DID I MISS ANYTHING?
The Iguana Fight
I was about take roll in English 101, when one of my students burst into class, saying, “Two iguanas are fighting in the parking lot. It’s amazing!”
This was Specialist T.J. Grier. He was a nice kid with a big mouth, taking classes between tours in the Middle East. He was someone who always had something to announce when he entered a room, who planned his arrival to be the last in the door so that everyone would listen, but his sincerity here was impossible to mistake. He had seen something worth reporting on.
Half the class stood up and pulled out their phones. It was a Friday afternoon. I sighed and said, “Bring your notebooks and a pen. You will be writing about this.”
The very smart students and the very stoned students were confused, but the rest were happy for a change of pace. I was planning on having them free-write about the upcoming Chinese Moon landing, but this would do.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Iguana fight.”
I ushered them out of the classroom, across the courtyard, and into the faculty parking lot. Sure enough, there was a small crowd gathering around two lizards each about a foot and a half in length, hissing and puffing themselves up. They danced around each other, grappled for a split second, and then released. One of the lizards tossed the other under a parked car, but it emerged unfazed, and the crowd cheered.
The campus of the Great Northeast Community College of Philadelphia was tucked into an industrial park off of Route 1, Roosevelt Boulevard. It was not a beautiful campus, or a historic campus, but they did their best. The buildings were aligned in such a way as to obscure any view of the twelve lanes of traffic just five hundred yards away, but there was nothing to be done about the noise. The men and women of the Physical Plant worked hard though—there was the occasional fountain, some square-sheared shrubbery, and seasonal flowers in planters that did manage to create a certain illusion. A non-denominational chapel played patriotic tunes on its small set of bells above the din of eighteen wheelers. The city was near, but our Ivory Tower was not of it. These iguanas apparently bought into the idea of oasis as well.
But across the boulevard was the old Nabisco factory, still belching smoke that was vaguely vanilla wafer and vaguely sulfur. To the North was a factory that made windshield wipers. To the South was a strip mall with a takeout place that specialized in hot wings, and an adult movie store, anchored by a roller skating rink with a liquor license. The landscape was daring my students to fail. It was planning their Friday nights for the nightmare future.
Carey Jasper looked at me, pen in hand. She was taking notes. “Iguanas aren’t natural here, are they?”
“Community Colleges?” I said. “I don’t know. I don’t teach Biology.” It struck me as a dumb question, and my patience in those days was thin.
Carey was a bright girl, but one of the few students in this class who wouldn’t chalk up my strangeness as a teacher to what was going on in my personal life. Our three year old son, Benjamin, had been kidnapped from his day care along with nine other kids just before the Winter Break. And though I was technically back to work in January, Freshmen Composition was low on my list of concerns. I assumed most of my students knew about Ben, but I never brought it up. There had been a very objective article in the GNCCP Expounder last semester, and a brief update when the Spring semester started. I hadn’t commented in either. But Carey seemed to imagine there was a well-thought out lesson here if only she could decipher it. The idea that I couldn’t give a damn where these iguanas came from, much less how she interpreted the event in a 500 word essay, might have broken her heart if she learned it.
Popular wisdom suggests that students in community colleges aren’t ready to hack it in traditional four year schools. But like many of my students, Carey didn’t fit this assumption. She was intuitive, motivated, and didn’t seem plagued by any serious, extraneous restrictions to her education. She was not a single mother. She was too young to have spent time in jail or the military. I assumed she was a student here strictly because of financial reasons. Many students in their first year often felt the need to explain to their classmates why they were there, as if community college were a sort of 12 Step Program they were trying to battle their way out of, or worse, were condemned to endure. Carey never did this. At first, I admired her. She did not hear the siren song of the looming, cookie factories, the Friday nights drunkenly rollerskating and eating hot wings. She genuinely wanted to be educated.
“What if my argument for the paper was about the dangers of keeping large lizards as pets?” she said. One of the iguanas had the other by the throat and it seemed the fight was just getting good, but she was already drafting her thesis statement.
“Just enjoy the fight,” I said. “It’s not something you’ll see very often. Take in the details and evaluate it later. Remember what we talked about in the chapter on Memoir. Making sense of the past and what not.” I was only half-paying attention to her—after seven years of teaching this sort of material, I could turn a trip to the mailbox into a three page essay. Mainly, I was wondering if I would be able to sneak a cigarette during the commotion. Since Ben had been kidnapped, I was smoking a lot more, and judged each moment of unofficial time in my life as an opportunity to indulge that habit. Smoking was banned on campus, but surely, an iguana fight, the tragedy of my kidnapped child, etc. might allow me some leeway.
Plus they enact these laws and no one enforces them. Find my son, I’d think, and then I’ll follow your rules. Prove you can enforce something real first. The penalty for smoking in public was $50. Some days my nerves were so frayed, I would’ve gladly paid that for the pleasure of the deep puff and exhale.
“So…how the iguana fight changed me?” she said. Now the lizards were both raised on their back legs, trading blows like tiny, 65 million year old boxers.
“Just watch, Carey,” I said. “And keep in mind that the majority of readers already know what constitutes an appropriate pet.”
Most of my students were filming the fight with their phones. It was not note-taking, but it was better than nothing. The rest, with less capacity, were texting about the event. They were writing, in a sense. A few guys from Physical Plant arrived on a golf cart and watched with arms folded like, We’re going to have to clean up something before this is over.
