This is the story of a father who is estranged from his daughter.
“This is he”, Stephen replied.
Two years before he would have answered this call by saying ‘This is him’, but then he had heard a lecture of a colleague at Hailsham who taught English. He had scrupulously explained the distinction between the answer ‘This is him’ and ‘This is he’. He had claimed that in the sentence ‘This is he’, the verb ‘is’ was a linking verb, and that linking verbs cannot take objects. Instead, linking verbs should take an equivalent word in the sentence, a word of the same grammatical unit. Hence, the only solution to this dilemma was to say ‘This is he’. Stephen couldn’t help but feel silly about these minor details, but on the other hand he was a language teacher. It was his profession, after all, and the last thing he wanted was to seem ignorant of grammar.
Mrs. Albright, who was on the other end of the phone, didn’t seem to care at all about this specific distinction. She just said, what she had to say.
“I’m calling you on behalf of Mr. Stewart. He would like to know whether you have come to a decision regarding your tenure?”
“I have”, Stephen said, although he hadn’t.
“Do you wish to sign, then?” Mrs. Albright asked in return.
“Yes, I do.”
The determination with wish Stephen said Yes took him by surprise. In the days before he had caught himself pondering the issue subconsciously and mulling the pros and cons of a tenure at Hailsham. The financial security that came along with it was tempting, no doubt, but his moral instinct told him that this offer was nothing short of an attempt to extort him. If this whole story of Mr. Stewart cooking the books, or rather ‘cooking’ the grades of students from wealthy families, the acceptance of tenure would cast a questionable light on him. If you were so opposed to this policy of good grades in exchange for generous donations, he heard the fictitious journalist asking, why did you accept tenure? Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
But there was also Erin Brock’s sentence resounding in his head, that you can ‘only hijack a plane when you’re on it’. If he rejected the offer of tenure now, his days at Hailsham were probably numbered. And John Stewart would probably use this rejection against him in some way. So why should he back up? He could accept tenure and once his trial period was over he could use his status to dismantle the mendacious deceit at Hailsham. Whether he really had the guts to do that was an entirely different question.
“That’s great”, Mrs. Albright continued. “According to your schedule, the Department of Romance Studies has a conference at 9:45 am this morning, correct?”
“If it’s okay with you, Mr. Hill, I’d like you to sign the papers prior to this conference. Could you drop by at my office at, let’s say, 9:30?”
“9:30 it is!” Stephen Hill answered, feigning an all too jovial mood.
“Alright, thank you, Mr. Hill.”
An hour later, Stephen got into his car and drove to Hailsham. Although academic tenure was something Stephen had always dreamt of, he couldn’t really enjoy the outlook of his future career. And he started despising John Stewart even more for offering him tenure with such a bitter aftertaste. But he would sign, that much he knew. I’m not going to give John Stewart the satisfaction of pulling out of the fight and turning down academic tenure, he thought. In the end, I’ll hopefully have both: moral victory and tenure.
Although hesitant in the hallway, he walked as casually as possible into Mrs. Albrecht’s office. He greeted her almost heartily, glancing at the door that led to John Stewart’s office and hoping not to have to meet him. Then, as he saw that John Stewart wasn’t in, he confidently whipped out his ballpoint pen to sign the papers Mrs. Albrecht was showing him. All in all, he had to sign the contract on four of eight pages. When he was done, he said ‘Thank you and have a good day’ to Mrs. Albrecht and rushed out the door. When he saw that the air in the hallway was clear and that he was in no danger of bumping into John Stewart, he continued to the Department of Romance Studies. He reached the Department at precisely 9:38 am and entered the medium-sized conference room in its east wing seconds later. He saw his colleagues who were teaching either Italian, Spanish, Latin, Portuguese or French and he thought he saw the heightened respect for him in their eyes. They probably know about the tenure, he thought.
But they didn’t. It was an illusion. They looked at him just like they had looked at him before: friendly and disengaging. It was Stephen’s perception of himself that had changed. Four strokes with a pen on four pieces of paper had been enough to think of himself as a seasoned and accomplished teacher.
