hi, Nashiko," I said.

"You remember my voice!"

Nashiko proceeded to explain that she hadn’t been well. "My mother died. I was in the hospital. And now I’m getting old."

Then another call came. It followed the same basic script. At age 76, Nashiko had dementia.

She continued calling regularly. At first I tried to learn whether she understood that she had memory problems (she did, but couldn’t apply that knowledge to her actions) and whether she was getting help.

She was, indeed—from Benjamin. He hadn’t gone to college, as Nashiko wished, but he has a job as a locksmith. From what she said, he visits her often and looks after her.

Even so, she is lonely. She can’t read much, and can’t follow much of what she can read. She speaks of paying the price for never marrying.

Nashiko calls in bursts. Each time I talk with her, she calls more frequently—often the next day and the day after that. It’s as though our conversation leaves an unconscious precipitate that brings her mind back to me. But she never recalls our previous conversations. And, oddly, she doesn’t remember our old arguments about helping her with Benjamin, or even that I know who Benjamin is.

I don’t always pick up when Nashiko phones. If I don’t, the calls peter out. Then, after a time, they start again. Nashiko has my home telephone number written in a notebook somewhere, and when she comes across it, it jump-starts her.

She always asks to see me, and I always say yes, but in truth, she has no way to arrange it. She can’t travel alone to my office, and in any case, she can’t recall any plan that she makes.

Should I be going to visit her? I’ve asked myself that question. Nashiko lives on the other end of the New York City megalopolis, almost a two-hour drive away.

What is my duty here? I ask myself that, too.

* * * * *

I committed years ago to some kind of continuing relationship with Nashiko, but it wasn’t really friendship. It was a teaching relationship, and in keeping with Nashiko’s identity as a Japanese woman in self-imposed exile, there’s a way that our connection has always been very Japanese.

Nashiko’s cultural expectations call for me to behave differently from the way I might otherwise. She’s looking for me to dispense a senseis wisdom, even though she doesn’t remember what I say. I understand. But this isn’t Japan.

I’ve had frequent occasion to recall a conversation that I had with Nashiko, years before she lost much of her memory. She announced one day that she would commit suicide when she could no longer live independently. "You have that choice," I said. But it was as though I had said the opposite. "I will do it," she insisted. She needed to argue with me.

We retraced this conversation several times, because the subject was deeply important to her. It isn’t anymore. "I’m very healthy," she often says, "and I’m living the same way."

Teachers are wedded to the idea of progress. We try to leave our students better than we found them—and a lot of our job satisfaction is tied to that effort. When stories about teachers are packaged for general entertainment, the students are models of advancement just about every time. Think of Mr. Chips, or To Sir, With Love.

My encounters with the diminished Nashiko show me how important the possibility of progress is to me. I love teaching, but I see now that I especially love the idea that I can catalyze change in my students.

Now I have a student who won’t progress. Unmoored from time, Nashiko is paddling from island to island in a chaotic stream of experience—and I’m one of those islands. She doesn’t need me to make her better. She isn’t going to get better. What she does need is for me, in some small way, to take care of her.

"I just wanted to hear your voice," she says. So I talk with her regularly. If I haven’t heard from her in awhile, I call her. I recently spoke with Benjamin and gave him some information on caregiver-support networks.

Is this teaching? In a way, yes. But the student is me.