A night, a dance, and the painful sweetness of love

Standard

For two summers when I was working on my dissertation, I rode my bike from my house to the History Department building at UMKC. I took up at a desk in the graduate student lounge at 9 or 10 in the morning. I worked through the day, sometimes getting a lot done, sometimes nothing. At 5 or so, I got back on the bike and took off down Rockhill.

ruthOnce or twice a week on my ride home, I stopped off at the Department of Conservation’s Discovery Center. I’d walk my bike down behind the building where a nature trail winds through what used to be a neighborhood but is now forest and glade. There’s no trace of the neighborhood anymore except for the guardrails that signify where the streets used to let out on 47th Street. I’d take a side trail what whorls off the main one and dives into a copse of oak trees, where benches rough-hewn from whole logs sit around in a clearing.

I liked it there. Even when rush-hour traffic was heaviest on Troost, 47th Street, and Volker Boulevard, the clearing stayed comfortably quiet. The neighborhood was that way. You could hear the life of the city but it seemed far away. I liked sitting in the clearing because it used to be the front yard of 4825 Charlotte, the house where I first fell in love thirty years before.

Her name was Kaye and whenever I think of her, one night comes to mind. Everything was right in the world. I had achieved, probably for the first time in my adult life, happiness.

That night, when we stepped into the house off the porch, Kaye didn’t turn on the lights like I thought she would. She moved the couch, armchair, and coffee table out of the middle of the room. She kicked off her shoes. The night was quiet, hot and humid. A small fan the corner of the room stirred the air.

She put a cassette in the stereo and turned it down so we could talk in quiet voices. Soothing strains of island music filled the room. She took me in her arms and we swayed on the rug in the middle of the floor. The streetlight out front threw beams through the frowzy curtains on the front window and filled the room with diffuse, soft light.

Her hair smelled like peaches and lavender. At first, I felt a little self-conscious. I didn’t dance well. I moved in jerky, stiff movements. Her body was soft against mine. I felt her breasts against my chest. My heart raced and I was short of breath. She moved me slightly, taking charge of the dance. Soon, the stiffness left me. It was the first time I felt wrapped up with someone as one.

I lost myself. Worries over school, busted car, and lack of money eased. I was happy and contented, an uncommon feeling. My heart slowed and I breathed easily. The dance came without effort. Nothing else existed in the universe but us, together in a house in the middle of the city.

A friend of ours, her roommate Suzi, had introduced us at a party. It may have been the drink, but the moment I met Kaye, she intrigued me. She was quiet but had a powerful presence. She was enrolled in the studio art program at the university, and artists fascinated me. Her conversation was amazing. She was funny, and that got me the most.

There must have been something about me, too. Though I was 20, much younger than her, she agreed to go out with me—a movie and a trip to Loose Park to feed the ducks. I spent an anxious week, waiting for the time I was to pick her up.

We went to the movies in the afternoon. After, we stopped for drinks at the bar down the street from her before going to the park. The ducks followed us around the pond while we talked. We drank wine and watched the sun set. We went back to her house. She had to check to see if her roommate was home. Kaye couldn’t let anyone know what was going on.

She came back out to the street and waved me in. We hid out in her room, which was in the basement. The night struck me as magical. For days, warmth had flowed through me when I thought of her. I found myself smiling all the time. Down in her room, she painted a watercolor for her class. Music filled the background. We drank beer and watched her work.

We were both drunk after the drinks, wine, and beer we drank while she was painting. Inhibitions abated, we made love. Suzi came home at some point and we dashed for our clothes. I tried to act as if nothing was going on. Suzi knew, of course, on but kept it to herself. We all drank together. I imbibed more than either of them. I can’t remember driving home that night.

The next couple of months kept me busy. I worked my summer job at a gas station. Evenings, I spent a lot of time with my drinking friends. Meeting Kaye energized me. When we weren’t together, I drank harder than before. I told my friends all about her, how wonderful she was, and how strongly I felt about her. They were bored and sick of me. But drink has a way of washing away a lot of sin, and they tolerated me. I went out with Kaye whenever she had time. It wasn’t enough for me, but I was up for anything. As long as she kept going out with me, I was happy.

