During graduate school I was often faced with teaching material that I didn’t like. However, being that I was just a lowly Teaching Assistant I had no choice when it came to textbooks. Everything was pre-determined and pre-selected for me. For the record, where I got my degree had a slightly different definition of a Teaching Assistant than what usually pops up in someone’s non-academic based noodle. I wasn’t assisting professors in any way shape or fuzzy form. I was replacing them. Yes, someone with absolutely no teaching experience was put in front of a class of half-awake and half-interested English 1101 and 1102 students for an entire semester. This freed up all the ten-yeared professors to teach higher level classes and assuredly cut costs because our payment was valuable experience, a tuition deduction, and a misally stipend that could barely cover the cost of gas, books, and therapy bills.
The whole first week of class I could feel my students trying to guess my age and trying to figure out just what exactly gave me the right to even think I knew any better than them. I was only 1,460 days ahead of them academically speaking. I threw up in the bathroom a lot between classes. One of my students actually found me and held my hair back, while half-digested strawberry pop tarts sprayed the bowel with cheerful sprinkles. I never thanked her.
It got to the point that even my father was noticing my distress and asked to see my teaching materials. I warily agreed. After pursuing the book for a half-hour he laughed and said,
“Why this is nothing but socialist left-wing nut material.” Naturally, I took offense because I had always considered myself the most liberal of my father’s flock. Surely, this can’t be the reason I hate these essays they have to read. Am I just a donkey party poser? I thought watching him thumb through it some more.
“Look at this one. It’s all about how dead bodies are used in military testing and if it is wrong or not. What hung over sorority sister wants to hear about corpses at 8:00 am in the morning?”
“It’s not up to me. It’s up to the department head.”
“And let me guess, someone in your department wrote this book,” he laughed.
“Yeah, the head of the English Graduate Teaching Assistant program did,” I said astonished.
“You see, this isn’t what’s best for your students. This is what’s best for this guy’s wallet and career,” he said, pointing to my boss’s name on the cover. I snatched the book away from him.
“You don’t know anything! This is just how academia works. I think it’s good that all the teaching assistants have to use the same book. This way we can all help each other and everyone is on the same page.”
“Yeah, his and I bet he is so far out in left field he’s picking dandelions on your sweet, sweet time,” he laughed. I don’t remember what I said back. I was too busy imagining my boss out in a baseball field picking dandelions. Insomnia was the scourge of our shared GTA office and it was personally causing my imagination to spread to all my other faculties, like herpes at frat party. Another one of my father’s colorful sayings.
The next day I spoke to my mother and told her through a thick curtain of tears and snotty gibberish how I thought that I was secretly a hypocrite. She laughed and said,
“Honey, this has nothing to do with politics. You didn’t read stuff like this in freshman English and neither did I. We read fiction, poetry, and plays. You miss literature and this stuff is no substitute. Frankly, I think this book was created because the powers that be believe this generation doesn’t have the attention span or the appreciation for the classics, which is sad really.” This made me hate my current dandelion and dead body situation even more. Now, I felt sorry for my students and insulted on their behalf. Plus, I was imagining them being chased down the street by corpses in military gear screaming,
“Don’t pick the dandelions!” Needless to say, my first semester didn’t go well. At the end of it, I spent too much time peering over the third floor railing of the Social Sciences Building, looking at the burnt grass below, and reading the graffiti that clever undergrads had left behind. My favorite was Don’t Jump!
One day a fellow graduate student caught me in one of my staring sessions and he said,
“Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.”
“T.S. Elliot and, by the way, the fall won’t kill you. You will just be maimed,” he said nonchalantly, heading towards the office.
“I wasn’t going to–” Before I could finish, he vanished behind the burgundy double doors. I knew him, but only through his reputation. He was a second year student obsessed with T.S. Elliot. I once overheard a conversation in the GTA office between our classmates how he was planning to write his thesis focusing on how everyone was wrong about Elliot’s “The Waste Land” and he was the only one that was right. They went on to postulate that he was so obsessed with the author he bordered on mental illness and that he might possibly be his crazed reincarnation.
The only thing I knew about “The Wasteland” was that it had a possible zombie/undead metaphor in it involving the braindead and hollow masses flowing over London Bridge. As those thoughts percolated in my skull I found myself back in dead bodies and dandelion territory. The next day I made arrangements to quit teaching and switch my degree to Creative Writing. I didn’t think about that essay or those grotesque floral images for a long time. I just faded into the narcotic womb of poetry and fiction workshops.
