I wake up the next morning to Adele blaring on the radio.
“We could have had it all-a-a-all!!” I join in, singing loudly and not at all well. I do a little dance and throw together an outfit of khaki dress pants and a button down pale pink shirt.
Today is a day without expectations. I am hoping that Linda will leave me alone for most of the day because of her drunken escapade of last night that she inadvertently roped me into. Is there anything more awkward than having to drive your boss’s drunk-ass home?
My life as a college librarian is becoming exponentially more exciting than I had originally anticipated. I get my Americano from Magpie and head into work.
I am in my office for less that five minutes before I get a call.
“Hello, this is Dorothy Watson, how may I help you?”
“Um, Dorothy, this is Linda Birch calling,” she sounds extremely hung over. “I would like to thank you for giving me a ride home last night and offering to bring me into work today…”
Crap, I had forgotten to pick her up!
“But, unfortunately, I am not feeling well enough to come into work today. I’m afraid I might be suffering from food poisoning.”
Right, Linda. “Food poisoning.”
“Oh, that’s awful, I’m so sorry, Linda.”
“I was wondering if you’d be able to fill in teaching my section of Paideia today? I’d hate to lose the day of class. There’s a pop quiz in the top right drawer of my desk. After that you could lead a discussion about the section of Utopia they read for today? My discussion questions are in my desk as well.”
“Linda, it has been years since I read Utopia, and I haven’t taught any classes—“
“Well, I’ve been thinking about recommending you to teach a section of Paideia next year anyway, so it would be a good opportunity for you to see if you like teaching.”
There is an awkward pause on the line.
I saved her ass last night and now she wans me to do it again? I don’t want to start a vicious cycle, but I also don’t want to piss my boss off and be forever known as the person who didn’t help out someone suffering from “food poisoning’ around the office.
In the interest of continuing my somewhat positive current streak of Karma, I decided to help her out. Hopefully I’ll have some time to re-read Utopia before class.
“Alright, Linda, I’ll do it—when and where does your class meet?”
“In the library classroom. At 9:15.”
I have an hour. That should be enough time to get my bearings before faux-teaching a class of freshman.
“Ok, I’ll prep with the materials in your office. Feel better Linda.” My voice is filled with manufactured concern.
“Thank you, Dorothy. I will rest up and see you tomorrow.” Her voice is stilted.
I traverse the orange carpet and head into her office. I sit down at her ergonomic throne of a back leather office chair. Looking up, I survey Linda’s domain. I feel powerful.
Not wanting to eat into precious prep time for a class I am decidedly unqualified to teach, I open the top right drawer of her desk. I find the pop quizzes, which will automatically make me the least popular substitute ever. I unsuccessfully dig in the drawer for her discussion notes.
I give myself permission to examine other drawers. The middle drawer has gum, pencils and paper clips. I move to the drawer on the left.
Bingo. I pull out her copy of Utopia and find her notes for today’s class inside. I am about to close the drawer when a CD catches my eye.
In crisp Sharpie script, the inscription on the cover of the blank CD case reads:
“For Linda. Yours, -A.”
Is this a mix tape from Anders?!?
I filch the CD and decide to listen to it over my lunch break. Linda is bound to stay in bed for the rest of the day, right?
I return to my office and bone up on Utopia. I also find some left over Halloween candy in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet. The candy should balance out some of the awfulness of the pop quiz.
I wish my hair was in a tight bun and I had coke bottle glasses. It would help me take myself more seriously. I am a very young-looking 27 and am slightly paralyzed with fear that the students are going to laugh in my face when I say I’m subbing for Linda. Then they will leave the classroom and I will be forced to forge twenty-some quizzes about Utopia and have a discussion with myself. Sigh.
I head over to the classroom and place the big of candy in a prominent position on the table by the door. At least it’s good candy. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Skittles. Designer brand name candy, no off-brand substitutes.
The students start filtering in and I am worried that they are mistaking me for a transfer student. I try to pump up my inner authority figure but to no avail. When a critical mass of students has assembled, I launch into my monologue.