Somewhere in there, my car had broken down. Kaye picked me up the night we danced in the living room. It was about the perfect night. When she dropped me off at home later, I stayed up drinking from a pint she bought me at a liquor store on the way home.

I thought our time together was never going to end. We weren’t together all the time, but enough to keep me hopeful.

One night, we decided to meet at her at the apartment of some friends of hers. I was housesitting about a mile or so away. I walked up Troost to the corner of 55th, where her friends lived above some storefronts there. We had a good time. I drank plenty. After a few hours, she said it was time she took me home.

On the way down the stairs, she said she needed to talk seriously with me. We sat out on the front steps to her friends’ house. We lit cigarettes and looked out over the traffic at the corner. It was a hot night. This wasn’t going to work, she said. A bolt of disappointment and disbelief shot through me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

She said she had planned to marry her childhood beau before she met me. They had sent the invites. Everything was in place. Our relationship confirmed the doubts she had about pinning herself down for a lifetime. She had called the wedding off. She thanked me for helping her make what she thought was the right decision. But now that she cancelled the marriage, she needed time to herself.

I took the bus home. I tried to keep myself under control for the trip up Troost. When I got out at 42nd Street, I started to cry deep heaving sobs. I stumbled my way up 42nd Street and across Gillham Park. I laid down a while in the grass at the center of the park and stared up into the sky through the tears. When I got home, I downed another pint to soothe the ache. It didn’t work. But at some point I passed out. I woke up the next night, hurt and hungover.

I’m not sure I ever got over that relationship. It was my first love, and I’ve been lucky to have fallen in love a couple of times. Sitting in the clearing among those trees that used to be in Kaye’s front yard, I remember that time. I see a young, hopeful man, immature and unready for the blows that would come. I think about our dance and the nights we stretched out next to each other. Her body was soft next to mine and moved with an easiness that I have never quite achieved for myself.

And I think about seeing her years later at an AA meeting. She was still as lovely to me. She gave me a loving, deep hug and said she was sorry to have left me so suddenly years before. But old sober drunks know the past as irretrievable. Good times lead to darker, more hurtful and lonely times. Everything that we’d ever done, drunk or sober, lead us to that hug at the AA meeting.

I wished her well and hoped that her new life was working out for her. There was nothing to forgive, I said. Those were days whose painful sweetness can never be erased.

Why I (don’t) write about politics

Standard

A friend asked me the other day why, if I’m such a radical, don’t I write about political subjects on this blog? I thought about it a little. I am very political in my walking around life. There isn’t a day when I don’t think deeply about democracy, economics, and culture. I hold very strong opinions on legislation, elected officials, and the workings of governments in our everyday lives.

dairy-cow1

The dairy cow, a very political animal.

I don’t often write about individual political matters. Everything I do has a political meaning, including the essays I write for this website.

The reader, you, think all the time about politics, culture, and economics. You may not realize it, but nearly every act either has to do with these subjects or results in a condition that is political, economic, or cultural.

A drive to the grocery store for a gallon of milk, for instance, implies several things. First, you have a car or have use of one that may not belong to you. This ties you into the histories of the automobile and its widespread acceptance as a part of life in the modern world, the road and where it is, and your participation, willing or unwilling, in a capitalist system that forms and shapes the person you are—what you buy, how it gets to be where you buy it, and the decisions consumers, people in commerce, and governments make to necessitate your drive to the store.

Second, your car takes you down a road that’s built where it is by decisions that took place years and sometimes decades and centuries ago. Commerce, government, and individual politicians, as well as their proxies, decided a course for that road and its shape and form. This road connects to others, which then also connect to airports and rail lines. In the United States, you can get from one rail distribution center to another—or from one grocery store to another—on a series of roads, each of which needs bridges, drainage ditches or sewers, and a number of other structures (guardrails and what not) to function as a whole.

