11-3 fiction

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

11.3 (Summer 2011)

 

short story

prae-202

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

The “A” in “Team”

Ivor Davies

“So you will find everything that you need among the ‘works cited’ at the end of my manuscript.  I’ll print out a copy and send it along as soon as I get back into the office next week, where I can use the taxpayer’s meter and stamps.  I’d attach the file with this message, but for some reason people keep telling me that it won’t open for them.  I can’t begin to understand all these interface problems… so I’ll just use snail mail.  I COULD go to the P.O. myself, but I’m too lazy to make the trip.  I’m enjoying what’s left of my summer break too much.

“If we could have gotten together at the Spring meeting, we could have hashed out all this and a lot more.  I’m sorry for that–sorry for missing the major ALS meeting, which I always enjoy, but particularly for not being able to put away a beer or two with you.  Since our grad days, those are about the only beers I consume during the year, you know.  A mere two might have made me drunk enough to raise my hand at the end of Marcela’s reading and ask her to marry me.  Maybe next year!  Of course, the only way a woman like that is still unattached is that she wants to be.  I suppose the feminists are right that we males have always gotten the better end of the deal out of marriage, even though we won’t let on that we know it–or maybe we’re dumb enough that we really don’t know it.  Yet they’re right for the wrong reasons–they don’t understand the reasons, and in that they’re profoundly wrong.  I don’t need someone to wash my socks and cook my supper–I’ve always looked after myself.  Always, like a sailor with his chest holding all of his worldly possessions.”

Swoboda almost typed “even my mother…” to begin a new sentence.  He reared back from the keyboard long enough for a trail of thin clouds to scud across his mental sun.  Mom… Marcela… had he fallen for her when they were all doctoral candidates together because–precisely because–she was so independent, so utterly without need of him?  Like Mom?  Freud…

“Anyway, the reason I didn’t make it to the conference was my health.  I was in a sort of emotional train wreck.  Couldn’t even write about it before now.  In a way, I’m absolutely ashamed of myself–downright pissed off at myself–for letting the thing get to me so much.  But in another way… well, if I weren’t so conscientious about my work and didn’t bend over backward for the students, I could have shrugged it all off like most people in my department would have (or say they would have), but I wouldn’t be the teacher I am.  Caring about these ingrate kids comes at a price.  Some of them, at least, perceive that you care and set about figuring out how to use that against you, how to manipulate.”

Like everyone else in life.

“It was a damn coed on the softball team–a big hunk of a girl.  Would you believe that her name was Mona HUSKEY???  I couldn’t make this stuff up!  A husky piece of rude, bullying vulgarity.  There was almost a lawsuit–that’s how she paid me back.

“If I hadn’t had her as a freshman in composition, I probably would have  lucked out of having her in the survey class.  But I let her squeak by with a charitable A before, so I guess I was a marked man.  She wasn’t stupid–she wrote well enough.  Mostly she elevated her work near to A-level, however, by participating in class.  It was always a rough, almost threatening kind of participation: the way she looked around the room as she started speaking, almost belligerent, almost as if to say, ‘I’m sure no one agrees with me, but I don’t give a crap, and I dare you to interrupt me.’  Her ideas, I suppose, were neither very brilliant nor very dull.  About average–not enough to justify an A in themselves.  But you know how it is: when the syllabus states that you’re factoring in class participation as 30%, and someone actually shows up regularly and opens her mouth, you’re grateful for that much.  To assign more or fewer points based on the quality of the contribution might border on being arbitrary.

“So I was very fair to her.  More than fair.  I didn’t really enjoy seeing her big, broad, sun-reddened face when I looked out over the group in January–because I have to admit that I’d always found her a little intimidating.  My God, she must weigh fifty pounds more than I do!  One wonders if these softball girls ever have dates, and if so, with what species of primate.  To be fair, one of them was pretty cute–just one–and bright, too.  Genuinely bright.  But she was incapable of exercising much influence over all the others.

