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Clement's Corner: The Eternal Student

So why did the eternal student stop visiting the home of his friends? Owen Clement's story brings an unexpected answer.

I watched Josh’s gaunt body dressed in well-worn jeans and a faded monogrammed t-shirt accentuated by the noonday sun. He looked wretched compared to the other younger more wholesome students lounging around under the shady trees of the campus grounds nearby. Unlike many, he could not wait to take his seat in the lecture hall.

The youngsters did not ignore him, nor did he intentionally avoid them, especially the Asian students. Not that he was racist; it was simply that they came from very different economic circumstances. He could barely afford to feed and clothe himself, whereas they, in most cases, came from wealthy families who not only paid the huge fees required, they also lavished spending money on their children; you only had to see their expensive trendy clothes and their most up-to-date laptops and text books. Neither did Josh envy them, as he had chosen to be a student when most of his contemporaries had long since joined the work force. Someone some day, he believed, would recognize his university degrees and offer him an academic position befitting his qualifications.

I had talked to him on various occasions while carrying out my chores, mowing the university lawns and undertaking my other handyman’s duties. I sometimes wished that I could read, never mind understand the stack of books he carried around with him. I did not resent my own shortcomings mind you. My wife, our two beautiful boys, plus our home well on the way to being paid off made me feel extraordinarily lucky and content.

I was busy one day gathering up the lawn clippings when Josh called out as he approached me, “G’day Patrick, Are you well?”

“Yeah, mate. You?''

Josh hesitated before saying, “Not too bad, I guess.''

Looking directly at him I said, “I’ve been watching you lately.''

“Oh.” He blinked nervously.

“I was wondering if you could do us a favour.”

“Sure.”

He laid his books on the lawn and nervously started rubbing his hands as if to increase the circulation.

“How would you like to come over to our place for a meal tonight?”

“Tonight.” Taken aback by my impulsive invitation he found himself at a loss for words.

“Yep, I’ll give my dear wife a ring. I’m sure she’d be as delighted as I would. We can talk about it then.”

Before he could respond I pulled out my mobile phone and rang home to let Colleen know. She agreed, as I had often mentioned Josh and his half-starved appearance. I arranged to pick up him in little over half and hour.

I called into an all-night 7-11 store for a few items requested by Colleen before diving over to the dingy old brownstone building where he shared a small flat with another male mature-aged student.

He spent a very pleasant evening with my family answering our many questions especially with what he intended doing with his degrees.

He ended his evening, at our request, telling our two children bed time stories.

At first he did not know how to deal with our rowdy boys. He was soon charmed however by their innocent bubbly nature. Never had he realized that children could be so enjoyable. He was even more touched when they both hugged and kissed him when they said goodnight.

And so began a weekly routine, every Saturday night, with Josh paying for his meal, as it were, by reading to the children books that he selected from the local library. Both the children would snuggle into Colleen and me while we listened to Josh’s deep resonant voice acting out the adventures of Peter Rabbit or Jemima Puddle Duck or other well-known and not so well-known characters.

He soon began to fill out with Colleen’s home cooking.

At his suggestion, he occasionally baby sat while we visited friends or took in a movie.

This happy arrangement went on for about a year when, without notice, Josh announced that he would have to stop coming as he needed more time for his studies. By this time I had begun to know Josh pretty well and I knew that this was not the real reason. I was determined to find out what was concerning him. I was also hurt, as he pointedly seemed to avoid me at the university.

I saw his roommate one afternoon and asked him if he had noticed if Josh was in trouble or ill? He angrily told me that he knew nothing of Josh’s movements nor wished to. Josh had mentioned that his flatmate was a bad tempered man who kept himself to himself.

One afternoon I saw him sitting up against a tree, deep in a book. Dropping down on my haunches beside him I greeted him and asked him how he was these days.

He seemed both guarded and embarrassed by my sudden appearance.

“Please tell me Josh, what have we done to make you angry?”

“Oh, I’m not angry with you. Please don’t think that. It has nothing to do with you, believe me.”

“Then why are you avoiding us? The children ask about you all the time and wonder when you are coming again.”

Josh looked close to tears.

“I miss them too, and Colleen. It’s just –“ He stopped, unable to continue.

“It’s not charity you know. We love having you over and hearing you read to the children, which, as you know, we cannot do. Please don’t think for a moment that I am pressuring you in any way though.’

As he did not immediately respond I stood up.

“I don’t think that at all, Pat,'' he said, looking up at me with so much pain in his eyes that I knew that whatever his reason may be, he could not tell me what it was.

He stood up and extended his hand, which I grasped.

“I’m, sorry. I wish I could, but it would be wrong.”

‘Wrong!’ I thought. And then I knew.

I smiled and nodded. After shaking his hand I turned around and walked away.

He eventually became a lecturer, then a professor. I often see him walking along on his own. I don’t know if he sees me. If he does, he does not acknowledge me.

Colleen never knew, nor will I ever tell her, that she was the reason he had stopped coming.

© Clement 2006


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