A Number He Can't Forget
Our English professor would have made a good mall Santa. He said, "My name is Ted, and this is not a blow-off class."
The first thing he did was go over tricks to remember things. I don't remember what they were.
"You," he said. He pointed at a chubby blond metalhead. "Tell me a phone number from your childhood that you haven't called for a long time."
He stammered out the number.
"Where did it connect to?" asked Ted.
"My stepdad's old house."
"When's the last time you called it?"
"I think I was about ten."
Ted turned to the rest of us. "Once you get something into your long-term memory, it's there forever. Harness this power and you will remember things not only for your tests, but to your grave."
As far as that class went, I didn't need any tricks. I would never forget Ted. I would never forget this class.
The First Assignment
The first thing Ted taught us was that we needed authority while writing, to gain the trust of our readers. So for the assignment, we had to become experts on a single walnut. We were to observe and experiment with the walnut in every way we could think of, and then document it. I ended up with sentences like this:
This meat was once whole, but has since been crumbled by impact, either from being moved in transit or being recklessly handled by a human. The meat is crinkled and lumpy as if it were once larger and deprived of air.
I found that the microwave did nothing to my walnut because there was no moisture within the shell to heat up. "The shell isn't a good conductor of energy," my thirteen-year-old sister told me. Ten minutes in bleach and prolonged exposure to flame did nothing, either. I got an A on the paper.
Eddie sat diagonally from me. He was petite, his cheekbones so sculpted that he was venturing into Halloween mask territory. His hair was gelled into short spikes and he was always hunched over in his purple hoodie. We had some brief, friendly conversations. In one, he told me his boyfriend often went to Massage Heights.
The following week I said to him, "I saw a full-page ad in the paper for Massage Heights, and I thought of you."
Eddie never raised his hand, always went on his phone, and never passed any papers to the front when we had to turn things in. But he came most days regardless. I avoided eye contact with him because he just seemed like a waste. He disappeared two weeks before class ended.
One day, Ted made every fifth student in the room stand up. "One out of every five students drops out of college," he revealed. He had everyone sit down. Then he told us his life story. He was expelled from high school and then excelled in the army for seven years. Afterward, he sold pans door-to-door, he fucked up in a job interview for insurance sales, and his dad signed him up for the Oklahoma School of Baggage Handling. He finally made it to San Diego State University, the first in his family to go to college. He realized his heart was in English, eventually making summa cum laude for one reason alone: the teacher posted grades on the door every week, and he wanted to be at the top. Ted got married, accidentally calling his wife by his ex's name on their wedding night. They had several children, who were now adults.
A few desks in front of me sat an older woman with a peroxide blonde mohawk and steel pole posture. She talked like a bragging Christmas letter. "I have two beautiful daughters, eleven and nine. One has straight A's, and the other is a ballerina."
We got coffee and talked about our papers. I figured she was good to have on my side, since she gave off the vibe that she could get absolutely ruthless. She told me she was forty-two, making her the oldest student in the class. We sat on a leather couch and I had tea and a scone. She had coffee. She showed me a picture of her British husband who had a beer gut and worked as a software developer. She called him her "Hubby." Her story of how they met kept changing: sometimes he was her personal training client, and sometimes they met at a "self-help seminar" called Landmark.
She told me all about sex with Hubby, including trips to dungeon parties and how he poured hot wax on her nipples. She revealed she had received breast enhancement surgery. I stole a glance and they looked like giant googly eyes. She also said Hubby had given her permission to have sex with an eighteen-year-old guy in our class, David, who had blue eyes and tattoos. She hadn't gotten around to it quite yet.
A Purposeful Word Portrait
For the second assignment, we had to explore a public place in extreme detail. "Paint a purposeful word portrait," Ted instructed. "Touch the shelves. If they have dust on them, it speaks volumes."
I went to a record store. The owner had one leg and played albums on vinyl from 1981. A guy named Rick cornered me for twenty minutes and talked to me about something he was writing that was not a philosophy, as he said, but a "philosophical inquiry." I glued my eyes to his, continuously planning my escape in the corner of my mind. "I don't meet many people like you willing to listen to this!" he said fifteen minutes in, making me wonder if most people had the guts to run away.
