A floundering Graduate Student has a conference with his English Professor.
|It had been a long, lonely 12 weeks of failure and self-doubt. I was neck deep in the University of Akron’s befuddled and self-conscious Master’s program for English Literature, where subjects like the influence of Elizabethan drama on HBO’s original prime-time programming were not only hot-button issues of paramount importance, but proof the curriculum could stay true to the classics and still be forward-thinking and hip.
It was mid-November amidst a pleasantly unexpected Indian summer. I had a ‘date’ with Dr. Bing to discuss the steady decline in the quality of my weekly writing assignments. I parked my car behind the old Greek church and walked the two blocks through Akron’s downtown to the University’s campus. I came upon an intersection with its four corners marked by two competing gas stations, a liquor store, and a derelict building. It was a soft and sunny day with the blue sky exhaling a sweet breeze as the sedans and box-trucks puttered up and down West Market Street. I noticed a girl on the corner diagonal from where I stood waiting for the walk signal. She was pacing outside of the derelict building, holding an improvised sign written in black marker on a piece of cardboard. The letters were capitalized and the message was concise. ‘STUCK IN AKRON.’ Underneath that, ‘NEED BUS FARE.’ I was impressed that the girl had bothered with punctuation. Her figure flickered between the passing cars as if I were viewing her through a zoetrope. She was dressed all dark in grays and blacks. Her dirty yellow hair was clumped in tight dreadlocks and held back from her face by a gray bandana. She wore a gray v-neck sweater over a black t-shirt and a gray skirt and gray leg warmers over her black spandex tights. I couldn’t see her shoes, but I guessed they were either deck shoes, or Converse Chuck Taylor’s, and most likely gray. The signal changed and I watched her as I crossed the street. She began to turn her head, and sensing imminent eye-contact, I immediately looked down and instead tried to think of something to say to Dr. Bing at our little chat session.
The problem with Dr. Bing was that she readily volunteered far too much personal information. The tidbits were peppered in her lectures and only related to the material in a round-about way. In a lecture about ‘projecting ourselves in what we read’ she digressed with, “My name is Martha Bing. I’m 46 years old. I’m five feet, eight inches tall, and I grew up in the South. How does that effect my reading of, umm, let’s say Percy Shelley’s A Dirge, which, by the way, was my favorite poem when I was a senior in high school, because I was a sullen young woman and found the tone somehow comforting?” Dr. Bing’s openness bothered no one else but me. Most of the class had a reverence and respect that wasn’t exactly misplaced, but far more fervent than I was capable of. They laughed like hyenas at her little jokes, which were admittedly funny in a dry way, but not deserving of the bust-a-gut hysterics they produced. A dumpy middle-aged woman held her with such high regard that she tracked down an essay Dr. Bing had written for a scholarly journal in the early nineties. The woman made an announcement during break praising the essay and its author, politely yet forcefully suggesting we all read it (so we could “get more out of the class”), and informing us that she had extra copies if anyone wanted them.
The English Department was on the third and top floor of Olin Hall, a square cement example of practical architecture at its bleakest. The faculty offices were off a long narrow hall on the South side of the building. Regardless of a professor’s importance within the department, the offices were little more than glorified broom closets. The door to Dr. Bing’s office was opened a quarter of an inch when I arrived. She was talking with someone and I eavesdropped for a few moments. English Comp 1 students were failing across the board. Something needed to be done about it. Any ideas?
“That’s my 3:00,” she said. She sounded irritated, like the conference I had scheduled a week ago was now an interruption and major inconvenience. A man with a beard walked out and brushed past me as if I wasn’t there. “Come on in,” she said. “Have a seat.” I walked into the broom closet. As soon as I sat down I realized that I was sweating heavily and smelled foul.
There were books stacked everywhere. Books in the corners, books on the floor, books on the window ledge, books lined up on the rickety steel shelves hastily drilled into the walls. Books piled on Dr. Bing’s desk beside stacks of MLA formatted student essays. There were posters on the wall of Spanish architecture next to photocopied Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. I didn’t notice any family photographs, which I found surprising. Aside from volunteering information about herself, Dr. Bing was also vocal about her two children. I had learned that her daughter was attending a boarding school in Finland but didn’t like it. Her son was in danger of failing his 12th grade English class, and Dr. Bing was all too happy to point out the irony of the situation.
“So?” She placed one elbow on her desk and let her other arm fall at her side.
Dr. Bing was a strange looking woman, but attractive in a distinctly peculiar way. Her facial features were sharp, with a long thin nose that had a wart resting against the bridge and on top of the right nostril. Although it would be considered an eyesore on any other face, it gave Dr. Bing a bookish charm. Her slender figure had a statuesque quality that was reinforced by her white, white skin. She wasn’t a vain woman, at times she came to class wearing jeans and bleach stained t-shirts. Her hair was cut short and allowed to gray. As far as I could tell she never wore makeup and there were splotchy, yet oddly radiant red hues dusted along her cheekbones.
