Monday, May 30, 2005

War bride: Sedated

I was saving this one for the book, but it's Memorial Day. So this is for "Leslee" (not her real name):

I had pegged her as a probable Ashley. She was a blond beauty with a killer bod and a Vuitton totebag. She had enrolled late for the advanced writing class. I don’t like late adds but she pleaded her case with such desperation I signed her in as last-minute enrollee. What’s one more Ashley on a roster that includes no fewer than eight in one section and six in the other?

By the second week of class I was starting to worry about this one. She gazed blankly at a spot on the wall just above my head when I was talking. If I called on her, it was like she had been awakened suddenly from a deep sleep. “I’m sorry,” she said in a groggy whisper. “What was the question?”

She stayed after class one day. Her name was Leslee. She was near tears as she helped me stack up turned-in assignments and ferry them across the hall to my office.

“I-I-I just want to apologize,” she said. “I’m usually not like this….” Her voice trailed into a sad little sob. I glanced outside the open door to see that the hall was empty of eavesdroppers.

“What is it? Can you talk about it?” I said, handing her one of the brown paper Starbucks napkins that accumulated in the top drawer of my desk. She plopped into one of the rickety chairs and blew her nose.

Then she started talking. Crying and talking and blowing her nose. Leslee was no Ashley. She’s 20 and married to a Marine. They were boyfriend-girlfriend since eighth grade back in the small town in southern Oklahoma where they both grew up. When Leslee headed to college, the boyfriend went into the service. They had planned to be married when she graduated.

Then American forces invaded Iraq.

“I found out in February that he would be sent over there in March,” Leslee told me. “We had, like, just a couple of days together on his last leave home. So one day he says, `Come on, Les, let’s get married tomorrow. Otherwise, who knows when?’ And I was like, OK, but how? So my mom – you should meet my mom, she’s so amazing – plans the entire thing in one day. Less that one day really! She called our minister, booked the church, made reservations at a restaurant for the reception, got the cake ordered. Everything! I got a wedding dress and my sisters got bridesmaids’ dresses. I couldn’t believe it, but we pulled the whole thing together. The next afternoon I got married in my church in front of 150 people. And five days later he got shipped out to Iraq.”

“So you haven’t seen him in…”

“Since last spring,” said Leslee. Eight months.

She gets email from him nearly every day. But he is closer to the bad stuff all the time. Marines in his unit have been killed or wounded. If there were such a thing as front lines in this war, he’d be close to them.

“I can’t even stand to watch any of it on TV,” Leslee said. “It gets me too upset. I’m on tranquilizers for the stress. That’s why I’m so….”


“Yeah. I’m usually not like that. I just kinda zone out.”

“When’s he supposed to come home?”

“Don’t know. They keep changing the orders. First they said October, now he says maybe next May.”

Married five days, Leslee is a war bride among a student population that is only barely aware that there’s a war going on. Most of them couldn’t find Iraq on a map. Except for Leslee, I am not aware of a single other student in my classes directly affected by the war at all. It’s a TV show to them, something on CNN for a few seconds at the top of the hour, a body count rattled off just before the college football standings.

“How do you stand it?” I asked.

“Medicine. My mom. One day at a time. I play the wedding video a lot. And I got a puppy. Her name is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Leslee let out a little strangled giggle at this.

“You should write about all of it. Write about that crazy wedding day. Write about how you are now, about the waiting. How it feels.”

“Yeah,” said Leslee, gathering her up books and totebag and tossing the damp brown napkin in the trashcan, “maybe I will.”

Sunday, May 29, 2005

From a reader/student

What is the mating call of an Ashley?

"I'm so drunk!"

What is the mating call of a non-Ashley?


Today in the Houston Chronicle

More ink. Nice story overall. But contrary to what's printed, I finished my master's degree. Night classes for three long years. Almost everything I earned as an adjunct I paid back to the school for tuition (no discount or breaks for part-time employees). That's a minor quibble. And gosh, did the reporter have to print my age?

As for that line about my position being replaced by a full-time hire... why didn't they just hire me? That's what I was led to believe year after year. "Next year... we're working on it." I hear that my course numbers have been assigned to one of the older lecturers who is a full-time employee. And her course numbers -- same writing course, mind you -- have been shifted onto another adjunct lecturer. It's an academic shell game.

Hey, I'm getting great emails from new readers in Houston and Austin today. Keep 'em coming! I'm on deadline for my Dallas Observer column (I filed a review for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last night), but all diversions are welcome.

Signed with a top agent last week. It's all good.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Behind the green door

Not long before the end of the spring semester, before I was ritually shunned by my co-workers, I made a surprising discovery. It was noontime and I was in my office doing paperwork (which usually means reading on the Internet while waiting for the next class to start). A few of the other profs shambled by. “Wanna eat with us?” Sure, why not, I thought. It was only the second or third time in four years that I’d been asked to join a lunch outing.

But instead of shuffling across the street to the cheap Mexican place or to the even cheaper sandwich shop, the group headed downstairs to the first floor of our building, home of the main student cafeteria. I’d never eaten down there – the smells that wafted up to our hallway carried a heavy topnote of old grease, with just a hint to the nostrils of what our grandparents used to call “potted meat.”

The food is served buffet style – “pitch till ya win,” my mom would say – and costs about six bucks. On this day I made a salad at the salad bar and grabbed a bowl of vegetarian chili. I’m sorry, but no matter where you go, school food always looks like school food. There’s that ubiquitous soupy macaroni salad, always a few sweaty saucers holding up thick cubes of green Jell-O.

With my tray, I followed the other profs out a door at the back of the serving lines. They walked past several tables of students and then we came to a green swinging door I’d never seen before. There was a tiny plastic sign on it that said “Faculty.”

On the other side? It was like going through Alice’s looking glass. Bathed in light streaming in from tall windows was a cozy little dining area reserved just for professors. There were crisp white cloths on the tables. Icy pitchers of tea and a silver coffee service sat on a long table to one side. Another table held plates heaped with fresh baked goods, including warm corn muffins, huge sugar cookies, an entire apple pie and a chocolate layer cake. I got a flash of that scene in A Beautiful Mind where the Princetonians in the faculty club place their fountain pens in front of Russell Crowe as a sign of respect. Even here, without the wood paneling or liveried waiters, there was a distinctly clubby feel.

More importantly, there was this smorgasbord of free treats! Just a staircase away from my office! Why hadn’t I been told of this culinary Shangri-la? What other secrets were they keeping from me? Was there another door leading to a lavish spa? Did they have happy hour down here? I imagined other doors opening onto a dimly lit casino or smoky opium den populated by rheumy-eyed Ph.D.’s admitted with a password or secret handshake.

No one had ever told me about the faculty lunchroom. So on this day, spooning up the veggie chili, I felt like I’d been invited to visit a club to which I was not allowed to be a full member. More or less the position of every adjunct, come to think of it.

