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When fright makes right

January 29, 2010

Clearly, certain talents run in certain families. For example, some families produce musicians, others artists and still others engineers, mechanics or mathematicians.

My family produces worriers.

And I don't mean run-of-the mill, humdrum, garden-variety worriers. Oh no. My family is to worrying what the Wallendas were to the high wire, and since it runs in both sides of my family for as long as anyone can remember, my brother and I are twice blessed.

Wanting recognition as much as the next guy, I've often wished there were worry competitions. If there were and my brother and I were a two-man team, I don't know if we could win the Olympics, but I do know we'd sweep the Nationals.


A worrier for all seasons

My specialty is freestyle: I always worry, and I can always find something to worry about.

For example, let's say all of a sudden every time I bend over to tie my shoes, I get a shooting pain in my stomach. What is it? I don't know; I only know it's probably something horrible, maybe even The Big One.

What to do? After losing a week's sleep, I finally go to the ER, where they discover the cause - my belt's too tight.

Everyone shares a good laugh at my expense and I return home, a light-hearted lad if ever there was one at least for a few hours, till I notice a weird lump in my dog's side. I rush him to the vet, where I find out it's just his ribs and they've always been like that.

And once I'm no longer worrying about my dog, it's only a matter of time before I worry about my car's transmisison, my sump pump, the vanishing American independent businessman - you name it.

But although I'm a freestylist, I have one specialty - worrying about my job.

Normally, my job worries are just bizness as usual - and I keep them under control. But just before the start of the semester they go supernova.

It's unreal: In the week before classes begin, I'm flying first class on Air Adrenaline and completely dysfunctional. I'm wide-awake and wired to the gills, but I can't focus on anything. That's exactly what happened two weeks ago.

Each day I went to my office full of enthusiasm and good intentions, but once I got there, I just frittered away the time, essentially bouncing off one wall and into the next.

On Monday, I was there for two hours and spent about 90 minutes telling jokes to Joe Dadey, and the other 30 drinking coffee.

On Tuesday, I was there four hours, three of which were spent surfing the net about pre-Columbian Viking explorations and the rise and fall of the Romanovs.

Wednesday I put in almost five hours, but subtracting the sipping, schmoozing and spacing, I got about two hours of work done.

And so it went, as it always does, till I had my Great Failure Nightmare.


Behold the GNF

The GFN also always happens before the semester and it's always spectacular.

In this semester's GFN, I was teaching a literature class, but in name only: I was halfway through the semester but hadn't worked at all. Instead, I'd spent seven weeks just standing there, prattling on about everything in general and nothing in particular, never mentioning literature at all.

The class itself was the stuff of nightmares - it had 160 students, and I was on a stage in a huge room. In the back of the room was a balcony chockfull of students. The room was stifling and the students weren't merely bored or apathetic - they were staring daggers at me, furious, as they had every right to be.

I had no microphone, which ultimately didn't matter since I had no lesson plan either.

So there I am, babbling away, when a kid in the balcony stands up.

"What we wanna know," he says, "is when we're gonna read the books."

"Read the books?" I repeat idiotically.

"Yeah," he says with exaggerated slowness, as if speaking to an idiot, "readthebooks.

"Because," he continues, "we've been in this supposed literature class for seven weeks and we haven't read any literature. Or anything else, either."

"Yeah, well," I sputter lamely, "we've got two really good books."

"Three!" yells some kid in the front.

"Three what?" I say.

"Three books!" he shouts. "We've got three books, not two!"

"Oh yeah, of course," I say, having no idea what the third book could be.

"And what's with this one?" the kid says, shaking a huge volume in my face. "It cost 300 bucks and you haven't even mentioned it."

I've never seen that book before, but I immediately recognize it as a freshman lit. anthology.

Now here's the thing about me and anthologies: As a student I had to buy anthologies full of the least interesting stories ever written. I never figured out how so many teachers could find so many lousy stories to force upon their students.

So when I started teaching, I swore I'd never do that to my students. Thus I've always tried to give my students stories that are easy to read, enlightening and enjoyable.

Meanwhile, back in my nightmare, the kid hands me the anthology and I open it up. And as soon as I do, I'm horror-struck: Every story is a classic freshman lit. downer I'd never make anyone read - the tepid and the turgid at their all-time worst. Hawthorne, Katherine Ann Porter, Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, Raymond Carver - masterpieces of the patently obtuse or the unremittingly dull or both.

The room gets hotter and hotter and suddenly some kid in the back stands up, cocks his arm and rockets the anthology straight at me, drilling me in the chest.

"Oof!" I gasp, snapping wide awake, finding myself face-to-face with Brother Phineas the Pug Thug, both front paws firmly planted on my chest.

Did he wake me, canine empath that he is, to spare me from my GFN horrors? Of course not. It's 6:30 - time for the little glutton's breakfast.

It's also time for my pre-school jitters to vanish, which indeed they do - just like that.

It's the GFN that does it every time: While I know I'll never be the ideal teacher I want to be, I also know I'll never be half as bad as the teacher in my nightmare.



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