“Good morning, dear colleagues”, John Acheson, Assistant to the Chair, greeted the Faculty staff. “Before we get to our first item on the agenda, I’d like to extend the warmest regards from Mrs. Novey who is currently at a conference in Rio and therefore unable to preside this conference. Now, let’s get down to brass tacks…”
Acheson, who was widely considered a sycophantic suck-up by most of the Faculty’s staff because of his apparent cozying up to Mrs. Novey, opened the conference by rattling out a bunch of numbers: The amount of students that were currently enrolled at the Department and the number of new students that had already applied for the new semester. Then he broke down those numbers for each Language department. As always, the number of students of French was the highest and the number of students that were studying Portuguese or Latin was the lowest. These numbers mattered to the audience to the extent that everybody who taught French, Italian or Spanish heaved a sigh of relief when they heard that the numbers of new students were higher than the years before, whereas the teaching staff for Latin and Portuguese (especially those without tenure) feared for their jobs due to the infinitesimal amount of freshmen. But apart from the numbers John Acheson didn’t address the issue of downsizing staff at all. Everybody knew that if there were to be any layoffs, they would do this in a more discreet fashion.
Once the Assistant to the Chair had revealed those numbers, he moved on to less important matters. He quantified the budget for the entire Department and then broke down this budget for each language department. Then he boasted with the outstanding success of the graduate students of that year, comparing it to the rather moderate success of the students at the rival university in their area.
“The Provost, Mr. Stewart, by the way”, John Acheson said, “was very pleased when he heard those numbers. He explicitly urged me to thank you for your hard work, commitment and dedication. And, of course, I’d like to join the Provost in his praise of your work. So, thank you and give yourselves a hand.”
Everyone in the room clapped their hands in praise of their hard work, but the facial expressions on some of Stephen’s colleagues told a different story. While most of them were genuinely smiling and apparently accepted the gratitude without any second thoughts, a few faces turned to stone or virtually went into convulsions. Stephen especially noticed an expression of disgust, even hatred on Sally Fielding’s face. He tried to catch her attention although he didn’t quite know why. Was he trying to show her support? Did he want to let her know that he was in unison with her?
It didn’t really matter because she just held her head high and looked straight on. And Stephen managed to suppress his impulse to stand up and shout at her: “Hey, Sally, John Stewart is a dick, right? The way he forces us to change grades n’all. Let’s team up and beat this SOB!”
After this intermezzo of support for their own faculty, John Acheson moved on with the agenda. It was all rather dull and boring, and that’s why Stephen had always disliked these conferences and usually used the time to think of other things. But when they finally came to the twelfth item on the agenda, a formal request by the head of the Spanish department, Stephen Hill couldn’t help but be intrigued.
When Acheson called up the point, Jorge Ramirez, a bulky and black-haired Spaniard, stood up, looked around the table, paused for effect and then started his obviously well prepared little speech, with an accent that was very Spanish but not in the least sexy.
“Dear colleagues, today I come to you with a matter that, I believe, can no longer be swept under the rug. It is a matter of some importance and it will show what we, as a Department of intellectual acumen and vision, are made of.”
This opening statement of course had everybody on the edge of their seats. For a moment, Stephen thought that Ramirez was going to talk about John Stewart and his deceptive practices, but a moment later he knew that this was virtually impossible. Especially, after he heard what Ramirez really wanted to talk about.
“Whenever students at our Department write a term paper or a thesis”, Ramirez went on, “we provide them with guidelines of how we want these papers to look. And for years now, we have not only allowed, but actually told our students to write their term papers in fully justified text. We told them to use a font size of 12pt, single spaced line pitch and indentations of 0,4 cm for left and right column margins. Now, while I can get my head around the font size, the line pitch and the indentations, I cannot, by all means, I cannot grasp the benefit or value of a fully aligned text. For years now I have been reading, correcting and revising term papers that were written in justified text. And I for one am sick of it. Therefore, I am proposing a motion that we as a department put an end to this practice. I am proposing the motion to change our guidelines for term papers from full justification to left justification.”
With this, Jorge Ramirez sat down and enjoyed the silence that he had caused with his diatribe against full justification. Two or three members of the conference were suppressing a fit of laughter and chuckled, but all the other eighteen members looked as if Ramirez had just proposed a perfectly reasonable motion.