The road, by itself, is a product of standardization. The street you drive on in Kansas City is the same as one in Portland, Maine. Imagine, for a moment, a world where streets are not built with lanes, or room for more than one car, or that have different markings. How did they get the way they are? To understand the political, economic, and cultural aspects of just the road you drive on, take a trip to France and rent a car to see how different roads are there than here—or contemplate a moment why Brits (Irish, Australians, Indians, Cyprians, and Maltans) drive on the other side of the road.

The mass of interlocking and dynamic decisions and forces that built the car, the road, the grocery store produce consequences, intended and unintended. Your participation in the results of these forces also have consequences, some of which you intend—the gallon of milk in the fridge (and don’t get me started on refrigerators)—and some of which you don’t: the crash you might be in on the way to the store, the poisoning you get from milk that might be tainted, or the healthier food choices you didn’t make because you have the milk.

Think for a minute how involved governments are in your drive. Is it a city street or county road? How many federal dollars went into building that road? What about the property and gasoline taxes that funded its construction?

Agencies and regulators influence the way the car is built. A city council determines how many streetlights and stoplights illuminate and flash along the route you decided to take to the store. Federal regulations and laws make sure that the road has a certain width. Those laws and other, more local ones, determine the composition and thickness of the road bed, as well as the dimensions and strength of the curb. We never think about why the road sheds water the way it does or what what the surface of the road is made of. Engineers, lawyers, construction companies, raw material providers, insurance companies, and elected officials at all levels enact or influence regulations and decisions that, in the end, come down to your vote, if you vote at all.

Then, there is the host of bureaucrats who, while often maligned, got that road built. They let the contracts and administer the money. Without competent bureaucrats, you’d be taking a horse on a cart path through the woods and between the rocks to buy your milk in a can from a farmer down the way. Culturally, we would not accept that. Those personal standards, too, have a set of historical developments.

Government—local, state, and federal—all influence the grocery store in terms of food safety and the abundance of food there. Government subsidies support milk production either directly with payments to farmers and associations/coops or indirectly with corn and other grain subsidies.

A complex apparatus that begins with the voter put those subsidies in place. You voted for local, state, and federal representatives who then made legislative, executive, and judicial decisions for you. They choose year after year to underwrite a portion of the farm economy. This transfer of taxpayer dollars to you influences your decision to buy milk and which kind—or not, depending.

Who wants to think of all these things? It’s just a gallon of milk. Or is it? There’s gasoline involved and insurance. The engine needs oil. The car needs tires. There’s wear on the suspension. All of it demands you pay sales and excise taxes. The plastic container manufacturers need oil. The farmer needs oil. The machinery the farmer uses need manufacturing plants, and they need employees. There’s a whole lot more to a gallon of milk than just the milk.

It makes a difference on all these processes who gets elected. I stated in essays on this website that I am a die-hard American democratic socialist. I like the New Deal, which Republicans have been waiting since 1932 to destroy. They are in charge now, and they’re gunning for the best parts of the Square Deal of the first Roosevelt and the New Deal of the second. They want to dismantle the programs of the Johnson’s Great Society and just about anything that Clinton did right. They don’t have any new ideas, except to return government and society back to 1890 conditions.

My take on political events, my innate humanity, and will to better the world, is less important, I think, to you, the reader, than the political nature of the act of creation. By itself, creating something that the world has yet to see is political act. It influences the culture. It has an economics. That is, creation is subversive. It makes a something where nothing was before, a something that, until it gains and audience and makes money, the system and the history cannot grasp.

That is not to say that what I do here is original. Far from it. I have a friend who reminds me all the time that what I do is synthesize the cultural phenomena around me into new forms, that may themselves not be very original. It is my lot in life, I suppose, only to see and understand the world from my perspective. But existing forms of government and social control and coercion cannot grasp me or my creative processes.

And, yeah, I realize the developments and devices that lead to this reality that is but a shade of a larger reality, the internet. Computers are as complicated in their arrival and use in my life as the street out front and that gallon of milk. Their history is tied up in culture, in economics, and in politics. But those are subjects for a future essay.