The summer before my last year was heralded by mother expressing her worries over my lack of work experience and my father demanding my presence up north.
“You have to think of your future resume. I know your first semester of teaching was stressful, but you are in the right degree now and can handle it,” she said, patting my hand. I had just gotten off the phone with my old boss and had brown nosed my way back into the academic kiddie pool.
“I know and you’re right,” I said with my best smile. A few days later, I was on plane headed to New Jersey to see my father and his family. I had my textbook out and was planning my spring semester essay prompts. Because I was newb again my boss wanted me to use the writing prompts put out for the fresh batch of incoming fall Teaching Assistants in September. I humbly accepted the fact that I couldn’t design my own yet and complimented him on his wisdom. Academia is where you learn how to professionally lick boot. We all called it tenure grooming.
He added that he wanted to see me create my own for the spring semester though, and I needed a distraction from my father’s family on this trip anyway. Plus, years of watching my father dangerously procrastinate on things from his own marriage to picking me up at the airport had led me to have a severe overcompensation problem. The man next to me on the plane watched me work on them as he consumed ridiculously large amounts of vodka cranberries. You know for the Vitamin C and all. He continuously complained about the dangers of recycled air and just how many microbial organisms were now back stroking up and down our nostrils.
“Teaching is the last noble profession, young lady,” he slurred. He looked pale and worn down in his expensive looking red suit.
“I guess so. What do you do?”
“I’m a vampire… a living corpse,” he laughed.
“Yep, a lawyer,” he said, before leaning up against the widow and falling asleep. I laughed a little because I could see my father wearing a bright suit like that. My mother always said he dressed the way that he felt.
“What? Loud and obnoxious?” I would laugh.
“No, just wanting the world to see him,” she would say sadly. With that thought, I slammed down my book and napped for the remainder of the flight. I still had one more reading to select for my last prompt, so I saved it for later when I would need an excuse to disappear.
The trip had its usual levels of drama. There were family fights, close encounters with the third mistress kind, and, of course, everyone pretending like my mother didn’t exist. A popular past time with my father’s familia. Sometimes I thought they actually kept score in the categories of denial, hurtfulness, and being jaw droopingly inappropriate. I’ll let you guess who the reigning champion was.
Usually, our trips ended with the symbolic sojourn to New York City to snort up some culture. This time my father opted out because he claimed,
“That place is so dirty. The last time we went I felt like I needed a shower just sitting on the train there. Besides, we always do that.”
“Let’s go to Philadelphia,” my aunt said. It was her turn to play ultimate Barbie hostess. I had been passed around from family to friends so much I was starting to feel like a lousy Christmas gift.
“Why?” my little cousin, Nina, asked, while staring down at her phone.
“Because that is the birthplace of our great nation, and I heard there is this amazing exhibit on the human body in town,” my aunt said, ignoring the fact that she was being totally ignored by her own offspring.
“Whatever,” Nina said. So I guess it was unanimous. We were off to the City of Brotherly Love. The day began by seeing all the touristy afterbirth of our nation. The high point for me was seeing one of Edgar Allen Poe’s homes. I recited all my favorite lines in every room, and I even left a hair on the window seal in the hope that part of me would stay behind with his spirit. My father mercilessly teased me the whole time, but I really appreciated him bringing me there. It was out of the way and my aunt and cousin complained non-stop. My father said,
“Look this is important to her. Plus, I would never hear the end of it from you know who, if we skipped it.” It wasn’t often that he stood up for me, so this was pretty big. After I had lingered in every room and bought a T-Shirt, we set off for the exhibition my aunt was foaming to see.
The Bodies exhibition featured persevered corpses and body parts in various displays of activity and broken down for further study. We stood in line with nursing majors, pre-med students, and the occasional swarm of artists. One girl with a tiny dragon head piercing through her nose hissed,
“This is my third time.” She flashed me a few pages of her sketch book littered with body parts and for some reason there was the occasional flower mixed into the carnage.
“My first,” I said.
“You are in for a treat,” she said, licking her lips and disappearing through the double doors in front of us.
“What a freak,” My cousin whispered to her phone.