I had a class to teach, so I had to eat fast and go back upstairs. But on the way out, I stuck two cookies in my purse.

They just noticed?

Saw this tonight on ABC News. It's like that scene in Casablanca where the police captain is suddenly shocked! shocked! to hear that there is gambling going on in Rick's club.

The "expert" in the story said he was "waiting for the tipping point, like Enron with business ethics, where there would be a sea change in attitudes towards cheating."

The story continues:

"An ABCNEWS poll found hopeful signs — but worrying ones as well.

"In a random sample of high school students aged 15 to 17, 36 percent admitted to having cheated themselves — fewer than in Josephson's survey.

"But seven in 10 kids also say they have friends who cheat, and only one-third of students have ever had a serious talk with their parents about cheating.

"We need to promote integrity. We need to get students to understand why integrity is important — as opposed to policing dishonesty and then punishing that dishonesty. Because they can beat the system."

The report also noted that 74 percent of college students in the survey admitted to cheating on papers or exams.

I often wonder how many I didn't catch.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Re-post: Wax on, wax off

Originally posted January 11, 2005:

Just me and the undocumented-worker/floor-waxers in the building tonight. As low prof in the lineup, I have limited access to the copy machine -- the one and only copier for about 50 instructors. Tomorrow is the first day of class, so I scurry up to the office late to make the necessary first-day copies of things. Syllabi. Reading lists. Assignment schedules. Nobody around but the cleaning crew, waxing the pale beige linoleum hallways where no one has set so much as a heelmark in the last six weeks.

The first department meeting of the term, in review. We get a big lecture on over-use of the copy machine. Last semester our department spent $10K on photocopies. Now we're supposed to create websites and tell the students to go there online to access our handouts and quizzes and other materials. Since I teach a writing class, where they have to put pen on paper in class for all that stuff, I will have to sneak copies when I can. We use individual code numbers that track who is making copies. One of my colleagues uses a code number of a professor in another department to disguise the number of copies she makes for her outside research and freelance work.

Warning from our department chair to attend next week's full faculty meeting for the school of the arts. "Attendance will be noted," we are told. But there are supposed to be snacks provided. Whoop whoop. Vanilla wafers and Delaware punch. Oh, and the provost is retiring. "Anyone know someone who wants to be a provost?" we are asked. I have no idea what a provost does.

Also at the meeting, which takes more than two hours, is the usual molar-grinding hooha about students who aren't quite cutting it grade-wise but want to be accepted as majors. The decisions there often depend on how much money the student's parents have and whether they are big contributors to the university or whether they might soon contribute something to the endowment of our division. The deeper the pockets, the better chance that some young dunderhead's D might magically change to a C-plus.

We also go around the table to decide what courses we'll teach and what days we want to teach on for both summer terms and for Fall 2005. Some of the profs teach in a la-ti-frickin’-da program abroad in the summers, but with the Euro stomping the dollar (and the university not raising any salaries to offset that), they're less excited about it than they used to be. Teaching on campus during summer terms means competing with the screams and yells of high school cheerleading camps that fill the grounds with ponytailed rah-rahs for weeks on end. Grumblings many.

Under "old business," I bring up the rampant plagiarism I have uncovered over the past two semesters. Oddly, the response is less angry at students and more suspicious of me than I might have anticipated. They aren't sure how I was able to catch the bums cutting and pasting from the 'net. I have to explain the simple Google process -- no special academic cheat-finding program needed. "More paperwork," somebody mumbles.

Under "new business," I make a suggestion for something I think would be good for the graduating seniors: A "business etiquette workshop" that would clue them in on how to dress and behave and sell themselves on job interviews. It would include a trip to a white-tablecloth restaurant for a practice run on the interview dinner (from what I've observed, even the kids brought up in wealth and privilege have the table manners of hungry macaques). I have floated the idea with a few students and they think it's swell. I would plan it, organize it and lead the workshop -- for free. What's not to like? The immediate response from one of the tenure-trackers at the meeting is an eye roll and a shrug. "That's total fluff,'' she says, dismissing me with a flip of her hand. "We should never do anything like that! We'd be a joke to everyone in the business school!"

Fuck me for trying.

An aside (with love from my lungs)

More stories to come, but I thought I'd offer an update on what's happening away from the blogscreen. Having read hundreds of supportive, wonderful emails from all over the country -- including a sudden avalanche of messages from the fine students and profs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- I feel like Hilary Swank on Oscar night. I'm just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream....

OK, I didn't grow up in manufactured housing, but I do come from modest circumstances and have always lived about two paychecks away from a Frigidaire box wedged under an overpass. So all of this media attention (watch for a story in the Houston Chronicle this week) and the calls from literary agents and big publishing houses have me feeling flattered and flummoxed. It's new territory, but I think I have found my advocate in the world of big-time book writing. He's part barracuda, part guru. Just what I need in an agent.

Meanwhile, I'm battling the worst bronchial asthma attack ever. My body is throwing off the past and breathing in a new identity -- or so my homeopath/brother would say. When I started wheezing like Darth Vader the other morning, I headed for the clinic. "Are you still teaching?" the new lady doctor asked, staring at my chart.

"Not anymore," I said.

"What're you doing this summer?" she said, still not looking up.

"Just writing. Probably a book."

"Did you read that story in the paper about the professor who was fired for writing stuff?" she asked.

"That's me," I said.

Now she looked right at me. "No! Really! I read that story and laughed out loud. I called my daughter at [Ivy League University] and read it to her. She said it sounds just like her school."

There you go.

Since I was newly unemployed, nice lady doctor gave me handfuls of pharmaceutical samples to clear up my nasal passages and open my clogged lungs.

The meds, and the constant stream of positive messages from strangers who now feel like friends, have worked their magic.

I'm breathing a lot easier today.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Not-Nice Girl

A former professor here sends this:

I have warm memories of the students on that campus and yes, of my liberal colleagues. Many students were OPEN to many new ideas... and people. It is just that their families had not seen the need to expose them to anything outside the mainstream (as they narrowly defined it).

But those were the pre-W days and we were not afraid then to call ourselves liberal. There were many strong alternative voices on campus, including loud ones from the performing arts folks.

But having been there, I understand the MAKING OF W- and the culture of red-state-ism that is naturalizing a xenophobic nationalism.

The culture of your city is an interesting blend of hedonism and religion in a convenient mix. I recently heard a flamboyant evangelist on TV say "the poor will always be among us" -- read what you will into the implication of that. It's as if we can live extravagantly and flaunt our love of the Lord at the same time.

I think your W-loving campus reflects this attitude. I got tenure there, but only after some foot dragging by the administration. Someone told me that when they hired me, they thought I was a "nice girl" and I seemed less "nice" as time wore on.