“Thank you, Jorge”, John Acheson finally said. “I open this forum now for a debate. I hope that we can complete this debate within the next ten minutes and then move to vote on it. So, if you’d like to argue in favor of or against the motion proposed by our esteemed colleague Ramirez, now is the time.”
A moment of silence ensued. Stephen first impulse was to turn the whole issue into ridicule and, looking around, he saw that a small number of his colleagues had the same impulse. But, as always, it was the first public contribution that would define the course of the following debate.
“I believe that Jorge has a point”, Carl Stamos, one of the ancient philologist said after Acheson had given him the floor. “If you took a look at the fully justified texts that were given to me these last eight weeks, you wouldn’t believe how disconnected some of the words within a single line were. People claim that it makes a paper look better, more organized even, but to me, that simply isn’t true. And by the way, I heard that the German teachers at Hailsham have already changed their guidelines to that effect. And they all seem to be very happy about it. So, I support the motion, is what I want to say.”
As Carl Stamos had made his point, Judy DeVos raised her hand. Acheson gave her a nod.
“First off”, she started, “I can understand why many of you believe this to be a matter so trite, so inane that it doesn’t deserve your attention. And my first reaction was tantamount to indignation. But, to quote from Japanese Hagakure: Matters of great concern should be treated lightly, and matters of small concern should be treated seriously. We as a department of humanities are bound to aesthetic intuition and I believe that a fully justified text might look good on a business report but that in humanities it equals the disfigurement of a term paper. Therefore, I second the motion”.
There was another moment of silence. Despite the display of short yet studied elocution and flamboyant oratory, many of the faculty staff was still unimpressed. It took almost a minute, before John Acheson himself chipped in.
“I don’t seek to bring this discussion to an end, I just thought about something in regards to the remark that the German department is changing their guidelines to left justification. The German language is a language that consists to a very large extent of compound words that will make fully justified texts look awkward. But when it comes to Romance languages, which do not deal with the same amount of compound nouns, I believe that the distinction between a full or left justified text is dispensable. This issue with the compound nouns, by the by, always reminds me of my first time in France: I wanted to go to the movie theatre one night and they had a screening of The Horse Whisperer, starring Robert Redford. Now in German this film was entitled Der Pferdeflüsterer, so just one word. But in French they had turned the title into a relative clause: L’homme qui murmurait à l’oreille des chevaux, which literally translates with The man who whispers into the ears of horses. Well, nevermind, I’m getting carried away. But, apart from that: changing the guidelines involves an awful lot of red tape and if we don’t manage to lead by example, we will end up being the only department, besides the German department maybe, that goes rogue. So, the question I am putting to you is this: Are you, are we all as scandalized as Jorge when we read a fully justified text, or do we think that Jorge is according this matter an urgency it hardly merits?”
This last question of Acheson, as rhetorical as it was, hit the spot with many of the teachers present at the conference. And Stephen was also disheartened due to this ‘debate’. It had shown him that academics very often engaged in placebo debates, debates that were so quixotic that nobody in his right mind would give a damn. But the fervor and passion with which colleagues like Jorge Ramirez threw themselves into such a debate revealed nothing but their self-centeredness. Colleagues like Jorge were not tough-fibred enough to engage in debates of real social importance, and what was worse: they knew it. Jorge Ramirez knew that, above everything else, he wanted peace and stability in his life. Having reached academic tenure was the pinnacle of his success and having reached it at age forty was even more remarkable. But what was he to do of the time left? His job as a teacher was routine, the students were more or less the same year in and year out. Jorge of course could become a political activist, write theses, articles and books on social issues, but that would have meant a lot of work and the endangerment of his status quo. And he was too much of a coward to endanger that. So he chose to engage in surrogate activism, fighting the good fight for the ragged right alignment, as if that was a matter of life and death. How pathetic, Stephen thought to himself. And how very much like myself, he added. I am no better. We are all a bunch of cowards, hiding in the ivory tower of academia. All we do is observe, while others outside campus are acting, lashing out and actually fighting for a better world.
