A Strange Resentment
“The frustrations set in, the strange resentment. My students are writing so much and I am not.”
I’m taking a writing class in New York City, and these words are from the instructor’s blog. She resents all sixteen of us, perhaps me the most. We are of the same generation, she and I, but took different paths in life. We started out teaching high school; while I went on to a career in communications at American Express, she struggled as a writer, editor, and adjunct professor. Perhaps we typecast each other; I saw an aging hippie with long grey hair, jeans, and a fierce manner, and she saw a corporate type, privileged, and nondescript.
“What’s most challenging about adjunct work, in fact, is not the students—who I have already confessed here I come to adore—but the fact that we are so devoted that our own work suffers. There is a lot to read, there is a lot to prepare before each class. I also have tutorial students and private clients.”
She has “come to adore us,” despite how we take her away from her own (more important) work. Wait a minute, I think as I read her blog, which she asked us to do, what’s going on here? I feel as though I’ve been slapped in the face. What if my psychiatrist blogged that she feels a strange resentment toward me? I get to do all the talking, and she’s tired of it. When is it her turn to talk? She’s so devoted to me that her own vocal chords have atrophied from lack of use. Our teacher is deluded if she believes she is “devoted” to us. We annoy her, each of us in his or her own special way, as we sit obediently in a circle around her at too-small student desks in a charter school on West 22nd Street. She stands in the center, walking around to get a better look at us. The class runs until 9:00 p.m., the room is overheated, and we are all tired after long days at work.
I’m the oldest student at sixty-one. In a blog, the teacher labeled me “the widow.” Dwayne, the only man, is tall and good-looking and quiet. He’s from Jamaica and writes beautiful essays about his impoverished childhood. Then there are the women. I’ll start with Anna, because she struck me as especially smart during the first class. She is a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr seeking to find her way in the world. She has a beautiful, open face, but she’s tough; she grew up in the rough New Lots section of Brooklyn and is proud of it. When she told the teacher that the first essay – dated and insipid –we’d been assigned to read did not move her at all, the teacher was shocked and brushed her off. I thought, boy oh boy, there will be sparks between these two.
There is Stephanie, with her long hair, wide eyes, and horn-rimmed glasses, a Cornell graduate who plays banjo in a band and works for Ken Burns. When she wrote an essay about meeting Pete Seeger and how it had a profound impression on her, the teacher was unimpressed. She chided her for wondering how people could be drinking lattes at Starbucks as Seeger marched by. “Be careful,” the teacher said. “You go to Starbucks, too.” Huh? Doesn’t the teacher get it, that after you’ve been hit by something, as I was by the initial diagnosis of my husband’s melanoma, you look at people in the grocery store and wonder how they can just go on with their lives. Don’t they know? That it ends?
And the funky, quirky Laine who admits to being addicted to gossip magazines and wrote a hilarious piece about a porn star. The teacher told her that this was not a humor-writing class. Most shocking of all was the teacher’s behavior toward Melanie, a sweet-faced young woman who works in advertising. She shared an essay on what it is like to have a younger sister with brain damage; it is the first time she had opened up on this subject. The teacher told her that she must see a therapist before she attempts to write on this topic. (And our teacher is not going to take on the therapist role; she has her hands full with us as it is.)
And our doctor, the red-haired, green-eyed Cynthia. The teacher decided that she had issues with grammar, since she grew up in a Hungarian-speaking household in French-speaking Canada. One day my cell phone rang, and it was the teacher. She wanted me to use a “gentle touch” and help Cynthia with her grammar. (Because she was so busy preparing for our weekly sessions.) Stunned, I was my usual accommodating self, and agreed, joking that I am a grammarian at heart. “Of course you are,” was her snide response.
Then there are the two blonde, blue-eyed women from Norway, relief workers for the United Nations. They appear shell-shocked at the classes they manage to attend; I don’t think it’s from their work in war-torn Africa, but rather from the teacher’s abrasive manner.
“And not wanting to give my students any kind of short shrift, I don’t feel particularly comfortable with this resentment, though I know it’s very common among working writers who teach. I’ll probably talk to my students about it on Wednesday. If I am not doing my best, they’ll let me know.”
Right. We’ll let her know. It’s impossible to speak in class; we are frozen, afraid of her. After she urged us to write or call her if we faced obstacles, I wrote that I couldn’t write about being at Woodstock as agreed for the “witness to history” assignment because I could barely remember it. I had another idea about meeting Margaret Thatcher and shared information – too much, it turns out. In class, she referred to me and said she has no time to read long emails, because after all, she has “tutorial and private clients.”
