Monday, April 14, 2008

It sucks to be me

Last week wasn't a good one for Walker. He got the part of Toodles in Peter Pan when he was hoping for Peter or John (who get to sing more and fly), he had some kind of guy-crisis about his running speed at soccer practice, and he got graded down in math class, not for anything to do with the math, which he's brilliant at and enjoys, but because of not putting some of his papers in his math notebook. We took him and Eleanor and a bunch of her friends to see Avenue Q last night and we bought Walker a t-shirt that says "It sucks to be me."

What I always hope about keeping Walker in public school is that it won't entirely crush his spirit. There are only so many things parents can do to keep this from happening. (This morning as he was getting ready for school he said "mom, are there really places where adults curse more than kids?") I don't want him to end up like the main character of Paul Schmidtberger's Design Flaws of the Human Condition, Ken: "as Ken worked his way through the rest of high school, he consciously squished down the ebullience that had gotten him into such hot water in the first place. The problem, though, is that ebullience doesn't put up all that much of a fight. After you squish it down, it doesn't bounce right back to its regular size like the pieces of spongy white bread that Ken liked to compact down to the size of a molar. Apparently, ebullience is less technologically advanced than white bread because after you squeeze a person's spirit away for a while, it just stays squeezed away."

I identify with Ken, who is an adjunct professor of English and works two other jobs to keep from being underemployed. His feelings about student evaluations, for one thing, are similar to mine and, I think, any other adjunct professor's:

Suddenly administrators were falling over themselves to draw up these ghastly forms for students to fill in where they could anonymously say whatever they pleased.
"I think Professor Connelly's course was ok except I don't agree with multiple-choice quizzes on account of how they don't encourage creativity."
"I didn't like it when the red pony died."
"Professor Connelly should definitely not wear his summer khaki suit anymore. Olive is not for everyone and it's doing him no favors."
"Too much homework!"
"My stomach hurts."
The responses were simply amazing. And what was even more amazing was how seriously the administrators took this exercise. Students could snore through an entire semester and wake up just in time to drop a depth charge on the teacher--"I think Professor Connelly is mostly nice except when he starts acting like a major A-hole"--and somebody in the administration would actually take it seriously.

But, of course, Ken has the typical adjunct experience, which is that he reaches one student during the semester, and that makes his life feel worthwhile. While reading a stack of final papers defining happiness, he gets to this one:

And then one student said that happiness is what happens when you go to bed on the hottest night of the summer, a night so hot you can't even wear a tee-shirt and you sleep on top of the sheets instead of under them, although try to sleep is probably more accurate. And then at some point late, late, late at night, say just a bit before dawn, the heat finally breaks and the night turns cool and when you briefly wake up, you notice that you're almost chilly, and in your groggy, half-consciousness, you reach over and pull the sheet around you and just that flimsy sheet makes it warm enough and you drift back off into a deep sleep. And it's that reaching, that gesture, that reflex we have to pull what's warm--whether it's something or someone--toward us, that feeling we get when we do that, that feeling of being safe in the world and ready for sleep, that's happiness.

Design Flaws of the Human Condition is also a funny book, and focuses as much on Ken's friend Iris as it does on Ken. In the end, they get even with those who have hurt them in complicated and highly satisfying ways--which reminds me of a friend I met in college who used to cook up elaborate schemes to get back at boyfriends who had dropped her. But the revenge isn't just meanness. It's an attempt to even the score, to remedy some of the design flaws, those problems with being human that it's hard for anyone to anticipate and to survive uncrushed.


Alison said...

Joe and I looked for y'all in the audience at Avenue Q, but we were at the matinee...

Luckily for Walker, public school, like everything else, is only for now.

Jeanne said...

I was surprised (okay, and delighted) by the volume of cheers and applause from the audience when the song "Only for now" got to the line "GEORGE BUSH is only for now."

Jeanne said...

I am so surprised and happy to see that the author of the (still in proof) title Design Flaws of the Human Condition saw this posting and was happy about it. He said that another person who reviewed it also quoted the "ebullience" sentence (it is a fine sentence, isn't it?).