|E. J. Cullen|
Issue #41 (January 1985)
The other night I tried to put my head in a microwave oven and end it all. I mean it. If my regular oven had not broken down, I would have done the job, nice and simple. But my head wouldn't fit all the way in, even after I took out the rack and the grease pan. The top of my head became super hot and uncomfortable, so I said the hell with it and opened up a bottle of Old St. Croix.
Hell of a move for an educated person, right? How could an English teacher with a rent-controlled apartment, a person who owes only about thirty-forty dollars total overdue on the MasterCharge, put his head in a portable oven and push the broil button?
Well, for one thing, having sort of heightened sensitivity is a genuine burden. I mean, you worry about things--things other people don't even consider. Like when the President talks about the Consumer Price Index, I worry. I worry about the gas crisis and the environment. I am a Friend of the Bronx Zoo and the Audubon Society because I worry about animals. This kind of worrying is not gratuitous: it costs cold, hard cash.
Lately, I am worried about the state of education in this country. I worry about these third-year kids in the college where I teach who can't read. I mean, these kids would be the village idiots of eighty years ago, and now they're juniors in college. Holy Christ! It's hard to believe. In September I assigned a two-page paper due on November fifteenth, and I have four papers to correct. Four. This is out of twenty-seven students. About fifteen of them have had a death in the family. Two others play on the basketball team, and they said they can't find the time to get it together; one black kid who might be my best student told me he doesn't believe in writing papers for somebody because it perpetuates a slave/master mentality. He thinks we should only "discuss alternate points of view." Some of these kids think they're smart--and I have to agree in that there is a certain mental dexterity prerequisite to avoiding physical work without having to suffer the consequences.
"Don't fail any of these kids," says my boss, Wherling, who is head of the department. "These kids represent the future, and we can't afford to discourage them. They'll come around," he says. "Give them a chance."
I have told him a dozen times that I think the whole thing is a disgrace, but each time he puts his index finger to his lips while I am in mid-sentence. "You would rather drive a truck?" he asks. "We have few enough English majors as it is. There will be no jobs for us. If you fail them, they will lose interest."
"But I worry about these kids," I tell him. "I think they're wasting their time." Sometimes I wonder if he really knows how much I worry about these kids.
One day I am talking to the class about The Waste Land. I am trying to get across the concept of death and regeneration taken together, like drowning in a spiritual sense and the baptism of rebirth. "Some treat death euphemistically in our culture," I tell them. "Others feel we should accept and attempt to transcend it. Death in one sense is a positive, a contribution to the future. Regeneration. This," I say, "may be the irony inherent in all great poetry--that the waste land of our existence can be made fertile by suffering--by those who sacrifice themselves--greater love has no man, and all that." There is a question from the back of the room: "What are all those burnt-out frizzles on your head? You try to put your head-bone in a microwave oven?"
Wherling has introduced a number of new courses for the spring term: An Introduction Bob Dylan; Hallucinogens and Poetry; Muhammed Ali: Poet or Charlatan; The Large Fish in Literature: Moby Dick through Jaws; and The Literature of Explicit Sex.
"I'm worried about your choice of new courses," I tell him. "For one thing, Moby Dick wasn't a fish. Jaws may be a fish, that I couldn't tell you, but Moby Dick was not a fish. We might be doing our students a disservice."
"Classes," he says, "are already filled up." He is probing one of his colossal nasal orifices with his index finger. "I hate to say this," he says, "but you appear to be losing touch. How old are you anyway? Thirty-four? Stay out of the sun--your hair is frizzling up. It makes you look aged."
"I'm thinking about changing occupations," I tell him. "Could you advise me?"
"You're not leaving teaching?" he asks.
"I don't know," I say honestly. "I just wonder where I fit in any more."
"There's room for you here," he says. "There are still certain courses which we are almost mandated to offer. Nobody wants to teach John Donne any more, or Herbert, or any of the Metaphysicals, for that matter. And the Victorians-surely the worst trip. Most of the faculty, I'm afraid, think they're irrevelant."
"Surely," I say, "you mean irrelevant."
"What I mean is that there are some writers who are falling into disfavor, as it were. Not to say that I necessarily agree, if you know what I mean."
"I'm not a scholar," I admit to him, "but I will do what I can." I worry about people who think John Donne is irrelevant.
"Don't you every worry about anything?" asks my father. "You just float through life. A month off at Christmas, all the holidays, Easter recess, holy days of obligation, Passover, lunch time every day. You never miss. It's all charted out for you. I haven't had a day off in forty years and you teach twelve hours a week for a few weeks at a time until the next intermission. You don't have a worry in the world. What kind of way is that to live?"
"I worry about my students. I worry about my twelve-year-old Volvo. I worry about you, Pop."
"No need to worry about me," he says. "I can handle myself. A Ph.D. today is worth a high school equivalency in the '40s. Your brother Norman's got the job with Sears. Makes good money. He's got his feet on the ground. Five kids and they're all eating.
"And I worry about Norman. My brother Norman. Someday I'll teach his kids. I worry about having to explain to him that they'll all fail if they don't do the work.
Today I told my class how worried I was that they were all going to fail. I have received four papers, I said, four out of twenty-seven, and those four are so poorly thought out and written that I can't give any one of them a passing grade. Something has to be done, I said. Someone has to take a stand. There is some type of bankruptcy occurring here, and someone has to take some responsibility. Somehow, I think I am being jobbed.
"You can't be as bad as all that. Every one of you has been sitting in some classroom at least five hours per day, five days a week, for the past fourteen years. My God! And no one here can write a compound sentence or punctuate a friendly letter correctly. What will be the answer to all of this? Is it all over? Has it ended? Sometimes I feel like putting my head in an oven."
When the bell rang, as I was putting my books into my valise, someone in the pushing crowd by the door muttered in a horrible, guttural tone, "Yeah, stick your head in the oven, you meatball." I didn't even turn around or look up. You tell me: what would have been the point?
Wherling is sitting at the far end of the faculty lounge with a few of his hangers-on from the English faculty. They are all laughing uproariously at one of his simple-ass jokes when I hit him on the head with a very nice edition of W. H. Auden's Collected Works that was a gift to me from a girl I used to know. I acted impulsively. Had I had more time to think, I would have used the Norton Anthology, which is much heavier and carries less sentimental value.
He is looking at me quizzically. His mouth is hanging open and one arm of his glasses hangs down over his myronic nose. Everyone is very quiet for a change, and then Wherling comes out with a real gem: "Have you lost your mind?" he asks. "Your job has wings, friend. Your tenure is swinging in the wind," he says, gesticulating with the very same dirty digit with which he excavates his nostrils.
"I am going to blow up this entire room and apply for the Nobel Peace Prize," I tell him. They are all staring at my valise. "I'm worried about all of you," I say. "I'm worried. The other night I tried to kill myself. Do you know what that means?"
Someone grabs me from behind, and before I know what's happening, they have me pinned to the wall and some guy from Speech is going through my briefcase.
"A Norton Anthology, A Happy Death, by Camus, some Jane Austen, a Charlotte Bronte novel," hollers the Speech guy. "Nothing explosive here!"
"You're finished," screams Wherling. "You're done. Severed. Out. Terminated."
"How could you do it?" asks Mary Brady, a sociology instructor.
"I was worried," I say. "I worry."
"But you've made a spectacle of yourself. You're out of a job. You may never work again."
"That's not my problem," I tell her. "You can't worry about everything. You can't worry about every little goddamned thing."