What’s the difference? A private client sounds hushed, secretive, prestigious. I imagine private clients discreetly entering her Upper West Side apartment building as they would their private banks. She made it clear that I am not a private client and thus am not entitled to take up any of her private time.
“And I find my students inspiring, too. The class is dynamic and keeps my mind clicking.”
How does a mind click? Mine is what the Buddhists call a “monkey mind,” jumping around and around, rehashing my life ad nauseum. How can I get my mind to click away, as hers does? She may find us inspiring, but she does not inspire us. Rather, she focuses on herself and long-past accomplishments and belittles ours. We know about her screenwriter husband from the famous literary family, her daughter upstate who grows all her own food, the lifeguard at her pool, the manager at her favorite bookstore.
When the doctor wrote about an earthquake where she felt powerless to help, the teacher brought up an incident where her mother, a doctor, failed to jump into a swimming pool to save a drowning child. The child died with a doctor within yards of her. The incident has tormented our teacher for years. With good reason, I think. Perhaps this is the explanation for her bizarre ways. Her mother failed to jump into the pool. Of course, since our teacher has long been in therapy, she likely thinks she has resolved this.
“So, dear students, forgive me if I am a bit distracted now and again. It means I’ve done all the preparation for our workshop by Monday afternoon and have been able to immerse in my own writing for a day or so.”
How wonderful. Done with the arduous preparation – recycling old reading lists and quotes about writing and scribbling a few words on our essays – she has a “day or so” for her own writing. It amazes me how unaware we can be of our behavior. I hate to criticize, knowing my own failings, but with her, I cannot resist. And why not, given what she wrote on her blog about another teacher:
“I took a course with Robert McKee, a Hollywood type. The wannabe screenwriters sat and listened to McKee pontificate about how a screenplay is made. If someone dared to raise their hand with a question, he abused them verbally.”
Take that, Robert McKee! And speaking of grammar, I see why she asked me to help the doctor, who writes extremely well at three in the morning after long days supervising residents. “If someone dared to raise their hand.” Is someone singular or plural? Grammarian at heart, I know it is singular: “If someone dared to raise his hand.” Or, for those who don’t accept the masculine as universal, “If someone dared to raise his or her hand.” Take that, dear writing teacher!
Elizabeth Titus has been a journalist for Gannett, an English teacher, an advertising executive (Doyle Dane Bernbach), a communications director and speechwriter (15 years at American Express), and a freelance writer and blogger. She has a BA in English (Skidmore), an MA in English (University of Pennsylvania), and an MBA (Wharton). She lives in a 1930s socialist colony in Connecticut as well as in Manhattan. She has published articles with the Weston Magazine Group, Westport News (Hearst), Ms. Magazine.com, Skidmore Scope, and MORE.com (Meredith) and will soon appear in Narrative and Talking Writing.
Cold but Intimate Friends
I loaded up a box with books, books I’d carried around with me for as long as I could remember. Some of them were already old when I bought them, and now in some of them the pages are yellow and brittle. I don’t know why, but I opened up one of them and broke off a little piece from the corner of a page and rubbed it between my thumb and finger. It was dust in no time.
I loved many of them. They had held me up when there was nothing else going. They had been with me longer than family and friends. They had been with me when one job faded into another. And in a turbulent world, they were things to rely on. See, you can feel pretty bad about yourself when you’re dead broke because everything on television, every store, every billboard or advertisement tells you you’re not part of the club. You aren’t going to Jamaica. You aren’t moving into the house with the pool. You aren’t driving off into the sunset in your new car, and even if you are driving off into the sunset, even if you do have a car, say an old one with bald tires and shot shocks, you’re not going to be able to afford whatever is out there once you get there. The fun, the world, the rest of life is out of reach. You’re the kid kept after school, the dog in the kennel, the trapped ghost.
So I was broke again, between jobs. That’s why I had the box of books to sell. It’s a miserable business, selling your books. That marks a low point because you don’t get anything for books, and that means you’re desperate. It would be easier to drown a bag full of cats. Most of my books were good books, too, good authors, some of them first editions. A few even signed! And they were clean. I took care of them. Like this one, here, Joyce’s Ulysses. I made a scholar out of myself reading this one. Studied it. Read Ellman’s biography on Joyce, Stuart Gilbert’s skeleton key criticism. I didn’t have to. I wanted to, wanted to understand how this big strange flowing work of genius was put together, what made it tick, who the mad scientist was behind it. I could drink, smoke, wander all I wanted so long as I was studying this book. That’s what kept me from sinking below the surface. That’s what kept me from going to the dogs. Whatever it was, illusion or truth, I could call myself a scholar and believe it. That’s what books gave me, these cold but intimate friends.