The fight intensified—louder hissing and more vigorous tossing–until one of the iguanas did not emerge from under a parked Honda Civic. The crowd waited five minutes, though the winning iguana left after just three and disappeared into the azalea bushes. My students looked at me. I had the most authority here.
Moments like this were terrifying to me as a teacher. I’d read about school shootings and the brave instructors who orchestrated daring escapes for their students as murderers stalked the halls. The bleeding but defiant librarians using books to block bullets. The cafeteria cooks smart enough to lock students in coolers until the gunfight was over. Would I be able to think on my feet so well? Would I put myself in danger for these goofy kids? Of course, the iguana fight was not nearly as serious. But these 25 students, who usually specialized in finding new ways to ignore me, were waiting for my wise decision.
I peered under the car and there was a distinct lump. The Physical Plant guys mumbled into their walkie-talkies and sped off. I borrowed a piece of notebook paper from Carey, and wrote:
“To whom it may concern: there is a dead or injured iguana under your car. No one put it there on purpose—he/she lost a fight. Be careful when backing out, as I estimate the beast to weigh 20 pounds or so. Signed, A Colleague in Higher Learning.”
I left the note on the windshield, and directed my students back to the classroom. We had twenty minutes until the period was over.
The faculty parking lot was in direct view of the English Department chair’s office, and I assumed that Dr. Ricker was already writing me an email as we walked back to class. This was our only form of communication—the way I was hired, the way I was assigned classes, and given goals to achieve or rules to enforce. Other than her photo on the English Department website, I had little proof that she was real, and not just a somewhat predictable algorithm. Ben’s disappearance had given me a free pass for awhile, but she was growing tired of my dilemma, my absence at faculty meetings and teacher development potlucks, my insistence on using a textbook from three years ago, my resistance to being observed by Education majors from other Universities. She had sent me a number of emails over the Winter Break graciously opening the door for me to quit, but I replied enthusiastically and claimed to be reading a new book about pedagogy that I found inspiring and was anxious to implement.
This was half-true. A sample textbook had been distributed to the instructors before Christmas, entitled Community Writing for the Community College. I had paged through it while the house vibrated with Ben’s absence and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” played on the stereo. The book suggested that if my students weren’t up to completing a three to five page essay, perhaps they could design a poster. This was described as a “multimodal project,” though it sounded like arts and crafts to me. What would a C+ poster look like? The book also suggested that if my students were struggling they could be arranged in groups and each would contribute a sentence to an essay in a sort of round robin until it was completed. This was described as “collaborative invention,” though it sounded like a game played at pre-teen sleepovers. The book undermined the kids and me. I considered throwing it out into the snow, but instead put it on my bookshelf full of other bad ideas about teaching.
I assumed Dr. Ricker’s fear was that I would experience some sort of mental break right, say, in the middle of describing the format of an MLA works cited page, and would scar the students in some way. MLA style would forever be associated with insanity for the students, and that just couldn’t happen. I didn’t feel that fragile though. Or at the very least, I knew I’d have the presence of mind to lose it in the comfort of my own home. In fact, I’d already imagined how it would happen many times: me, on our back deck staring at some discarded toy as the sun sets, or some fading bit of his chalk-work as the rain started to fall. At which point, I would “break,” in a way that was both tragic and predictable. I was not there yet, and I doubted it would ever arrive. It had been too long by now.
All of which to say, I was already composing my justification to Dr. Ricker for taking the students out of class to observe the iguanas on our walk back to Jensen Hall. And if she fired me, I’d sue.
Once everyone was back in their seats, I lowered the overhead projector, turned on the computer, and we looked at a few iguana fights on YouTube. There was a fair amount posted. We spent some time evaluating how typical our experience of iguana fighting had been. Was it an exceptional case of this occurrence, or standard in so far as largish lizard battles go? We all sadly agreed that what we had seen was typical for the genre, though the genre itself was somewhat uncommon. There were more videos on YouTube involving dogfights, or fights between homeless men.
In the remaining five minutes, we brainstormed about adjectives we might use to describe the event. We came up with: awesome, green, exciting, violent, fun, scientific, warty, bite-filled, under the car (a prepositional phrase, but an important detail nonetheless), sad, disappointing, typical. I wrote them all on the board and dismissed class.
I liked my students. And while I lied to them that their lives were better for having read The Scarlet Letter, or for emulating the writing style of the essays of E. B. White, I did have their best interests in mind. I encouraged them to write about what concerned them. They had too much work to do, they told me. They thought there wasn’t enough parking on campus. They thought the legal drinking age should be lowered to eighteen. Most of them were eighteen. They thought marijuana should be legalized too, but mainly to help elderly cancer patients in severe pain.
Being a teacher is hard. On my worst days, I laughed at the students who couldn’t manage to do the work, I resented the kids who thought they were smarter than me, and was bored by the ones in the middle. On my best, I admired their reaching, their confusion, their occasional brutal honesty. Some admitted abusive parents in narrative essays in heartbreaking ways. Some had a genuinely new understanding about books decades old. Some even understood that I was potentially a fraud, and used their essays as a way to hint at that.