“Because that was a major part of the problem: over half a dozen of them all signed up for the course.  Apparently this is what they do: they descend upon certain classes in a bunch, for obvious reasons.  They can take turns reading the assignments and filling in the others.  They can put their shriveled, close-shaven  heads together and produce slightly different versions of the same essay.  As soon as I realized that this latter was happening, in fact, I warned the whole class (so as not to single out the Gang impolitely) against sharing ideas when paper-writing.  I explained to them that I wasn’t giving full credit to an essay that I’d already read three times, no matter how good it was–and that, if the essay wasn’t very good to start with, the collaboration could prove catastrophic to those involved.  Didn’t make a dent in their thick skulls.  They kept it up all semester.

“Possibly they hadn’t even heard my warnings, because the other ‘advantage’ of their ganging together was that they could talk constantly rather than have to listen to me.  There was one, in particular–a tall, freckle-faced girl who might have been cute, too, in her own way if her puss hadn’t always been contorted into a sour sneer.  She’d come swaggering in three of four minutes late with her mates–just late enough to distract me from my opening remarks, never quite late enough to deserve a reprimand or a threat to lock the doors.  She would wear some sort of polyester warm-up suit that rustled noisily like a rain coat, even when the weather heated up, as if deliberately trying to distract me as much as possible.  Then she and her buddies would plop themselves down, slightly rearranging the desks in the process so that they sat almost elbow to elbow.  And then she would start up: whisper whisper whisper.  From end to end of the hour–it never let up.  Looking straight at me the whole time.  Sometimes I would stop myself in mid-sentence and glare right back at her–and damned if her mouth didn’t just keep moving, Murray!  She was as much as saying, ‘Look, I’m in control here, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  What are you going to do–throw me out of class?  This isn’t high school.  I’ve paid my tuition, I’m on a scholarship, the softball team is the division champ… you want to try doing something about us?  Make my day!'”

Swoboda again leaned back and rubbed his eyes.  This was the peril of e-written letters: they flowed too quickly.  Too much came pouring out too indiscreetly.  He could erase the whole thing… but it would be quicker just to keep hacking ahead, with his keyboard as a machete.

“At any rate, Huskey was a relative Gloria Vanderbilt at that time, compared to the rest of her crew.  She kept quiet in this class because it was a much larger section than her comp course, and I also did a lot more lecturing.  She rarely uttered a peep.  But her verbal contributions had had much to do with her earlier success, so now she was thrown back entirely on her writing ability–and she wrote what the group wrote.  They huddled together, decided what topic they would choose and how they would handle it, and then attacked the assignment as if they were taking the field with a solid team strategy.  But college isn’t a team sport–there no ‘I’ in “team’, as the Gang loved to recite like a flock of platitudinous parrots, and my essays always require individual thought..  These papers were uniformly sub-par, a bunch of feathers and squawks.  The ideas were cliché and the textual facts were inaccurate.  There wasn’t a lot I could do for her by the end of the semester, at least in terms of laureling her with an A.  I could manage a B–she was within range, barely.  But how could she have expected an A after ignoring all my warnings?  You can lead a big red-faced cow to water, but…”

That much he did erase.  Murray had once been his best friend, and perhaps still was (who else was competing for that prize?); but even with only honorable intentions at both the sending and receiving ends, emails sometimes broke loose and streamed into space like comets.

