The new student in my young adult class told me he had recently finished a degree and since Christmas was searching for a job. “Have been searching,” I corrected.
You get a feel for how many times you can correct a student—when to break into his or her sentence for that purpose and when to wait. This student, whose voice was low and even and whose eyes were warm and dark, was an unknown. By his age, his early 20s, students don’t deny what they’ve said or roll their eyes or argue. But even so, some take a correction better than others, and will nod or say “Oh, of course!” rather than gnash their teeth or berate themselves, as others will do. How would this student respond? Very well, it turned out, just a modest assent and no self-castigating. I decided to go ahead with my other observation. “What,” I asked, “is the difference between look for and search for?”
The new student shook his head. His eyes glowed. Like Bambi’s, as someone might say—as David Sedaris did say, though Sedaris was talking about a comrade, someone his own age, and I was talking about a student my son’s age. But the power of understanding and good will and that hint of sadness at the corner of an eye, the sweetness, crosses generations, and I felt it, too.
“Anyone?” I asked, looking around to the rest of the class. A rustle could be heard, as of wildlife stepping forward from cover. Someone ventured an answer but then broke off, apologizing, “No, sorry, I don’t know.”
Search, I explained, is more elevated, almost literary, more formal than look for, which is more common and more mundane. The thing you search for will often be elusive, whereas what you look for is tangible. You search for the meaning of life, but you look for a job. You search for the truth but you look—I paused for an instant until something occurred to me—you look in the fridge for something to eat.
I hadn’t meant to be funny, but I got a laugh. Engage with the world, someone I respect had counseled me, engage at every chance you get. Go out and live, was the essence. There I was, 9 o’clock on a Wednesday evening, with the clock advancing toward the late Spanish dinner hour, thinking about the last time I’d looked in the fridge for something to eat, when a piping-hot pizza was what I’d really wanted. My stomach rumbled. I thought about Sedaris and his dark-eyed train companion on their long-ago trip through Italy, how that companion had invited Sedaris to disembark when he did, to go with him, take a chance on him. I thought about Willa Cather’s archbishop, Father Latour, remembering at the end of his life the country he’d left long before and his last night there when he’d convinced his fellow priest to leave with him. Time was short, he’d thought, the Paris stagecoach to start him on his journey already rumbling down the hill.
Sedaris’s train had rumbled through the dark Italian countryside while opportunity escaped. His excuse was some future opportunity, a better one. Father Latour’s argument for his wavering friend was that he could always go back. How short time is, the archbishop remembered on his deathbed. I looked around at my half dozen students, waiting for me. “Okay,” I said. We had half an hour left, and we turned to the speaking exercise. I didn’t know it then, but it was to be the last class before the sudden closing of schools due to the coronavirus. I sat back and listened, half engaged there, still half elsewhere.
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