I walked into the bar for a drink after leaving the college for the last time, the very last time; absolutely never again would I return to my place of employment after thirty years. I had parked at the bar earlier in the day knowing I would end the afternoon here. I placed my box of office belongings at my feet, all haphazardly tossed together, the remnants of what remained—some class notes, a half-finished manuscript, a biography of Wolfe, a volume of Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. Just as I ordered a coconut rum with orange/mango juice, a young woman and her shorter friend already at the bar said they wanted the same, that it sounded just fine, and it seemed the best way to celebrate their recent enrollment at the college.
The taller one raised her glass to her friend and said, “Here’s to yet another beginning!” and her friend added, “Done with four years in the Navy, now on to four years in college! Bring it on!” which is a phrase I despise for the sheer vagueness of “it,” a phrase that only by fractions beats out “Game on!” as annoying and overly bullish, but I did appreciate their vigor so I raised my glass, “Good luck” I said, and drank half my glass.
“Do you teach at the college?”
I smiled and said, quite honestly, “No,” for the first time in six U.S. presidents. “But I used to back in what now seems like a long time ago.” These two new students who after serving in the military are still almost three times younger than me so I insisted on paying the tab to wish them well and thank them for their service when one of them politely asked if I had any advice to offer.
“No,” I responded, thinking about all I could say, all I could offer, all I could inform them of if I knew, I mean if I could even remotely be convinced that they would heed the suggestions gathered from a third a century of observations and engagements with traditional students and returning students and drop-outs and ex-cons and ex-wives and exceptionally misplaced students.
They turned to leave when the bartender refilled my glass and I said “Wait!” and I asked him to refill their glasses. They smiled and for the first time noticed the box on the floor at my feet with papers and desk objects and only then tuned in to the reality that I was on my way out, leaving the collegiate world, a world where the New Year starts in August, the collegiate world of three week breaks every four months, leaving the center ring where the main event between the timeless foes of idealism and cynicism battle it out on Tuesdays and Thursdays or Mondays and Wednesdays, leaving a world where I stared at eighteen-year-olds for thirty years, a world which never aged before my eyes
I smiled. “Advice, huh? How about I tell you one story, if you’ve got a few minutes.”
They sat on stools. I stood.
A student once threw a desk at me. I told him his writing lacked the depth he was capable of and he stood up and threw a desk at me. I don’t think he understood and I caught the desk, put it down and asked, quite firmly if I recall, if he had heard me. The writing lacked the depth he was capable of and he, of course, only heard “lacked,” and armed himself with furniture. Why is that? What is it about our inability to find the positive in criticism? I reminded him that he volunteered to seek my advice on his writing, he in fact paid for it, and he really shouldn’t be upset with me for offering my thoughts but upset he was, to be certain and he stormed out saying he was going to find a new professor who loved his work and then he stormed past me and out the door, a thick aroma of strong coffee behind him.
The class wondered if I was nervous and I said I was not, that I was more suspicious of the quiet one in the corner in the raincoat than the one who now has my attention, but his defenses were up just like so many students’ defenses are up ready to pounce on anyone who doesn’t say what they want to hear.
I sipped and stared at my box a long time. It was all starting to sink in. Thirty years. I try not to say what is the absolute cold hard reality of my life, that I never should have taught college, because I don’t want to hear the myriad responses from “think of all the lives you touched” to “but what opportunities it afforded you” to “but you…” and “but you…” and “but you…” but it is true. I stared at the box and thought, right then, and completely honestly, I never should have done this. I looked at the two who suddenly seemed identical.
I found him in the hallway and stopped him and said I simply had a few questions if he was smart enough to just answer them and then be on his way without any penalty for his previous actions. I think he was more upset that I caught the desk than from my unheeded advice, and he stood still, arms folded, eyebrows up. You answer a few questions honestly, and no matter what the answers, you are welcome to come back to class or I’ll withdraw you without penalty. He nodded.
Okay, I said, first: If I asked you to write five hundred words about yourself, about what drives you, what motivates you, what pisses you off—other than me—and what your passions are, could you do it?
