How do you solve a problem like Kristeena?
The first time I saw her—sitting on the front row in the media history class—I had to stop and drink her in. Without a doubt, Kristeena was the single most beautiful college student I had ever seen.
Tall, with brunette waves tumbling over her shoulders, she sat ramrod straight in the plastic desk, long legs wrapped around each other in that way very thin young girls have of crossing them and then crossing them again.
Kristeena isn’t just pretty. She’s stunning, as in stop traffic, slap your granny, get out your checkbook gorgeous. Her eyes, like Elizabeth Taylor’s, twinkle like amethysts under double rows of dark lashes. Her mouth turns up slightly at the corners, even when she’s not smiling. And her lips—shoot, women in Los Angeles subject themselves to painful thousand-dollar injections with long, cold steel needles trying to get some version of that lush, bee-stung look. Angelina Jolie would kill for Kristeena's lips.
Other girls wouldn’t sit anywhere near Kristeena in that class. As the semester progressed, her side of the room became the boys’ club—except for Rick, the chatty film student, who defiantly sat in the estrogen zone across the room, surrounded by blondes. But the other guys just stared at Kristeena instead of openly flirting. Her high-fashion, gamine look and steely posture kept their engines idling on high.
She was quiet that semester, but attentive. She kept perfect attendance and during lectures, she’d scribble in a notebook and then look up at me and nod as I prattled on about Citizen Kane or why it was called “yellow journalism” and not green or pink.
She made C’s on the two short papers and a C on the midterm. Then came the final. Look, my exams are ridiculously easy. I don’t like tests—I had terrible test anxiety in college and in grad school sought out courses that omitted them (most did anyway). With 100 students in a lecture class, I hate grading the things. So I always do a thorough review with the class and pretty much spill all the pintos about what’s going to be on the multiple choice exam. If you pay attention as you fill in the Scantron sheet, you’ll catch on that I put the correct answers in a fairly obvious pattern (a technique that drives the Type A’s berserk). I even tack on a 10-point extra credit question at the end, which means a lot of students make 110 points on it. Nobody ever flunks one of my finals.
Until Kristeena. She tanked it completely. One question said: “Most of us carry at least one photo of Abe Lincoln in our wallets. Those images came from the photo studio of: (a) Mathew Brady; (b) George Eastman; (c) Thomas Alva Edison; (d) Richard Avedon; (e) none of the above.” She picked Avedon. We’d spent a week talking about Mathew Brady and his Civil War photos and all the times he and his staff photographers had made portraits of gloomy old Honest Abe.
She picked Quentin Tarantino for “Who directed Citizen Kane?” and “False” for “You can watch broadcast TV channels without the use of cable connections.”
The final counted for a huge portion of the overall grade (the only way to keep students in town to take the required exam, unfortunately), so by flunking it, Kristeena ended up with a D in the course. She got the only grade below a B I gave in that class that semester.
Almost the same thing happened when she took my writing class the following spring. She sort of muddled along—showing up for class every single day, always dressed to the nines—nodding and smiling right to the end. Her skills were terrible, but then, what else is new? I gave her easy topics to write campus news stories about (students are supposed to come up with their own) and she still bungled them. Always with a shrug and a smile, she'd come up with some thin excuse when I handed them back with a low grade.
I thought maybe she would squeak through until it came to the final project, a group effort with three other students. They had to write and perform a short situation comedy script (a lesson in the art of writing humor that includes a look at the process of getting a show from page to airwaves). All the kids did knockout work that semester, turning in script after script that looked and sounded like the real thing. (My fave was the “five years later” look at what the Friends characters would be doing circa 2009). Kristeena’s group came to me a few weeks into the assignment and complained that she wasn’t showing up for their meetings and they wanted her out. "She's an airhead," said Bob, "and I should know--I dated her for two months last year." I persuaded them to keep working with her. They reluctantly said they would.
Last day of class, I always order pizzas for the script readings. We munch along and enjoy the laughs and it’s a nice way to go out after a long semester. As it happened Kristeena’s group was the last to perform. She took the lead and, standing at the front of the room, they started to work their way through the script. Twenty-five minutes later, there had yet to be a chuckle. (Scripts are only supposed to be 8-12 pages long.) The lines sounded like a cross between a court transcript from a really boring child custody trial and the lyrics of ABBA songs, possibly in the original Swedish. It was baffling mumbo-jumbo. And with the rest of the class squirming as we ran out of time, I finally had to stop the group and sort of jovially adjourn things with a “That was interesting.”
What a mess. After class, Kristeena’s other group members hung back and told me that she’d offered to type the final script they’d written without her. What she showed up with for class was something else entirely, a jumble of words that she told them she’d been up all night writing.
Once again, the girl had nosedived at the 11th hour. She made a D for the course, which meant she’d have to take it again to be considered for the major.
Was it drugs? Eating disorders? Self-sabotage? I would find out later that it was a combination of all three, plus boyfriend problems and a set of parents who were crazier than a bucket of bedbugs.
The next semester rolled around and by golly, there she was again, back in my writing class, ready for a do-over. Back on the front row she sat, coltish legs entwined at knee and ankle. Smiling, twinkling and nodding as I launched into the first day’s spiel, she looked even more beautiful than when I first laid eyes on her a year earlier.
There are so many Kristeenas gracing college classes these days. They act the role of perfect students. They go through the motions, but they really aren’t equipped for the tasks. Not “college material,” as they used to say. It’s like these girls are in college, but not into it. Some do flunk out after a few disastrous semesters. Others sort of wake up by their junior year and realize they’d better get to work before they find themselves in the seventh-year-senior society. And some, like lovely Kristeena, become content to earn that “Mrs.” degree. She will look so pretty in a Vera Wang gown.
The Kristeenas are rather like porcelain figurines, now that I think about it. Perfect, beautiful and shiny on the outside, but fragile… and strangely hollow underneath.