This is the story of a father who is estranged from his daughter.
|It was Friday morning, Stephen was still lying in bed. Two hours before he had started up from his sleep. He believed he had woken from a sound, a thud or a bang or something. But when he listened carefully into the darkness of his sleeping room, there was nothing there but absolute silence. He tried to fall back to sleep again, but after fifteen minutes of counting sheep and then frogs he knew that it was hopeless. There were too many things on his mind.
Above all, he was thinking about the appointment with the Provost that he would be having at 11am. Mrs. Albright had called him the evening before, asking if he could come in. Of course they knew his schedule and they knew that he had to come in anyway that day, so there was no way of making up an excuse. And besides, he had no intention of chickening out on that appointment. He just hadn’t made up his mind yet about how to confront the situation.
He had been pondering over the issue for quite some time now. His instinct told him to not back down, to stick to the fail grade and to stand by his verdict no matter what. But he was also wondering if it was nothing but his shattered pride and diminished ego that were telling him to be confrontational.
Anyway, for the time being, he discarded those nagging thoughts and got out of bed. It was now 8am and the sun hadn’t risen yet. Stephen stumbled into the bathroom, closed the door from inside and stepped into the bathtub/shower. He let the hot water pour over his lean body while he was massaging the shampoo into his slowly greying but still blackish hair. The sound of water splashing into the bathtub and the steamy fog that was filling the air were welcome and very soothing. For a few seconds, Stephen wasn’t thinking about anything at all.
But as soon as he stepped out of the bathtub and grabbed the towel, he was anticipating the discussion with the Provost again. He was thinking about all the arguments the Provost would probably bring forward, and he was thinking about his possible rebuttals. He already pictured himself quoting the paragraph about plagiarism and explaining the importance of principle. But while doing that, he was equally discouraged by his memories of his past discussions with University officials, or, come to that, any discussions with superiors. No matter how hard he worked on his arguments before a debate, he would always fall apart within the first minutes, especially if the debate or discussion didn’t go the way he had expected. And they usually didn’t. And on top of that, he got shaky and nervous when he believed the adversary to be wiser and more experienced than himself, which was pretty much always the case. It was only when he was alone with his students that he felt mostly confident and smart. But when it came to secular, administrative confrontations that had nothing to do with French literature or grammar, Stephen felt that he wasn’t tough-fibred enough to stand up to those in charge. And he secretly admired these superiors for their cleverness and sang-froid.
As Stephen walked into the kitchen half an hour later, now fully dressed and ready to go, he noticed a china bowl with some leftover cereals and milk in it on the kitchen table. There was a glass of orange juice beside it, almost full to the brim, and a big silver spoon next to it. The three items together on the white Formica table looked like a contemporary still life and Stephen felt the urge to take a photo with his cellphone. It also occurred to him that this still life was a metaphor for the relationship he had with his daughter. There were traces of her existence all over the house, and her physical presence was mirrored in the things she consumed. The glass filled with orange juice however, appeared like a symbol of her constant state of “being on the run”. Because, whenever Stephen walked into his daughter in the apartment, she always appeared to be on the verge of leaving. And it made him feel like he was an oppressor and she was a fugitive suffering under his rule. She was there, but she wasn’t there. She was trying to escape.
“Jessica, are you there?” Stephen shouted into the apartment. There was no answer.
Twenty minutes later, Stephen was sitting in his car, driving to work. The university was located in Manhattan and he always took the Interstate 495 in order to avoid the toll. Reaching Hell’s Kitchen and driving on 57th street, he took a left on 8th avenue and continued to the Gershwin theatre. He drove his car into the adjacent car park and walked ten minutes on foot before he reached the entrance of Hailsham University. As he entered the sacred halls of the venerable main building, he felt his confidence shaken a little more with every step he made. And when he had reached the secretary’s office, his sweaty palms transpired onto the door handle as he seized it. A slippery push ensued.