“Hello, everyone. My name is Dorothy Watson, and I am one of the librarians on staff here. Ms. Birch has fallen ill due to food poisoning and will not be making it in today. She has asked me to distribute this quiz and lead a discussion on the section of Utopia you read last night.”
There are no audible groans. The students seem perfectly amenable to this change in programming.
I glance over the class roster. Ah, it’s an honors class of Paidiea. I wanted to be in Honors Paideia, but I wasn’t quite smart enough. Crap. These kids are possibly smarter than me. Damnit.
One perky girl near the front of the class raises her hand.
“Um, yes. You.”
I have no idea of who anybody is, so I just point in her general direction.
“Ms. Watson, would you like me to keep track of participation points on the class roster?”
Well, that’s a good idea.
“Yes, um, sorry—“
“My name is Brittany.”
Of course it is.
“Yes, Brittany. If you would be so kind after the quiz is completed.”
I distribute the quizzes and the students take them gladly, almost eagerly. They fill out their quizzes with supreme diligence and tenacity. All of the pop quizzes are completed and turned in within five minutes.
“Thank you, everyone, now let’s start our discussion Utopia—“
Brittany makes sure to linger on the Ms., leaning on it just enough to remind everyone in the classroom that although I have a masters degree and could be a professor, I am only the substitute.
“Professor Birch usually reviews the answers of the quizzes before we move on to the discussion.”
This has turned into an academic pissing contest.
“While I respect that, Brittany, and I really do, Linda—excuse me, Professor Birch, is not here today. And I am. So I will be running class in the best way I see fit, and I see fit to start the discussion on the reading that was due today.”
Brittany scowls and cowers a bit, to nurse her severely bruised ego.
I decide to step it up a notch. I pick up Linda’s discussion notes and show them to the class.
“See these? These are the boring, dry discussion questions that Linda wants me to regurgitate to you.”
I rip them down the middle and let the pieces fall to the ground.
“What I want to do is facilitate a meaningful discussion of what you read last night and how it applies to your every day life. Paideia is all about honing your critical thinking and communication skills. After this class, you will be able to pick apart any piece of literature or artwork and sound knowledgeable. This is a class that empowers you to be able to from an opinion and back it up. Indulge me. Everyone clear your desks.”
They look up at my quizzically. I have chosen the route of bravado and there’s no turning back now.
“I’m serious. Take everything off your desk. Notebooks, pencils, laptops—“
“What about the book, what about Utopia, can we keep that on our desk?” Brittany asks emphatically. Her right eye twitches grotesquely.
“Absolutely not. Take the book off your desk as well. There’s no good in highlighting and making notes in the text if you need it in front of you to hold a conversation. The parts that actually had personal meaning to you are what you’ll remember. The only exception to the cleared desk rule is Brittany and your attendance roster—you may still mark down participation points if you’d like. Now, I will be perfectly honest with you all. I hated Utopia. I thought it was inaccessible and poorly written.”
A few gasps escape the lips of honor students.
“Now, what did you think? I mean, what did you really think of what you read for today?”
There is dead silence at first. Nobody knows what to say. They are used to answering Linda’s discussion questions like Pavlovian dogs. I have smashed their bell and they no longer know to salivate.
A boy in the back of the room tentatively raises his hand.
“Yes, you—what did you think?”
“I kind of hated it, too.”
“And why did you hate it—now, be specific.”
Slowly and surely, we start to deconstruct Thomas Moore. At times, it devolves into almost a roast of Comedy Central proportion. Everyone is laughing. These are the students that put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed. Most likely, it’s a hold over from childhood when a parent or other authority figure made it very clear to them that they could NOT fail. And they’ve carried that mandate with them their entire academic life.
These are the kids that stay up late Friday night studying instead of getting a senior to buy them alcohol. They are future RAs, Phi Beta Kappa and quite possibly lawyers and doctors. But right now, they are kicking back, laughing and having a great time realizing that they can decide whether or not a piece of literature serves their needs.
I make sure that everyone grabs candy on the way out. I feel awesome. This may come back to bit me in the ass, but today I have actually made a difference in the way these students approach literature.
I feel a great sense of pride and purpose. Then I remember the CD I stole from Linda’s desk and run to my office to listen to it.