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CLASS ACT

Hampton Shorts #5

     Jane was good, no question about it. The teacher watched as she composed her delicate features into the proper expression of concern and respect. "I believe the story — the real story — begins here, on the second paragraph of page three," she said. "This is where I became truly engaged as a reader. The first two pages are almost all exposition — some of the material is quite well done, but I think it could be worked in later."
     The class murmured assent. Several students nodded. The writer of the story under discussion marked her copy and scribbled a note in the margin.
     Jane was one of his new students for the summer semester. An intense young woman, pale and dark, she had quickly assumed a leadership role in the class. She spoke with quiet authority tempered by a kind of deference that allowed her to instruct without giving offence. It occurred to him, with a small dart of discomfort, that she was good enough to challenge his own authority in the classroom if she chose to do so.
     "Then there's the boyfriend," Jane continued, raising one slender hand to her forehead as if she were thinking the question through for the first time. "He's vividly described, but he seems somewhat extraneous to the core story. And his voice seems so young, almost adolescent. I wondered about his age."
     The teacher himself was 42, divorced, a writer of short fiction. He had published enough over the years to gain a position teaching fiction workshops in the Adult Education division of a large urban university. He liked the diversity of his students and their generally high level of commitment — they cared enough about writing fiction to spend their leisure time and discretionary funds on classes where they received neither grades nor academic credit.
     Jane was certainly committed. She came early to class, always bringing with her the slim volume of short stories the teacher had published some two years previously. She had brilliant dark eyes, and he sometimes caught them fixed on him while he was speaking to the class, her mouth moving silently as if anticipating his point. Her intensity at once attracted and disturbed him. He knew fiction writing was a difficult and uncertain enterprise at best, and he knew that serious writing students could sometimes become overly impressed with the perceived literary successes of writing teachers, and overly dependent on their judgement and approbation. He tried to deal with this by mixing empathy (which he truly felt) with postures designed to gently distance him from both the admiration and the anxiety manifested by some students. It was a fine line sometimes, striking the right balance, an occasional occupational hazard.
     The class was winding down for the evening. The extraneous boyfriend had been dispensed with, the new entry point for the story established. The teacher made some closing remarks summarizing the critique, and then named the stories for review the following week to insure that all the students had copies.

     The teacher dined alone most nights, in neighborhood restaurants near his apartment. His divorce had cost him the major share of what used to be his social life, and he didn't make new friends easily. Relations with other couples were different when you were no longer part of a couple; his ex wife, in any case, had always provided most of the social lubricant, compensating for and complementing his own reticence. That night after class he chose to dine at an Irish pub he liked around the corner from the brownstone where he lived. Toward the end of his meal, he looked up from the shepherd's pie he was eating and into the perfect oval of Jane's face as it emerged from the smoky dimness behind her.
     "May I join you?" she asked, smiling. "I was supposed to meet someone here, but it looks like I've been stood up."
     He wondered for an instant if she had followed him, then dismissed the thought.
     "I'm almost finished," he said. "But please, sit down."
     She slid into the booth beside him. He caught a whiff of scent, something lemony, not too sweet. As she settled in, their knees bumped under the table. The booth was small, and he was somewhat overwhelmed by her presence, her closeness. A waiter materialized beside the table. She ordered a glass of white wine.
     "Do you live nearby?" he asked.
     "Downtown. I'm really enjoying your class."
     "You're an excellent critic. Have you taken workshops before?"
     "In college. Wow, look what you're eating, all that meat and potatoes and butter ... so retro. I'm sorry." She touched his sleeve. "I shouldn't have said that."
     "It's quite good, actually." He felt faintly ridiculous, defending his meal.
     "But your heart! I'm sorry. It's none of my business." Up close, her mouth had a sensual avidity he had not noticed in class.
     "Perhaps I'm a lonely man with little to live for." It was clearly said in jest, but still, his words surprised him. Where did that come from?
     "I don't believe that." She looked into his eyes. She was disconcertingly direct. "You have your talent."
     "Speaking of talent, when are we going to see some of your work?" Back on familiar ground now. Student and teacher.
     "I've started something new. Maybe next week. It's ... experimental."
     "How so?"
     "I'd much rather talk about your work. Now that I've got you alone."
     By the time they parted an hour and a half later the teacher's professional persona was wearing thin, and he was feeling unctuous and fraudulent, lecherous and old.