I wanted them to learn and I wanted them to enjoy the class. I wanted them to identify with me and also idolize me. I wanted them to just listen when I said something out loud, to just look up from their very smart phones. I wanted such complicated things. They wanted Bs. But most could live with the C.
Carey stayed after class to debrief as always. It should be said that there was no sexual tension between us at all. The cliché of male instructors mooning over freshmen girls is greatly exaggerated. Objectively speaking, she was an attractive brunette who probably wore expensive, matching bra-and-panty sets, but she was half my age and whiny and sheltered and prudish and literal and a Business major. To be fair, her interest in me was only because I was doling out grades, as well. She undoubtedly thought I was cynical and crude and old enough to be her grandfather and not nearly as smart as her high school English teacher who, by the way, had considered her a genius. Still, our conversations about her work were often intense, as she was always trying to find out what I thought was important or right. She was pleased when we could come to some agreement, and frustrated when I often admitted to her that I wasn’t always sure what was important or right, but that she wasn’t being either in her work.
“I’m thinking of taking my essay about the iguanas in a different direction,” she said, once the rest of the class had left.
“Okay,” I said, “But you know I haven’t even given an assignment about it yet. I’m not sure what the parameters will be.”
“I know,” she said. “I just want to get a head-start. I want to make larger connections, like you always tell us to do.”
“That’s good,” I said. “So what’s your idea?”
“Well, that sort of fight in a city parking lot is pretty weird,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Pretty odd.” I was packing up my book-bag, hoping to hurry the conversation along. But she was right: iguanas were not native to Philadelphia.
“And I read about that flock of birds that dropped dead in the suburbs the other day,” she said. This was also true. Two thousand red wing blackbirds had fallen out of the sky in nearby Glenside with no explanation. The experts had suggested some sort of high altitude storm or lightning burst. The paranoid assumed a new plague was on the way. But the news cycle turned and the birds were shoveled up and forgotten.
“I heard about that too,” I said. “I’m glad to hear you are reading about local affairs. That will make you a better writer.”
“And all of those kids that were kidnapped from that day care,” she said. Carey still looked me in the eye when she brought up this point. Was it possible she didn’t know?
“Okay,” I said. “So where is all of this leading you?”
“I’m not sure yet,” she said. “But I’m wondering if there is a connection.”
I sat down on the desk and stared at a corner in the ceiling. I considered telling her that if she dared compare Ben’s kidnapping to the death of a few birds or a fight between lizards, she would fail the course immediately. But I didn’t. Instead, I said, “Well, some more research might be necessary here. To say that odd events are connected by their oddness undermines the very nature of an event being ‘odd,’ doesn’t it?”
She furrowed her brow. “I guess.” She heaved her enormous schoolbag onto her shoulder. I hated giving these sorts of explanations to students, but it often diffused an otherwise drawn-out meeting. I didn’t really want to hear her connections.
“What I mean,” I said, “is that events are odd when they have no explanation. But connecting events just because they have no individual explanations might not lead to any real argument.”
She stepped back, and checked her phone, then muttered, “I just wanted to make an A on the essay.” My students checked their phones constantly, would type a text message just after they asked you if God was real. They didn’t see it as rude. It was their version of patience.
“Look,” I said. “Here’s a heads up. Monday there will be an in-class writing assignment on describing the iguana fight. After that, I doubt I’ll be asking you to think, much less write, about it. Don’t stress yourself out. You’ll do fine.”
Finally, she walked to the door, and said, “There’s a lot of odd things going on, Mr. Duffy. Someone should figure them out.” Then she was gone.
I looked back at the list we had assembled on the blackboard. It had taken the class a full five minutes to come up with just twelve, dismal adjectives. It was not all that different than the TV shows Ben used watch where some animated monster would prompt, What color is this red triangle? Is it blue? No. Is it yellow? No. Is it red? Yes, the red triangle is red.
I erased the board quickly, scared of what the next instructor might think I was actually doing in this class.
The department chair did write me an email about our Friday afternoon trip to the parking lot. It read:
Owen: I noticed that you took your class into the faculty parking lot this afternoon. Be advised that there are insurance-related issues to such outings, and if one of the students were to be injured, our department, and you personally, could be held liable. In the future, please alert the office if you plan on instructing outside of the classroom. My best to you and your family. You’re in our prayers still.
I doubted there was a legitimate insurance concern, though I was glad I hadn’t actually lit a cigarette while watching the iguana fight. She was just reminding me that she was watching, and that she was advocating to her God on my behalf. This didn’t comfort me. I knew from her bio on the English Department website that her specialty was early British Literature—Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales, Pilgrim’s Progress. My impression was she felt there was great truth in these bizarre texts with relation to the way God and people interacted. If pressed, she’d probably conclude my family was enduring some sort of divine punishment. So I wrote back:
Dr. Ricker: I stumbled upon a teachable moment for my students and felt compelled to take advantage of it (i.e. the appearance of two large reptiles, most likely iguanas, in faculty parking lot G). I apologize if I violated department policy, but all of my students conducted themselves in a prudent manner. In the future, I’ll be sure to notify your office of any extra-classroom activities. We appreciate your prayers, and still have faith there will be a safe and happy resolution to our situation.
If my students were dumb enough to get hit by a car or bit by one of the iguanas in the parking lot, then they had no business being at an institution like the Great Northeast Philadelphia Community College. And the phrase “teachable moment,” had become sacrosanct among educators—to invoke it equaled innocence.