My classmates were amused by Rick during the peer review sessions. "I know Rick is life-changing, but I think you're going to have to cut him," said Jose, who was writing his essay on a motorcycle repair shop.
We then evaluated the work of another student, whose name I don't remember. He described a casino in thrilling microscopic detail. So many reds. So many spinning slot machines, emitting surreal, mesmerizing sounds. But as the night went on, the dark undertones of the casino came forth. The addiction. The haze of drugs. The mental manipulation. It was gripping. Part of my heart will always lie there, in that casino I have never been to.
Portia and I debated about his name. She thought it was Lance. I thought it was Eric. It was actually Kyle.
Kyle was twenty, two years older than I was, and wore only black. Cute, good-natured, a little chubby with a blond ponytail. He was the one who said he hadn't called the landline number at his stepdad's house since he was ten. He smoked outside at breaks, which earned a disappointed mention in my journal. He told me he owned a thousand CDs and his favorite store was Spin Records. I went there. It was right by the beach and it lit my soul on fire. It made me feel like I was a dirty grunge kid in the nineties.
I burned Kyle a CD filled with progressive rock classics, and he never told me what he thought of it.
Things You Can Do With A Brick
One day, Ted said he was going to measure our creativity. We had to think of as many things to do with a brick as possible. My list went like this.
Pet brick, similar to pet rock
Throw on ice to test for safety
Break window (revenge? Wake someone up?)
Scare someone with a suddenly appearing brick
Paint it, make art
Hollow out, make a box
Exfoliate your foot
Grind up, sell as fairy powder
Make yourself taller
Break up, use as decorative rocks for garden
Weight for exercise
Create sport, brick throwing league, Olympics
Brick decorating arts and crafts kit
Grace always wore sweatpants, an oversized hoodie, and flip flops. She had a sly, charming smile and reddish-brown hair that fell at her chin. She sat in a corner and talked in a loud, sassy voice. One day she said to her snotty corner group, "I knew a guy whose name was pronounced Shuh-THEED, but it was spelled 'Shithead.'"
I yelled across the room, "That's an urban legend!" but none of them heard me. I decided that I hated her.
One day I gave her a chance and said hello to her while walking through the parking lot. She told me she was from Southern Virginia, but her dad got stationed here and she was forced to move and turn her life upside down. She had gained fifty pounds since the move, she said, showing me her prom photos on her phone. It was then I noticed how fat she was now. She didn't carry any of it in her face.
I decided she wasn't so bad. We started chatting about our lives on the bench outside the classroom during the breaks. I told her about my favorite places to take photos. She said she had a boyfriend named Zachary back in Virginia who had a big dick.
Grace may have been fat, but William was obese. His single shirt and pair of pants he wore each day were a little too tight, as if they were from a time from when he was slightly less obese. He had buzzed black hair and blue eyes that were so piercing they made me feel uncomfortable. He sat in front of me, butt crack always on display. One time while we were peer editing essays, he mentioned he had lived in Iceland. "Stepdad was stationed there. There was this time the school taught us about elves—don't get me started on that." He was very easy to talk to, in a heartwarming way you find only in about one of a hundred people.
For the assignment where we "painted a purposeful word portrait," William described the Jack-In-The-Box that he sat in for three hours every day, waiting for his aunt to pick him up.
One afternoon, he asked me for a ride home. All I could see was his ugliness. I told William I had to go home, that my mom needed the car (true, but not for another three hours), and maybe another time. I wish I had given him a ride. William disappeared after spring break.
One day, Ted said that reprehensible ideologies can sometimes have decent points. "Like that organization ... Namba."
"NAMBLA?" I asked. I knew he was referring to the North American Man-Boy Love Association. I had learned about it in the most innocent way possible: a South Park episode.
"Yeah! Like NAMBLA!" he said. "They had some great arguments." I can't remember what he said afterward. Maybe he didn't even say anything.