     Jane was uncharacteristically quiet in class the following week. At the end of the class, she handed out copies of a story she had written. "It's only seven pages," she said to the teacher as she gave him his copy. "It could be expanded."

     The teacher took home four stories to review for the following week's class. He planned to read Jane's story last. When he knew or suspected that a particular student's work would be better than average he often read it last, as a reward for having gotten through some of the more pedestrian material. He wondered if the quality of Jane's critiques would be sustained in her own fiction.
     The teacher had a bad week. His ex wife showed up to claim some artwork which he felt was legitimately his, but he let it go. The large black and white tomcat he lived with developed a blocked ureter and had to be rushed to the vet. A day later, the teacher broke a tooth, and found himself the unhappy subject of an unplanned root canal. Because of these complications, he did not get around to reading Jane's story until a few hours before the class was scheduled to meet.
     The title alone sounded a warning bell in his mind...

TEACHER'S PIT

By

Jane Devlin

     It's an old story. If some aspiring writer proposed it as a theme in a fiction workshop, he or she would probably be told "It's been done." He or she would be warned that a highly original treatment would be required to avoid another hackneyed tale of student/teacher romance, a story that usually concluded with the disillusioned student discovering the teacher's feet of clay, followed by the suggestion that the power dynamics had reversed and the student had become strong while the teacher had been reduced to human dimensions in the best case, or a figure of pathos in the worst.
     So that is the challenge this story must meet if I am to heed my own warning. It must bring a new scent, a new color, a new angle of vision to this perennial tale.
     You be the judge.

*          *          *

     She was dark and slender, bright, assertive, and deeply insecure — these were the teacher's initial observations. She joined his fiction workshop and submitted a story for review. The narrator of her story was dark and slender, bright, assertive, and deeply insecure. A young, struggling artist, she met a successful New York painter, an urgent and controlling man she was immediately drawn to. The evening they first met, this man undressed her completely, examined her without expression, and told her to put her clothes back on. He then fucked the narrator standing up in front of a full length mirror with her skirt bunched up around her waist, her panties pulled to one side, and the bodice of her dress ripped open to reveal her black lace Italian A cup bra. "Fucked" was the word the narrator used, and in the context of what was happening in the story, it seemed appropriate to the teacher.
     This man did a number of other things to the narrator as the story unfolded. Some of the things were cruel. Some of the things inflamed the teacher's imagination.
     When he wasn't doing these cruel and inflammatory things to her, this man liked to paint and sketch the narrator in provocative nude poses. The nicest thing he did in the course of the story was to provide incisive if not wholly supportive critiques of her own paintings. (There was a great deal of red in her paintings. In fact, there was a great deal of red in the story. Red wines. Red fires and fabrics. Red lips and skies and blood.)
     At the end of the story, after an unusually rough night with her lover, the narrator stumbled home on a broken high heel at dawn, and there inflicted a shocking and disfiguring injury upon herself in an apparent attempt to heighten (or possibly reawaken) her blunted capacity to feel.
     So they critiqued her story, the teacher and the class. Entry point. Character development. Voice. Arc and closure. The teacher suggested that on one occasion the narrator seemed to slip into the voice of a victim, which tended to flatten the character and diminish her complexity. Several students wondered if the self-inflicted injury was fully "earned" in the context of the larger story. Some found it too theatrical.
     As the discussion continued, the teacher noted that, for him, the word "tits" had a hard edge derogatory sound, while the word "breasts" was more erotic and perhaps also more consistent with the narrator's voice. Throughout the critique, the student took copious notes, smiling from time to time as if entertaining private thoughts.
     After class, she lingered to thank the teacher for the critique, which she termed "incisive." Her dark eyes were saucy, her smile, faintly mocking. The scooped neck of her summer shift had slipped to one side, revealing a lacy black bra strap that partially obscured a small tattoo high on her breast, something delicate and spiky the teacher could not quite make out.
     As it happened, they were both heading for the downtown R train.