If the fascists get control, which they just may, I still get to create. Hopefully, I will create something that gets me in trouble. In the meantime, I seek to connect and build community, even if that community consists of just you and me.

Baptism at Paddy Creek

Standard

I dream about the spring pool sometimes. The water is so clear, the pool looks to be only a few feet deep. But in the middle, the bottom lies eight feet under the surface. Coming across it, some might think this is just a deep arm of Little Paddy Creek. But the azure water down deep at the cleft of the wall indicates where the water comes out of the ground.

paddy-creekThe pool stretches about forty feet long and twenty feet wide. It sits in a bend in the creek behind some thick willows and raspberry. A forested hill runs down into one side of the creek, where a limestone wall drops into the water. The oaks and elms lean over the spring pool and keeps part of it in the shade all day. A narrow bottomland finesses its way up from the creek to the hills on the other side.

When I found the spring, I was hiking the Paddy Creek Wilderness by myself. Things at home were hard, sometimes impossible. I worked all the time and still barely had enough money for child support, rent, and utilities. Every other weekend, I spent my time with Sydney. I felt sure that what I was doing was wrong, that somehow I was going to screw this little girl’s life up. I walked around in fear all the time. Was my life always going to be like this?

When I wasn’t working on a weekend, I didn’t have a social life to take up my time. I retreated often to somewhere in the Missouri woods.

On this particular weekend, I arrived Friday night at the wilderness trailhead around nine. It was high summer. Night had just fallen when I pulled on my backpack and headed across the open meadows. I held the flashlight in one hand but would only use it if I needed. I like hiking in the dark. When my eyes adjust, I can see farther into the woods than with the light. When it’s on, I can only see where the light shines. I can fell the trail beneath my feet, the exposed rock and dirt have a different feel than the ground either side of the trail. Besides, if I get off the path, the undergrowth will tell me.

I hiked toward a spot I knew well from the many times I’d been there before. The trail hedged down off the plateau and down deeper toward some ravines that lead out to the creek. It weaved around the bases of hills and up over steep rises. I could feel the trail start up again. My heart beat faster as my pace remained the same. I began coming across shortleaf pines, meaning that the ground was getting thinner. Soon, I was walking on plates of bare limestone and knew that I was where I wanted to be.

I rolled out my groundcover and sleeping bag. Mists of stars flew beyond the reach of the pines. Whippoorwills called from the trees around me. Others answered from the distance. I was tired but felt good. Here, I was in my element.

When I woke in the morning, I looked straight up into the boughs of those shortleaf pines. I breathed in the familiar smells of pine duff and resin. I got out of my bag and made a fire for coffee. I walked over to the edge of the bluff. The tops of the hardwoods spread out away from the bluff and up the two arms of the creek drainage. A nuthatch twittered. It walked up under a branch of a pine, sticking its beak in beaks in the bark.

I watched it a long time and then sat down on the edge of the bluff. The sun come up over the hills and illuminated the tree tops. I had been here many times before. Each time, I was a different person. I was just 21 when I first sat on the bluff. A friend had introduced me to both the wilderness area and backpacking. Later, I had just come home from Germany and found myself uncomfortable in the world I’d returned to. The next time, I’d gotten sober and was a father just finding his way.

Something new was happening. I was just beginning to write in a serious way and thinking that I might take off on another long journey, this time across the Great Plains. I meant to find my way again. This place provided me a way to do just that.

After the sun was well up, I packed my backpack and took off down the trail. I didn’t mean to hike the whole 20-mile trail, just half of it. The day had grown hot by the time I made it to the old military road, a jungle path, that went across Little Paddy Creek. There, I’d be able to get some water and set it aside to let the purification tablets do their job. I thought I’d take my shoes off for a while and breathe the air a little.

I got to the creek, filled my bottles, and took my boots off. With my feet in the water, I began to think about being on that bluff. I had not heard the creek and thought it was dry. But here it ran well. The water was cold, too, like it shouldn’t have been. I slipped my boots on, untied, and walked upstream a little.

