I've known him for decades, since we were undergrads together. Now he's between full-time gigs, so he's doing the adjunct thing, teaching an intro acting class at a private uni where the tuition has an Ivy League pricetag but the SAT scores to get in are nowhere as stiff. Good school, but suffering badly from Ashley-itis these days. It's all new to him.
"I had to stop giving written assignments," he said as we tucked into pork chops and greens for a New Year's weekend feed. "They were too painful to read. They can't write. They can't read. They can't speak. I got my evaluations back. Example: `This professor was awesome!!!' with awesome spelled without the middle E. Shocking."
They are nice kids, he said. They worked hard on their scenes last semester. "I was really lucky," he said. "But they seem so much younger than we were at their age. They're baby adults. They're like we were in seventh grade. We weren't like that, were we?"
I said I didn't think so. We would have swallowed poison before having one of our parents phone a prof to argue a grade or to ask an adviser for help getting us up in the morning. Independence began at high school graduation. In college, once a week, we called home on the shared rotary phone in the dorm. Maybe it's technology's fault. Cellphones and email are high-tech umbilical cords. They keep kids too accessible to Mom and Dad. These kids live in a smaller world than we did. I went to school five hours from my hometown but it might as well have been on a different continent.
We reminisced about a favorite professor we had. She's not much older than we are--she was a freshly minted MFA back when we had her--but now she's bedridden with a serious illness. If you call her in the morning, she'll forget by the afternoon. We remember her as the most glamorous creature on campus, striding around in high-heeled boots and tight skirts. She drew kohl smudges around her dark eyes, giving her the look of an Egyptian princess. We were fascinated by her. In class, because we met in a rehearsal studio, we literally sat at her feet because there were no chairs. A goddess, she was.
Teachers so often don't know how students perceive them. Our goddess-prof probably didn't know that to us she seemed to occupy some elevated plane. We scrutinized her clothes, her words, her every move. We thought she was perfection. When she had a party--as profs used to do so often in the 1970s, when it was legal to drink at 18--we students would bring her gifts, little offerings of food, wine, houseplants, hippie jewelry. It seems all very Brideshead Revisited. But with pot instead of dry sherry.
In reality, that young teacher was broke, insecure, struggling to share rent with a roommate (who might have been a lover, we were never sure). After a few years of college teaching and then a Catholic high school job that paid--get this--$12,000 a year, she tried acting and directing, but never got steady work. The stress of family problems aggravated her health woes. Pounds piled on. Former students tried to help her but she was difficult. I lost touch with her. It was sad to hear how she is now.
So my friend, the new adjunct, tells me the department he's in is beset with feuds. One set of profs never speaks to the others. (My old department was like that, too.) There's often a chill toward the adjuncts because they tend to be cooler, younger and more popular with the kids.
We grew wistful. And we looked at each other and saw ourselves as we were as students. "You haven't changed at all," he said.
I told him he hadn't either.