The American Scholar: Eyes Wide Open


“Dramas don’t bother me,” Katie says in Yiyun Li’s story “Hello, Goodbye,” when her friend asks her if she regrets marrying the man she’s now considering divorcing. The friend believes Katie had entered her marriage with blind courage, the same she herself had felt having children. I remembered the story where, in an exercise on vacations, a student in my adult class said that she preferred camping vacations to tourism or mountain hiking because she didn’t want to no strong emotions. She looked tired. His mother had just returned from the hospital after an operation, but because of a tumor discovered during the operation, she had to return for another operation. “They didn’t understand everything?” I asked. She shook her head. A biopsy showed that the tumor was malignant.

This student, like her three classmates, was a pleasant person. I liked her. Strangely, I liked her more since she took off her mask in class, the last of the four to do so. The denudation of my students’ faces occurred over a two-week period in May, when the masks were no longer needed. Seeing these students without a mask had been a very big surprise in all four cases. The first to remove his mask, a man in his 40s, turned out to have a surprisingly thin face. Her lips were thin and her cheeks sunken, and the expression I read on her face with the extra twist of her mouth was so much wider than before. I was amazed. Looking at his whole face, I wondered how I had managed to see only the eyes and the forehead. I had, in essence, peeked through my fingers like a child, getting a very restricted view, and now I couldn’t stop staring at him. I apologized saying it was such a surprise to see revealed what I had only imagined before. He nodded and said he had had the same experience. My eyes feasted on him. It was as if he had come to class naked, and I couldn’t stop staring at him. Everything revealed to him was so perfectly suited to him, and yet so different from what I had imagined. I was shocked by the attraction I felt when before I had felt no particular attraction. My imaginary pupil was gone, like the frog when a prince takes his place.

In this case, however, the real person was no more beautiful than the surrogate I had imagined. In fact, I had imagined him without imagining anything I could describe, and it wasn’t until seeing his face that I realized that I had imagined. Isn’t that how life works? You step into the great unknown of the future, and it’s only when fate reveals itself that you realize you’ve had a vision. Often the reality is worse than expected. In the case of this man, I was amazed at how much his now revealed face added. Same thing with the second man, when he took off his mask to show a much rounder face than I had imagined, much more open. Then the first woman took off her mask, and I saw that she was very pretty, which I didn’t expect. Finally, the last student, the woman with the sick mother, took off her mask, and it turned out that she was a lot less pretty than I expected. In fact, she wasn’t pretty at all even though I had assumed she was, probably because of the combination of her wayward gait, lanky body, nice wool sweaters and jeans. tight, and her long, thick hair. Her hair was like Sandra Bullock’s, and I also gave her a face like Bullock’s. I preferred my student’s. That day, his face was particularly tired.

I asked if her mother knew about the diagnosis and she shook her head. She was also worried about her father, who knew about it. And your holidays, I asked, remembering that she had planned a trip to Madrid with a girlfriend during which she would take her first plane flight. She didn’t like drama, but she was looking forward to this new experience. She had to cancel, she said. Instead of the drama of being up in the air, she should face the drama of illness and the specter of death. Blind courage was what she needed, and instead, knowing her mother and father, she could see what lay ahead. His eyes, though heavy with fatigue, were wide open.

Permission required for reprint, reproduction or other uses.

Lola R. McClure