Monday, July 25, 2005

Outside at Starbucks in 100-degree heat

Met another former prof the other evening at one of the 705 Starbucks within a five-mile radius of my place. Around here when someone says, "Let's meet at Starbucks," you have to be precise about location. In one two-block stretch there are four, flanking both sides of the street.

So I meet my friend in the late afternoon and because we're rehashing our years at the U. and don't want to shout over the racket of the frap blenders, we sit outside at a little iron table on the hot sidewalk. It's about 100 F. when we get out there and my first venti cup of iced green tea goes down sweet but too fast.

We start by filling in a lot of blanks. I used to see her in the halls or at the mirrors in the ladies' room, but a few years ago she disappeared from campus. I didn't know if she'd quit or retired but it turns out she'd lost her job in a change of department chairs -- three department heads in one year alone. The new guy didn't renew her three-year contract and she was out after a dozen years as a full-time lecturer (the step up from part-time adjunct). Lecturer is still a miserably low-paying place to dog-paddle in the academic status pool. Her first year as a full-timer, around 1993, she made only $18K, a salary so pathetic she was audited by the IRS because they didn't believe anyone teaching at a private school known for its sky-high tuition would earn that little.

"Do you miss it yet?" she asks. I'm not sure. So many students are still IMming me and phoning up for lunch and such that I haven't felt separation pangs yet. I sure don't miss teaching summer school during the sizzling months when the classrooms in our building smelled of rotting grease traps from the dining hall in the basement.

She's kept a lot of stuff from her years teaching writing: student papers, story ideas, emails. She shares some of the best with me. We laugh hard over similar experiences.

"They're so dumb about how they cheat!" she says. "I'd give a take-home exam and make them sign the honor code swearing they will do their own work. Then I'd get four exams with the same incredibly wrong answers. Like, `Name four types of mainstream media,' and I'd get something like `TV, radio, comic books and Morse Code.' Four papers would say `comic books and Morse Code.' Like, they wouldn't think I'd know the four of them got together and thought up the same stupid answer?"

We laughed about term papers that came in smelling of spliff smoke from the very students who lectured classmates on "morals and values." We shook our heads remembering the good ones who got away -- the really smart kids who, for whatever reasons, just couldn't cut it in college. We had some of the same students over the years. She remembers names better than I do.

We both had stories of undergrads having scary zone-outs in class. One time, a girl who talked nonstop in class and out (if I didn't cut and run for the bus stop right after class was over, she'd tie me up for two or three hours talking a blue streak in my office) showed up for class wearing skates. She hopped up on top of a desk, pulled off her t-shirt, revealing a skimpy gym bra, and went into a breathless spiel about how she used to be a competitive skater. I jumped up to play spotter in case she took a header off the tabletop and the rest of the class sat dumbfounded. It was terrifying, but also kind of exciting watching somebody with eyes spinning like pinwheels perform a nonsensical monologue. As she skated out of the room, everyone sighed in nervous relief. I never saw the kid again that semester. She showed up outside my office the following year. She had dropped out and was only back in town to gather up paperwork from the three shrinks she'd been seeing while she was enrolled. Even now, when I run into a student who was in that class, inevitably he or she will say, "Whatever happened to that girl on the skates?"

As shadows grew longer on the sidewalk at Starbucks, the other ex-prof and I kept right on talking. She told me about an advertising teacher who quit to go to work for one of his former students, a job that offered much higher pay and more security. And she had a great story about the time she lectured a class on journalistic "conflict of interest."

"A boy started waving his hand, like he suddenly understood what I was talking about," she recalled. "Then he gave an example."

To paraphrase (and with a few identifying details slightly altered), she said he told about how such a conflict once arose at his family's very own dinner table. They were entertaining a VIP who was a prospective new business partner of daddy -- let's say the guest was the president of ABC Cola Giant -- and at dinner, the butler arrived at the table with a big cold glass of XYZ Cola for the VIP instead. "Of course, we had to fire the butler," said the student, not realizing that his story had less to do with conflicts of interest than conflicts of social class.

The evening wore on and we got refills on the green tea. Up the street from Starbucks, two cars hit head-on in the rush hour traffic and our conversation was briefly interrupted by the screams of sirens from two firetrucks and an ambulance. A young boy with Downs syndrome walked by several times with a black Lab on a leash. A woman in Daisy Dukes stood on the sidewalk talking on her cell for well over two hours without ever entering the coffee place. Ten minutes after the first car crash, there was another one at the same intersection. Back came the firetrucks. It's cliche to call something Fellini-esque, but the scene at this place was completely surreal.

As everything happened around us, my friend and I kept right on jabbering in the way you do when you're making up for lost time. She's a freelance writer and editor now, still dealing with conflicting feelings about her years in the academy.

She and I both choked up remembering the ones who really got it, those students who tried and achieved against academic or financial odds. And we let fly a few choice obscenities about the bullshit politics that separate the tenured and non-tenured, and the difference in working for departments the dean favors and the ones she despises.

We dished some dirt on celebrity offspring. She once taught the daughter of a member of the O.J. defense team. I had the daughter of a mega-huge best-selling author and screenwriter. One of the nastiest little pieces of work I ever had in any class has a father who's a Christian self-help guru. Not the "7 habits" guy, but close.

And as we downed the last sips of iced tea and headed off into the summer evening, taking special pains to avoid the intersection of death, my pal and I cast a little hex down on one recently hired faculty member, a retired business executive not known for his people skills who was lured to the U. for reasons no one can figure out. He teaches one small upper-level seminar per term (that's two courses a year, no summer school) for a salary of $125K plus bennies. It's the academic version of a featherbed job.

May IRS auditors swarm down upon his caravan and charge him interest and penalties on all his fat, furry camels.


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