The Not-Nice Prof now teaches at a bigger university in another state. Thanks for the very nice letter.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Seeing red in a red state

The neo-cons love to whine about how liberal college educators are. Here's a shocking admission from this screaming, beaming Kerry voter: They're right.

In my experience, college faculty, even on this W-lovin' campus, lean way left politically even as each new class of students marches in well-shod lockstep with their rich parents' rightwing views. It's like this: Like journalism, academia draws more of your bleeding heart liberati than other professions such as, say, real estate development and Wall Street. It attracts souls who are in it for the passion, not the cashin'. And there are plenty of teachers still in tenured positions who came into the academy during the hippie-yippy days of the Viet Nam War and Watergate because they were drawn as students to campus activism and then stayed because it was a safe place to express and explore the counterculture. The job security's nice, too, once you've made it over the tenure hurdle.

Look, this used to be a "liberal arts" college. But the L-word long ago was excised from the brochures and the catalog, replaced with the more exclusive sounding "private university." Like "private club," that carries a certain cachet that makes the hoity-toits think of it as an enclave where their young 'uns won't be confronted with too many views counter to their own on topics such as evolution, abortion rights, gay rights and affirmative action. It's a campus with mostly white students and mostly white faculty. Don't think that doesn't make a difference to some.

Little do they know that among the faculty hoi polloi are a great many who vote Democrat (or even for Nader, when he's running), observe Earth Day, join the ACLU and AAUP, applaud Molly Ivins' newspaper columns, Michael Moore's films and Al Franken's Air America radio. I'd say we also happily attend gay weddings, but I stopped going to any such shindigs after a friend appointed me maid of honor and then delivered the one-size-too-tight polyester orange halter dress I was supposed to wear. Exposing your political beliefs to public scrutiny is one thing -- upper arms are quite another.

At this school they excel at promoting a clean-cut country club image. Here the Ashleys, Courtneys, Megans and Madisons can major in elementary ed or PR, getting by on gut courses and their good looks, but rarely being exposed to philosophies of thought that might upset a Red State family's status quo. "If you're such a liberal, why do you even teach at this school?" asked a portly young Republican enrolled in my writing class last fall. Even in jeans and a T-shirt, the kid always gave the impression he was wearing a three-piece suit.

It's not quite Bob Jones University -- yet -- but since W took office, it's only become more obvious to those of us paying close attention that the higher-ups would like the mouthier liberals on campus to keep their traps shut. The team colors may be red and blue, but it seems that the red is getting a lot more play on the football uniforms and pompons lately.

This White House administration has lots of ties to the school. The president honored the First Lady with a commemorative walkway with her name on it outside one of the main libraries. And what doesn't say love better than 10 or 12 feet of bronze letters on a sidewalk? What a romantic.

The school is one of several in this state vying to build the presidential library on its campus, although where they'll put it is still a mystery. After the brand new workout facility is completed this year -- yes, they're erecting a sprawling state of the art gym/spa because students didn't like having to fork over thousands to join the floocy-doocy health club a HALF MILE AWAY -- there's barely room to breathe as it is.

Some of the president's closest advisors are alumni. One of them, a frequent comer-and-goer in the White House over the two terms, visited campus not too long ago for a sold-out speaking engagement. She was invited to visit some classes, too, and the Secret Service swooped in days before to survey and secure the buildings she'd be passing through. At the entrance of ours, just beyond where the First Amendment is chiseled in stone on the outside wall, is a set of glass double doors. Between the first and second doors you'll find racks of free reading material, including the alternative weekly I write for, plus the gay weekly, the "pennysaver" and a big stack of something called "Nu Image," a slick freebie advertising local plastic surgeons. There's also a bulletin board where anyone can tack up "books for sale" signs or "roommate wanted" fliers.

The night before the VIP's visit, workers were busy in that doorway for hours. By morning, all of the freebie papers and the bulletin board had been obscured from view by two enormous racks of long velvet draperies. God forbid, the pol should walk past something with the word "gay" or "alternative" on it.

A few steps inside the building, she would see a friendlier sight. On enormous square canvas boards running the full length of the main hallway are photographic tributes to W and his pals behind plexiglas covers. There he is shaking hands with this student and that one. There he is making a speech at the RNC, where some of our students earned college credit hours working as runners and gofers. Photo after happy photo arranged in pleasing patterns.

As Mr. Roark used to say in the opening of Fantasy Island, "Smiles, everyone! Smiles!"

(they zarched the term "liberal arts" out of the school's description years ago)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Pregnant pause

This is from a former student who gives permission to share her story. It's wonderful as fan mail, but I post it here as an example of the type of student who has to overcome huge obstacles to get an education:

I took your class Spring of '04. I was pregnant and actually had my baby a couple of weeks before the semester was over. Anyway I just want you to know that I hold you in the highest regard (even more so after I found out about your alter ego). You laid it all out on the table which so many (myself especially) are too scared to do. I am an outsider and feel it everyday I walk through campus. I listen to girls discussing their party plans for the weekend while I decide if I should attempt to go to the mall with my son.

During your class, I came out of my shell. You encouraged us to reveal our thoughts and I actually did! I told the class my worries about labor and the enjoyment of my breasts leaking at any moment! After your class, I started writing about my experiences with my son. I have developed my writing ability and it is truly because of you. Thank you, Thank you.

Also I wish I could have met the 25-year-old senior who felt like an outsider. It would have been nice to have talked to another student who understands what it is like to have your books chewed on by a 2-foot monster. Take care and please do not stop writing. If you do write a book, I want a signed copy.

P.S. Even though she had her baby a few weeks before the end of the semester and couldn't return to class, this young woman turned in all of her final assignments EARLY. AND she did more than was required. She made an A. That was the least I could do.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Elevator surfing

Through the years, I've heard about students who died "elevator surfing" in a certain campus dorm. It's always a boy who gets tanked to the gills on some verboten substance and decides it's a freakin' great idea, dude, to climb on top of the elevator car and ride it up and down. Till...

Squish. 911. EMTs. "Clear!" DOA.

And for the rest of the week, or until they take down the crime scene tape, dorm residents are forced to take the stairs.

Lethal elevator accidents are among the memories of his years on this campus sent by a former student from my earlier teaching gig here in the early 1990s. Here's what else he recalls:

After one of the elevator surfing fatalities, the school tried unsuccessfully to reach the victim's parents. They tried for two weeks. (This was in the days before email and cell phones.) Parents were traveling in Europe. We were convinced the dead student's restless ghost haunted the elevator shaft thereafter, his plaintive screams for help echoing through the building.

Someone finding a dead dog in the fountain on the quad.

Overhearing this: "I have a lot of football players in my algebra class. They're never in class but always get A's!"

The never-identified flasher who exposed himself to girls from the window of the Women's Center.

