She’s the kind of girl I know will give me trouble eventually. She’s sitting on the far left side of the room, her legs crossed under her, her shoes on the floor beneath her, bare feet in her lap. I look around at the rest of them, and comfortingly, they’re normal.
It’s the summer semester, and the college has just hired me full time. Most of these kids are high school students, taking the course to avoid a standardized, state-required test. When I look out at them, their faces blend into one face, someone who is 17 or 18, I’m not sure which. They stare up at me like they are fish in a tank, and I’m the bright shiny object just outside. I’m dying for a cigarette or a drink or a big piece of pie.
“Will there be tests?” one young man from the back says. I can’t see his head because there are a number of people in front of him.
“Yes,” I say. “One about three weeks in and then another at the very end.”
“Is there a textbook we have to buy?” says a bright, young girl right up front.
“Yes,” I say, and then I hold mine up to show them.
And then I catch some motion out of the corner of my eye. It’s the girl on the left; she’s in a row all by herself. Still cross-legged, her head has fallen to one side; she’s dead asleep, resting up against the wall.
I sit in the chair in my office and look at the class rosters. There are 50 students in two classes and they all are there, email addresses, social security numbers, the whole ball of wax. I know as much about them now as I’ll ever want to know. I used to think that the students – all of them – were interesting. But, no more. They come to class or they don’t. They write their essays or they don’t. I give a certain number of A’s each semester, a certain number of B’s. It’s all I can do to stay awake in class anymore.
But the girl, the sleeper; I want her name. I think it might be interesting to yell it out the next time she nods off. I could shout it out like I was in a movie or something. Very dramatic. It might make a good YouTube video.
I go through her class list and look at the names. Paula Belmore, Lorna Nelson, Don Aardal, Jon Bland. I wouldn’t know where to begin. She’s in there somewhere, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll go back in that room tomorrow. It’s only been one class so far, but I can’t get her out of my mind.[+]
I eat lunch every day on campus. I say campus, but really, the place is more like a huge shopping mall. The school was built just two years ago, and it still has a very new smell to it. I like it a great deal, and though it’s nothing like any college I’ve ever taught at before, I’ve already decided that it’s the best.
Students mill around in the cafeteria as I eat. I used to worry that students would see me somewhere in public and that I’d be embarrassed by it. When I was married, my wife and I would go late to movies just in case a student was there somewhere, waiting to see us. Now I think all that is foolishness, sheer stupidity. I go places now hoping they’ll see me, daring them to come and try to talk to me.
“Hey,” a voice says behind me. I turn around and it’s a kid sitting there eating a sandwich, smiling. “I’m in your morning class,” he says. “Mr. Majors, right?”
“Yes,” I say and turn back around to my own meal. I hear movement from behind and then there he is again, this time sitting down, putting his tray right next to mine on the table.
“So, are you like a part-time teacher, or what?”
“Full-time,” I say. “Faculty.”
“Yeah, cool. Usually I get those jerk-off part timers. They don’t know as much as me.”
“I used to teach part-time here,” I say.
“Cool,” the kid says.
After a moment passes, I get up, take my tray with me, and sit at another table, finishing my plate. The kid looks over at me and I give him this big grin. He’ll have to drop before the deadline; there’s no way he’s passing my class now.[+]
I go to school early the next morning. My car is one of only three in the faculty lot. I’ve got no reason to be here; yet, I just haven’t been sleeping well in the dingy terrible apartment where I live now. The college at least is always cool and lighted. I can see what food has been left behind in the faculty fridge. There are sometimes entire chicken dinners with side dishes. I never eat it all. I always leave something. What are they going to do? Fire me? I’d pay them money to do it.
It used to be fun to come here. The classes were fun, the students easy to get along with. I was just part time, and that meant no committees, no meetings. All I had to do was teach a couple of classes and pick up the paycheck at the end of every month. It was work and it was something I was relatively good at. Sometimes I wondered if maybe I should get out, go back to school for a doctorate, maybe just open a fast food franchise or something, but, but mostly I just taught and never thought about anything else. And then, after my wife left, there was no question.
Now with tenure just two years away I go to all the meetings. Smile at the people I hate, talk politics with silverbacks in the faculty lounge, and dream about killing the woman who has an office across from me. I didn’t think being full-time would be a problem. In fact when they asked me about it in my interview, I told them I was looking forward to working on committees, doing my part. I was lying of course. I’d rather eat glass than go to another meeting. The entire college is now just one big well-lit dungeon.[+]
I’m talking about thesis statements and the students are looking at me like I have two heads. After a while, I give them an assignment right out of the book to do and I sit down there in my chair and look out at them. They’re stupid, I think to myself. Thesis statements. I say it almost out loud, moving my lips. They should know all this already.