“The worst papers–not just in Huskey’s case, but in everyone’s–were saved for the final exam.  I literally gave out the essay questions a week in advance, and I told them that they could carry in notes on a 3″ X 5” index card.  Yet some of them, Murray, still wanted me to WRITE OUT a sample answer for them.  ‘What do you want?’ they say.  ‘We’re not sure what you want.’  I’m quite literally supposed to write the answer for them so that they can write it back and hand it into me.  JEEEEEEZ.   I did go so far as to advise them of a number of things that I DIDN’T want.  Among those was a strong hint about Euripides’ Medea.  I said, ‘Don’t treat her as a bad-ass momma on a killing spree, and don’t treat her as a PPD sufferer.  Her grandfather is the sun.  Think about the myth, not about the girl you knew in high school who went wrong.’  And what would you guess that I got out of the baseball team?  Half a dozen essays–including Huskey’s, of course–about bad-ass Medea, shooting her kids to pay back her gangsta pimp.  Or the white middle-class equivalent thereof–I would almost have welcomed the ‘ghetto’ version.  This one was a shower of contempt for girls who let a man ruin their life and whine about men being in control instead of using their talents to beat the male at his own game… etc., etc.  The transcript of an old Virginia Slims commercial.  Just enough textual citation to show me that they knew a text existed, such bad interpretation of the text that I’d sooner they had cited nothing at all.

“On the very morning of the exam–only about an hour before–I happen to receive an email from Huskey.  She wants me to proofread her essays and tell her ‘if I’m on the right track’–student code for, ‘Will you commit to giving me an A for this, or else tell me exactly what I need to change for an A?’  I hurriedly responded–because I WAS in a hurry–something on the order of, “Mona, I can’t believe you’re wanting me to do this as I get ready to walk out the door to give the exam.  No way!’  I should have answered nothing at all.

“When I returned from campus that afternoon with bundles of papers, I took a brief moment to check my email again.  I found this snake under an electronic rock: “You certainly showed your true side.  I have never had a teacher to be so rude to me in all my life.  When are the evaluations for this class, anyway?  [They had been administered two weeks earlier: she must have been on a “road trip”… did she expect them to be given after the final exam???]  Teachers like you are a disgrace to your job.’  I steamed and fumed, wrote a response, erased it, fumed a while more, and unwisely wrote another response of what I considered masterful brevity: ‘YOU WANTED A PROOFREADING ONE HOUR BEFORE THE EXAM.  In what way do you regard such special attention the solemn obligation of your teachers?’

“Yet I shouldn’t have answered at all.  Merely answering was already demonstrating to her that she had gotten to me–it was blood in the water.  I should have asked myself, instead, why a girl who wasn’t a complete idiot would be provoking and insulting me when I hadn’t even graded her final.  And I realized as I sat hacking and slashing my way through papers that evening that she had put me in a very awkward position.  Naturally, I wanted to brand a fat red F on top of her paper without reading it… so I ended up giving it a far higher grade than it deserved.  Was that her plan all along?  Was it brilliant… or am I the one who’s the complete idiot?”

Time for another breath of fresh air.  That last sentence, too, lived mere seconds before being devoured by the “delete” button.

“Nevertheless, as I’ve said, her overall grades did not justify anything close to an A.  The B was more than generous.  When I entered my grades two or three days later, I was honestly a little annoyed at myself for assigning so many B’s to the Gang.  How lucky such people are that the rest of the world is not like them!

“I know one thing.  Not that I’m a fan of the sport, anyway… but I never want to see a girls’ softball game.  Ever.  If I ever have a daughter, she will play tennis, or be a swimmer–or even soccer is okay.  But not this.  Not these muscled-up, beefed-up, swaggering enemies of femininity.  There is something quintessentially fascio-feminist about it all.  If women could play tackle football, no doubt that would be the Revolution’s sport of choice; but that failing, they choose baseball to hone their techniques of dominating, intimidating, nagging, ragging, and dissing the opponent.  I can’t imagine Marcela ever playing softball.”

He deleted the whole paragraph.