Past the willows and thorn bushes that grew next to the trail, I found the spring pool. The day was hot and so was I. I took my boots back off and rolled up my pants. The broken chert gravel hurt and cut my feet. I walked slowly and carefully, taking the pain as it came. Stepping into the pool, I found it deeper than it seemed. Careful not to hurt my feet too badly, I took off and hung them on the willows to dry. Wading in, I was soon in over my head. The water was cold and felt good against the heat and humidity of the day.

I dove under. The worries and cares I brought with me on that hike disappeared. All of them. The anxiety I felt almost constantly for months on end eased. Thoughts of work, bills, rent flittered through my head. But nothing bothered me. I swam to where I could stand and look up the valley. I dipped my face in and rubbed off with my hands. Of course, I would take off on a long walk across the Plains. I would go all the way to Montana. I would take a canoe back down the river to Kansas City. I would have something to write about. I would make my life anew.

I floated on my back, my ears beneath the water. Above me, the branches of the trees and the clear blue sky. I felt light. Thoughts that fear had muddied became clear. Leaving my daughter for five months suddenly made sense. I had to do this thing or I’d live my life in regret. I couldn’t do that to my kid. I was coming back and would be her father. Nothing could stop that, not even me.

With the anger, fear, and worry removed from me, I giddily explored the pool. Crawdads skittered here and there on the bottom. Madtoms schooled near the source of the spring. I saw the creek was dry upstream of the pool. The water I’d filled my bottles with came from the spring.

When I emerged from the pool, I felt baptized. I didn’t know if the feeling would last, and I didn’t care. I felt good in that moment and took the feeling with me for the rest of the day.

I have been back to that spring pool many times in the twenty years since I found it. Except in winter, I take my clothes off and wade in. I check to see that the life in the pool still thrives. Nothing seems to change. I come out of the water and look downstream, remembering who I was and how far I’ve come.

Nick dreams of a Tesla

Standard

Last night Nick and I picked up his friend Xavier and we took them to an event to raise money for their school robotics club. I just dropped them off. I could tell that Nick didn’t have any plans for me to stay. After their deal, which I guess took up the evening from 5 until 10 p.m., Nick stayed the night at Xavier’s house. I had no idea when he was coming home but let it lie. I figured he would get home at a time he thought was right.

plazaDespite my faith in him, I called him today when I was on the way to an AA meeting and asked when he planned to arrive back at our house. When Nick talks on the phone, the best you can get out of him is a grunt or one-word answer.

How was the deal? I asked. Did you have fun? What did you do? Grunt, yeah, not much, he said. When’re you coming home? I asked. “I don’t know . . . “ he answered.

Nick is very noncommittal about a lot of things. He just doesn’t like to be put on the spot or pressed too hard. I understand that he has his own way, but I’m kind of impatient sometimes.

“Well, guess what time you’ll be home,” I said. “Give me something to hang on here.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “About 2 or 3.” He said Xavier’s parents would be bringing him home.

That was good enough. I could plan my day—reading and futzing—around that. At least I got him to think about where his day would wind up.

When he did arrive home about 3, I had already done some reading and taken a nap. I asked him what he did today.

“Well, we just hung out, you know. We played some video games . . . “

I thought that was going to be it. Then, he added as an afterthought: “Oh, yeah, we walked over to the Plaza and then just wandered around.”

“No kidding,” I said.

“We stopped in at the Tesla store and designed the interiors for our cars on the computer.”

“They let kids do that?” I said.

“Well, they let us do it.”

The whole thing was pretty cool, I thought. Xavier lives just east of Troost about a mile and a half from the Plaza.

When Nick told me they walked out on their own, it reminded me of the first time Grandma let my uncle Phil and me go down to the Plaza from 4700 Terrace. We were younger than Nick and Xavier–we were probably eleven or so. She gave us money to buy shakes at the Woolworth’s.

I was a little frightened. Phil acted like he was an old pro. He had been to the Plaza many times with his older brother Chris. As much as Phil might have been used to this, the outing was a very big deal for me. It was my first big journey away from the Terrace house. It was my first big trip anywhere on my own.

