Friday, April 14, 2017

Lana and the Runaway Professor

Even near the end of my career as a professor at Rollins College, long after I had broken up with the place, I never missed a Rollins basketball game, my sole remaining pleasure in the self-proclaimed Harvard of the South.

John Irving, literary hunk, literary hunk!
At one of these games, just before I entered the gym, I saw my student Lana, a cheerleader, preparing for a pregame routine. Then she saw me, abandoned her post, came bounding toward me, half skipping, half running, leapt into my arms, and hugged me as if I were a long lost father.

"Oh, Literary Hunk!," she screamed into my ear. "Are you okay? I was so worried about you! I'm really sorry! Were you mad at me too? Are you sure you're okay?"

Let me back up a bit. Lana was currently taking my class called "Literature and Film of the Vietnam War," but earlier she took a class I named "Wet Ink Lit," because, obviously, all the works we studied had just been released in paperback, and they were all by writers who had either already received the blessings of Academia, that is, allowed entrance into the Literary Canon, or were predicted to achieve that honor in foreseeable future.

Back then, at Rollins at least, no one taught much of anything past America's golden literary years, i.e., the era of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, occasionally creeping ahead to Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor and Joseph Heller.

I never liked the idea of closing a canon due to time restrictions -- lack of talent, fine, but "too recent," bullshit. So welcome Tim O'Brien, Thom Jones, Josephine Humphreys, John Irving, Larry Brown, Faye Gibbons, Louise Erdrich, Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut. William Styron, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson and Bobbi Ann Mason! Welcome to Rollins College! Let's see what you got!

So when I was introducing John Irving, I said something like, "Writers don't have a reputation for being attractive, hot, handsome, sexy, any of that. I mean really! Look at these people (here I'd flash a few cover photos)! But look at Irving. He was a wrestler, you know. And look at that face. No wonder he's considered a literary hunk!"

Laughter all around. This is why they like me. Lana especially found "literary hunk" hilarious, but she misplaced the object somehow, and any time she saw me on campus, she would shout "Hey, Literary Hunk! Literary Hunk! Literary Hunk!" And her friends would no doubt ask her what she'd been smoking back in her dorm room.

Anyway, back at the game, she was deeply concerned about my health, and seemed to feel partially responsible for the illness I had contracted.

(Okay, I'll back up once more. There is an explanation.)

So the day of the basketball game, I'm teaching O'Brien's
 The Things They Carried to a room packed with students, Lana among them, many of whom had pulled strings and sometimes survived wait-lists for a semester or two to get in the aforementioned Lit and Film of the Vietnam War class.

O'Brien's book was everywhere hot, hot all over, just too good and too much, hot with truth and artful lies, and maybe that made the room suddenly warm, a feverish warm, not comfy warm. 

My good friend Tim O'Brien

Teachers can feel these days the way they can sense the first sign of a cold. Air thickens, grows sparse, disappears, temperature rises. A trickle of boredom drips from the roof, and the water stain expands and darkens. Then the damn roof with its fluorescent lights gives way, crashes onto the intermittently varnished oversized conference table -- the pride and emblem of Rollins' hands-on, interactive pedagogy. Inevitable. Right on time.

In the back corner, sat two capped young men, both members of the college's most dickish fraternity, whose presence I resented because there were some genuine, capable, hungry learners who didn't make the cut now sitting down the hall stuck with someone talking about Florida folklore, when they really wanted to hear about the art born from the war their fathers fought for God only knows what.

These two boorish clowns, whose jobs were chiefly to barf up a contemptuous snort when an actual student made an astute observation or asked a question that nudged our discourse into more fertile land, started to snicker and, worse, started to make a big show of stifling their snickering. A young woman, who is now a leading member of a powerful law firm, joined in, albeit reluctantly. She was stunning, by the way, but not on this particular day.

I made eye contact with the insensitive clods, eye contact that said, "Stop it. Grow up." That was generally effective enough "classroom management" at the college level, but not on this day. So I said something to one of the hammerheads ("Lester? Please?") and he says "Sorry," but the giggling increased and more of the capped crew joined in.The stain expanded.

Lana was intrigued by this giggle-fest, but distanced herself from it, looking at them, then at me, worried. "What's going to happen here?" The poorly muted private party continued. A minute or so later (but who can measure moments of rage?) I said, "Okay guys, that's enough. You need to cut it out, now!"

Before the disrespectathon could continue, Matt Finn, one of the best writers I ever taught, asked a probing, difficult question in a quiet voice I rarely had the pleasure of hearing. I strained to reword his question to ensure I knew what he wanted to know, then strained more to help him help himself realize there was no answer to such a profound question and one of the clowns cackled and I closed my O'Brien and looked at Matt and told him without words I was sorry, and at the end of the varnished conference table, back near the clowns, Lana's eyes grew large, and my vision (and Matt's by extension) was smeared by a growing blob of college students whose demeanor confirmed that I was no more than a vitreous floater fogging their already myopic sight.

These guys, their caps, their bulk -- primarily baby fat softness surely due to lack of manual labor, the bulk itself shielding them from common people and the roaches on the walls of the poor, and yes, from Vietnam, a symbol of their inability to empathize, . . . 

And suddenly . . .

"This is bull shit," I said, not quite shouting as I grabbed my friend Tim O'Brien and tucked him securely under my arm, trying my best to protect him from indifference, and trying to avoid Matt's soulful gaze, adding,"And I do NOT need this bullshit!" Then I made a fairly but not overly dramatic exit, closing the door firmly behind me, but not slamming it. I left them there. A warm room packed with students, but no teacher.

The teacher, the back of his neck baking with rage, walked down Park Avenue, stepped in Barnie's for black coffee, then, still seething, walked back to the faculty-only-others-will-be-towed Rollins College parking lot, got in his aging Honda Civic hatchback and drove away. He remembered after a block or so that he had left his office door open.

"He" did this, the teacher. It could not have been me, certainly not a healthy me. That's how Lana saw it, anyway. Hence, "Are you okay? Are you sure you're okay?"

Well, as Rollins alum Anthony Perkins says as Norman Bates, "We all go a little mad sometimes."

Not Lana

And my Chaucer professor back at FSU, "Roy, you can't teach'em if you don't love'm."

But here's I what I wanted to show you: The next class after my angry exit, my students were as sweet as a band of imaginary angels, and we had a good class, and the caps kept their mouth shut, and the future lawyer charged back into our discussions, her beauty reinstated.

And look at them. Is this not the best thing? Young people, the magic of sharing with them an art that, even in O'Brien's own words, can see war simultaneously  as hell and beauty, that embraces the epic struggle to articulate all that matters, while doing its damnedest to scorn that which doesn't. 

Too good, too good. How could I have been so angry? How could I keep from singing?

I gazed at them and at my beloved profession, all down the varnished conference table, and there at the end was Lana, her lovely head bent forward as if in prayer, her eyes closed, her lips opened just enough to embrace a straw that led downward to a 32-ounce Big Gulp, yes, she was sleeping sweetly as an infant at her mother's breast, or a kitten so weary from play, it nods off in mid-bite, its little head settling peacefully among the kibbles his waking brother will soon devour.

When could I retire?

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I won't sit idly by while you suggest, even obliguely, that a Rollins' cheerleader might have fallen under the influence of marijuana. Not on my watch, sir. Don Coyotes (OK, just Brahm).