“Then the grades were posted–then the real shit hit the fan.  I was fortunate, I suppose, that summer break had begun, for she couldn’t just walk into my office and bully me over my desk with that two-hundred-pound red glower of hers.  Yet I could really have used a rest, and she successfully sabotaged that.  First more emails: ‘I see that you’ve decided to get back at me by grading me down.  May I have my grades for my papers and exams, please?’  The stupid arrogance–the crude gestures at sarcasm!  Unless she had never even looked at them, all of her papers except the final exam had been returned promptly with grades clearly affixed.  And the one other unreported grade that was absolutely critical was her class participation–she didn’t even think to ask for that, a good indication of how much thought she’d given to it throughout the semester.  Yet I duly gave her everything: just figures, no discussion.  Then, ‘So you decided to get at me through the final, obviously.  I know I did better than that.  But because I told you how rude your message to me was, you definately [sic] had to get your revenge.’

“At this point, I could feel my blood pressure rising–and I mean FEEL it.  My temples were pounding, and I would have dizzy spells.  It’s one of the reasons I never touch a drop any more–I have a genetic propensity for…”

No.  Erase that bit.

“So I simply stopped checking my campus email account for a while.  For about a week.  By the end of that week, I was almost starting to feel a little rested.  At last I felt calm enough to log on and check in–but I had reached the wise resolve to delete any messages from Huskey unread.  Actually, there were none from her–but two from the Provost.  I opened the one at the top: ‘Please answer previous letter ASAP.’  In those few seconds, all the calmness I had painfully recovered during the week vanished into thin air.  The previous letter was more excursive:

Your student Mona Huskey, enrolled this past semester in World Literature 220, has approached me with the charge that you have unfairly penalized her for missing classes when she was representing the university as a member of the softball team.  She further alleges that she has emails from you that I have not yet seen that give evidence of a vindictive attitude.  She claims that other members of the softball team can support her claim, and that she is prepared to pursue the matter through legal channels if necessary.

I must advise you that the university cannot assume any liability in whole or in part for complaints that students may have about their instructors.  Please advise me of how you would like my office to handle the matter if Ms. Huskey contacts me again.

“You and I would have a field day slicing up the Provost’s grammar and syntax… but that’s a game for another day.  What was more irritating by far was the moronic invocation of high power only to profess powerless…”

Delete, delete, delete.

“… more irritating by far was the general tenor of being in control only to refuse any involvement.  I was to render a precise accounting of my actions… but there was nothing that the Provost’s office could (or would) do for me.  Of course, I wrote back at once that the class participation grade for all the softball girls had been meticulously figured on the basis of those days not excused for games, that I had the records to prove it, and that I possessed all of the very few email exchanges for the Provost’s perusal whenever she wanted them.  I also noted that, though Ms. Huskey had already complained about her grades to me, the charge that I had lowered them because of excused absences was entirely new and plainly something she had thought up ex post facto (a term that would mean nothing to the Provost).

“I heard no more for a while… but now I was checking my email every day like a prisoner on death row waiting for the word.  My peace had flown completely out the proverbial window.  I ate little and slept less.  I could sense that Huskey was playing some kind of waiting game, and that she well knew that it would work with me–and, you know, I was so furious with myself that it DID work that I lost whatever little self-respect I’d had before…”

Delete.

“But the next missive I had wasn’t an email at all.  It arrived by certified mail, and the heavy-bond envelope bore the ornately stamped return address of an attorney’s office: Fitzhugh, Bernstein, and Huskey.  I won’t lull you to sleep with all the legalese.  Here’s the punch line:

Ms. Huskey alleges sexual harassment in the case.  She and several of her teammates allege that you have demonstrated by occasional remarks a hostility toward homosexuality, and further that in casual utterances you have expressed the view that the athletes who play softball have lesbian tendencies.  As you know, Dr. Swoboda, cases of sexual harassment hinge upon whether the plaintiff is made to feel harassed, not upon whether the defendant intended such harassment.  Since it is very clear that Ms. Huskey has been reduced to the state described by certain careless remarks from you, she has every legal right to seek legal restitution.