Three students being arrested by campus security while breaking into a car. When the officer asked what they were doing, one replied, "Stealing."

A student getting permission to direct a university-produced short film by agreeing to have his genitalia photographed by a department head for a pictorial collection of penises.

A sort of bright young man with a thick shock of hair applying to the university (and no others) from his hometown in the boonies of East Texas. Instead of writing the usual "how great I am" essay on the application, he wrote about why no one had ever been able to tell him what Grimace from the McDonald's characters was. The admission brass -- either in their wisdom or because they were thrilled to see someone take a fresh approach -- accepted him and awarded him a transfer scholarship. That student's hair is now gone and he lives a relatively quiet life in the suburbs.

He's too modest. What he doesn't tell you is that he's a successful producer for a booming cable channel. He's also done voiceovers and made a documentary film. And he's one of the most brilliant students I ever taught. Thanks, kiddo, for the great memories!

A new look for the PP

We all need a new look for summer. And the Phantom Prof decided to take a great designer up on his offer of a re-do for this site. Thank you, Eddo Renz of and Blogpatrol, for the spiffy new page. I love the minimalism. And the Google ads are visible now.

Lots of stories to share. The emails continue to pour in offering new tales of college life hither and yon.

I was up most of the night prepping a PP package for a literary agent to look over. Love what he said: "Revenge is a dish best served cold -- and with a big book advance."

Back in a bit with great stuff for you to read.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

One from the mailbag

This one is too good to hold. It's from a colleague on the same campus. As with my tales, certain details have been changed to protect the offender:

"From the first page, I could tell it wasn't student work. You can always tell. The intro is too slick, the punctuation is too perfect. So I ran a couple of sentences through Google and up pops the source -- a published review of (the same literary work).

"I printed out the original, highlighted the sections that were repeated verbatim in my student's paper and I called the student in to explain why the paper was getting an F.

"When I handed over the evidence -- the paper and the original source, highlighted to show the word-for-word similarities -- (the student) looked confused. You plagiarized, I told (the student).

"`But I read the book!' the student insisted. `I - I - I....'

"And then came the confession. `I asked my dad to help me because he said he'd read the book, too.'

"It took me a second or two to realize what this student was telling me. Then I got it -- dad had plagiarized the paper. (The student) thought Dad was helping with homework -- he thought he was helping -- and instead he did the very thing we warn students never to do."

My colleague then did something beyond generous. "Your father earned the F," the student was told. "Now go write your own paper and I'll grade yours."

And we wonder why students try such shortcuts. In academic terms it's called "modeled behavior." And it has nothing to do with skinny chicks on a runway in Milan.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Andrea has a nervous breakdown

Andrea could write. Oh, boy howdy, could this girl write. Most serious, dedicated writers type away for a decade before finding their voice. Andrea (pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable) didn't just have a voice on the page, she could write arias. She wrote like Joni Mitchell sings -- exquisitely, beautifully, but always a half-note shy of real joy. Andrea wrote in a minor key.

Andrea had problems. By the time she got to my class one spring term a few years back, she'd had to take a semester off to "rest." She wrote about it in a style that reminded me of Holden Caulfield's rants in The Catcher in the Rye. Pure stream of consciousness, but without clutter. Focused. Funny. Sad. Bitter.

"Do you want to talk, hon?" said my mom, hovering over the sofa where I lived.

"Talk? What is talk? I can't remember how to make words with my lips," I told her telepathically. "Just let me sleep, people! Sleeeeeeeeeep!"

What I really said was "Leave me the fuck alone."

She wrote and wrote. Page after page, she explored her descent into depression over a six-month period. Thoughts of suicide. Plans for it. Then, at last, a therapist who understood and listened. Trying Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Effexor, Celexa. A slow, steady rise from the sofa. But still, a struggle to stay up.

At this school, it seems like every other kid is on multiple medications. I've heard them compare their dosages for drugs treating ADD and ADHD, depression, eating disorders, ulcers, migraines. They aren't shy about sharing the medical info. They'll tell each other, tell me. They have to hide their Ritalin and Adderall, they complain, because people in the dorm steal the drugs and use them for study helpers or just recreation. "I took too much Ritalin," says one boy, popping his head in the door to tell me why he won't be in class. "I forgot to take my Ritalin," says another. "I feel like shit today."

This is the over-prescribed generation. They juggle more pills than some senior citizens.

Andrea finally found the right drug that kept her off the couch. But it made her gain weight, which made her depressed. She obsessed about her weight. They all obsess about their weight.

I gave Andrea A's on her stories and heaped on the encouraging words. She was also a good painter and she brought photos of pictures she'd painted in high school art classes. Like her words, she chose her colors in a minor key.

The next semester, I saw Andrea less frequently. I asked around and other profs said she was missing a lot of classes. She dropped out again. I ran into her at Starbucks one morning and she seemed hyper -- the way people with bipolar problems are when they're at the apex of a manic high. I've seen it before. It causes a creative surge.

"I'm writing a ton," said Andrea breathlessly. "And I just got into photography I got this incredible digital camera and I'm learning Photoshop do you know about Photoshop you can make pictures that look like paintings I can't wait to take pictures of my paintings and then repaint them in Photoshop I'm coming back to school next semester I have to finish because my parents are all over me about being a sixth-year senior and if I'm not going to school I have to get a job so are you teaching anything I can take I really liked your class...."

She was a broken but very pretty Chatty Cathy doll.

Andrea never did return to campus, as far as I know. I was shopping one day and saw her behind the Lancome counter in a department store, smiling blankly at a customer in a Burberry headband badgering her about lipglosses. She didn't see me. And I couldn't think what I'd say to her. So I turned around and disappeared back into the mall.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Read on, Macduff!

The feedback from the story about yours truly is overwhelmingly positive. Thank you all for the support, the thoughtful comments and even the criticism. It took some persuading by a good reporter/editor to get me to out myself in a national publication, but the results were better than I ever could have hoped. The story is skillfully written, fair, thorough and provocative. An A-plus.

Over the past 24 hours I have read and answered long email letters from students and professors at Purdue University, from a young writer in Germany, from a kindred spirit at my old alma mater in San Antonio and from many other teachers, readers, parents and students coast to coast. The encouragement keeps me going.

Even "Hot Pockets" got in touch, the first and only of my old academic colleagues who's done so. (Not counting my fellow adjuncts, who've been aces all the way.)

My favorite bit of feedback came from the student who accused me of "discrimination" against the wealthy. She didn't appreciate my attitude toward thin, beautiful young Ashleys. This writer equated it with racism.

Come to think of it, I guess the rich have been unfairly segregated by society. All their lives they've been forced to ride at the front of the bus. They live in gated communities designed to restrict their freedom of movement. Their clothes are tagged with identifying logos -- little Polo players and crocodiles -- that tell the rest of us who and what they are. Their children attend separate schools (and wear uniforms!). Where is Amnesty International? Why isn't the UN working to liberate these rich people and let them mix freely with the rest of us?

