Sarah had once drawn a pretty good likeness of Benjamin Franklin riding on an alligator; it had meant something too, at the time. But that was when she was a sophomore sitting through a lecture on the Enlightenment. Sarah hardly doodled at all after starting graduate school, and she hadn’t done it at all since earning her Ph.D. So what she was doing now could be considered new but also old.
The city streets had fallen unnaturally silent, or so it seemed to Sarah. The only light on in the apartment was her desk lamp. Though it was past midnight, she wasn’t even drowsy; on the contrary, she felt charged with too much energy, all of it negative. She put on a disk of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. The music didn’t suit her mood the way, say, Beethoven’s Appassionata would have, but she wanted to keep the volume low. You couldn’t really play Beethoven softly; his fury would keep trying to break through. Sarah still felt infuriated herself but she was a considerate neighbor. She didn’t want to disturb rheumatic Mrs. MacKenzie on the one side or the newlywed Schmidts on the other.
As soon as she really set to work on the drawing Sarah became thoroughly engrossed. When the last Shostakovich fugue ended she didn’t even notice. When she finished the third and last version of the cartoon it was 1:45. She gave the thing the smirk it merited then picked up a Sharpie and drew a black box around it. The image had popped into her head as she balanced unsteadily on the northbound subway home. It felt just right, irresistible in fact, purely visual, the joke taking a second or two to register, no caption required.
Satisfied with her work, feeling the little thrill one does at an impulse both imprudent and irresistible, Sarah decided what she would do with it then went to bed, though not to sleep.
Instead of sheep, Sarah counted good students. Susan Lefkoff, Brian Gorzynski, Kiameshia Jackson, Elaine Shu, Chandra Choudry, Gloria Hernandez, also Max Kraft. These kids were anything but sheep yet willingly did what she asked of them. All had ideas of their own, were all lively young people eager to learn and understand. They smiled at her; they got her jokes, read the assigned texts and formed opinions which they eagerly shared. Chandra Choudry even thanked her after each class. It was balm to think of them; nevertheless, they couldn’t displace the faces of Daniel Shelton or Dean Puzzulo. She dreamily imagined Mr. Shelton with his cell phone, pacing through his home in Greenwich, Connecticut. She pictured the house as a colossal ersatz Tudor, with a four-car garage, a pool and tennis court.
She had met with Daniel Shelton in her office only twice. On the first occasion he had come to complain about the grade on his paper. She had provided the students a long list of topics from which to choose. The assignment required an historical analysis at least six pages long and informed by a minimum of two primary sources. Shelton had chosen the Civil Rights Movement but wrote exclusively about affirmative action or “reverse discrimination” as he and his two sources, neither primary, referred to the practice. The paper was a clumsily written polemic, one extraordinarily lacking in both historical context and accuracy, not to mention self-awareness. Sarah had wanted to fail it but had, rather spinelessly, given it a C-, justifying herself on the grounds that it was, after all, on time and six pages long.
Daniel Shelton had stood in the doorway of her office holding the paper by one corner, as if it were a dead cat.
“You graded this down because you don’t agree with me,” he declared without preliminaries.
Sarah, not all that surprised, remained calm. “You’ve read my comments?”
“Some of them,” he mumbled.
He took a step into Sarah’s tiny office, filling it up, looming over her. He slapped the paper down on her desk.
“Why don’t you take a seat,” she said quietly. There was only one chair.
He hesitated, looked at the chair as if he might pick it up and hit her with it, then sat.
“Did you look at the factual errors I marked?”
Sarah pointed to the first sentence. “Well, here, for instance, you define affirmative action as a quota system, which is not only untrue but illegal. In the next paragraph you misquote Justice Powell’s decision in the Bakke case and get the date of the decision wrong by a decade. On page two —”
“Affirmative action is a quota system,” he interrupted truculently. “My father says so and he happens to be a very successful lawyer.”
Sarah took a moment to consider how best to respond to this assertion. Students are not the most reliable narrators; however, in this case, she thought Shelton might well be telling her the truth. Could the father have written the paper? The grammar was rather poor for a very successful attorney; yet it was probable that Daniel had at least discussed it with his father. Her urge was to teach her student, not defend herself against him — much less his father. She looked at the boy’s large angry face, the expensive clothes.
“Let’s talk about your use of the phrase ‘unearned privilege,’” she suggested.
“You mean discrimination against people like me? As you must be aware, Professor, the kind of people who got the most out of affirmative action are white women.”
And from there the conversation had rapidly gone south.
Over the next couple of weeks, when he deigned to attend class, Daniel Shelton sat frowning, arms crossed, ostentatiously not taking any notes. If one of his classmates expressed a liberal opinion, he pulled a face or audibly scoffed.
On Daniel’s second visit to her office, the day before, the dead cat had been the bluebook containing his answers to the midterm examination.
“How could you possibly give this an F?” he demanded. Sarah could see the question was not a rhetorical one.
