September 20, 2009

They Seemed Awfully Quiet


I woke up early the first day of class. I’d been preparing for this gig for about a year now, and everything was set. I had all the papers I needed, I had a map in my head of where I was going, the lectures were not just ready to roll at the drop of a hat—they were scintillating. I’d turned in my syllabus to the department, I’d checked the class roster and found I could pronounce everyone’s name—in fact I’d heard from a couple of the students already. Hell, I’d even picked up my own box of chalk. There was no way I could be more prepared.

            Of course being that prepared meant that the moment I stepped into the classroom, everything was going to collapse into dust and I’d have to wing it. It’s just a law of nature.

            There were a few hours left before I had to leave, so I decided to check my email. This is almost always a mistake.

Waiting in the inbox was a note from the department secretary, informing me that the syllabus I’d submitted (and was about to hand out) was missing a few things, all of which needed to be added before it could be accepted. I began to feel those hot worms in my guts. The syllabi were already formatted and printed up, collated, stapled, and ready to go. They were sitting in an envelope on the table right over there.

            But apparently they weren’t finished yet—not before I added a laundry list of legalese. On top of each neat and clean two-page syllabus, I needed to add a statement of purpose (as if I had one), a specific grading and attendance policy (ditto), a 2-page explanation of what “plagiarism” is, and a disclaimer stating that students with learning disabilities needed to register with some office at the university before they could expect any special treatment. Apparently it had become commonplace for students angry with their final grades to contest them by claiming they had a “learning disability.”

            This whole thing just pissed me off. It seemed ridiculous. I can understand it as a series of ass-covering measures, but still—they could’ve told me about all this crap a little sooner. Besides, what were the chances that I was going to end up with some crybaby “learning disabled” faker in my class? Then I remembered the age in which we were living.

I put on some fast and angry music and started cutting, pasting and composing wild-eyed policies. When I was done I printed them all out and stapled them onto the existing syllabi. I was still fuming, convinced that the inevitable collapse had begun much sooner than anticipated. At least I had an hour left before I had to leave. Time enough to catch my breath and stop sweating.

            Things calmed down a bit after that. I ate a sandwich, lit a smoke, and headed out. The subway ride into Manhattan was fine, and after evading a gauntlet of Greenpeace cultists with their clipboards (“Do you want to help save the human race?” “Not particularly, no.”), I found my way up to the classroom I’d been assigned. Inside, someone was lecturing about something or other to a roomful of eager students, so I waited patiently in the hall.

            A woman—I’m guessing another faculty member—stopped in front of me. “Do you know where you’re going?” she asked.

            “Um,” I said, figuring the cane had brought out the Do Gooder in her, “that’s an awfully large question.”

            There was a long and uncomfortable moment of silence as she stared at me and I stared at the ground.

            “No,” she said eventually, “I mean specifically.”

            I told her that I did, and she continued on her earnest way down the hall.

            A few minutes later, the class began emptying out and I crept inside, dropping my bag and hat on the desk and myself in the chair. As I shuffled some papers and got myself together, a handful of my new charges began filtering into the room. While I was pretending to carefully review a set of notes, a young man approached the desk and held out a sheet of paper.

            “Every teacher’s supposed to get one,” he said, his voice flat.

            I thanked him, took the sheet and began examining it. It was on official letterhead.

            “This is to certify that Dennis Manger has been officially recognized as a Learning Disabled student…”

            Oh, Jesus Christ.

            The note went on to detail all the special treatment he required—more time allotted to complete assignments, special private rooms where he could take exams without any distractions and the like.

            The only saving grace was that I had no one named “Manger” on my class roster. Maybe it really was something every instructor received, just in case.

            Counting on that, I slid the letter in my file, took a deep breath, and began teaching the first class I’d taught in a quarter century. Even though there were about twenty-five people registered for the class, there were only nine students present. That was okay. It was time to get this fucker underway. The others could catch up later.

            Everything went beautifully. In fact, I was on fire. I wasn’t stumbling over words, I wasn’t drawing any blanks. The timing was good on the jokes. Everything flowed smoothly. The only thing bothering me was the fact that I wasn’t getting any laughs. These were good jokes, too.

            Well, they were just a little nervous, I figured. First day and all. They’d relax before too long.

            I had just completed the basic overview and was moving on to the course mechanics when I heard the door open behind me.

            A middle aged woman with wide hair stuck her head in. “Is this Literature and Writing 209?” she asked.

            “No, I’m sorry,” I said.

            Then one of the students piped up. “That’s what I thought it was.”

            “Yeah, me too.”

            “I was about to get up and leave.”

            I stopped dead. Oh, shit.

            “Don’t tell me they double booked this room again,” the woman said. “Because if they did . . .”

            I was afraid I already knew the answer to my question, but had to ask anyway. I leaned in close and kept my voice low. “Umm, tell me—is this room 408-B? By chance?”

            She shook her wide hair. “Uh-uh—that’s across the hall.”

            “Jesus fuckin’ Christ.” I couldn’t believe it. But then again, yeah—yeah I could.

 I started gathering my things off the desk in a frenzy, trying to decide if I should run across the hall first and let them know I was coming, then come back and get my things, or take the time to get everything together and hope that most of my students didn’t leave before I got there. I was ten minutes late as it was.

            One of the students, thank god, had seen fit to re-collect all the syllabi and return them to me.

            “Excuse me?”

            I looked up, still shoving things into my bag, “What?

            “I gave you a letter? And, um, I need it back now?”

Oh, Jesus Christ. It was the Learning Disabled kid, and I was starting to get the idea that maybe he really had something going for himself there.

I pulled out my file and handed it to him. “Here, you find it.”

            When he handed the file back to me, I headed for the door, then paused and turned back to those nine very confused students. “Forget everything I taught you,” I said.


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