Living on the outer edge of the city, I didn’t have much to do or anywhere good to walk. We lived in a “nice” neighborhood on a busy street. Blocks and blocks of identical houses spread out behind us. Across the street, empty fields ran out to another neighborhood about a quarter mile away.

There were no sidewalks in my neighborhood. The farthest away from home I ever got was the street behind us, where I rode my hand-me-down bike at my peril. The bike was twice as big as I was, and I couldn’t ride well. The Campbells, the meanest kids in the neighborhood, controlled that street. When they saw me coming, I’d jump off the bike, which I couldn’t maneuver well, and ran. If I didn’t run fast enough, Bobby and Tommy beat the hell out of me.

Phil’s neighborhood interested me more than my own. Tons of kids ran his block. We could ride our bikes without people like the Campbells running their Stingrays into our 1950s-era tubs. Grandma often sent us out of the house and told us to stay outside. We’d play until hunger drew us back home. Then, after a baloney sandwich and some cookies, we ran out until dinner time. Sometimes we stayed out until dark.

The day Grandma sent us off to the Plaza, the sun peeked on and off through the clouds. Phil and I wore jackets against the early spring chill. We hit the open air and tripped down the sidewalk. We walked past Swinney Elementary and descended the 47th Street hill filled the expansive feeling of being on our own. No one was looking after us. We could do what we wanted. When we got to the corner of 47th and Madison, we could see the Plaza shopping district spread out before us. It was all ours.

Phil brought extra change with him so we could play pinball while we sipped our shakes at Woolworth’s. After, we banged around the Plaza for a long time. I don’t remember if we went into any stores or what else happened besides pinball and milkshakes. The feeling of adventure and freedom sticks with me, though. I can feel it now.

When Nick came home, we took off to walk the dogs the two miles they need every day. As he told me of his time with Xavier, I remembered my first trip to the Plaza with Phil. What interested me was that Nick’s journey didn’t seem to be a big deal for him. He just felt he could do on his own. He didn’t call to ask. Permission from Xavier’s dad was good enough. He had the confidence to walk into that Tesla place and get on the computers without feeling self-conscious.

At one point, I said, wow, you guys walked four or more miles today. “Nah,” he said, “it didn’t seem that far.”

I must be doing something right, I thought.

As I think about Nick and his friend now, I wonder what those salespeople thought about two kids nerdy enough to know about the Tesla and savvy enough to dream of their ideal options, fabrics, and finishes.

Failing my class and other follies

Standard

My students are a varied bunch. Some are engaged and love to come to class. They study and turn in good written work. Others don’t feel much one way or the other about the class or their educations. A few don’t have a clue. They come to class out of obligation. Their parents will kick them out of their houses if they don’t go to school. A few of my students work jobs and only know that the society has told them that education provides a way out of their current plight.

failing-studentThen, there are the hopeless cases. Last week, during a session of group work, I called one of the failing students to my desk. He’s a scrawny kid with thick glasses and dark wisps of beard and mustache. Outside of his facial hair, he looked like he was fourteen. He’s been sitting behind a nylon lunch box by himself to one side of the room all semester. He never took notes or talked to anyone. Whenever I asked him a question, he would look at me like I was a silly person and say, “I don’t know.”

He had been sitting with his group, silent and sullen, even looking put out when I asked him to come see me. He walked up and opposite me at the sizable podium with the computer and other “learning environment controls.” He looked very small. He had his shoulders forward in a defensive posture.

“Have you gotten my E-mails?” I said. Every semester before the drop date when students can get out of a class without a grade assessment, I send at least two E-mails telling failing students they won’t make it and it’s in their interest to drop the class.

“No,” he said. He looked at me like I didn’t know what I was talking about. He must have received the E-mails in his student account. But some students, particularly those who aren’t paying much attention, don’t check those accounts.

“Listen,” I said, “you are in a position now where you won’t pass the class, no matter what you do. I don’t have any of the three written assignments. Your test grades are awful. There’s just nothing you can do. Today is the last day to withdraw from the course. You won’t have a grade to count against your GPA, just a W that you can erase when you take the course again.”

