Mar 29, 2018
Kristina Marie Darling
$138,000 into the story, there is nowhere else to go.
I spent my twenty-seventh year typing letters of application, the nerves in each hand wrecked by this seemingly endless work, my persistence motivated only by the fear of becoming homeless.
Three weeks prior, I had drifted through the various halls of the Writing Institute, looking for the Administrator. The problem was this: when he approached me last, I had intended to appeal my case, but was put off by his immediate need to instruct—
You are exactly what they worked against during the Eugenics movement.
You are like a person who scored poorly on an intelligence test.
You are like a person who needs remedial instruction.
An hour into his lecture, I can only stare. In such a brightly lit corridor, I had no idea this darkness was possible.
When I stood before the class, I sensed—ever so slightly—the possibility that harm could be done to me. As Y. sat in the penultimate row, forty minutes late, her mouth seemed to harbor a secret. Suddenly her remarks bore a certain heft. She is no longer concerned with how many gaps may plausibly be found on a printed page, or the number of words from here to the next day, or the next, because she sees only the little tremor in my hand. The nerves shatter, the face grows pale, the community building exercises resume. All of which seemed to say to her, if there is so much air is lost in breathing, why not assume the role of the empowerment?
Deadlines passed. The snowdrifts grew taller. Y. grew so quiet she was longer here. That is, until grades posted to the university’s online student information system. The girl spent the afternoon posting message after message: When I found out, I went behind your back for days. I am hesitant to tell you the things I have done... At first, I was convinced the event could be explained quite simply: somehow, the heart had come unfastened from the mind. I thought in the beginning that it was nothing, but now a total of five missives blinked back at me from my screen. In one of them, she suspects this is the punishment for something that lies just beyond her comprehension. In another, she reminds me how months ago, in the hallway, she had called the community building exercises stupid. But she suspected that this was really over something else. The first late assignment perhaps? Or the second? She continued to test the idea that no one was on the other end of the line: When you went away after classes, you didn’t know…. Still, I assume that her mind will resume its right trajectory in time, and this is what I tell my father after he calls me in the airport in Copenhagen, when I am on my way back from the conference. She will confess to some small crime, then she will apologize.
The anxiety dreams tried to show me – here, no here - something terrible that had been buried in the snow. Some nights a dead rabbit, some nights it was the dress I had been saving for holiday. When my flight landed, I reported the string of threatening messages to my supervisor. My car was old, but I hoped that it hadn’t been keyed. And despite what we all said about the offices they maintained for graduate teaching assistants, I didn’t want to see the space vandalized.
When I read the return message, posted from my supervisor’s gmail account, alarm registered first in the body, then in the mind—
What have you done to provoke her.
What is it about your teaching.
In a room lit up by the campus safety beacons, I can only stare. My evaluation, as rendered, was standard practice for a student turned ghost. Three absences mark the beginning of the long descent, and after five days unaccounted for, the cliffs can longer be scaled.
To understand my endangerment, one must first know several things about the funding structure of the college: students who resided in close proximity to the campus attended cheaply, those with far flung geographies would not only travel but pay and pay and later, pay. For the bursar, there was still more money to be had. To board a transatlantic flight to the college was a lengthy sentence to origination fees and overdraft charges. Said simply: the international students paid triple what was charged for out of state tuition, with no financial aid to be spoken of. They and their parents lived their lives in debt.
Of course, the supervisor of the freshman writing program, administering required courses for the science majors, did not want to be held accountable for a lost trove of wealth. You must understand, blame is a changeable backdrop to whatever action takes place. Accountability is unstable in both form and nature, the way we have always imagined women to be. Roughly translated: she was the customer, I was merely rendering the desired service.
Numerous job postings in the M.L.A. Bulletin have advertised universities seeking candidates with terminal degrees and “excellent customer satisfaction skills.” To instruct is to render a business transaction. David Perry, in his article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, examines ads like this one, suggesting the danger inherent in treating education as a commodity, “It’s a way of reversing the power dynamics. A customer holds a special place in our society. They have the right to complain, pressure, and go over the head of the worker to the management.” For me, this attitude culminated not in a list of pedagogical questions, but rather, in actual physical endangerment with no protection to be spoken of. The next week, a tenured professor was threatened in a similar string of emails, her office space vandalized and her car keyed. When she reported the incident to her supervisor, he called the police.
One tends to forget that part of delivering impeccable customer service is outsourcing labor. After all, buyers want the very best for less. According to Adriana Kezar and Daniel Maxe’s recent article, “The Changing Academic Workforce,” contingent faculty are compensated approximately sixty percent less than tenured professors for what is essentially the same work. As a graduate teaching assistant, I was taking out loans so that I could afford to teach that section of English composition. I borrowed money so that I could field comments from my supervisor about my genetic inferiority. Like so many of the doctoral students at that college, I thought I was different. I knew I would be able to pay it all back later, with 7.21% interest.
"On Shame" is an excerpt from an in-progress book of essays, THE SORROW LOAN: AN EDUCATION.
Kristina Marie Darling is represented by Marilyn Allen of the Allen O'Shea Literary Agency for book-length nonfiction.