The rich may be an oppressed minority, but given the current White House administration's compassion for the over-privileged, I'm sure there's someone in Washington willing to take up their cause. Maybe they could organize a Million Billionaire March that begins at the Dallas Country Club and ends in the parking lot at Neiman Marcus.

More later. I'll post some of the comments shortly. And there are lots of new stories to come. Next up: "Andrea has a nervous breakdown."

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Hot Pockets

He's the youngest prof in the building. The handsomest, too. Tall, lean. Curly hair, dimpled smile. He wears cargo pants a lot, the kind with scads of pouches and pockets hanging off his thin hips. Very sexy in a carefully casual, not-trying-too-hard way. His pastel Polo shirts have the collars "popped" up high just the way the students wear them. Coo-uhl.

Cute male professors are in scant supply at this place. The men at this campus tend to be middle-aged (or older), rumpled, bald or getting that way, unfit and uncaring about their appearance. The youngish ones are a really squirrelly bunch. They prefer khaki Dockers -- a fashion faux pas no student would commit -- and every nerd's fave accessory, the pocket protector. The older ones, subscribing to that age-old wardrobe statement of college professors everywhere, scuff around, fall, winter and spring, in well-worn corduroys and saggy sweaters. They hide their weak chins behind scraggly beards. Their bifocals tend to be unfashionably framed and exceptionally smudgy.

Hot Pockets has white teeth and expressive eyes. The girls are wild about him and every semester I've heard of this Ashley or that Jennifer having a big crush on the guy. Poor things. They think they have a chance.

Bless his heart, Hot Pockets ain't a playa. He's a nice guy. He's married to a gorgeous woman. He dotes on his kids, coaching their teams and spending his weekends with them instead of lurking around the campus like other profs.

But the girls keep trying. They dress up for his classes (where young women make up 98 percent of the roster for Hot Pockets' courses) and bat their velvety eyelashes at him. They swarm around the door to his tiny office.

"He could have a harem if he wanted it," a guy student told me recently. "But he's onto all of the girls who show up at his office in their shortest little skirts. I've watched from the hallway. A girl will go in his office and close the door and it's not two seconds later that (Hot Pockets) has that door wide open again. He's never alone with them."

Good guy. There are profs who will let the ladies flirt their way to some extra credit. I heard about one in another department who's secretly living with an undergrad who's one of his students. Not exactly a Mary Kay Letourneau situation -- most college students are over 18 -- but still not kosher under the general rules of academic behavior.

Hot Pockets just keeps disappointing his admirers. If he didn't, a lot of us would be deeply disappointed in him.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


We're called "adjuncts." Definition: "attached in a subordinate or temporary capacity to a staff."

There are sub-categories. Adjunct professor. Adjunct instructor. Adjunct lecturer. Often "just the adjunct." Titles in academia rival the Pentagon's for subsets and delineations of seniority. Tenured professor, associate professor, assistant professor, visiting professor, professor emeritus. Senior lecturer, lecturer, part-time lecturer. Instructors, graduate assistants, teaching assistants. Fellows, scholars, visiting, research and otherwise.

A decade ago, everyone was much pickier about what they were called. The Ph.D.'s insisted on the "Doctor." Everyone else was "Mr." or "Ms." That's loosened up a lot, probably not for the better. Everyone's a "professor," whether they really are or not. (I wasn't, but would you read a journal called "The Phantom Adjunct"?)

Adjuncts are temps. We get hired by the semester on a four-month contract. There is no job security, there are no benefits. No health insurance, no pension, no 401K. Full-timers get free tuition for themselves and their children. We don't get any break on any kind of tuition (I paid my own way, full freight, for three years of night classes, completing a master's.) We either don't get an office or we share one with other part-timers who need a place to stash stuff between classes.

Adjuncts are limited to two courses per term, four in an academic year. That doesn't count summers. Adjuncts can teach one, two or more courses in summer terms. Kind of like a big king's X that lets adjuncts make a little more money while also keeping the campus classrooms filled while the full-timers and tenured profs are off on sabbatical, on vacation or teaching abroad.

Students rarely know who's what, titlewise. We're all profs to them. We don't know who other adjuncts are either. It's not like we have a special table at the Faculty Club. There are hundreds of adjuncts on every campus. We're cheap labor. We take up very little space. We do the job and vanish into the shadows.

The title thing goes both ways. I remember a time when college teachers addressed students formally by their last names, as in "Do you have a question, Miss Farquhar?" and "That's an excellent observation, Mr. Fenster."

I liked the formality of that. It kept a certain level of decorum in the proceedings and it was way easier to tell one Ashley from another that way. But that was long ago, in the olden days when girls didn't show up for class with their bellybuttons exposed and boys didn't wear caps in class because their mommas had taught them it was rude and disrespectful.

All different now. Except for the way adjuncts typically are treated. We are the professional phantoms of the campus, trudging from our faraway streetside parking spaces (because we can't afford the $250 decal and we're not assigned faculty slots) into buildings where we are as invisible to the administration as the guys in green shirts who plant the periwinkles out on the quad. We get the worst classtimes (8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., often on the same days) and the ugliest classrooms. Nobody gets our name right until the second or third year we're around and even then we're still "just the adjunct."

I sat in on a faculty meeting not long ago where the full-timers came in chattering about one of the longtime prof's big birthday bash the weekend before. "Great party, wasn't it?" said one of them, turning toward me. "I wouldn't know," I answered. "I wasn't invited."

That's when it feels like high school. Being an adjunct is being the perpetual new kid, trying to figure out who to sit next to in the lunchroom. Nobody really makes the effort to include us because it's an investment that doesn't pay off. We have no power to share, no glory to bask in. We're the nobodies they need because nobody wants to do our jobs. And why do we stay? Because we always have that glimmer of hope that a "teaching line," as the admins call it, will open up and we'll get a full-time job with all the bennies.

Some of the classes I taught I inherited because the higher-level profs hated teaching them. I liked the basic writing class I got every term. The students liked it, too. Now I wonder who'll take it over, which hopeful new adjunct they've drafted to sit in that airless, windowless closet of an office and to stand in the classroom that overlooks the dining hall grease traps. I wish him/her luck. But I'd advise them not to worry if they feel left out.

After all, it's only temporary.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Jack of hearts

In the back row, behind the fake 'n' bake gigglers, behind the heavy-lidded soccer jocks, behind the cute freckle-faced kid whose favorite movie was Donnie Darko, sat Jack. At first glance, you'd peg Jack as a skater punk. He wore baggy shorts that hit mid-calf, flip-flops, old T-shirts and a gimme cap pulled so low over his brow you could just see nostrils and a crooked smirk.

