I’ve written about this before, and this story occurred when I was a different person in a career I never anticipated. Last night I found a picture, and it brought this memory back like it occurred last week.
I had been teaching about three years when the president of the college called me into his conference room. It was autumn, and it rained that day so not only did the impending meeting occupy my thoughts, but the weather made everyone miserable. Fog settled heavy on the James River behind the buildings, and just the walk from the parking lot left me wet and sticky. I sloshed into the leather seat in his spacious office. The river ran behind his rain-covered windows, the water and fog blending. The Monitor- Merrimac Bridge Tunnel appeared little more than a shadow of a river crossing. He thanked me for driving to his office and moved right to business. “Tell me truth here, Bob. Is she crazy?”
“She” was an African American, PhD professor. Short and rather rotund, her Islamic chador shrouded her dark darting eyes. She hid in bushes some early mornings, garrisoning herself from evil attacks of campus maintenance workers and other faculty. Sometimes after class she walked home by advancing from tree to tree, looking about, scanning the parking lot for followers. We had been hired together, and when we first talked, we talked long about Africa, where I had been and where she had longed to go. I showed her a picture of a village chief, a tall thin man who in the photo is searching for a place to settle down with his prayer mat in the sub-Saharan dust. She stared at the picture a long time, and her eyes welled. “I feel like I should be there, Bob” she said. It was just a few months later she spouted profanities across the library tables to other workers, accusing them of casting a spell on her. It was another two years before the President called me in and asked me if I thought she was crazy.
“Compared to who?” I asked. I quickly qualified myself as not being able to determine anyone’s mental state. True, a professor who hid in the hedges and crouched behind trees because she thought she was being followed appeared, on the surface at least, insane. But who was I to say? In my time teaching college, I have often desired to flee to the cover of rhododendrons. “I don’t know,” I said. “She’s a great teacher though. She knows her stuff.”
“Bob, she yells across the library–yells–at other personnel–screams for them to stop following her. Last time they were just replacing light bulbs.”
“Yes, sir, that’s true. But it’s not my call. I’m her colleague.”
I was also Assistant Division Chair at the time, and while this denoted nothing when assessing other full-time faculty–least of all their mental state– it placed me in a position where the woman in question trusted me. In fact, I was the only one she talked to most of the time, the division chair at the time simply did not get along with her. The college was being both cunningly cautious and blatantly cowardice. While I was a white, Catholic professor, we still had more in common than others. I’d spent a good deal of time in Islamic villages on two separate trips to Africa. She asked often of life there, about people, about their lives. So when she started to cower into the dark corners of campus with what can best be perceived as paranoid schizophrenia, I was the medium through whom the administration communicated.
“She can’t stay,” the president said.
“Okay.” I answered. At the time, I really didn’t care either way. A puddle had formed at my feet, and my sweater smelled like a dead animal in a Moroccan marketplace. He offered me coffee.
“Bob. We’d like you to offer her three choices. One, she stays, but if the pattern continues, she will be fired. That will give us time to document more of these incidents. Two, she transfers to another campus. When people there start following her and she yells at them, that would mean it’s her, not us and we would need to let her go. Third, she can resign now, we’ll pay her contract for the rest of the year, and she leaves on good terms with recommendations.” I thought, you are going to recommend her? To whom? But what I said was, “Wow, Dr. This is somewhat beyond me here, don’t you think?”
“You’re the only one she trusts, Bob.” Ah, so that’s how you do it, I thought. You find the one employee the victim trusts most and sic him on her. Well, in this case, the victim filled nearly every minority check box, and the legal issues lingered like the fog on the James. I asked what he wanted to happen, though I already figured that out, and said I’d talk to her. When I was leaving, I said, “You know, sir, I don’t get paid enough for this.” He laughed. Of course, because it’s so laughable.
I sat in my office just across the hall from the victim. I wondered where the line was between being mentally stable and out in left field, thinking I should know exactly where it is since I step over it so often. All three offers seemed low and outside–academic spitballs. I’m crazy for doing this, I thought. But then more than a few college profs wander well into the outfield too often during the season.
I worked once with a professor who would walk into class the first day and exclaim, “Nearly all of you will get no better than a C,” and he was right–he failed more than three quarters of the students in every class he taught. While I was in college in New York, a priest taught a course in parapsychology. The street name of the course was “spooks.” In his youth he was an exorcist in France and had been dealing with the paranormal for fifty years. He always left the front row of every class empty in case former students or colleagues who had died might show up to sit in. Once, when the door was slightly ajar, the wind blew in and swept it all the way open and then slammed it shut. We were silent until Father quietly stated, “Oh, Larry, I’m so glad you are joining us” We laughed. He didn’t.
Before I went across the hall, I decided to consult my friend, Lianne, whose office was just around the corner and whose ethics exceeded just about anyone at the college. Her response, of course, was on the money: “Why isn’t the college getting her help? Our insurance covers psychological help; they should be helping her, Bob!” she exclaimed with complete empathy. For a few years, I’d run into Lianne in the hallway and she would shake her head and repeat, “They should have helped her, Bob.”