“Yeah . . . Hi, Dr. Bing,” I said feeling sweatier and fouler with each passing moment of silence.
She sucked air in an abrasive snap up her nose. “Do you have any questions for me?”
“I was thinking of some before I got here.”
The elbow came off the desk and both settled on the armrest of her chair. She put her hands in her lap with one hand clutching the opposite wrist. “Have you started on your final paper?”
“A little bit.” That was a lie. “I have two other bigger papers that I’m focusing on right now.” That I was a lie too. I did have two other bigger papers, that much was true, but I hadn’t done any work on them either. “Right now the paper for this class is kind of on the backburner.”
“How’s your research going?”
“A little tough, but I’m feeling it out, working my way through it.”
“And what about your topic? You still haven’t told me what it is yet.”
“The paper is due it two weeks.”
“Yeah, I know. Oh boy, do I know it. My topic is a little vague right now, but I’m slowly honing it in.” Sweat was collecting around the roots of my sideburns and bangs. Sweat cascaded down my armpits and quickly turned my shirt into fabric swamplands.
Dr. Bing snapped her eyes back and forth across my face, then turned to her desk. “I want to talk to you about last week’s reading response.” She shuffled through some papers.
“Oh shit,” I whispered. I kept my teeth clenched and let my lips silently form the words.
She found the assignment in question, and held it beside her face. Aside from my name in the upper left hand corner, and a single sentence in the middle, the page was blank.
Each week we had to write a two-to-three page response to our assigned reading. Mine were typically wrought with typos, often times incoherent, and no matter how hard I tried, always made it obvious that I had just scanned the material. For that weeks assigned reading I didn’t even do that, opting instead to make a pun on the author’s last name: ‘Lacan . . . Lacan’t.’
“Yeah, Dr. Bing, about that . . .” I trailed off not having anything else to say. I noticed that in all of Dr. Bing’s Calvin and Hobbes strips on the wall, Calvin is at school daydreaming about spaceships and dinosaurs.
“Come on. Really?” She was disgusted and I couldn’t blame her.
“I don’t know Dr. Bing. Sometimes the reading is a little over my head.”
She put the paper on her desk and leaned towards me, resting her elbows on her knees. “Look, I like you.” It sounded flat, as if she didn’t really like me, but was pretending to like me so the whole ordeal would be more bearable. “You always have a lot to contribute to discussions, and you’ve never once been late or absent. But unless you amaze me with your final paper, I don’t see how you can pass.”
I felt like the dumbest boy that ever attempted to flounder through a Master’s program at the University of Akron.
Classes had just let out when I was walking back to my car. Throngs of bright-eyed students with library books and Styrofoam coffee cups swarmed past me. I imagined the bedlam that would occur if I were to pull a gun out of my pocket and shoot myself in the face.
I remembered the girl on the corner and her simple request for charity. ‘STUCK IN AKRON. NEED BUS FARE.’ I looked for her when I got to the intersection, and felt betrayed when I didn’t see her. I walked around the liquor store, then crossed the street and walked around the derelict building. I walked around the gas station. I came up empty handed, and crossed over to the competing gas station. I found her there, sitting cross legged on the pebbles and asphalt. She had her back against the cinder block wall. There was a dumpster to her right and a payphone that had recently been disconnected to her left.
She was rolling a cigarette and looked up as she heard me approach. “Hi,” she said.
“Hi.” I said. After finding her I realized that I had no reason for trying to find her and consequently had nothing to say to her.
“Got a light?” She stood up with the rolled cigarette between her lips.
I silently fished a book of matches out of my pocket and handed them to her. Her fingertips were calloused. The exchange made me feel useful and gave me the courage to speak. “I saw you earlier.”
“Where you going?”
“Where you coming from?”
“Nowhere’s in particular. I normally hitchhike, but I had a bad experience.”
“Comes with the territory, I guess.” She was not very pretty up close. Her face was pock-marked. There were thick dark brows above her yellowed eyes. “I got something for you.” I pulled three crinkled dollar bills out of my pocket. I placed the meager yet sincere offering in her hands.
“Thank you.” She tucked it in a hidden pouch sewed into the waistband of her skirt.
“Wait, I got some more.” I pulled out two coupons for a $1.50 off a pack of Camel Lights, 72 cents in loose change, and some pocket lint.
She accepted. “Thank you,” she said again. It sounded the same as the first one, as if it were prerecorded and wouldn’t change tone or inflection even if I gave her a million dollars and a brand new car. She blinked her eyes, exhaled smoke, and smiled at me.
“Well, good luck.” I turned and walked away. The pace evolved to a steady jog, and once I was sure she was no longer watching me, into a flat-out sprint.
I failed Dr. Bing’s class. I failed my other two classes too, but somehow it was inevitable. I had set myself up for it, encouraged it even. But the trick was to salvage some beauty out of it; to find some undeniable scrap of magic that I could call my own.