*          *          *

     Well. I said at the beginning it was an old story. Still, this version does feature an unusually bold student, and offers the added fillip of having the student's imaginative sexual preferences detailed up front (do you doubt for a minute that the story she gave the teacher was a script?). And then there is the question of the teacher's sexual tastes and limits, just how much he might reveal on that subject.
     Or how much might be revealed to him, how much the teacher might be taught.
     Will the story play out along predictable lines? Will it disappoint? If you are still engaged, still interested in spite of the potential for cliché, read on.

*          *          *

     The streets were softly lit and filled with young couples in light summer clothing moving easily through the warm air, shimmering with city night secrets. The student and teacher walked together to the subway station and descended onto the platform. As they waited for the train, she mentioned how much she was enjoying the workshop. He responded that her work showed considerable promise, and that she should continue to mine what was obviously, for her, a rich fictional vein.
     They sat beside each other, touching at shoulder and thigh as the train thundered through the dark tunnel beneath the city. The air in the car was heavy. The teacher felt a drop of sweat form behind his ear and slide down his neck. He leaned toward her to speak over the noise of the train, bringing his face close to hers. He said he was often surprised by the content of the stories student writers would bring to his workshops, the risks they would take presenting sensitive material to a room full of strangers. She responded that she had attended two of his readings and had read all of his published work, so that at least in his case she had been highly selective about who she presented her material to. She looked at him boldly as she said this, their faces inches apart. The teacher smelled her warm minty breath; he felt a hot flush and stir in his groin.
     His stop was next. There wasn't much time to think this through. He knew that to continue on with her would probably soon involve him in a violation of the implicit contract between student and teacher, the obligation to respect the power of one's position and always act in the student's best interests.
     Assuming that one could always determine the student's best interests, sometimes not the easiest thing to do.
     Was he afraid of her, he wondered? Was he masking his fear with some fatuous, high-minded reference to his presumed responsibilities? Some of the scenes in her story ... they were at once profoundly exciting and deeply disturbing to the teacher.
     The train slowed as it approached the 23rd Street station. It struck him that he could be reading the situation totally wrong. What if she was just a very imaginative young woman? Or a very clever tease? Or (his worst fear!) some kind of fatal attraction nut case? Teaching fiction workshops was one of the few dignified part time occupations open to serious writers like him. A teacher could be fired these days for looking sideways at a student.
     The train stopped. The doors opened. He rose, smiled, nodded to her. The doors closed.
     He sat back down beside her.
     When the doors opened next at Union Square, she stood and looked at him expectantly. He got off the train with her and walked with her to her fourth floor walkup in the East Village. No questions asked or answered. He knew what they were there to do.
     He had the text in his briefcase.

     The teacher sat deep in the couch in the darkened living room, drawing on a coal of hashish glowing in the brass bowl of a hookah, watching as his brilliantly illuminated student raised her crossed arms and slipped her shift over her head. A scene from the story. She was standing in a pool of harsh white light thrown by a single spot, removing articles of clothing at his command. He was rock hard, excited beyond belief. And scared. He wasn't sure he could handle everything in her story, certainly not the conclusion.
     He exhaled the fragrant smoke, felt a small frisson tickle his scalp. She stood waiting in her bra, panties, and heels, looking frail and exposed in the glare of the spotlight, squinting slightly and smiling toward his dark form on the couch.
     He wondered how she would look balancing on one heel.
     "Right shoe," he said, and watched her stoop to remove it.