I look over there, I know I can’t help it, and the girl is there, looking in her text. She doesn’t have a notebook, or a pen or anything to write on. Some of the other students are reading their neighbors’ books, and others are just sitting there, unsure of what to do. Ask me for one? Ask if they can look at someone else’s? Maybe they’ll just do the exercise later, after they go and buy a book. They’re waiting, some of them, for more information. I don’t want to give them anything.
When most of the class is done with the assignment, I tell them to turn it in, putting their name and class number on the paper. About half of them do it, and the other half seem confused. I wave my hand out over them once, no reason, beckoning, perhaps, for them to understand what’s in my head.
“Pass them up,” I say, and keep motioning.[+]
That night I don’t sleep even five minutes. At three a.m. I just get up, shower, dress, and drive around town. I need some sort of reason not to just go pack a suitcase and go to Las Vegas or something. I drive a little and think about the day my wife left.
We had a house, a real nice one. It was outside of the city on three sweet acres. I came home and there was a U-Haul out front. You probably think I’m making this up.
I make a pass in my car through the college parking lot and the place is quiet and empty. I head the car up the feeder to the highway and roll past some fast food joints, 24-hour places. At a fish place, a restaurant with a gigantic whale for a sign, I get stopped at a red light. I mindlessly sing along to some song on the radio and wonder what’s next for me. As I wait I stare in the restaurant, watch some kid cleaning tables. He picks up a whole tray of paper plates and styrofoam cups and sweeps them with his arm into a giant yellow pail.
And past him, right in my line of vision, that’s where I see her. That’s where I get my answer. I can see her standing there behind the cash register of the all night fish place, smiling, beautiful. It’s the sleeper.[+]
A few days later, she comes to class late. I’m talking about paragraph development and doing a pretty good job. I have diagrams on the board showing structure and the diagrams are ones of my own design, not out of the book. I talk for about 15 minutes, talking then drawing, showing, pointing. Some of the students nod their heads as I go, and that enables me to keep moving.
At times like this, I know that my voice gets a little too high, so I’m concentrating. I speak quickly, but low, soft, actually. It’s a trick I’ve learned from somewhere. If you speak quietly, they have to listen more attentively.
I’m erasing one side of the board because I need more room. Students are shuffling papers, everyone trying to write down what was there before I erased it. I start a new diagram, the most complex of all. It has horizontal and vertical lines. I fill in the blanks with numbers and letters, showing how the path of rhetoric moves from writer to reader. It’s a difficult concept at best, something I never knew as a graduate student. I fill one whole side of the board with it, talking throughout, softly still, modulating my voice to keep it baritone.
When I turn finally, I see them, helpless. Every single one of them lost. Their faces contort in differing amounts of confusion, the little girl in front still smiling, but bemused, some in the middle actually scratching their heads, still writing something down in their notebooks, and two boys in the back, already gone, looking out the small bank of windows on the wall of the classroom. I realize my forehead is sweating. I hate that. Don’t show them any weakness, not even to humidity.
“That’s all for today,” I say. “This will all,” I say, pointing in the general direction of the board behind me, “This will all be on the final.”
It is then that I first look over at the sleeper. She looks different here in my own classroom. Her hair isn’t tied back like it was at the fish place, here, it’s loose, and long, and beautiful. She is the only one in the class who’s got it. She’s looking straight at me, not writing, not confused. She’s almost laughing. Slowly, she brings both hands off the desk and begins clapping them together, so lightly as not to be heard.[+]
She’s standing in the doorway looking at me. I’ve got my feet up on the desk and I’m trying to catch a few winks.
“I’m Penny,” she says. “From your 8 o’clock class?”
She sits down in the chair opposite me. She’s carrying her textbook in one hand and a large potted plant in the other.
“What do you need?” I say.
“You said we could come in and look at our first essays,” she says.
I look at her a second and then reach for a blue folder on the desk. When I find it, I open it flat and begin flipping papers over looking for her name. “Penny?” I say. “Penny Hood?”
I find it and pull it out. It has a large, red ‘B’ written on it and the typical comments about structure and development. Maybe they’re good comments, but now I don’t even remember writing them.
“Here,” I say. “If you have any questions just ask away.”
She takes the paper from me, reads some of the comments, and then puts the paper back down. “Well, how’s the class going?” she says, toothy smile.
“What? Class? Your class?” I say.
“Yeah, are we pretty normal or what?”
“Yeah, I suppose. Normal. About as normal as usual. Do you have a question about your grade?”
“Not really,” she says. “I just thought I’d ask.”
She looks at me a bit longer and I don’t have any idea what I should say next. I wonder if maybe she saw me somehow that morning at the restaurant. Maybe she knew I couldn’t sleep either at night, and that’s what made us alike. If maybe she had been staring out that restaurant window at the same time I was staring in. What would she have thought to have seen me there at 3:30 in the morning, dress shirt, tie, singing to some song on the radio, looking at her? Just as I begin feeling sweat form on my forehead she reaches to the ground, picks up the plant, and sets it right on the desk, on top of her essay. She gets up and waves, backs out the door.