That night, I thought a lot about what Carey had suggested, and my own argument against it. One of us was making a logical mistake, but I was less and less convinced about who that might be. I shared the dilemma with my wife, Molly.
“Fighting iguanas, dying flocks of birds, kidnapped children,” she said. “All connected?”
“Right,” I said. “Though I didn’t ask her to elaborate.”
“Does she think the iguanas took the kids?” she said. “Or the dead birds?”
She wasn’t taking me seriously. She never looked up from her papers, never took her pen out of her mouth. She was an Assistant Professor of Economics at Philadelphia University, and didn’t have to trouble herself with freshmen or essays that required subjective grading. Her students’ theses statements either played out in the data they collected and the equations they ran, or they didn’t. And it had been six weeks since Ben was kidnapped. She had stopped crying about it.
“She knows that our Ben is missing?” Molly said finally.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“That seems important,” she said. “If she knows, then the whole thing is about you. If not, then it’s about her.”
Incentives. This was Molly’s mantra as an economist, as a teacher, as a wife and mother. The world was intelligible by tracking who stands to gain in any given situation. To understand these motivations was a form of wisdom. It was a hard point to argue against, but I wasn’t yet convinced it was a law of the universe. Was there not glorious selflessness, or blind evil in the world? Even just plain old neutral events? She snickered at these ideas, and over the years I stopped arguing.
“Should I ask Carey if she knows?” I said.
“You should let her write the paper,” she said.
“Why would she attack me about Ben?” I said.
“Who says that it’s an attack?” she said.
What We Knew
The kidnappers arrived in a yellow school bus around 3pm on December 19th. They entered Little Angels Day Care with automatic weapons and stone hatchets. Miss Lateisha was shot as soon as they walked in the building. A young man with war-paint on his face and feathers in his hair held a knife to Miss Amanda’s throat, as the others forced the children in Ben’s classroom onto the bus. They tied Miss Amanda up, cut off her pony-tail, and kicked her into a corner. Then the bus sped off.
There were two other classrooms that were undisturbed, as well as a nursery. Miss Shauna, Miss Tia, and Miss Rolanda had each gathered their children in closets and around corners, and kept them as quiet as possible after they heard the first shot. They did the right thing. These women made minimum wage, were abused and puked on by these kids who were not theirs, but risked their lives just the same.
Miss Amanda was discovered twenty minutes later, when the first of the parents arrived to pick up their children. Miss Lateisha was dead. The police called Molly at her office by 4pm to let her know that there had been an “incident” at Little Angels.
I had been grocery shopping when Molly called me. I abandoned my cart, and walked out of the store still holding a gallon of chocolate milk. No one stopped me. It was so easy to steal.
At first, I had thought it was funny that Benjamin’s teacher at day care was deaf. The kids were constantly yelling or crying, but Miss Amanda couldn’t hear them. It must have been a great advantage for her. Unlike the other teachers, I imagined she didn’t go home and swallow a handful of ibuprofen to combat the din of the job. Instead, the quiet of her world inspired patience, and perhaps showed the kids that being the loudest was not the best way to get what they wanted.
But Molly and I were worried about Ben’s speech habits at the time and Miss Amanda didn’t seem like the best role model in that respect. She was tender with the kids in her silence, but she had no use for consonants. She mumbled and grunted at the boys and girls, and they seemed to understand, but at home, Ben followed his teacher’s lead, and ignored our own collegiate grasp of the language. While it was often clear he understood what Molly and I were saying, he seemed about as interested in refining his own speech as our two dogs. Ben barked and yelped and muttered, but had no use for the simplest “Mama.” This had broken Molly’s heart.
It was frustrating to us to have to compete with Miss Amanda’s model, especially because Ben was being evaluated by his pediatrician in the low percentiles for speech. The fact that we both worked in higher education made it worse. The other kids’ parents worked in factories and department stores and dull offices, and their boys and girls were eloquent as poets. We tried to avoid the snobbish impulse, but there it was. Maybe all of the books in our house frightened Ben about getting involved in the language game. Maybe our own handle of the language made it seem impossible to learn. Maybe something about Ben was broken? Maybe something about me and Molly?
Still, it was clear that all of our lives would be easier–Ben’s included–if he would just speak. Was it juice he wanted, or a new diaper, or some crackers? Was he sad? Did he know the difference between me and his mother? Did he care?
After the kidnapping, I realized the real danger of Miss Amanda’s deafness, but I had had glimpses of it in the first few months of day care. If her back was to the door when I picked Ben up, only the children knew I was there. I often startled her. Anyone could have walked through that door, I had thought. Luckily, it was just me.
I had brought this up with Molly back then, and she assured me I was being paranoid. I am not saying that I saw what was coming—no one could have–just that the deafness of our son’s first teacher, the first adult he would spend entire days with and learn things from other than his parents, made me a little nervous. But when I opened my mouth about it, I sounded like someone protesting outside of the Special Olympics.
“I know she means well, but do you really think she is appropriate for that position?” I had said.
“‘She means well’?” Molly said. “She does get paid, you know.”
“Right,” I said. “We’re paying her. But, you don’t pay a football coach to teach your kid chemistry.”
