SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
February 17, 2019

School for Corpses, Part IV: Dodgeball vs. Chess

 

Last week, when I commented in passing that in my efforts to snag a teaching position at a local art school, it seemed  the interim department chair was playing dodgeball while I was playing chess, I didn’t mean to imply that I was in any way smarter or more devious than she was. You think about it, playing chess with someone who’s playing dodgeball is a pretty stupid move. One careful aim, one solid blow from that red rubber ball and I’d be out of the picture, chess pieces all over the floor. But she hadn’t tagged me yet.

            When I submitted proposals for five new courses, I kind of half knew already she wouldn’t go for four of them. My hopes lay with the fifth, which I had wrestled together from the buzzwords and nonsense she’d tossed at me enthusiastically during our interview. I had no interest in teaching the course I’d proposed, but I had a plan.

            First and foremost, I had to keep the dialogue going, as unpleasant as it was. By throwing her own words and suggestions back at her, I’d given her something she liked. But it wasn’t there yet. It needed refining, she said. During the interview she’d told me this back and forth was her favorite part of course development, and that oft times the class that resulted had very little to do with the one she had in mind originally.

            Well, okay then. When I sent in a second version of the course description, I’d tweaked it a bit, dropping all references to blindness while nudging things in a more interesting direction by sneaking in the phrase “conspiracy theory.” At the same time, I still kept in place a few of the buzzwords and the original core idea, whatever that was, to hold her interest. I also sent her an additional proposal for another new course as a simple distraction.

            As I’d expected, she dismissed that second one out of hand, but wanted a bit more information about the one she liked. Nothing major, really, just a bit more clarification. It sounded to her, she said, less like a literature course than “a genre-bending mix of psychology, sociology, and cultural studies.” She didn’t seem offended by this, saying only they’d have to put the class under another heading. Sounded good to me. And I praised her clarity and insight in immediately spotting the nature of the course I had in mind.

            It was obvious she still didn’t want to hire me, but with my being a cripple and all, she couldn’t very well just come out and say it. For my part, I was determined to give her no purchase, no just cause. I was providing everything she was asking for, was doing it all quite pleasantly without using terms like “twat,” and was tossing about academic jargon with the best of them. She could never say I wasn’t up to the task or unwilling to compromise. No sir.

            When she saw The Odyssey on the list of suggested readings, she told me no one tried to teach the whole thing anymore, as the students would never read it. I replied I would need an entire year to do Homer justice, and was only going to ask them to read the first book. Then when she noted most of the readings took the form of excerpts and short articles, she chastised me for not asking students to read entire works. I reminded her that during the interview, she’d warned me I could never expect students to read entire books.

            As planned, as the course description went back and forth, I was quietly honing it into the conspiracy theory, mass hysteria and urban legends course I’d wanted to teach from the start, and in the end, that’s precisely the course she agreed to.

            HAH!

            It was check, but no mate. There was still more game to be played. Once we had agreed on an edited version of the course description for the school catalog, I was supposed to send it in to the department secretary, so I did. A day later, the secretary wrote and asked me to send a list of the days and times that would work best as far as scheduling the course. Rooms were limited and certain times were in high demand, so the chair had suggested that I send in as many possibilities as I could, to make scheduling easier. I sent the secretary eight possible time slots. My friend Richard warned me to avoid Fridays, as no one wanted to sign up for a Friday class, so the suggestions were for a couple of slots each day between Monday and Thursday. I was easy, right? Easy and pleasant.

            All the while, the chair kept reminding me nothing was set in stone yet. The class was far from a done deal. It would all depend on how many students signed up. If not enough students signed up, they’d cancel the class and that would be that. I understood this, but had confidence, foolish man that I was, that a conspiracy theory course, particularly at this moment in history, would attract enough interest to get me that check.

            The important thing was, the process seemed to be moving ahead. Two days later, the secretary wrote back, sending me half a dozen forms to fill out, telling me I had to print them out, complete them, then return them in person to the office, also bringing along several forms of ID. Once they had all the completed forms in hand and satisfactory proof I was who I claimed I was—and only then—would they add the course description to the catalog.

            What? Do these people have no computers? Well, whatever, right? Pain in the ass, but I’d do it. Morgan would help me with the forms, then I’d get on the train, go into Manhattan, drop the damn forms off, turn around and get back on the train for the ninety minute trip home. Again, I would give them no complaints, nothing to work with. I was on the beam and playing all the angles, to paraphrase Jim Thompson. I was a bright boy and a tough boy.

            Oh, she also added, the course had been scheduled for Mondays at nine a.m.

            “WHAT?” Richard shrieked when I told him this. “She really is trying to destroy you. No one wants to take a class on Mondays, and no one wants to take one at nine in the morning. It’s a double whammy and she knows it. And I can’t understand why they would give a new class, something they want to promote, the worst time in the world.”

            Yes, well. To complete the above Jim Thompson line, “And that’s when some booze-stupe without enough guts to string a uke comes along and puts the blocks on you.”

            The other problem, Richard noted, was that most students signed up for the entire year’s worth of classes before the fall semester began. Trying to launch a new course in spring was not impossible, but tough enough as it is without that time slot reaming it further.

            I started to get the idea the dodgeball was all a ruse, that she’d been playing chess all along herself, and wanted me to think I was getting something past her when she had the upper hand all along. It was a brilliant move. Let some guy she had no intention of hiring come up with a course she had no intention of sanctioning. Let him think there was hope, that she was doing all she could to give the poor blind cripple a break. Sure, it was going to happen, all right, so long as you get enough interested students to sign up. If enough of them didn’t sign up, well, it was out of her hands, she’d honestly done everything she could to help, right? Then she schedules it at the worst possible time, a time she knows no one will go for, particularly art students. Yet all the while she was answering my questions about salary and facilities, la la la. Oh. And by the way, we just upped the number of students you need to give the class the go-ahead.

            Good luck there, you big blind idiot.

            So now I wait, with no sense of when I might learn whether or not the class is a go. The semester starts in four months, and I might not find out until two days beforehand. But if that’s the case, if that’s her final joke, then the joke’s on her, because I have that fucker mapped out week by week already, with all the lecture notes together and all the readings gathered. So I’m ready, but in all likelihood ready for nothing.

 

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