I had to hide the ones I had written in under the ones I hadn’t written in. They give you less if you write in them. Can’t blame them. Who wants to read other people’s moronic marginal comments? See what they underlined? It’s a distraction. I understood that. Yet of my books, the ones I had written in were the hardest to get rid of. I felt like I was plucking out chunks of my own memory and throwing them away.
I knew where I wanted to go. By now I had made the rounds of most of the used bookstores and knew how they operated. A couple of bookstores never bought anything. They only sold you stuff. I had no idea where they got their books to begin with. Estate sales? Most places just gave you pennies. Selling books is not a way to get rich. You really have to be down on your luck to sell books, and you know it, and you feel it, and you show it when you are. But there I was, hauling my books into the book shop and dropping the box on the counter. I had been here before, bought books here before. I knew the guy who owned the place, but I couldn’t remember his name. I hadn’t been in to buy anything in a long time. Couldn’t afford it. The owner had aged, paunched up, puffed up sitting like a snail for years surrounded by stacks of books. The place was a mess, with towers of “overstock” on the floor in front of the shelves, books on top of books and on top of the bookshelves so high you couldn’t reach them, some with spines turned away. It was a crazy, ramshackle place, but I loved it, loved that old world old book old wood smell, as though Turgenev or Camus or Yeats might come walking out of a wall at any moment, loved the old book shop owner with his stained shirt and dirty fingers and bad teeth—last of a dying breed.
The owner might have remembered me. “Hey,” he said, “Got some books there?”
“Cash or credit?”
And that’s when things soured. These shop keepers love you when you ask for credit because they move merchandise and don’t have to deal out any money. They give you more for your books, too. But this wasn’t a time for credit. Sometimes you need food more than books. I needed something more than food, though, and the way I figured it, at this point, I was like one of those characters at the end of Fahrenheit 451 who has memorized a book or two because the government was burning them all—I had read all these books, and they were all in my memory, somewhere. Under hypnosis, I thought, I would start reciting any one of them. That’s what I told myself.
“Well,” the owner said, pulling books out of the box, and he had that look on his face like he was doing something morally reprehensible, paying cash for used books, and I, this guy bringing in a box of books, was to blame. That’s the spirit of a moment like this. The way this owner looked, he might as well have been buying children for slave labor. And he was not unique in this. Other bookstore owners reacted in the exact same way: distaste, disgust, as though the person bringing these books in were lower than a beggar.
“Here,” the owner said after separating the books into two stacks—what he would take and what he wouldn’t. He wrote down a number. “I can give you this for these,” and he turned the paper with the number on it towards me and put a hand on the stack of books he wanted.
“Why you—” I wanted to slap the guy. He wasn’t even offering pennies! He was offering ha’ pennies. Why, there were some good books in there! I had once gotten three times the cover price for a book by that creepy Palahniuk guy, and these books were ten thousand times the quality of his book—ah! What could I do?
“Fine,” I said.
I took his money and the rejected books and left. I tossed the box with the remaining, unwanted books in the trunk of my car. I felt ripped off. I was hot with it, and I wanted to get some kind of revenge, some kind of justice, but there was none to get. The money I had wouldn’t last long. It never did. So I lit a cigarette and seethed and glared at the bookstore and glared at the other little shops on the street and glared at the people hustling along in the rain. Nothing. They returned nothing. And I thought, at this point, I could go to the grocery store or the bar. The grocery store, or the bar. I thought about it and made up my mind, then I turned, heading north, and that has made all the difference.
Douglas Cole is a native to the Northwest. His work can be found in The Connecticut River Review, Louisiana Literature, Cumberland Poetry Review, and Midwest Quarterly. He has work available online as well, in The Adirondack Review, Salt River Review, Avatar Review, and recorded a story for Bound Off. Work is forthcoming in the Red Rock Review and a novella to be issued as a chapbook in the Overtime series of Workers Write Journal. He received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry for a selection called “The Open Ward,” and a Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House as well as First Prize in the “Picture Worth 500 Words” poetry contest by Tattoo Highway.