“I liked her,” I laughed. She rolled her eyes. I wanted to bring up the fact that I thought my cousin was too young for this exhibition with her mother on multiple occasions throughout the trip, but I was too tired for a fight. Also, I figured any child bold enough to tell her mother to “shut up” in public and in private could handle herself or could do with a little psychological scarring. It was our turn to go in.
Immediately, we were greeted by museum docents brandishing pamphlets on how the displays were made. The process involved replacing all the watery human materials with acetone and plastics. The term “rubberization” was underlined and in bold red throughout the glossy bits of recycled paper.
“Wow,” my aunt said, scampering up to the first display. It was a man riding a bicycle wearing nothing but a blank stare and raw muscle tissue.
“Ew, gross,” my cousin said, swan diving back into her phone. We wandered from room to room looking at various corpses cut up at different angles. My father’s favorite was a man who appeared to be running but his muscle tissue and skin were flaying off of him.
“Run forest run,” my dad laughed. I didn’t reply and just looked at the sad female cadaver next to it with her stomach sliced open, so you could see her unborn surprise inside.
“Hey, this reminds me of that essay in that hippy dippy socialist textbook you have,” he said, looking back at me.
“Well, I bet these people regret checking the organ donor box at the DMV. At least, the other ones are helping soldiers have better combat gear,” he said, pretending to run like the deceased man next to him.
“These bodies came from Chinese prisons. They never had a box to check. In fact, many human rights activists see this exhibition as a travesty,” I said, getting closer to the cadaver couple who guarded the nearby entrance to the reproduction room.
“Prisoners, huh? Well, at least they are being useful and educational this time around.”
“Don’t you belong to a religion that glorifies the sanctity of the human body and believes that any other means of disposal after death, besides a proper funeral with a fancy box, is sacrilege?”
“Well, that proves you did pay attention the few times we managed to drag your ass to mass,” he laughed. Before our tit for tat could go any further, my cousin scurried out of the reproduction room looking horrified.
“That…was disgusting. Boys are disgusting! I don’t want one to ever come near me ever again,” she said, hiding behind me. Her mother soon followed.
“Yeah, that room should have waited until after more of an in depth sex talk,” she said, with a frown
“You think?” I laughed.
“Relax, Jackie, it’s good that she thinks sausages are gross. Maybe it will keep her off of one until marriage,” My dad laughed. I knew that was a slight jab at me. He knew how serious things were with my boyfriend, and I had been on birth control since I was fifteen. Two things that in his mind added up to me being no less than or equal to you standard biblical harlot. Even though it was true, and I hadn’t been a virgin for a few years, at least I had never screwed around on the man I had planned to marry one day. So if we were counting Ten Commandment code violations, he certainly had way more to worry about than I did.
“Let’s get something to eat,” my aunt announced, as we neared the end of the final hall.
“How could you possibly want food after seeing that?” My cousin moaned.
“Oh, the body is a beautiful thing,” she chirped.
“Not when it’s dead!”
“Hey, why don’t we eat at the Philadelphia Hard Rock,” my father suggested.
“Sounds good,” I added.
“Fine,” my cousin mumbled. At dinner my aunt ordered a shrimp Caesar salad, and my cousin found that to be as disgusting as the dead genitals she had just scene at the exhibition.
“How can you put shrimp on a salad? That’s so gross. That’s not even salad anymore?”
“What about tuna salad?” I said, jokingly.
“There is no lettuce in that!” She snarled.
“You can put anything on a salad,” my dad laughed. I could tell by that distant and dead look in his bay blue eyes that he was about to split off from our present temporality. It was a look I would see more often in the months to follow.
“Your grandmother used to have us go outside and pick dandelions to put in the salad when money was tight in the summer time.”
“Yeah, I remember that,” my aunt laughed.
“Gross,” my cousin said, giving up and retreating to her phone.
“So did you decide on your last reading assignment for your prompt?” my father asked, wanting to desperately prevent the descent of the dreaded dinner table silence.
“Nope,” I said, stuffing my mouth with pasta. I had secretly decided, but I just didn’t feel like telling him. The more secrets I kept from him, the more I felt like things were even between us. Even if it was something as small as that. Also, I enjoyed those rare silent tick-tocks. My family wasn’t exactly known for their indoor voices. They could render a felid of ageing dandelions bare with one loud expletive.
A few months later, I unveiled my new writing prompts to my first ENC 1102 class and that same semester my father became a corpse and food for all the hungry yellow flowers. He was right, by the way, no one wants to talk about dead bodies so very early in the morning.