“I’m sorry, Daniel, but the University Registrar doesn’t acknowledge any grade lower than an F.” That’s what Sarah would have liked to say. What she actually said was, “Your examination received an F because there were an insufficient number of correct answers.”
This time he didn’t cross the threshold of her office. He muttered something that didn’t sound like a compliment, turned on his heel, and tramped down the corridor, pausing only to punch the wall.
The next morning Sarah received an email with one of those red “high priority” exclamations point on it. It was from Dean Puzzolo’s secretary and invited her to visit the dean in his office “at her earliest convenience.”
Though not yet 50, Dean Puzzulo was old-fashioned for a modern dean, the sort of man the English upper class used to call “clubbable.” He was tall, good-looking, with a seasoning of gray in his thick hair, a pleasant manner, good diction, a deep and resonant voice. He looked like a dean. His career as a practicing academic was just long enough to get his dissertation published and pass muster for tenure. Then it was straight into administration, his true calling. As dean, his chief interest was in raising money, which he hygienically called “development.”
Dean Puzzulo wore gray slacks and a black blazer over an immaculately white shirt with a tie striped of the University’s colors. He invited Sarah to take a seat and indicated on which of the unpadded jet black wooden chairs he wanted her to do it. His desk chair was a throne and well upholstered so that it would, so to speak, compromise with the sitter’s imperfections.
The dean began in an apparently confidential tone. “You’ll be wondering why I asked to see you or perhaps you’ve already guessed. It’s about one of your students, Daniel Shelton.” Here the dean paused briefly, as if expecting Sarah to say something. “He’s in your American history survey, I believe.” Another caesura. “Look, Sarah, I really shouldn’t be discussing such things, but you need to know that the Sheltons have been approached. I’ve been personally cultivating them. In fact, I had dinner at their home last month. You may not be aware that the College’s largest donations come from parents, not alumni.” The dean paused a little longer this time, waiting for Sarah.
Sarah said nothing.
The dean resumed, a bit less pleasantly. “I’ve had a phone call from Mr. Shelton. I suppose you know why.”
Sarah was getting good at self-censorship. “These aren’t the grades we’re paying for?” Sarah would have liked to say, but didn’t. She was on her second one-year contract and it had not yet been renewed. At least the dean didn’t mention that, but then there was hardly any need to do so.
He rolled his chair back and crossed one leg over the other. He opened his arms in the style of Jesus blessing the multitudes. “Look, I understand,” he said benignly.
Sarah removed a copy of her midterm examination from her bag and also the Xerox copy she had prudently thought to make of Daniel Shelton’s bluebook.
She stood up, leaned across the desk, and handed the examination to the dean. “In response to question three, ‘Briefly describe how the Second World War ended,” Mr. Shelton wrote ....” Here she took out and put on her reading glasses, though she didn’t really need them. “‘Russia was defeated in 1948 when the Allies — Britain, America, and Germany — marched into Moscow, put Stalin on trial in Nuremberg, and then killed him.’”
The dean started to interrupt, but neither Sarah nor Daniel was finished.
“‘It took a little longer to win in Asia. In 1950, the Chinese army drove right through South Korea and Mongolia and captured Tokyo, forcing Emperor Yamamoto to resign on an American battleship, the Mississippi.’”
The dean uncrossed his legs and then, with a tight smile, he shrugged. “Of course the grade’s entirely up to you,” he said. “Nobody questions that. But look, you’re new at this job. And you’ve made a very promising start, Sarah, very promising indeed. You’ve got high standards and I respect that. I wouldn’t want it otherwise. Yet sometimes we teachers have to show a little compassion, a little sympathy.” He picked up a piece of paper. Sarah could see it was a spreadsheet. “I noticed that your average grade for last semester was 2.7. That’s a tad low. Your colleagues’ fall between 3.0 and 3.3.” He put the paper down and leaned forward. “Mr. Shelton informed me that Daniel’s been going through something of a rough patch lately and ....”
Sarah got up early, having dozed for an hour or two and arrived at school before seven o’clock. The place was vacant, all the doors closed. Her footsteps echoed on the linoleum of the lobby. She went to the mail room and ran off two photocopies then proceeded down the empty corridor to the Dean’s Office. The reception area was unlocked but neither of the two secretaries came in before nine. She glanced at the polished door to the dean’s private office. It too may have been unlocked, but Sarah didn’t intend to go in. She lifted a tape dispenser from one the secretaries’ desks. She stood on tiptoe to fix her cartoon at what she estimated to be Dean Pezzulo’s eye level. Then she went up to her office to review her notes for her nine o’clock class. But, before she did so, she looked at one of the photocopies of her drawing.
At the left, a dozen college students in blue jeans, sweatshirts, ball caps, and ponytails are shooting arrows in high arcs. To the right, four professors in caps and gowns dash this way and that, lugging huge round targets, trying desperately to catch the arrows as they fall.
//Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. His most recent book is The Artist Wears Rough Clothing. Another, Heiberg’s Twitch, is forthcoming.