Another day, Ted told us that sometimes, tragedies are only mental constructs. That sometimes, people make things into big deals when they really aren't big deals at all. He gave an example. "I once knew a young girl who was molested at the age of five. However, the child was neither hurt nor coerced, so the parents said, 'if we make this into a big deal, that's the real hurt.' They didn't get her therapy or anything. And today, she is the most well-adjusted adult I've ever met!"
The class was silent. We usually had this same reaction to anything he said, normal or not. But this time, although I couldn't hear or see it, I knew it wasn't an ordinary silence.
I decided to email him about it.
Saturday, March 09, 2013 8:18 PM
The other day you told a story of a child who was molested and her parents did not seek treatment, not wanting the child to perceive the situation as a big deal. You told the story casually, as if you condoned the parents' course of action.
You were using a micro anecdote to illustrate a macro situation that gave off the message that child molestation victims' pain is an invention. I was not especially offended (I was instead confused at what to make of it) but others in the room may very well have been offended. Just know that one in six girls has encountered sexual abuse, so it's best to handle those subjects with care in a classroom.
This was his reply.
Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 8:28 AM
Thank you. I raised two daughters and have read many papers on the subject. Two of my dearest female friends were rape victims. I know this is a wide-spread problem.
You missed an important detail from the story. The girl was neither hurt nor coerced. I'm sure that if either had been the case, her parents would have handled the situation far differently. Perhaps I didn't stress that enough.
In terms of the micro vs macro, I was using the event to illustrate a statement that had been made about how the situation could be treated under certain circumstances, circumstances advocated by the organization (i.e., no coercion, no damage). I was not suggesting that this approach would be reasonable for girls or women whose situation were different. I was not advocating a position arguing that this should be how things are handled. There is a subtle, yet important distinction.
Again, thank you for your concern for others.
I knew I could report him. I knew that I could print out the emails and paste them all over campus, smearing his reputation. But that was too daring. So I'm writing this. I'm guessing, hoping, nobody who knows him will ever see it.
The Third Assignment
One day, Ted passed out an essay with no name on the top. It argued that adolescence was useless and obsolete. It made some infuriatingly bold points, that American adolescence caused nothing except high STDs, and all of us were dumber than our counterparts in China. "We tried it. It failed. It's time to move on." Ted said that our job was to question and analyze this essay until it was sucked dry.
So we questioned this essay. What would we do with all the abandoned school buildings? Why is Asia better than us? How do you measure intelligence? Are teenagers too stupid to work?
The assignment dragged on for an entire month. He kept pushing it back and back because most people didn't understand the concept of "exploring the argument." In the heat of the assignment, when everyone was ridiculously confused, Ted revealed that this essay was by Newt Gingrich. Everyone groaned. Newt Gingrich, who claimed that waterboarding isn't torture, was the one making our lives so miserable.
We persisted, and I typed the word "adolescence" until my fingers hurt. We projected every future we could think of, and at the end, we constructed an argument. We should keep adolescence, I argued, but modify it to improve sex ed and access to textbooks—which is, now that I think about it, typical Democrat stuff. After class one day, Ted asked me what grade I wanted on this essay. I knew this was a trick question, so I told him I wanted an A. "An A you will receive," Ted replied.
What Ted had said about the molested child was making me angrier. And angrier. So one day during class, I said something. I don't remember what the context was. But I said it.
"I wish I was a professor so I could just be a self-centered jerk and have it be called academic."
The whole room went quiet for a moment. Like the silence that followed Ted's original molestation story, it was a distinct silence. For some reason, I didn't think he'd take it personally.
After class, I stayed to ask him for advice on the third assignment. He said, "You've been speaking up too much."
My head started to rush. I said the first thing that came to mind. "Oh man. You're not the first person to tell me that."
Ted's face hardened. "You seem like an honest person, so I'm going to be honest with you." My vision blurred a little. The next words out of his mouth were loud. "If that's the case, either you're a supreme narcissist, or you have some disorder like Tourette's that makes you blurt out things."