Lianne was in her mid-thirties at the time, one child and one on the way. We talked for some time about those choices, about working instead of going to school, about discovering life. We talked about my persistent uneasiness when standing still, about her dedication to her students and her love for teaching. “I just wish these students would really understand how necessary it is to really live life and not just follow someone else’s path!” she would say firmly. I’ll never forget going down the hall to her office after my Presentation of the Three Choices, to tell her what happened. It disturbed her on so many levels. A few years later Lianne died of cancer. She was so young.
When she died I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing here?” Teaching is an occupation where you can tell other people how to do things you don’t actually do yourself. Most writing instructors don’t actually write. This isn’t to say that to teach psychology teachers should be fucked up (though the ones I have known for three decades certainly have had issues). Sure theorists are necessary to measure differences and calculate shifts in perspective. But I’m one who believes in understanding the swamp by walking through it. Because it is a swamp, all of it. Throw a torn magazine in the air as often as you’d like, but the pieces will never fall back into place. In the real world, “C” is average and most of us are just that. And sometimes someone really is out to get us, nudging our psyche to the margins, forcing us to duck into the hedges. Sanity sometimes hides in the fog. We look for the obvious outcasts somewhere on the playing field when the insane might be sitting next to us in the box seats.
A few days after seeing the president but before I made the Presentation of the Three Choices, I was in a faculty meeting when the drugs finally kicked in. Unfortunately, I wasn’t taking them. But the hyperactive freak throwing his glasses across the room in disagreement over some freshman composition concern calmed down and kept quiet. Thank God. Still, it woke me up. I sat staring at the wall listening in cartoon fashion to my colleagues. Their voices came out as one long whir like the nonsensical sound of Peanuts teachers. My shirt felt tight about my neck like I couldn’t breathe and I thought of a Whitman poem, “When I heard the Learned Astronomer,” wherein the student gets sick and dizzy listening to someone talk endlessly about astronomy and doesn’t feel fine until he walks out and looks up in “perfect silence at the stars.” My blood pressure rose like Icarus, and I was burning up. I feared I might crash while discussions continued about whether the research paper should be taught in freshman composition one or freshman composition two. No one wants the responsibility of turning a freshman class into a difficult class.
Meanwhile, everyone is watching the clock.
Eventually, I left the department meeting only to be accosted by some student in the hallway wanting to know—not kidding here—if Ernest Hemingway wore green pants when he shot himself. Back at my office I found eight students waiting. None of them wanted advice on papers or suggestions on topics but wished merely to confess to me about how the humidity in their houses ruined their printers and the only person left at home to feed Grandma is a fifteen-year-old sibling who isn’t back from rehab yet. Every time my office turns into this sort of confessional, the room spins, the hallway dissolves, and I can’t breathe. So I slip outside and always waiting there, smoking, are students who never showed up for an earlier class and proceed to tell me about some car problems that didn’t get flushed out until after class was over, though they really hustled, and they deliver all this with a straight face as if I’d never been to college and didn’t blow off classes, or as if a twelve-year-old couldn’t see through their backwards, pathetic excuses.
So I keep walking, passing most with my head down, taking the long way around to my mailbox since a three minute walk can take fifteen if it’s between classes and I am spotted by students with reasons to see me other than collegiate. I’m not fast enough though and my choices are the student who wants to show me his poetry even though I told him I don’t know anything about writing poetry or the faculty member who wants to discuss textbook choices for the next semester and maybe we could do so at his house with a small party and invite all the faculty for a pot luck textbook brain session. If I hesitate too long I’ll never get to my car fast enough to get a drink before my next class, so I duck into the hedges and wait, pulling my baseball cap down over my eyes, hoping no one notices even though I know–I mean I know– I’m being followed.
(Breathe in. Breathe out. Move on)
Back at my office, I still had to make the Presentation of the Three Choices, so I knocked on her door. She had been kneeling, praying, and stood awkwardly, with my assistance and apologies. She seemed totally lucid, completely at ease, and I didn’t know if that was good or bad. She settled down and asked, “Am I going to be fired, Bob?” I told her the choices, and, unfortunately, with some tears, she asked what I thought she should do. I gave her the picture of the village chief, the one of him searching for a place to put his prayer mat, and she nodded. Part of me wanted to tell her to fight–to get a lawyer and battle this out, but I couldn’t figure out why. So I said, “You’re hiding in hedges. You’re yelling at colleagues across the library.”
“I’ll do what Allah wants me to do, Bob. But I’m not crazy.” She paused and looked at the cinderblock wall. “What would you do?” she asked.
Now whenever anyone asks me that, I always think of a student, Kevin, who I suggested sell his roofing equipment at the company he started but hated and travel. Kevin, who six months later sent me a postcard from Sydney, Australia. Back then when someone asked “What would you do?” I thought of my son because whenever someone asked a stupid or difficult to answer question, I tried to imagine how I would want the teacher to respond if it were him. I found patience and restraint this way, and just a little bit of balance, though, true–not always. Sometimes I cross the line, toss my notes into the air wondering if they’ll all come down in one piece
I thought of Kevin recently and about his postcard and realized he never came back. And this professor with her prayer mat and concrete understanding of American literature never came back either, and me too, who took over her office some years later, not long before I also left and never returned; mostly because we never do go back after we leave a place, allowing others to decide what had been wrong with us all those years, who we used to be.
One windy day in my final year of teaching at that college, I stood in class and took roll when the door swung wide open, startling students. I stared for a moment and said, “Oh Lianne, come on in,” and everyone laughed.