“Ah, there you are.”
Stephen was a little taken aback when he saw the Provost’s tall figure standing in the secretary’s office, right next to Mrs. Albright’s desk. He had expected John Stewart to make him wait for half an hour or more in the antechamber. He had expected the Provost to leave him to stew in his own juice a little before going in for the kill. Instead, he was standing there, cheerful and lighthearted, not a care in the world. The matter that they were about to discuss and which had been bothering Stephen for the last few days, seemed tediously trite to the Provost.
“Come on in”, the Provost said, “I’d like to show you something”.
He put his arm around Stephen and led him into his office. On the threshold he threw his head back to Mrs. Albright.
“No calls!” he said, closing the door behind him.
They walked into his office, together, like two friends, or like a young man with his kid brother. John Stewart steered the guest away from his desk and towards a large table next to the room’s only big window. On the table there was a small model of the university building made of taskboard, balsa wood and plastics. Next to the west wing, there was the model of an annex that, on the surface at least, resembled the architecture of the main building. As Stephen stepped closer, he saw the tiny inscription above the annex’s entrance: Hailsham University Library.
“It came in this morning. Isn’t this marvelous?” John Stewart asked, obviously not taking no for an answer.
“It’s quite…remarkable” Stephen replied after a short pause. “I thought that project was off the table”.
“No. It was stalled”, the Provost admitted. “But it was never off the table. And, look here”, he continued, “there will be an extra section for the Department of Romance studies.”
He lifted the top and the front of the annex’s scale model and revealed the inside to Stephen. The interior, as far as Stephen could tell, looked like a blend of traditional and modern architecture: stucco ceilings and walls, but windows protruding out of the building and serving as reading nooks for future students. It was quite impressive. And it was, unlike the old building, very colorful.
“Thanks to our donors, construction will start this summer and the building will be topped out in less than two years.”
Stephen understood. The donors. John Stewart had the slyness not to mention the Fisher family by name, but it was clear to Stephen that their contribution to the new library was probably of paramount importance.
“So, anyway..”, Stephen said, trying to address the topic at hand.
“Yes, your tenure”, John Stewart said, coming a step closer to Stephen. Their faces were only inches apart now.
“My tenure?” Stephen didn’t understand.
“I talked to the board of trustees and they said it’s high time to put you on the tenure track. You’ve been working here for what…three years now and all I hear from the students is what a great mentor you are to them. Just the other day we had one of our scholarship students, you know him, what’s his name, Emilio..”
“Right, Emilio Cortez. We had him here for a photo op, the New York Times is doing a piece on the Hailsham scholarship program for the underprivileged, and Emilio was talking to the reporter, saying how grateful he was to be given this chance, and believe it or not, he singled you out as the teacher who has inspired him most ever since he started studying here.”
Emilio Cortez? Stephen found that hard to believe. He was an undergrad student who took part in his class on linguistic science and never missed an opportunity to lecture the rest of the class on how much he knew himself about the topics they discussed. He was smart, for sure, but he came across as quite conceited and many times Stephen felt challenged by his behavior. The second-guessing, the interjections, the off-topic questions and comments and the occasional arbitrary chuckles didn’t make him a very likeable student. Emilio made Stephen uncomfortable most of the time and now this kid had singled him out as his favorite mentor. Stephen couldn’t help to think that the Provost was lying to him and that this was yet another ruse to make him fall into line.
“So, anyway, about the academic tenure”, the Provost continued. “Of course, we would have to know if that’s even something you’d be interested in. We have never had the time to discuss your plans for the future, so maybe you don’t even have the intention of staying here.”
Stephen, who could now feel the Provost’s breath on his face, gave him a puzzled look.
“Well, do you?” the Provost asked, eager for an immediate reply.
“Well, of course I’m interested. I mean who wouldn’t want a shot at academic tenure these days. And I really like working here, but..”