The first two weeks of writing class, Jack said nary a word, except a low "Yo" when I called the roll. He slumped in his chair and frequently stared out the window at the pair of green dumpsters behind the student dining hall. Sometimes the cooks and busboys smoke out there between meals. Jack flew low on the classroom radar.

Then he turned in the first assignment. I'd asked them to write a "dramatic moment" from their lives. Didn't have to be earth-shattering. Just something interesting, a moment in time that they remembered and could describe in the active voice with lots of good details. It's really just a trial-run assignment to let me assess their basic skills. I don't expect much and that's what I usually get.

I read lots of sad stories about grandma's funeral, or about the time the cheerleading team was announced and Ashley's name wasn't on it (quel tragique!). One girl wrote about breaking her sandal on a big date. Another wrote about splitting her pants in class. I've read a few DWI arrests, a pregnancy scare, prom night disasters and car wrecks on the highway. When you're 19, not that many dramatic things have happened yet (if you're lucky). Many's the time a student has whined, "But I don't have anything to write about!"

Then came Jack's story. It began the way some good movies do -- right in the middle of a big action scene. It was the state basketball finals and Jack was in the grandstands watching his best friend since grade school play for their high school team. Already, wrote Jack, his friend Pete was a big star. Pete had a basketball scholarship waiting at a Big 10 school. And at the game that day, an ESPN crew hovered on the sidelines for a post-victory interview.

The first half of the game was all Pete's. Dominating from the freethrow line, he was high scorer and the team was ahead by a big margin. Sitting next to Jack in the stands was Pete's mom. "Like a second mom to me," wrote Jack. They thrilled at every play Pete made.

So I'm reading along, figuring this is a sports story about someone else's dramatic moment: Pete's. And I'm marking the misplaced modifiers and putting checkmarks in the margin to indicate misspelled words.

Then I turn the page and the story takes a turn. "Suddenly I see Pete stumble and look toward the bench," wrote Jack. "He takes a couple of steps and then he falls hard to the floor. The arena goes dead quiet."

Here, Jack jump-cuts to the waiting room in the hospital. Jack and Pete's mom have followed the ambulance and are waiting for the doctors to emerge from the ER. Out come two doctors in green scrubs. "I'm sorry," one says to Pete's mom. "It was his heart." Birth defect. Undetected. Sudden death.

Pete's mom can't hear what's being said. "Is it his knee?" she asks the doctor. "Does he need surgery?"

"I'm sorry, ma'am. Your son is dead.''

"She just starts screaming `No, no, no!''' wrote Jack. "She collapses in my arms and keeps saying, `My son! My son!'''

Jump-cut again. Now Jack is in the packed church where Pete's funeral is going on a few days later. He describes the scene of teen-agers, teachers, coaches, parents, reporters, Pete's devastated family. He describes the too-sweet smell of the flowers and the mournful moan of the organ music.

"And now it's my turn," writes Jack. "I'm supposed to get up there and deliver the eulogy for my best friend who's dead.

"I walk up the steps to the place where the minister stands. I turn and face everyone. I'm supposed to know what to say right now. Supposed to say just the right thing. But this was my best friend who was like a brother since we were 5 years old. And I have seen him die. So I think I'll just stand here for a minute and cry."

The end.

I've cried over student writing before. I'm kind of a weeper anyway, particularly with stories of kids dying young. But now I found myself choked up not just for Pete and his mom, but for Jack. For his loss and for his courage in writing this all down. I felt privileged to be the first to read it.

Besides being the best "dramatic moment" I'd ever read, this story did all the things real writers do. It was simple and conversational. It was unpretentious, honest and spare. There was that unexpected turn in the middle and then the jump-cuts from scene to wrenching scene. Jack maintained his POV in every sentence. And he led me right to the moment where he was standing silently, staring out at the hundreds of sad faces at Pete's funeral.

Stunning. Powerful. This is a writer, I thought as I flipped back through the 12-page story. This is the real thing.

I asked Jack to read his story to the class. He did. There were more tears (from me and them). And after that day, Jack talked more. The class regarded him with a kind of awe. He wrote other stories, good ones.

Jump-cut. Four years later. I've read Jack's story to every class since and it never fails to move them and to make them try to write better. I used to see Jack around campus, but some time ago I lost track of him. Someone told me he took a semester off and didn't come back to college. Another student told me he transferred to major in advertising.

Wherever you are, Jack, I haven't forgotten you. Keep writing, kid. Keep writing.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Re-posting: Overdosing on self-esteem

Originally posted February 17, 2005

Do our students have too much self-esteem? Stories in USA Today and Time mag recently have made the case that kids born in the 1980s were raised to believe that their every effort, no matter how minimal, was worthy of praise. When they get to college or to a job, they're shocked and shaken to hear criticism -- harsh, honest, real criticism. They don't understand why nobody's hand-holding or giving them A's for effort.

I'm a tough grader. I've written "This stinks" on student assignments. I tell students when I think they're B.S.'ing me or when I think they've gotten lazy. I push and prod to get them to work harder. I give them D's and F's when they deserve it. And when I do, I always tell them "It's not personal. It's about the work."And boy, do they NOT take it well. I've had young men and young women in my office sobbing over a grade or over a comment on a paper. They say, "I always got A's in high school!" And they run through every excuse, from ADD to eating disorders to writer's block (which I don't believe in, even for real writers).

I've had to learn how to criticize creatively so that I don't have to face the nervous breakdowns. And I blame parents for this. Trying so hard to be their children's pal, they forgot how to toughen them up for real-world criticism. Too many pats on the back for stupid stuff: "Way to stand at the plate, Travis!" "Good job finishing that sandwich, Ashley!" The kids don't know what it feels like to actually accomplish something worthy of praise.

On the other end of the spectrum, I find I'm sometimes the first teacher ever to tell a student that he or she has a real gift for writing (and when I see it, I know... and I don't see it often enough). "You're a writer," I like to tell them. "I look forward to reading more of your work." I've had tears flow over that, too. Over being the first teacher to encourage the craft of writing or to recognize a love for writing that wants to flourish.

Best thing a student can say? "I never liked writing before I took your class." Then I know I've done my job. Have to admit, that does help my sagging self-esteem.

Re-posting: Only the lonely

Originally posted February 15, 2005.

I came in on Sunday to grade some papers and was surprised to see half a dozen other professors roaming the halls, furtively ducking in and out of their offices. Sometimes I think we retreat to campus on weekends to escape our families and to sit in that little bit of space we can call our own. It's quiet as a tomb. We can read or write or just stare at our computer screens without someone bugging us.

One prof just sits in his office and reads the Sunday New York Times. Another comes in on weekends and eats cheeseburgers in his office while he watches DVDs of silent films on his computer.