“He’s learning to socialize. To follow directions. To be nice,” Molly said. “I’m sure her instruction is appropriate. Plus, lots of high school football coaches also teach chemistry.”
“What if there is a fire?” I said. “A rabid dog attack?”
“She’d feel the heat,” Molly said. “Her other senses are more acute. And there are other teachers in the building. How would a rabid dog get into the day care anyway?”
It wasn’t really Miss Amanda that I had a problem with. I had mixed feelings about putting Ben in day care in general. Even after three years, I barely thought I was capable of taking care of him, and the idea of a stranger doing it was both frightening and threatening. If she was worse than me, then that meant Ben was in real danger. If she was better than me, then that proved I was over-matched by his needs. That Miss Amanda spoke a different language with the kids wasn’t helping either.
We chose Little Angels Day Care because it was the only one we could afford. The rest of the neighborhood was populated with places that seemed like retirement homes for toddlers—indoor swimming pools, Chinese language instruction, field trips to theaters and museums. It’s not that we didn’t want these things for Ben, but, money aside, he still pooped in his pants. Trips to the Rodan museum would have to wait.
Still, I had driven by Little Angels many times before Ben was even a possibility, and had always assumed it was the parts department for the auto garage next door. Their playground could easily be mistaken for a junk pile at a quick glance, and the flickering florescent lighting inside made it look like a place where one might buy an oil filter or, at best, fabric for a quilt. They had a large, hand-painted, folksy sort of sign above the door, which I had appreciated—there was a parade of children of all races with angels’ wings smiling and playing. The fact that they were imagining our children as dead seemed a bit troublesome, but I understood what they were going for. Children were perfect. Gifts from God. Molly and I were not religious, but we respected the concept that some things might be holy. Later, when Ben would bow his head before eating, and mumble a prayer we hadn’t taught him, we were okay with that. Thankfulness was not a virtue we thought needed curbing.
What bothered me more was that closer inspection of the sign revealed that “Angels” had originally been spelled “Angles” and they had painted over it so hastily that the mistake could still be discerned. The cynic in me wondered about their ability as teachers.
I was a teacher. So I was suspect of other teachers because I knew that our main business was deception. Was propagating the illusion we always know the right answer. Was the joke that I understood the world better than my students did. Once, Miss Amanda gave me an evaluation sheet about Ben, and it said he was fuzzy about the difference between a hexagon and a pentagon—maybe we should work on it at home. It took me a minute to remember the difference myself. Also, he couldn’t count past 39. Driving home, I was angry for a minute. Were they imagining a time when he would have to distinguish among forty or more hexagons and pentagons? What were they preparing him for? Then I thought about my own lessons for my students that day—the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning, the unreliability of the narrator of “A Tell-Tale Heart.” Touché, Miss Amanda.
I admit, sometimes when I wrote the day care a check, I made it out to “Little Angles.” I’d tear it out and crumple it up. What a stupid, obvious mistake. What an easy mistake. The perfect being transformed into something acute or obtuse just by an error in letter order. Was it so easy to corrupt perfection? Of course it was.
Molly and Carey Compared
That weekend, I tried in vain to write Carey’s paper in my head, but the connections were simply not coming. This bothered me. It became clear to me that Molly’s advice was right. I should allow Carey to write the essay that she wanted, if only to put my curiosity to bed. So, Sunday night, I wrote her an email:
Dear Carey: I’ve been thinking about our discussion after class on Friday and feel as though I didn’t give you enough time to explore your train of thought. On Monday, I’ll be asking the class to write a descriptive essay of the iguana fight, but if you’d like to take that opportunity to explore the larger connections that event might hold for you instead, please do so. Hope you had a great weekend.
I sent the email and climbed into bed. Molly was still checking her student’s equations. She was wearing a long flannel nightgown, and it had been a few years since I’d seen matching bra and panty sets from her. This was the worst time of night for me because I inevitably heard small, ghostly yelps from Ben’s room. I knew he was not there. But my mind was filling in the lack, taunting me with what I had dreaded to hear before Ben was kidnapped—the late night calls for water, or some truck buried deep in the toy box. It was a different sort of insomnia that I was experiencing now that Ben was gone. He was keeping me up by not being there. And of course, there was always the possibility of some phone call saying he’d been rescued. Or something else.
I got out of bed, and checked my e-mail. No response from Dr. Ricker, but Carey had already written back. It read:
Carey had nothing on Molly. Expensive, matching bra-and-panty sets notwithstanding, I was in love with a real woman, a mother, a scholar. Molly had recently published a paper about “Lunar Futures,” which involved investment strategies for upcoming mining missions to the Moon that was getting her a lot of attention and she was aiming for early tenure. She was now at work on similar research with regard to mining asteroids. I barely understood her work—mainly statistics and graphs, not much narrative–but what American man would not be thrilled by a woman so interested in money and space?
Molly was a terrible cook, but she insisted on a clean house. I thought this was one of the many trade-offs that made our marriage work. We alternated as Ben’s disciplinarian just to keep him on his toes. What infuriated her, often made me laugh, and vice versa. She was good with tools and could jerry-rig many broken things, while I got real pleasure from strategically filling the dishwasher and doing the laundry. The hum of both of those appliances brought me a sense of peace and satisfaction.