“Well, great then”, the Provost cut him off. “I’ve got the papers ready and all you have to do is sign them. Let’s sit down and I’ll give you a quick look at them.”
They walked over to the Provost’s desk, each to their assigned places: an Eames Aluminium group management chair with a graceful silhouette and timeless design for the Provost and an Ikea swivel chair for Stephen. On the table, there was a five or six page document held together with a bulldog clip. At the top of the page, Stephen could see his name in bold letters.
“Now, of course you can take this paper home with you, have your lawyer take a look at this. If you have one, that is. But it’s a standard employment contract, nothing fancy, no strings attached, no legal loopholes and whatnot. If you sign this, your title will change from that of a lecturer to assistant professor, effective immediately. Your trial period is six years, usually it’s seven, but we shortened it because of the time you have already spent working here. Well, that’s pretty much it. Any questions?”
Stephen was, for lack of a better words, flabbergasted. Instead of having a heated argument with the Provost, he was offered academic tenure and treated like an honorable scholar courted by his employer. And the Provost hadn’t even said one word about the whole Holden Fisher predicament. Of course Stephen knew that this was all part of a plan, a nefarious scheme plotted by the Provost himself or some higher authority that preferred to remain in the dark. But in the heat of the moment, Stephen had no idea of how to segue into the topic they were originally supposed to discuss. They are offering me tenure, he thought, and the word tenure alone had the power to confuse him. He would have felt really awkward to bring up this unpleasant and controversial Holden Fisher issue, and so, whether consciously or not, he simply didn’t. He actually was still waiting for the Provost to address the issue.
“No, no questions. At least for now.”
“You want to sign it right now?”, the Provost asked.
Stephen screwed up all his courage.
“I’d like to take it home with me first, if you don’t mind?”
“Of course not.”
The Provost stood up from his chair.
“Then that’s that”, he said, extending his hand. “We’d really love to have you on board. I think you’ll fit right in.”
Stephen took the Provost’s hand and endured the firm handshake once again with little if any resistance.
“Thank you”, he said, turned around and left the office and the antechamber. It was only in the hallway that he began to feel a little humiliated by what had just happened.
As if in a trance, he jaywalked his way to the teacher’s lounge again, not noticing what was happening around him. He went through the motions of opening the door, walking towards his pigeon hole and getting out his material for the upcoming seminar. There was nobody else there and when Stephen sat down at the table, he leafed through his file with the material on Lakoff&Johnson’s Metaphors we live by and the clippings from the French right-wing journal Rivarol. Mechanically he glanced at the texts in English and French in front of him, but his mind was elsewhere. What the heck had just happened?
His stupor was only broken, when Jenny Belcher, a lecturer for Spanish, came in through the door.
“Hi Stephen”, she said as she was walking towards the Xerox machine. “How are you today?”
“I’m okay”, he said, void of all human feeling. He looked at his watch. It was high time for his seminar. He got up from his seat, took his file and walked out of the room without any word of farewell to his colleague.
“Good morning, everybody.”
“Good morning, Mister Hill.”
“Alright, so today we’ll be talking about how metaphors can shape our way of thinking. As theoretical background, I will mostly refer to the excellent monography Metaphors we live by, which was published in 2003 by Mark Lakoff and George Johnsen. It’s…”
“Excuse me, Mr. Hill!”
“Yes, Mr. Cortez?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but in our reader it says that the author’s names are George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen.”
“Let me see…yes, you’re right, Mr. Cortez, I’m sorry, I’ve mixed up their first names. It’s George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen. So, anyway, today we’ll be talking about how the metaphors we use can shape the way we think about a certain topic. As an example I would like you to listen to the following metaphors: How do you spend your time these days? That flat tire cost me an hour! I’ve invested a lot of time in her! Now, if you look at the verbs that are being used here in the context of time – to spend, to cost and to invest – you will probably notice that these verbs are regularly used in a different context, which is …?”