I stood there for a moment. Then, I burst into hysterical tears. I sat down in a desk, facing away from him. I looked at the wall and cried for about five minutes. I struggled to say, "I want to talk this out. I don't want to leave."
Five minutes later, I realized the tears were not going to stop, so I bolted from the room.
I thought about dropping the class. My hairdresser said I should. My mom said I should do what I wanted to. Neither of these answers satisfied me, so I called Portia while sitting in my backyard and told her what happened.
"Well, I'll be honest. You've been extremely disrespectful these past few weeks." She reminded me of my "self-centered jerk" comment. At that point I'd forgotten all about it.
"So should I drop, Portia?"
"It's up to you. But no matter if you choose to stay or go, do it powerfully."
I felt like I couldn't leave powerfully. To me, it would just be quitting. I couldn't escape the truth, that I was learning more than I'd ever learned from a class in my entire life. Arguments, citations, critical thinking—I was really getting the hang of this. As I'd come to learn, not a single class at my future liberal arts school would come close to this community college session on a satellite campus. This was a journey where I got bullied by a senior citizen in exchange for knowledge. There was something about that I liked. So I sent Ted an apologetic email and stayed.
If I could talk to myself from back then, I would say, "You don't have to do anything powerfully. Ever."
The Fourth Assignment
Ted announced that the fourth assignment would be to contemplate happiness. "Average salary has gone up," he said, "but average happiness has gone down."
He showed us a TED Talk. It stated that if someone wins the lottery and if another person becomes paraplegic, they will both have the same level of happiness within one year. Happiness shouldn't be something you should seek, the talk advised. It's something you must synthesize within yourself.
We had to explore this and contemplate the path to happiness. He warned us, though: do not use clichés. Do not say "Follow your bliss." He repeated this request. I had never heard the phrase "Follow your bliss" in my life.
I opened my essay with a quote.
"Happy birthday. Happy year. Happy life. Wishing you all kinds of happiness today."—Hallmark
The rest of my essay was nothing to write home about; just some tricks to synthesize happiness. It didn't really matter, because I was not particularly happy. I was taking this class, working nine hours a week at an ugly furniture store that will not be named. I had a boyfriend who was the type to think he was cool and smart for blowing off Valentine's Day, and a lone friend who said things like, "Remember that dress you bought that looked like an ugly sack?" I wasn't ready to synthesize happiness. I wanted to try for the real thing.
You Must Love America
One day, Ted gave us all a speech about how America is great.
"This is the first country founded on the idea that you can be anyone you want," he said. "You can say anything you want, believe anything you want, and what your parents do means jack shit!" I thought, huh, I guess he has a point.
During the break, I heard Ted talking to Portia.
"My wife said she wanted to get into biking, and I thought, don't do it! I don't want you to get a big ass! But then I looked at women riding bikes and realized it was just the shorts." Portia laughed hysterically.
"You don't want your ass to be too big." she said. "But I got my boobs done. Can't be too big in that area."
Cassidy sat behind me. She had long cornrows. She always talked about her boyfriend, Eduardo, whom she referred to by his middle name, Josh. They had a child together, named Darius. I talked about how my boyfriend often got angry and isolated himself. She comforted me by saying, "It's normal—sometimes, my boyfriend gets into a funk."
One day, I turned around and sat backwards on my chair and she told me a story with a tightness behind her eyes. "After I had Darius, I really wanted a girdle." I asked what a girdle was. "Like, a belt to tuck in my stomach. It got really loose after I gave birth. So Josh and I went to Target and we just took one. Put it in my bag and ran. Two months later, the police came to our door. It took them that long to process it. He was in jail for a week." She had started to cry by the end of the story.
After class one day, Portia sat Cassidy down on the curb and lectured her about Eduardo/Josh as she cried.
"You say he goes to rehab, then comes back and starts selling again? You can't help him. My sister was married to an alcoholic for ten years. Well, one day she picked up four kids and moved across the country, and now she's completely fine. You need to leave him. We are here for ourselves. Not for other people."