In some ways, things between Molly and I had actually improved since Ben’s kidnapping. We saw a lot more movies, some in 3-D, no cartoons. We ate at restaurants that didn’t serve chicken fingers and French fries. Instead, we ordered escargot and calamari and duck liver pate. We slept late on the weekends. Schedules permitting, we made love in the middle of the afternoon. She had more time for her research, which was gaining more and more attention. I spent much more time cooking, and was thinking about self-publishing a cookbook. At times, it felt as though Ben was just spending some time with the grandparents, just a vacation for everyone involved.
Of course, we knew that wasn’t the case. His captors had sent some cryptic messages during the first few weeks as reminders. Little Angels received an email requesting $100 million dollars ransom for the children’s release. There was no proof it was from anyone who actually knew where the children were. A blurry photo was mailed to the Philadelphia Inquirer showing a toddler smiling in war-paint in front of a creek, though no parent could positively identify it as their child. That’s not Ben, Molly and I swore.
After six weeks, the situation had moved from tragic and immediate to irritating and exhausting. If they really wanted ransom, they might suggest a reasonable amount. If they were murderers, well, just get it over with. Molly and I had both been through the rigors with police and the FBI with regards to people that might have scores to settle with us. All we could say was, “Students?” but no one in particular came to mind. Plus, these people kidnapped a lot of kids. It didn’t seem personal.
In other ways, things got worse between us. It was revealed quickly that over the last three years, Molly and I talked little about anything but Ben. Now that he was gone, we spent a lot of time in silence. I’d tell her about my classes at GNPCC; she’d say a bit about her research. It was cordial enough. But we hadn’t figured out yet how to simply be a couple again, and I’m not sure we wanted to be.
Carey’s Iguana Essay
On Monday, I gave the assignment I originally intended to give: Write a descriptive essay about the iguana fight making use of all five senses with a combination of literal and figurative language. I did not remind them of our pitiful list, and I did not allow the students to consult their phones for video reminders of the event. I caught Carey’s eye, and said, “You got my email, right?”
I collected their essays after a half an hour and dismissed the class. Carey dropped hers off as nonchalantly as the other students and did not linger. After all the kids left, I hunted for her paper in the pile, terrified and exhilarated.
For the most part, it was a clearly written essay that compared the iguana fight to a “reptilian car crash,” and described the smell of the air as “hinting at spring” (“in January?”—my comment). The dead birds were like “litter dropped from God” (“God doesn’t recycle? Sure he does. Be precise.”—my comment) and the kidnapped children were “ghosts haunting the neighborhood” (“There’s no evidence they are dead”—my comment). Her descriptions were a little better than cliché, and she had a fine grasp of the mechanics of the written language. A B+, so far. But the final paragraph read as follows:
The real problem is that no one will ask me, or people like me, why the iguanas were fighting, or the birds dying, or the kids disappearing. The “experts,” like scientists and politicians, and even teachers, etc., think I couldn’t know the answer. But I could know the answer, or at least have a better idea about this odd stuff than they do. It’s like the way that the Europeans thought they knew better than the Indians, i.e. the Native Americans, even though now they pay lots of money for herbal medicines and for reparations and to play at their casinos. My argument is that strong description does not always lead to real knowledge.
That final sentence was something I always asked my students to avoid—the argument should be clear enough without such a blatant statement–but that wasn’t my main concern. She never really said what her argument was, and the reference to Indians was disturbing. I showed it to Molly.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “I thought she was going to connect these events. Do some research.”
“It’s a threat,” I said. “The bit about the Indians. It makes no sense otherwise.”
“You’ve never read a freshmen essay that didn’t make sense?” she said.
“She knows something,” I said.
“Native Americans did not kidnap Ben,” she said. “They’re not prohibited subject matter.”
I gave Carey a B for the essay, but left the note, “Please talk to me after class.” When I gave the papers back at the end of class Wednesday, I watched her page through it, and then arrive at my comments. She flipped the essay shut and stuffed it in her book bag.
I turned my back to the group as they filed out. I was just erasing the blackboard (“what should the reader do or feel?” “critique of institutions,” “China on the Moon?”), but my heart was pounding. When I finished, Carey was standing at my desk, smiling.
“I know this wasn’t great,” she said. “I took a bunch of Adderall on Monday because I had two tests. I was feeling kind of crazy by the time I wrote this.”
“Adderall?” I said. “Do you have a prescription for that?”
Carey laughed. “Everyone in this class has a prescription.”
I was about to say something about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs, but this was my moment. I couldn’t let her distract me.
“Well,” I said. “Be careful with that stuff. I just thought there might be something you wanted to talk about. Your essay–”
“Nope,” she said. “I’m good.” She checked her phone.
“You said, someone should ask,” I said. “I’m asking.”
“It’s just a rhetorical device,” she said. “Intrigue the reader, like you said.”
“Okay,” I said. “But what would you say if someone was asking?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Probably someone brought those iguanas here, right? I mean, like you said, they’re not natural here.”
“So what’s the conclusion?” I said. “Why would someone do that?”
“Well, it got us out of the classroom,” she said. “Maybe they wanted that. To steal stuff, or something.”
“Nothing was stolen, so far as I can tell,” I said. “What about the dead birds?” I didn’t want to bring up the kidnappings if I didn’t have to.
“I don’t know,” she said, and checked her phone. This conversation was boring her already even though it was originally her idea. “I guess if I dumped a bunch of dead birds on your lawn, I could break into your house while you cleaned them up.”