“That’s right, Mr. Cortez, but please raise your hand the next time you’d like to say something. But you’re absolutely right, the verbs are usually used when we talk about money: we spend money, we invest money and the things we buy, well, they cost money. But in the sentences I just read out to you, the context isn’t money, it is time, and that’s basically how metaphors work, you take a word out of its original context and place it in another context, because you’d like to emphasize the resemblance of a certain aspect of these two contexts. Now, what does this mean for our context at hand, in other words, what does it say about our understanding of the concept of time, if we use verbs that we originally use when we talk about money? Yes, Mrs. Gilligan?”
“Well, it basically says that time is money. It means that we consider time a limited and valuable resource that we must use carefully. For example, you are giving us some time right now, you use this time to educate and inform us, and we ‘pay’ you by listening carefully to what you say, so the time we spent here together is an exchange, a business deal, sort of. So there is a strong link between time and money. For example, people get paid by the hour, they work overtime and so on.”
“Very good, Mrs. Gilligan, that’s exactly the point Lakoff and Johnson are trying to make in their book. Now imagine a different country, a different culture, with a different language, where this concept of ‘time being money’ is not known, and where these metaphors of ..of finance, if you want, aren’t being used when the natives of this country talk about time. Wouldn’t that mean that they have a completely different concept of time? Isn’t it possible that other countries have a metaphorical concept where ‘time is pleasure’ or ‘time is free’?”
“Which culture would that be?”
“Yes, Mr. Cortez, interesting question, but again, please raise your hand when you wish to say something. There are certain rules when you come to one of my classes and I’d like you to adhere to these rules just like everybody else, okay? Now, what is your question again?
“Well, Mr. Hill, I took the liberty of reading Metaphors we live by and I can’t help to think that Lakoff and Johnson got it wrong. You see, they claim that the way we talk about time defines how we think about time. But I believe it’s the other way round. If we use the example of time, I believe that the age of industrialization and the fact that we live in a meritocracy shaped the way we think of time and that the language or the metaphors we use when we talk about time simply reflect this concept. So it’s not language that defines the way we think, it’s the way we think that defines our language.”
“The chicken or egg causality dilemma?”
“Well, I agree with you that there is an interaction between language and thought, but to me it is irrelevant whether our thoughts define our language or whether our language defines our thoughts, because today..”
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Hill, but how can you say that it is irrelevant? I for one believe that language is just our medium to express the way we think. So language is nothing but a tool that we use to build a sentence or a phrase. Lakoff and Johnson claim that this tool defines our thoughts. Now, I believe that is bogus.”
“Mr. Cortez, you are entitled to have your own thoughts on this matter, I even encourage you to do so, but not on my time. I would like to discuss the way the French right-wing journal Rivarol makes use of metaphors for xenophobic purposes, but if we get caught up in this metaphysical conundrum of yours, then there won’t be any time left. I invite you to come to one of my office hours and then we can talk about your question at great length but NOW IS NOT THE TIME!”
Emilio Cortez blushed. There was pin-drop silence. And Stephen understood this silence as an accusation. The students accused him of being rude and they expressed it by saying nothing.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hill. I meant no offence.”
Stephen sighed deeply.
“None taken. Now can we go on, please?”
When the class ended an hour later, all of the students rushed out of the room. None of them said their usual Goodbye, let alone Au Revoir. Emilio, who was the last to leave the room, was stalling, obviously hoping for a clarifying dialog. But Stephen was way too exhausted and had no power left in him to do what he knew would have been the right thing. So, instead, he just looked at his papers, scribbled something on his notepad and pretended to be immersed in his thoughts, not realizing what was going on around him.
When Emilio had finally left the room, Stephen looked up from his papers and into the auditorium, which was now empty. He suddenly felt the emptiness of the room creeping inside of him, instilling a feeling of loneliness that he hadn’t felt in a long time. But what was weird about this feeling was the fact that, instead of trying to shrug it off, he embraced it.