Cassidy disappeared two weeks before class ended. Portia said, "We all know why." Cassidy asked me when the last paper was due over text. She said she wanted to see me later, with a smiley face. I ignored her.
Jaymi had a sexy librarian look. A completely emotionless face, glasses, and long brown hair. She always showed cleavage and had a kind spirit.
We had gone to the same high school, but never met. Her dad had died in a car crash when she was thirteen and her mom died of cancer when she was seventeen. She lived with her boyfriend and his mom. She came to my house and we worked on the happiness paper. She hadn't listened to Ted's advice about not following your bliss. The bliss was stamped all over her essay.
I busted my ass to help her. At the end of one of our tutoring sessions, she cried and said that Ted had been a jerk to her. I don't remember what he had said. She then revealed that this was the second time she had been in Ted's class. For some reason, she had chosen him twice.
We went on a walk, where she told me she wanted to be a physical therapist. "I don't want a career," she said. "Just a job."
I told her we would go and report Ted for being a jerk. We never did.
The Fifth Assignment
The final essay was simpler than all the other ones. Ted wanted to give us a break.
He gave us a choice. For one, we would have to analyze an excerpt from a biography on Benjamin Franklin. It was written by Walter Isaacson, a person who had biographed Steve Jobs and went on to release another book on Leonardo Da Vinci. I will never be as impressive as Walter Isaacson (or Steve Jobs, or Leonardo Da Vinci, or Benjamin Franklin).
The other essay option was to write about anything you wanted. I remembered something we learned from the happiness TED Talk: having many options can paralyze you. So I decided to go with the Ben Franklin essay.
"Good choice," said Ted.
Jose was the only person who chose his own topic for the fifth assignment, and people murmured about it. "I heard Jose is really smart! He chose his own topic!" He was short and had a curved nose. He wore a beanie right above his eyelids, so we never even saw his ears or eyebrows. On the last day, Ted said in front of the class, "I'm taking Jose outside. We need to have a talk about his excellent work."
People whispered, admiring Jose, talking as if he was some sort of English prodigy.
"I heard he's not even going to major in English. Such incredible potential wasted," said Grace.
He came back inside the room. He took a seat in the back of the class and told stories. People listened intently, like he was fifteen IQ points smarter than all of us. "One day this guy told me he was taking me to see this really effective method of stealing he had learned. It involved seven people. We all went into Target in the electronic section and six guys kept the six salespeople busy, while the seventh person broke into the glass and made a break for it." This story seems simple, but it took him ten minutes to tell.
"Oh man," said Ted, "I used to steal wine with these three guys all the time. We would just load it into the truck. We were a fucking assembly line. Gotta love being a kid."
Jaymi showed me her final grade: a C. We were both overjoyed. By this point, she, Portia, Grace and myself were all sitting together in a square every day. Ted told us, "You know, if I were a kid in this class, I would have hung out in this corner with you guys. You're all such complex thinkers." Ted told Portia her new black mohawk was beautiful.
"Thanks, Professor," she cooed. "I tried this hairdo because I thought it would be ugly. I wanted to try something ugly."
"My wife has always had long hair," said Ted. "Beautiful, long hair. But short hair just lets you see a woman's face." Somehow, this has brought me comfort throughout my hairdos of many lengths. No matter what it is, Ted will think it's cool. Thanks, Ted.
Portia, Grace and I went out to lunch on the last day of class. Either I got a sandwich and they both got salads, or I got a salad and they both got sandwiches—I forget. They talked about their families and dogs. It felt empty. We were all so different. Without Ted and that classroom, we were nothing.
The Walmart in Carlsbad, California
Grace and I hung out the day before my birthday. We wandered around Walmart and looked at the pool floaties. Later I saw the most violent orange-and-violet sunset I will ever see, with clouds gradually receding in an almost mathematical way. I watched her fill up her tank at 7-Eleven in the dark. She said that if you lifted the handle halfway the entire time, you'd pay less. I never saw her again after that. I never saw any of them again.
Title image "Instructed" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2018.