I’m not writing no damn paper about…
I’m not asking you to do a thing you little punk, I said, I’m asking if that was the charge before you could you pull it off? And he looked up to the left, which is what we do when we think—up to the left to anticipate, up to the right to recall—and he said, yeah sure he could do that, of course.
So I said, okay, of course, I knew that, so second: If I said I’m going to ask everyone in the class to do the same, and the couple of people whose writing really makes me sit up and take notice I’ll give an A for the semester and I’ll help get published immediately, would you write better to be among that group of writers? And he thought again but said more definitively he absolutely would go that extra yard. His arms came down to his sides which showed me his defenses were down.
Okay, then, finally: If we actually did that assignment in class, the five hundred words about yourself, but the one person, the one piece of writing, the one work which made me wish I had written it, I’d give on the spot five grand, would your writing suddenly be better, would you put more effort into it for the five thousand dollars? And without thinking he said, yes, of course, raising his shoulders, throwing his body language into his definitive answer, and he said damn right the writing would be better, and he said he knew that for five grand he’d be able to write better than everyone else.
He nodded to himself and smiled at me, proud of himself, feeling somehow vindicated, feeling somehow throwing the desk woke me up to his wise and prophetic prose. I stared at him blankly for a long time, a long long time, and said, finally, with a sigh, There it is. I shook my head. Go home, I told him. You’re wasting my time.
He yelled at me, Wait! I told you I’d put in the best effort I could! What is your fucking problem now? Forget it, you’re out of your mind! he said and started to leave when I turned around and stepped toward him. He stopped.
I already told you the problem before you stormed out of the class. The work isn’t your problem, it’s you.
What the f…
You just said it, you just admitted it to me. You just stood here in the hallway outside a room where twenty-four students are dead silent listening to us, and you said you always could do better. You just couldn’t be bothered. Sure, if I paid you, then you’d put in the effort. But short of that, screw it. I have no room for anyone who can do better but doesn’t bother. I already told you—your writing lacks the depth you are capable of, and YOU just told ME the exact same thing. Go home. I’ve got serious students here and you’re in the way.
The three of us finished our drinks. They waited for me to continue. They said what a crazy dude he must have been and asked what happened to him and was the writing good and did he return to class and was I scared and all the obvious, shallow, thoughtless questions people ask when they miss the point, completely forgetting they had asked me for some advice. At first I thought how even the punk got the point, but instead I just laughed to myself and wished them well, and added, “Oh! Advice, sure. Be just what you is, not what you is not. Folks what do this has the happiest lot.” They just stared at me.
I picked up my box and left.
I put the box in my trunk and looked back at the college and sighed. The sun was setting and cars moved out of the campus while some drove into the parking lot, the endless cycle of registration and graduation, the comings and goings of those majoring in mediocrity, seeking their degrees in convenience, and I felt a wave of fear. I knew, I mean I knew with complete conviction, that those close to me will never understand. I stepped off a cliff, knowing at the same time it was either walk away quietly or die quietly. I still hope the ones I love understand but so many have drifted away it seems perhaps they don’t. But from that moment on, something stronger took hold. That moment was mine. Completely mine.
It was time to see what’s next, see if my efforts could rise up to my capabilities. I suggested once to my advanced writing class what a world it would be if everyone suddenly decided to do what they are passionate about, but did so with complete conviction.
From the car I could see the very building I walked out of every week since the end of the Reagan administration, and felt very, very sad. I could see a twenty-nine year old, wide-eyed novice who had no business teaching but managed to pull it off; I could see my small boy at two running along the grass between buildings; I could see my father coming to meet me for lunch; I could see friends who left too soon, left this beautiful and forgiving world for good too soon, and while I knew I wasn’t ready for it to end, I also knew it had to if I was ever going to breathe on my own. I got in the car and drove to the light to make a left and head away for good, and I stared at the thirty years, the thousands of students, the ebb and flow of a career that I only used to do, and I thought to myself, with complete awareness and absolute conviction, I always could do better, I just couldn’t be bothered.