“So,” I said. “The incentive is easy theft? Shock people with something so that they are distracted?”
“Sure,” she said, as she checked her phone again. She was wearing some matching bra-and-panty set, was high on some pills, and was not listening to a word I said.
“Okay,” I said. “Well, you understand the essay doesn’t really say that. I just had to coax that out of you.”
“I know,” she said.
Specialist T.J. Guyer
I shared my office with five other instructors, but for two hours a week, it was all mine. Some of my more ambitious colleagues hung ironic, but literature-related posters to liven the place up. An inspiring quote from a cartoon William Faulkner. Blown-up “Far Side” comics that referenced Shakespeare. Someone had even donated a mini-fridge to the room, so I would open its door, hunch in front of it, and blow cigarette smoke into their left-over sandwiches. That way, the sprinklers never went off.
I went back there after my confusing conversation with Carey to have a cigarette, and T.J. Guyer was waiting for me. His skin was a sort of yellow-gray, and he was sweating. He started talking immediately.
“Sorry I wasn’t in class today,” he said. “Did I miss anything?”
This question was repeated over and over by my absent students. The implication was that in the majority of our class meetings, nothing actually happened. Or at best, I could distill fifty minutes of instruction into some small, pedagogical quip. But I liked T. J. He was home from war, and he was an asset to the class. He couldn’t stand silence, and would offer any sort of response to keep the conversation going. So I let it go.
And what did he miss? I had introduced the chapter on “Proposals” to pure apathy. I stressed that an effective proposal was mutually beneficial to the person making it, and the person in the position to accept it. Yawns. After I suggested that most commercials were in fact a proposal for a consumer to buy a certain product, we launched into a twenty minute conversation about the class’ favorite advertisements. I tried to keep the discussion academic, but in the end we agreed that any commercial involving monkeys was funny, but not necessarily effective in terms of brand recognition. With the remaining time, we brainstormed about potential proposals to give to the powers that be at GNCCP. More thoughts about convenient parking, and legalized marijuana. I reminded them that the president of the college had no authority to decriminalize pot, and they reminded me that it relieved severe pain in elderly cancer patients. So:
“No, not really,” I admitted to T. J. “I gave back the iguana fight papers.”
“Okay, cool,” he said. “Campus police caught me drinking in the parking lot this morning, so I’ve got to deal with that now. If this was Afghanistan, that would be totally legal. How’s that for freedom?”
His honesty endeared me too him. He trusted me, and he cared nothing for the deputies who were Campus Police. I considered offering him a smoke.
Instead, I gave him back his paper; he made a B as well. Two descriptions moved it into the realm of “above average.” At one point, he compared the lizards to the “handbags my grandmother used to have, but with legs and teeth.” It was not eloquent, but it evoked a specific memory. Later in the essay, he compared the reptilian fighters to “feuding merchants in Kabul.” I had no idea if this was accurate, but I’d be damned if I’d punish him for seeing the world of GNPCC through the lens of his service.
He saw the grade and offered his fist for me to bump. I bumped it.
“Thank you,” he said. “This will really help with my case.”
“This grade is not a gift,” I said. “You earned it.”
“Yeah, right,” he said. “How are things with your…case?”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks for asking. We’re just waiting for some good news.”
“Well,” T. J. said,” If there’s anything I can do, let me know. You’re a good teacher, Mr. Duffy.” Then he formed his right hand into a gun, smiled and pulled the trigger.
Benjamin was kidnapped around 3pm on a Wednesday a week before Christmas, and at 9pm, I finally called my parents. They had retired four years earlier, and immediately moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, after spending their whole lives in Philadelphia. When Molly had gotten pregnant, my mother outwardly regretted their decision, but the weather, the lemon trees, the fresh seafood, the spring baseball was still too much for them to give up. We saw them two or three times a year with much fanfare, but they now, strangely, had their own lives. They had missed Ben’s second birthday party because of a golf tournament that they had signed up for months in advance.
Dad picked up, and said, “Hey, is it snowing up there?” This was always how he answered the phone during the winter months when I called. He acted as though Florida was new territory he had discovered, some magical land devoid of cold or car exhaust or worry. He saw himself as some new breed of explorer who had discovered a private Fountain of Youth.
“Dad, I’m not sure if you saw the news–” I started.
“I’m retired,” he said. “I don’t watch the news. What is it?”
“It’s Ben,” I said. “He’s been kidnapped.”
“Kidnapped?” he said. “By who? Aliens?”
“I’m serious,” I said. “People took him from his day care. One of his teachers is dead.”
“Let me turn the music down,” he said. My father had always had a strange affinity for John Phillip Sousa marches, and now in Florida, they had become his constant soundtrack. It gave every conversation with him this vaguely patriotic feel. He had taken up drinking as well, which was surprising too. Before retiring, he’d have a beer or two after work, maybe a little too much wine on Thanksgiving, but now he had discovered expensive, hard liquor, and was drinking on pace to make up for lost time.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “Where’s Ben?”
“We don’t know,” I said. “The police are looking, I guess.”
“And you’re doing what exactly?” he said.
“Nothing,” I said. “I don’t know. It’s sort of why I’m calling.”