He suddenly lost the smirk he’s had all semester. His superior demeanor disappeared. He seemed shocked and afraid. His eyes were open wide. His mouth hung open a little. He genuinely looked like this was all a surprise to him.

I wanted to ask him what the hell he’d been doing in my class or if he even realized this was college.

“I suggest that you take your things right now,” I said. “Go down to the student center and withdraw from the course. It won’t take but a minute. They won’t ask any questions.”

He stood there for a moment. I thought he was going to cry. He didn’t say anything. He plodded slowly back to his group and took up his computer. He sat there all through class. He didn’t contribute to discussion. He just sat there, looking self-conscious.

Regardless of his actions and attitudes throughout the semester, I could tell he was in a state of disbelief. I knew the fear he must have been feeling. What would he tell his parents? Where would he go during the hour and a half he’d carved out for this class? I’ve been in frightful places before. I remember once I got fired from a job and felt the weight of the world crash down on me.

I had the same conference with a student the next class period. The guy was a smart ass. He’s been coming late to class and skating around on the work of others. But he wasn’t going to pass and I told him so. He rolled his eyes and tilted his head back when I gave him the news. He looked like, goddammit, it’s happened again. But he, too, went back to his group and sat out the rest of the class, uncomfortable and self-conscious.

I genuinely feel for these kids, and that’s what they are, kids. They are 18, just out of high school. They don’t have a direction. Secondary education hasn’t prepared them. They don’t know what it means to be academic. Then, they have parents who will want to know what they did with the tuition money. Maybe they have student loans. But the student loan people demand their money back if a student flunks a course. They’ve already spent that money. They are on the hook.

Not everyone’s a lost cause. Four students that came to class today looked like they’d rather have brushed their teeth with sand. Among them was one who I had E-mailed about failing the class. I hadn’t spoken to him personally about getting out of the class before it counted on his transcript. He had skipped class the day I conferred with the other students. It was obvious that he hadn’t checked his student E-mail, or, if he had, he didn’t know what else to do with his time but to come to class. Or maybe he’s one of those special cases: A student who knows he’s going to flunk but likes to come to class anyway.

The four of them sat there, a little forlorn and anxious. What if nobody else shows up? one asked. Another leaned forward on his table, backpack clutched to his chest. He had the best demeanor of the bunch. He smiled when one of the other men (kids) asked if we were really going to have class.

I had prepared for thin attendance. Most colleges and universities take the whole week of Thanksgiving free. My college, however, chooses to convene classes on Monday and Tuesday. We only have three weeks left in the semester. Students are tired and looking forward to the end. When Thanksgiving week comes along, they skate for other environs. Many are off with family in other places. Some just use the short week as an excuse to stay at home and take a nap.

I admired the pluck of these four men. Three of them actually showed up expecting to learn something. I don’t know about the other, as he hasn’t taken a note all semester. Knowing that we would be few, I brought two films from the library: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Quit Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Bush’s War, a Frontline documentary about the Iraq War. They could choose between one of the great movies of all time or a film about one of the greatest mistakes the United States ever made.

Exciting stuff . . . for the history teacher at least. It would be a good break for students, too, who would rather be anywhere but history class.

But when so few people made it to class, I thought about those two students who looked so scared and out of place when I told them they wouldn’t pass. I considered the others who didn’t show up. I missed plenty of class and fucked around a lot in school. But I always made sure I ended the semester with a B average. I’d tried everything I knew as a teacher to get all of the students engaged, to interest them in the material I find so fascinating, even after 12 years of teaching the same stuff to countless students.

I joshed around with the guys a little longer, just to see if anyone else would show up.

“Nah,” I said. “Let’s go home.” They were jubilant.

The teacher in the room before me had officially cancelled his classes in anticipation that few would bother to come. The administration person in our department taped a “blue card” on the door stating there would be no class.

On the way out the door, I scratched out my colleague’s name and scribbled in my own. I was on my way home to take a nap.