He needed several minutes this time to compose himself.  He had believed at first that a “quick note” on the subject to his best friend might help him finally to forget about all of this year’s unfortunate events (its outrages–its slanders, its acts of intimidation, its unscrupulous lies and abuses of power).  Yet now he perceived that this letter was a mistake.  He had invested too much time in it simply to trash it–he had already ruined his day, and perhaps what little remained of his pitiful vacation.  As well to go ahead and finish.  Finish quickly.

“It was at this point, Murray, that I began to throw all of my energy into seeking a way out–the surest way out that would truly allow me to be free and stay free.  I wasn’t going to admit to any falsehoods, and I knew perfectly well that I had never made any such remarks as were described…”

Yet he had written a few such remarks in this letter, or something in which such remarks were implicit.  Only the least little hint of bias would have had to leak out in the most casual of settings.

“For all I knew, Huskey and her attorney-relative could proceed to sue me for damages–sue me for everything I own and will ever own–if I admitted to the charges.  An A suddenly seemed like a very sensible way out–yes, and a completely cowardly way.  But it was the ONE way which might keep me sane and afloat.  Even if I’d hired an attorney to fight the suit and ended up winning, my attorney’s fees would put me in hock for years.  And, naturally, Huskey would have know this, as well.

“I called the attorney’s office and asked expressly to speak to Huskey.  Like niece, like uncle, I suppose.  The son of a bitch kept me on tenterhooks for three days, always appearing to be with a client or in court.  But I wasn’t about to set anything down in writing, and I was afraid to go in and address him face to face–afraid that I’d lose it somehow.  After all, these swine are experts at pushing your buttons, and any over-reaction you manifest is going to have witnesses.  A secretary will hear the screaming or see the shaking fist.

“On the phone, however, I was able to keep myself rigidly to the plan of action I had formed.  I simply kept repeating, ‘What does she want?’  Dr. Swoboda, she wants justice; she has been deeply wounded, and…  ‘And what does she want?’  Dr. Swoboda, wants are very hard to pin down in these matters; she wants her self-confidence back, her pride, her belief in the system…  ‘And that translates into… what?’  Dr. Swoboda, this is why we have courts; the answer to your question is not a specific dollar figure or…’  ‘No, no dollar figure.  Not a penny.  Your case is a fabric of lies.  If I must lose all I have, I’ll give it to a defense attorney.  And if I lose the case, I’ll finish my life and you vultures can pick through an estate containing absolutely nothing.’  Dr. Swoboda, please–threats against yourself or anyone else are not going to–  ‘Then tell me what she wants.  I’ll tell you what I’ll give.  If she wants an A, I’ll give her an A.  An A without any implication of wrongdoing on my part–without prejudice, as you say.  The Grade Change Form will read that she submitted an additional paper.  That’s it–she’ll have to rewrite her miserable Medea essay.  Then I’ll give her the A.’  Dr. Swoboda–hah-hah-hah–Dr. Swoboda, I’m afraid that that proposal is not remotely–  ‘Take her the proposal.  That’s my proposal.  I’ll live or die by it.  Screw the defense attorney–I’ll live or die by it.  And screw you.  Take her the proposal and get her answer, up or down.  No me, no A.  Better grab it while it’s there.  Give her the message and call me back.’

“And I hung up.  On HIM.  I HUNG UP ON HIM.  If I’d been writing all that as an email to his office, I would have deleted nine-tenths of it–because I obviously hadn’t stayed with the plan the whole time.  But as it turned out,  my flourishes of righteous indignation did the trick.  I don’t know if the attorney or the student made the call, but something tells me it was the latter.  I believed all along that Huskey just wanted her A–her stinking A, and eight or ten pounds of bleeding flesh to go with it.  Body-builders love red meat.”

Was that, perhaps, a sexually harassing remark, implying hostility toward gay Amazons?