As for the rest of the so called debate, there was just more of the same. There weren’t all that many arguments and everything had been said already, but some of Stephen’s colleagues liked to hear themselves speak and therefore reiterated and belabored the few points there were to be made. When it came to the vote, it became clear what the Department of intellectual acumen and vision, as Jorge Ramirez had put it, was really made of. Three colleagues voted in favor of the motion, four against and all the remaining thirteen members, afraid of putting anyone’s nose out of joint, abstained from the vote. So did Stephen.
That evening, after Stephen came home from this conference and the ensuing lecture, he was feeling blue. What should have been a day of triumph and relief (after all, he was on the academic tenure track) had turned into a day of disillusionment. All his accomplishments, his articles, his papers on language science, his study projects and his seminars were now nothing more than a small pile in the empire of dirt at Hailsham. His frustration turned into anger and his anger bore a name: Holden Fisher. He had started all of this. This stupid kid with his wealthy parents had shown him his place.
In his study, Stephen booted his computer and put on his headphones. He started off by listening to music from Ludovico Einaudi, but the soothing sounds of the Italian composer weren’t able to calm him down. Stephen took off the headphones and just sat in front of his computer screen for a moment. Then he leaned over and, out of pure intuition, googled the name of Holden Fisher’s father, George Patrick Fisher. When he clicked the first of more than three hundred thousands results, he learned that George Patrick Fisher was the heir of a large chemical company that mainly produced fertilizers. He had inherited the company from his father in the 80s and had managed to diversify the business to the extent that he was listed in the Fortune 500. One of the other hits linked Stephen Hill to an investigative report in which Fisher’s name was mentioned as the head of a foundation called AFEV, Americans for economic vitality. This foundation, it seemed, was financed for the most part by the wealthiest industrials in the USA. In one of the pictures that the internet had on George Patrick Fisher, he stood next to David Cook, who was ranked 8th in the World’s billionaires list. This David Cook, in turn, was the focus of a book entitled ‘Black Money’, written by Jane Fyer. The book showed how foundations such as the AFEV sought to influence politicians not only by launching ads and commercials, but also by staging small political revolts that would lead to new factions inside an established political party such as the GOP. Stephen, intrigued by the information, downloaded the e-book version of ‘Black Money’ and looked at the chapters. One chapter was on universities and schools and since that was Stephen’s area of expertise, he started by reading this chapter. The information that was given in this particular chapter was appalling. The meticulous research by the author explained how the wealthiest millionaires and billionaires bought professors, doctors, tutors and lecturers to infiltrate the schools and universities in this country. They thought that if they could use the teaching staff to influence public opinion, they would eventually manage to control that public opinion any way they liked and use it to pressure politicians to pass laws – mainly tax exemption laws - that would help their businesses. The climate change, for example, and the growing public awareness of it, had led to laws that were interfering with the businesses of gentlemen like George Patrick Fisher and Charles Cook. Because of these laws, the EPA now had the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater or carbon emission standards for the industry. And this bugged the industry. And in order to fight against this new policy, industrialists like Fisher and Cook sought to get down to the root of the trouble by questioning the concept of climate change altogether. They paid scientist to prove that climate change didn’t exist and that the weather has always been subject to change. They would pay politicians to argue that the forced reduction of carbon emissions would lead to a massive increase in layoffs and create civil unrest. They would have scientist argue that reduced carbon emissions would lead to infertility if they had to. It was disgusting, pure and simple disgusting.
After reading on the internet for more than an hour, Stephen’s head was spinning. He was wondering if Holden Fisher’s father had already infiltrated Hailsham with moles that would argue in favor of his agenda. He wondered if John Stewart was simply one of George Patrick Fisher’s underlings who would do anything to change Hailsham the way it suited the AFEV. He wondered if his dilemma with Holden Fisher’s grade was just the tip of the iceberg and whether there was an entire conspiracy hiding behind the Hailsham administration. But he also wondered if he wasn’t exaggerating.
Sure, he thought jokingly, this must be a conspiracy as powerful as the illuminati order. And I’m the brave civilian that will topple this regime of businessmen that work in the shadows.
Before Stephen went to bed he concluded that all this information really didn’t matter. In the end it boiled down to one question: Would he go back to John Stewart and tell him that he wouldn’t change the grade? Would he unify with other teachers and stand up to this practice of faking the balance sheets?
And Stephen’s answer was still the same: He wasn’t sure.