We profs are a strange bunch -- loners who need a community of other loners. Funny that on Sunday none of us talked to each other. We all knew we were around (the offices are bunched together like a rabbit warren), but we all knew better than to interrupt. We are polite ghosts in baggy jeans and sweatshirts. We keep our doors shut and the windowblinds down.

I'm skipping today's faculty meeting. Just not in the mood for the bureaucratic blah-blah. Instead I'm meeting some students at a coffeeshop near campus. They wanted some help on their next assignment and I am happy to do off-hours writing coaching. It's the value-added aspect of my job. We can relax and get to know each other away from the fluorescent glare and plastic desks. They drink a lot of nonfat soy lattes and start to let their guard down. I give them a "free read" on papers. I'll look at rough drafts and point them in better directions, find the glaring errors. It's really for me. The final drafts are then so much nicer to read.

Another week till the first paycheck of the year for me. Like many schools, this one pays only once a month, last day of the month. No paycheck for adjuncts at all in January, although the semester starts the second week. These last few days of the month are a stretch pennywise. So I'll just order the cheap iced tea.

Midterm approacheth and I haven't written my exams. In the writing class, I have them play "Midterm Jeopardy" in teams, buzzing in with answers to questions I click up on Power Point. Winning team gets 10 points on their next assignment. The competition gets killer loud, but it's the most fun we have all year. And it's a lot more stimulating than scribbling answers in blue books or bubbling in "E: all of the above" on a scantron sheet.

"Thank you for your class," one girl told me yesterday. "I dread all my other classes. If it weren't for this one, I'd hate college."

No, thank you.

Re-posting: Crime or happy ending?

Originally posted February 25, 2005

Dropped by campus tonight to pick up mail and noticed another "crime alert" taped to the door of the building. A female student reported that she had been "touched in an inappropriate and intimate manner" by a "licensed male massage therapist" at an upscale salon/spa a few blocks from campus. She called the cops, who questioned the owner of the salon, who said the masseur was a part-timer who was no longer on the premises. The alert described him as 6', 190 pounds, 30 years old, blond.

We must find this man.

And make an appointment immediately.

Re-posting: Random blurts

Originally posted March 3, 2005.

Things students have said in my office:

"My greatest fear is dying alone and being eaten by my cats."

"My boyfriend said everyone is sexually flexible. I think he might be gay."

"I'm pregnant and I don't know what to do."

"The third time I got a DWI, I realized I had a drinking problem."

"Is it date rape if you know the guy?"

"The company offered me $30K -- and with what my father gives me that's only $60K a year. Who can live on that?"

"I'm not spoiled! I only drive the cars my dad gives me."

"Her prom dress cost five grand... and it's yellow."

"You know that guy in the class? Brad? He asked me to come over and study with him and when I got to his apartment, he was wearing a towel and said he just got out of the shower. Then he dropped the towel and asked me if I thought he had a big dick."

"I'm doing the project with Michael so we met at his apartment. Um, he's a bit too affectionate. I mean, we were just supposed to be doing PowerPoints."

"My father's been missing for three days. He's probably dead by now."

"The girls in my sorority house are all cokeheads."

"I haven't been in your class for two weeks because my doctor diagnosed me with a disease... (dramatic pause)... acid reflux."

"Back in Louisiana, my dad is a plastic surgeon. He did (major pop star's) implants. He signs his name on them. So I guess my last name is walking around inside her chest right now."

Re-posting: Campus crime alerts

Originally posted March 11, 2005. Here's what they don't tell the parents of the incoming frosh. All stories are true and either were posted on campus via crime-alerts or were published in news reports in outside media:

  • Last year a professor was charged with maliciously and intentionally running down pedestrians with an SUV. Twice. The first time was in a nearby park, where this prof roared up on some cyclists and, angry that they weren't getting out of the way fast enough, bumped one and knocked him off his bike, causing some injuries. The second time was on campus, where the prof ran over a law student using a crosswalk to the parking garage. Charges have been filed in both cases. Trials are pending.
  • Maintenance crews working in the basement of the music building found a fully operating methamphetamine lab in one of the practice rooms. The young entrepreneurs who built it were never identified. (And rumors of jittery dance majors looking for a new source were unconfirmed.)
  • A professor in another department was discovered over the winter break to be living in her office. Seems she'd been residing in her tiny quarters for some time. She even had a cat living in there with her. Janitors reported her status as a squatter after noticing a large number of catfood cans and empty vodka bottles in the trashcan outside her office. Questioned, she admitted that she had no off-campus living quarters. Reasons unknown. She's currently off on ``medical leave.''
  • Bothered by an infestation of rats in the business school classrooms, offices and library, somebody a few years ago had the bright idea of bringing in cats as full-time ``ratters.'' Now, several generations and many, many litters later, that side of campus is home to a huge community -- herd? pride? -- of feral kitties, jumping out of the bushes to scare passersby during the day and howling and humping at top volume all night. Students protested when traps were set to catch the animals, so the school hired a "cat lady" to come over once a day to feed the beasts and generally see to their welfare. She also traps them humanely, takes them to vets and has them spayed and neutered. But the numbers are so great, she'll never get to all of them. The collegial cats have spread to dorms, dining halls and other facilities. Meow. (No word if the squatter-prof's kitty has joined their ranks.)
  • A prep-school-educated freshman from a wealthy family made thousands of dollars a week creating fake IDs and driver's licenses with equipment set up in his on-campus dorm room. He also sold date-rape drugs and other substances. Everyone on his dorm floor knew what he was up to. So did his roommates. He was suspected of date-raping a couple of sorority girls. Nobody turned him in. He was arrested during his second semester by an undercover cop making a large buy. His parents bailed him out and he lammed it overseas. Over a year later, he was picked up by Interpol after locals in the country he was living in began to wonder why a kid his age had so much cash and drove such nice cars. He was working by then for the Russian mob, stealing credit card numbers. Students still say he made IDs so authentic looking that they could use them in any club and not get caught. He recently pleaded guilty in an overseas court and is expected to be extradited back to the USA to be tried on other charges.

Re-posting: Onward to Spring Break

Originally posted February 5, 2005

The closer we get to the halfway point of the term, the more the students start to fall apart. I've had three in the hospital this past week. One of them has irritable bowel syndrome, one has what she called a "paralyzed stomach" and the other won't say but I suspect her eating disorders have kicked up again.

There was a note under my door this morning from a student. "I can't turn in my paper today. It's a piece of pathetic crap."

They don't deal well with pressure, some of these kids. They get sick, they get nervous, they go a little nuts.

What they don't realize is that it's just college. These are just little assignments that teachers give so we can figure out what grades to type in next to your name at the end of the semester. They're not life and death, these grades, these papers, these group projects. They're very often little more than glorified busywork. Truth? They're to prepare you for a career of TPS Reports and annual "employee self-evaluations."

