On my last day at the university, I peel my nameplate off the Silly Putty pink square above the small bulletin board rectangle to the right of what was until 2 minutes ago my office door. I walk down the narrow hall — past the other rectangles and squares with office hours cards and other relevant information dangling from single pushpins. Passersby inevitably take the extra pushpins because there are never any available thumbtacks on the other bulletin boards that contain information about study abroad opportunities and teaching in Japan. I walk into the mailroom and struggle with the nameplate on my mailbox. It resists and peels off awkwardly — making a noise between a hiss and a squeak. I put my office keys inside an envelope and put that in the mailbox of my colleague T., who still has mailroom privileges.
I walk back to the office that used to be my office. I knock on the door.
My teaching assistant opens and lets me in.
My t.a.’s name is the same as mine. Stephanie the t.a. is very beautiful. I can say this now that I am no longer working at the university and consequently do not have to worry about making comments like “she is beautiful,” “he is handsome,” or “they are gorgeous.” Faculty and staff all take required video-courses about how not to ever talk about anybody’s body or face. In a way it’s good, but in a way it’s bad because now we don’t say anything. Now we pretend we have no bodies at all.
Stephanie has very long lashes, a gentle manner, and a funny, slightly hiccupping laugh.
“This is so sad,” she says in her quiet voice. “I just can’t believe how sad this is.”
Over the summer, when I decided to leave the university, because of health problems in my family and because I desperately wanted more time to write (also the commute to the university was awful), I wrote a brave nonfiction piece about me and my adopted brother, who is my best friend from graduate school. I wrote about how we were both quitting our jobs at the university and how we were going to have incredible new lives as independent artists who would teach and write and do “projects.”
I wrote about how he got on a freighter to Hamburg, triumphantly carrying a single suitcase.
But this is what happened: he panicked by the time he got to Berlin.
“Who am I?” he wrote me in an email from a few weeks ago. “I don’t have students to go back to.”
Stephanie stands up and helps me throw out remaining pieces of paper.
This past spring, the office manager and the chairperson told me I had to vacate my office by the end of the Fall quarter.
“But I’ve been here 31 years!” I said. “Can’t I have some time to clear out my stuff?”
“We need the space,” was the answer.
As we throw stuff out, Stephanie tells me she has just gone to the “Alternative Careers for PhD’s in the Humanities” workshop.
“Was it interesting?” I say.
I look at beautiful Stephanie who is a brilliant teacher and writer.
70% of university teaching is done by adjuncts according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. This is the fate that awaits most Ph.D.’s in the Humanities.
Looking at her, I refuse to feel sorry for myself on my last day at the university.
Because I’m a professor. Not a “top ranked” professor, of course. Actually, I’m near the bottom of the “full professor” tier because I stopped trying to move up within the hierarchy (I preferred learning how to write creatively, and then to write well [still working on that one]). You only ascend higher the more you write research, and the more “important’ you and others claim your work to be. There’s no end to your possible ascension. Onward and upward. Seemingly forever.
There I go. Feeling sorry for myself.
The fact is I get a pension and I get health insurance. I’m like one of the last workers in America to get those two things.
So, I leave beautiful Stephanie reading and correcting work in what used to be my office, and go say goodbye to the nice ladies who run the coffee kiosk in front of the administration building. Only one of the ladies is there, but when she hears it’s my last day, she comes out of the kiosk and hugs me. Because yes – they are that nice.
“I wish I was retiring,” she says.
I walk inside the administration building because it’s cold outside. The interior has been retrofitted, painted and plastered and “gussied up”, as my working class Norwegian great aunt would say, in honor of the new Development Office. The Development Office has glass doors with vertical shades and looks a bit like that inner sanctum at a bank where you go to ask for the seriously big loans.
The interior is beige, and the linoleum gleams, and the broken down sofas that students used to sit on just inside the front doors are all gone.