“She actually made half an effort at rewriting the exam essay, incredible to say, and I did the change form.  No admission of any wrongdoing on my part.  No more harassment…”

Genuine harassment, felt and intended…

“… from the Provost.  Case closed.  Matter dropped.  Several months of my life wasted that I’ll never get back…”

But what else is new?

Liebe wohl, mein Freund.  Look for the ms. in the mail by the end of the month.”

A big, big sigh after hitting the “send” button… and Swoboda buried his face in his hands almost as if he had just read of his parents’ death (except the death of neither had affected him very much).  He was sorry for something–not penitent, but deeply distressed that things worked this way and not that way.  That life was not other than how it was.  Sorry for the brutality of human beings: the cocky stupidity of “you’ve come a long way, baby” coeds, the willful and well-paid mendacity of lawyers, the humorless and murderous careerism of senior administrators… and his own vanilla fecklessness, neither very firm nor a complete pushover, neither a moral hero nor a craven coward… not much of anything.  Certainly nothing to attract the Marcelas of the world.  A Prufrock who was free for one more week–free to contemplate the meaninglessness of freedom to one so uninspiring and uninspired.

He almost shut his laptop down, but decided to check on enrollment for the second half of the survey.  If it didn’t make, he’d devote much of the new semester’s first week to blitzing the design of a new syllabus for a new class.  The figures had not looked good in May… but with everything else that had happened, he had not checked back since then.  Early registration was now “late late early”, and activity would have reached a new peak.  He fumbled with his passwords, chosen from obscenities in dead tongues.

“Hm!” he laughed silently.  The hurdle had been cleared with ease.  Forty students–the class was officially closed.  Ava–she was a delight.  Hrblonski… could only be Stephen’s little brother.  Huskey.  Desdemona Renee Huskey…

When he woke up, as it were, to the visual stimuli before him, he found that he had left his little house for his little back patio, where he had been nursing along a little olive tree.  He had given it up for dead and brought it out into the full sun to die, but now paired green leaves were breaking out up and down the flimsy stem like a verdant wildfire.  All it had needed was sunlight.

What had he been thinking for the last five minutes?  What was he thinking now?  He looked and looked in the empty vessel of his mind, his heart.

Des-demona–how perfectly grotesque!” he heard himself mutter.  If Shakespeare were not dead, he would have every legal and moral right to engage an attorney.  He would certainly feel harassed, even though the proud but stupid parents of a fifteen-pound infant gorilla could not have intended any harassment.

He was on the cusp of coming to grips with a horrible reality–of facing something deeply imbued with the stench of death–when his logic-seeking train of thought jumped the track.  It didn’t enter a dark tunnel: there was no oblivious lacuna this time.  Instead, as he rushed back into the house, so fast that the patio door didn’t even close behind him, he sensed himself in the throes of something akin to a prophetic fit.

The computer screen, swirling in interplanetary photos from outward-bound satellites, needed refreshing.  He feverishly brought the class roster back up.  Dorkin… no.  Ganderlin… no.   No.  No, not one of them.  Only Huskey.  An even match this time.  Mano a mano.  She was all alone–the team had gone elsewhere, or had scattered safely throughout the curriculum.  Why wouldn’t they?  They had not received A’s, and they were not assured an A this semester.

“The easiest A she ever got in her life!” he laughed, and began to laugh in a shout that must have stunned the walls of his empty house, if walls have ears.

“It’s in the books already!” he shouted and laughed.  “You hear me, asshole?  You don’t even need to come to class!  If I could give an A+, you’d have it!  I’m going to stuff your fat ass so full of crappy A’s!  You’re so A-ed!”

Mr. Davies’ send-ups and take-downs of the bombastic Ivory Tower are well known to this journal’s readers.  He wishes to make explicitly clear that he asked and was granted permission by the editor to use an earlier Praesidium essay, “Medea’s Stepsisters: The Toxic Alchemy of Feminism, Self-Esteem, Ignorance, and Youth” (9.1 [Winter 2009]), as a stock of ideas for the current story.