“They killed somebody?” he said. At that point, I could hear my mother yelp in the background. Dad put his hand over the phone and shushed Mom. “What are the police saying?”
“Nothing,” I said. “‘Sit tight,’ they say.”
“Are you okay?” he said. “Molly? What’s that noise?”
“We’re fine,” I said. “Molly is vacuuming.”
“Vacuuming,” Dad said. I heard the ice shift in his glass. I realized I was giving him bizarre information at a time of night when he wasn’t fully able to process. There was really very little to say. “Why would someone take Ben?” he said.
“They took his whole class,” I said. “All ten of them.”
“All ten…” Dad said. “That makes even less sense.”
Then my mother picked up another phone in the house. “Honey, are you okay?”
For the first time all day, I started to cry. The sound of my mother’s voice was too much. “Yeah,” I said between sobs, “yeah.”
It was hard not to feel cursed by my parents. They had done their job so well that by the time I became a father, it felt impossible to match their performance. My mother was the embodiment of patience and forgiveness, my father of capability and knowledge. Their own relationship was rarely anything I questioned or worried about, even as most of my childhood friends were dealing with divorce in their own families. I know now, intellectually, that this couldn’t have been true. Surely they worried about money, and our education, and their own sex lives, and the future in general, but my own experience as a child couldn’t confirm this. Perhaps this is a silly complaint. I was not wishing for abuse or neglect or tumult. But as a standard, it felt difficult to match.
Ben’s kidnapping was not my fault. It wasn’t irresponsible parenting that brought this upon him. But I couldn’t help feeling guilty. Speaking to my mother that night felt like calling from some jail cell. The old cliché–they weren’t mad, just disappointed. They would not have allowed something like this to happen to me.
At around 2am that night, my father called me back. I was still awake. When the phone first rang, I was hoping it was the police telling us that Ben and his classmates had been found, that they had somehow been taken on an unscheduled educational outing, or been part of some sort of misguided, reality TV show prank. I knew this couldn’t be true. Miss Latiesha was dead. But maybe when I answered the phone I would wake up from this dream, that regardless of what the caller ID was telling me, it was really just my subconscious phoning to say, Okay, I’m done playing out your worst nightmare. Arise!
Instead, it was Dad, now deeper into his expensive liquor.
“Your mother has been searching the internet for Ben. There’s just one horrible version of the story after another. But she’s cried herself into a deep sleep, and now I feel like I can really talk to you. Don’t say anything. Let me speak.” He cleared his throat and I thought I heard the hiss and click of a cigarette lighter. Was he smoking now, too? “You are a father and I am a father and I can’t imagine how you feel right now. Your mother and I are guilty of giving you this broken world. Not us personally, but yes, maybe us personally, all of us. Our friends and colleagues and maybe even our parents, too. Who knows? From here in Florida, from the margins of retirement, the berserk nature of the world is fully apparent. I pity your family. I pity all young people.”
“That’s an elaborate way to put it,” I said.
“I’m Irish and I’m drinking,” he said. “I’m allowed to be poetic. We’ve raised a world that is upside-down. The young men are cooking and changing diapers, and the young women are economists and generals. I know you won’t like this. But I’m old enough to say what I think, damn it. It’s not right.”
“What should I do then?” I said. I didn’t like this pontificating about Ben’s situation or the culture in general. It was not the time to be making speeches. I enjoyed cooking. I did not see the world as broken.
“What would I do?” Dad said. “Find Ben, of course. Locate Ben. Stalk the neighborhood. Carry a big knife. If someone took you from me when I was your age, I would have become a murderer. And I would have been right to be one.”
“That’s not true, Dad,” I said. “You’re not a violent person.”
“Mentally, I am,” he said. “In my fantasies. If I were you—and I am very close to being you genetically, as your father—I’d lose my mind. Become someone brand new. How’s Molly really?”
“I told you, she’s okay,” I said. “She’s better at this than me. We’re just waiting to hear.”
“She’s vacuuming.” He sighed. “I’m lying of course,” he said. “You know this.”
“I do,” I said. “You’re playing ‘dad’ the way you’ve always done. I appreciate it.”
“So you’ve been let in on the secret?” he said. His voice softened, and I could sense a smile.
“I have,” I said.
“You know my favorite words to use?” he said. “‘Catalytic convertor’. If anyone ever doubts your authority as a father, refer to that device in a sentence. Tell them you fixed a fucking catalytic convertor last weekend.”
He was trying to be funny, so I laughed a little. I’d heard him use the term many times.
“It’s a mythical device,” he said. “No car actually has one anymore. But men have been telling their wives and children that it needs working on for decades. And men have been emasculating each other through discussions of this device forever.”
“So you’re advising what?” I said. “It’s late.”
“Sit tight,” he said.
“Like the police said,” I said.
“Like I say,” he said. “Work on your catalytic convertor. You want us to come up there?”
“Not right now,” I said. “What would you do?”
“Good point,” he said. “Your mother might like to worry closer to you, but I’m not sure how helpful that would be.”
“Well, you guys sit tight too then,” I said. “Good night.”
I had arrived at a problem my father couldn’t solve, and it was terrifying and exhilarating. Never had his manhood been so tested, and so there was no benchmark to meet. I was off the radar of fatherhood, and so, free to make my moves. What would they be?
Read Sean’s Interview with WIPs about “Did I Miss Anything.”