But now there is nowhere at all to sit. Not a single chair can be seen on the first floor. There is an ancient payphone near the exit to the parking lot in the administration building. I go stand there and drink my coffee. I call my husband. He’s busy talking to the university headquarters because there seems to be some confusion on my campus and in my department and up at headquarters as to how the retirement process works when you retire midyear, and so no one is clear on when I’m supposed to start getting my pension, and in the meantime, how the premiums for my health insurance are supposed to get paid.
I sip and watch people scurrying around. It’s lunchtime.
I walk back outside. A loud man in a suit – whom I’ve seen before — shouts things like “Numbers!” “Profit Margins!” “We’re Growing!” and “Success!” on a cell phone. Then a top administrator comes by and the loud man shouts words like that to him. The administrator nods and gives him the thumbs up.
Outside the coffee ladies – now all three of them – make lattes and smoothies.
On my last day at the university, I walk back to my ex-office and gather my things. I take my rolling backpack filled with books. T.a. Stephanie picks up a box containing a tiger statue, a Little Hans puppet that a student (now a poet) made for a puppet show rendition of Freud’s case study, red bookends my mother got me, and the programs, money, and tickets I collected during my visits to East Germany. We walk together to the classroom where I will teach the final meeting of a Women’s Studies class — the last course I will ever teach at the university where I will – in an hour and twenty minutes – have retired from.
Since it’s the last day of classes, the students present work that they are doing. Someone has baked an enormous cake based on a 1918 recipe.
“Women’s work,” the student explains, “was incredibly difficult still in the early 20th Century because so much had to be done by hand.” She explains how beating all the eggs, flour, and butter really hurt her arms.
She passes out the cake. She has made enough for 70 people.
Others talk about Little Red Riding Hood, princesses, Kathryn Bigelow, and the female body.
The cake is delicious.
We say goodbye.
Beautiful Stephanie and I walk to the parking lot with my box and my rolling backpack. My husband waits by the car.
I hug Stephanie. In that hug I try to share some of my luck in finding an academic job in the first place and keeping it for as long as I’ve been able to keep mine.
Then, my husband and I drive away.
“Will you write about this?” he asks me. Night has fallen and my last day at the university is ending as so many working days in America end.
In transit. In the dark.
I think of my adopted brother writing “Who am I?” from a café in Germany.
My two nameplates sit in the recycle bin, waiting for the cleaning crew to come empty the garbage. They only come a couple of times a week now. Budget cuts.
There’s a blank space above an office door, where the name “Stephanie” once was.
“Yeah,” I say to my husband. “I guess I’ll have to.”
We go home and get out of the car.
I take out my boxes and the Little Hans puppet and some leftover cake the student gave me.
I sit at the kitchen table and write this story.
Treating myself to words and some more of that incredibly tasty 1918 recipe.
8 thoughts on “Story Time Sunday , 12/08, 2013”
Lovely. Honest. True. Not bitter, but not unscathed either.
Keep writing about this Stephanie. Please.
Thanks so much for reading. I tried to use some of the maneuvers that I learned in your class on nonfiction, and from your own writing. You bet I’ll keep writing about this. thanks for the support.
In envy and sadness xxoo Sophie Volland
Merci Sophie and Merci in particular for inviting us to contribute to the Diderot Project almost 20 years ago. That was the writing that first gave me the encouragement and courage to become a full time artist. Xoxo
What a beautiful and bittersweet farewell from a life you’ve known for so long. Can’t wait to see the writing you produce now that you will have more time to devote.
Thanks dear friend, for your continued support! I can’t wait to see what amazing work you will produce in the Pacific Northwest! Here’s to good words for both of us!
Thank you for sharing this poignant and sad storytime. You may have turned in your keys to that office (and persona), but so many many doors await. With all of your talent and insight, the trouble will be discerning which ones to walk through. Mazel tov.
Thanks for reading, Claire! I wanted to honor those unsung heroes — t.a.’s and cafeteria workers — who give beleaguered edu whatever little bit of soul it still has left and certainly comforted this little soul… thanks again.