     Her body was pale as polar sun, her breasts, perfect small convexities, the nipples dark and delicate. At one point, as they progressed deeper into her dark imagination, he told her he did not think he could do what she was asking of him. She locked eyes with him and told him he had no choice.
     But she was not totally inflexible. The tale was hers, of course, but with the gentle authority of a good teacher, he pressed her for a few key edits he believed would make the story even more intense. And as an open and receptive student, she was willing to make certain accommodations to his aesthetic judgement.
     The teacher crossed thresholds that night. Heights and depths. He did things with his student that gave new resonance to the term "consenting adults." He discovered that under the right circumstances, and with the right partner, a woman would agree to anything.
     And so would he.

*          *          *

     Did you expect more? Did you hope for more? All the lubricious hydraulics, the hot, wet, private little details? Instead, I will tell you the truth.
     The truth is, the student's bold gambit failed.
     The teacher got off the subway at 23rd Street. He never touched her. (Mature judgement or timidity? The teacher would ponder that question for months).
     And the student? The student did not return to the workshop (I know this for a fact).
     But, I would ask, what kind of story does the truth make? We live so much of our quotidian lives in isolation and fear of each other — surely we can ask for connection and transcendence, at least, in the fictions we create and the fictions we read.

THE END


     The teacher had two thoughts almost simultaneously.
     The first was that she could have given him the story privately. She didn't have to do this in class. The second was that of course she had to do it in class. A postmodern theatrical was planned, with audience participation defining the second of three acts.
     Attendance was light the night Jane's story was scheduled for discussion; for whatever reason, only nine of the fifteen students showed up. The teacher usually reviewed the stories in alphabetical order by author's last name, but this would have positioned Jane's story first, and he wanted it last.
     He had some review rules. The author, for example, was not permitted to enter into the discussion until the end of the critique, on the assumption that the text, if successful, should speak for itself. Not every student felt obliged to comment on every story, but most stories provoked lively discussions with fairly broad participation. He tried to provide guidance when needed to keep the discussion focussed, and usually saved his comments for last to avoid unduly influencing the students' opinions. The teacher was always pleased when the students' judgements corresponded broadly with his, and even more so when they provided fresh insights or understanding with which he could enthusiastically concur.
     When it was time to discuss Jane's story, the teacher asked for comments and waited. No one spoke. He gave it twenty seconds, then called on a repeat student of his, a woman who could usually be counted on for strong opinions.
     She said the story was certainly cleverly constructed and certainly held one's interest. She said the writing itself was accomplished, although the style seemed somewhat masculine and emotionally distancing. The erotic scenes, for example, seemed to her like a woman's idea of a man's fantasies.
     She then said, looking directly at Jane, that the female character in the story was certainly one sick cookie.
     The teacher said that was a value judgement. He said it was legitimate to discuss whether a character was reliable or consistent or fully developed or sympathetic.
     The discussion was strained, desultory — everyone more or less skirted the subject matter of the story. The closest the teacher came to discussing content was to remark that the fictional form does free us to give full reign to our imagination and take risks with our material.
     He pushed the critique along, called on students, kept the discussion going for fifteen minutes. He felt Jane was due at least that much feedback. The class focussed mainly on technique. One student mentioned the use of levels, the story-within-a-story aspect. Reference was made to Fowles' The Magus and Gide's The Counterfeiters, to the uses of truth and illusion in the work of Paul Auster and Phillip Roth. The final minutes were spent discussing whether the author's running commentary (the first person voice) did, in fact, help to meet the challenge of originality that she herself had posed. Some thought the technique too intrusive, too self-consciously clever.
     At the end, the teacher asked Jane if she had any comments or questions. She thanked the class, and said no. She turned to the teacher and remarked that she had enjoyed reading his stories and believed they had influenced her style.
     After class, she lingered to thank the teacher for the critique, which she termed "incisive." Her dark eyes were saucy, her smile, faintly mocking. The scooped neck of her summer shift had slipped to one side, revealing a lacy black bra strap that partially obscured a small tattoo high on her breast, something delicate and spiky the teacher could not quite make out.
     As it happened, they were both heading for the downtown R train.

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