Make yourself sick over it? In 10 years, no one will care what you made on the midterm or whether you can do MLA-style footnotes. College really is about finding what you have a passion for, discovering if you can write in a new voice or communicate in a way that inspires others. It's learning the craft of research, finding out if you can meet deadlines, if you can work with people in a way that doesn't make them sick. This is just college. When you're 40, you'll remember five minutes of it. Relax.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Little pitchers, big ears

Sometimes there are so many students around, they become an invisible, indivisible herd to the grown-ups. Professors may think that what they're up to is confidential, but odds are better that there's a student with bat-like hearing and X-ray vision lurking just around the corner or in the outer office or in the next bathroom stall, quietly memorizing every word. They really do hear all and see all.

Students, current and former, known and unknown, have been crowding my email-box with stuff they've witnessed and overheard, stories they're dying to tell or that they're urging me to on their behalf. So watch for these in upcoming chapters:

-- The rape victim denied morning-after pills "for religious reasons" by the pharmacist at the campus health center.

-- The cute male professor known as ``Hot Pockets'' and the undergrad girls who swarm his office hoping to earn ``extra credit.''

-- How a certain member of a Middle Eastern royal family got a new Mercedes by convincing a frat buddy to crash his one-year-old model into a wall.

-- The unforgettable experience of one student intern getting hit on repeatedly by an oft-married septuagenarian TV talk show host. Brace yourself for this one.

-- Spring break, the yacht and Bob Saget. Redefines ``Full House'' for a new generation.

-- Ladies' room stall No. 6, aka Purge-atory.

Thank you, one and all, for the submissions. We've only just begun.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Scion

Every so often I wonder whatever became of Bob Building IV. That's what I'll call him because his family name is on more than one campus edifice. Big ones. Important ones.

Bob was a student of mine more than 10 years ago. No one who's enrolled now would know him and they probably don't know the colorful backstory of this black sheep of a very wealthy and influential family.

He was already a "non-traditional student" by the time he appeared in my classroom. Must have been 25 or 26 then. He had a receding hairline and was thicker around the middle than most college boys are. I could tell he had some miles on him. He was a cocky guy, as I recall, and it didn't occur to me to connect his last name with the letters chiseled on the front of one of the school's newest showplace piles of bricks.

A few weeks into that semester way back when, I ran into Bob at the bad Chinese joint that used to operate across the street (outside of all health code regulations, it seemed... the lunch special was Ptomaine Lo Mein). We chatted over a long lunch that day and I heard Bob's life story, which he told with relish (and a sprinkle of soy).

He was the son of the son of Building No. 1 and was returning to college after a five or six-year lay-off having to do with various rehab stays and a stint as a sort of yeehaw playboy in the finest casinos of Monte Carlo. He'd cleaned up his act, he told me, and was working in a retail business while he finished up two years of undergrad studies.

His first two years (starting some seven or eight years previous to his return) had been his "full-time party years," he said. He'd pledged the best frat and become its treasurer (also known as the guy who pays back the guy who rents the kegs). The cashflow was a bad temptation and I seem to recall that he hadn't managed it very well. His own cash, however, was a different story. He had plenty of it, mostly from a generous trust fund provided by the namesakes of Building I and II. But he spent it frivolously and frequently found himself short of green.

So he started a little import business. And here I have to be careful. I don't want The Buildings to crush me. See, he imported antique books from South America. Big old books of maps and folios of art. Naive me, I thought, how interesting, a young man with a knowledge of antiques!

But the books were just the "mule" for the real product. Under the cloth bindings of each book, he explained, was a thin, highly concentrated layer of something those nasally trained dogs might have sniffed out and, in the 1980s, was very desirable as sniffage by the young and affluent good-time gang. Bolivian marching orders, the late Hunter S. Thompson would have called it. Read it and fly.

As I listened to Mr. Building IV spin his yarn, I couldn't always tell if it was all true or if he was exaggerating to impress me. He said he sold most of his imports to his frat buddies and at one point was pulling in $10K a week. Cash. Not bad for the '80s.

But like so many importers, he began to sample the goods. He inhaled his profits and got himself a nasty habit. He went into a black hole for a few years. The family disowned him, cut off his trust fund and told him to get lost. He was supported for a while by girlfriends and one or two other trust fund babies whose importing habits were also interfering with, say, going to class, eating and bathing.

Eventually, Bob found redemption. He turned to Jesus. He went through rehab and quit marching and importing. He somehow avoided the law. He started managing a posh retail establishment not far from his family's palatial home and gradually worked his way back into their good graces.

He had returned to college -- but not the party life or the fraternity house -- and gotten serious. I believe he said he was headed for law school.

That semester was the last I saw of Bob. By now he's probably married to an Ashley and has produced a little Bob Building V. No doubt he's rich as Croesus, too, just like the previous Bobs. I envision him cruising by campus in a gleaming Humvee, deciding which slice of real estate his namesake pile of bricks will occupy.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Like a bump on a blog

Here's a young college grad with a bright future. Read what he has to say about the Phantom Prof.

And this from Rosie O'Donnell's utterly fascinating blog. Her tribute to a college prof she remembers. It's the May 3 entry.

Getting more coffee. Be back soon.

Office hours

A week to go until the official end of the spring term. Having been displaced from my office, I'm holding office hours -- those weekly hours when professors must be available for students outside of class -- at a coffeeshop close to campus.

Kortney calls. I'd dub her one of the Ashleys -- those plastic girls tottering on $500 sandals, clutching their $1500 handbags -- but try as she might, she'll never quite fit the mold. Her weight for one thing. Girls on this particular campus hover at near-skeletal levels. Kortney is on the chunky side. My generation's parents called it "baby fat." She's not really fat, not in the real world that doesn't measure by Paris Hilton standards, just fleshier than most of her classmates. Rubenesque, you might say. I think she's pretty and will only get prettier as the years add up and her baby fat melts away.

I meet Kortney for nonfat lattes. She's worried about her grade, not in my class but in the class of one of my now-former colleagues. "She hates me!" says Kortney. "Everything I do is wrong in there!" She pulls out a sheaf of papers that the teacher has marked up during the semester. The mistakes are little ones -- odd spacings, misplaced modifiers -- but for each one, the other teacher has deducted 10 points. Every paper is topped with a big red "F."

I don't know what to tell Kortney. What I'd love to say is that it's not all her fault, that this other professor has had a shitty life lately. She's freshly divorced, bitter that her kid has sided with the ex. She's also packed on about 40 pounds over the past two semesters. My amateur psychology says the teacher sees herself in the student and is punishing herself by proxy by failing the girl.

What I say instead is, go talk to Professor X. See what you can do to salvage your grade. Be calm. Don't tune up to cry.

And take her a box of Godivas.

Couldn't hurt.