AFTER I GOT THE EMAIL FROM THE DEAN OF STUDENTS
You were in my poetry workshop for just ten weeks, but they were good weeks. I liked you. Everybody liked you. You were funny and bumbling and you wrote poems that people folded up and tucked into their backpacks.
Your dad was your hero. You never came out and said it, but I heard it in the way you talked about him. You showed me photos of his paintings on your phone, bright chaotic things with lots of yellow and splash. “He died with zero warning,” you said, “when we were on vacation. His heart.”
In class, you always sat next to me at our rectangle of tables, often wearing that wrinkled, orange plaid shirt you found at the Goodwill that stunk massively of cigarette smoke—yours and whoever owned it before you did—and I told you so. I’d quit years before but still craved the smell. “Man,” I said, “you stink, Ryan, but it’s a good stink.”
Remember when we read that Stafford poem about the deer alongside the road? (My millionth time, your first.) It got to everybody, even me. You said, “Would it cheer you up if I let you sniff my shirt?”
I was eating lunch in my office, dumping potato chips out of a Ziploc bag, when I got the email. It was sent to all of your instructors, telling us your body had been found in a forest preserve near your mother’s house.
One of your campus housemates, Stephen, called me about a gathering that night for anyone who wanted to show up. I’m still kind of surprised I went. I stepped onto the porch past random guitars, an ancient couch burst open like a cotton bloom, and into the wide-open door.
Inside, dozens of your friends, sweet-faced hippie kids, the girls in pretty, thrift store skirts and beads, sitting in quiet clumps on banged-up hardwoods.
I sat down, awkward in my middle age, my which-one-of-these-doesn’t-belong? But they welcomed me. We praised your poetry and your smarts and the way everybody wanted to be around you.
“Do you want to see his room?” Stephen asked. He led me in. “Stay as long as you want.”
God, Ryan, at the start of the semester, neither of us could have pictured this: me, alone in your room, sitting on your floor mattress, tilting my head to read the spines on your bookshelf. There was Bukowski’s Last Night of the Earth, your favorite. Bob Dylan looked just the right amount of confused and bitter in the poster over your pillow.
I want you to know that I felt obscene sitting there on your twisted-up sheets, invading the place where you slept. It felt wildly inappropriate, but I have to tell you, I wanted to stay much longer than I did, so long that even mellow hippie kids would’ve found it weird.
I got up and made myself leave, but not before seeing that tired orange plaid shirt on a hook in your closet. I don’t know why I felt relief that you hadn’t died in it. I wanted to sneak it out in my purse, would have, if I weren’t scared I’d be found out.
I’d never gone to the funeral of a student. Your mother looked the way mothers do at funerals, propped up and put together. She’d lost her only child six months to the day after arranging to have his hero’s body sent home from vacation.
Ryan, I gave her a folder of your poetry (breaking, I’m sure, some university regulation), including that last poem you turned in, about learning how to pray, “to who or what I am still unsure,” after a long dry spell: “I knelt there at the bottom of the lowest of my worst.”
I hugged the kids I recognized from your house, and then I met your dad’s mom, Olga, probably 80, in a cornflower blue dress with lace at the neck and wrists. “They don’t even know what happened! Why don’t they know what happened?”
No one was going to tell her, to try to explain to the grandmother in dementia, about the heroin, the forest, about the grandson whose loss had managed to consume him.
—from Rattle #53, Fall 2016
Tribute to Adjuncts
Julie Price Pinkerton: “I’ve been an adjunct professor of rhetoric and creative writing since 1998. I started my teaching career mid-horrible-divorce, when I was shattered and sad and there wasn’t much left of me. I didn’t even feel connected to my own name anymore. If the wacktastic jackassery in that marriage drained most of the humanity from my bones, this adjunct job is where I began to get it back. Starting out with basic composition classes was perfect for me; the scared, away-from-home freshmen and I were all trying to figure out our new lives. I’ve seen such astoundingly good writing from students over the years that I can’t even deal with it. I’ve also seen enough grammar, spelling, and usage debacles to knock down a Clydesdale. (My favorite: ‘I leaned forward and tenderly put my arm around her waste.’) My relationships with my students have run the gamut as well. I’ve gotten so close to some that I’ve cried when meeting their parents at graduation. Others have caused me to count the weeks in the semester until I can see them in the rearview mirror. I currently teach a creative nonfiction writing class called ‘Trauma Writing.’ The gutsiness I’ve seen from students in this class has elated me, regardless of the traumatic topics. Pushing them to really cut to the chase and pour themselves onto the page is the whole shebang for me. Or else, why bother? Now, the bad side of adjuncting: zero job security, hideous stress about being rehired, getting twice the workload and half the pay of tenure track professors, very little time for my own writing, and the odd phenomenon of becoming invisible. Not only does the university administration pretend that we don’t exist (the non-tenure faculty on my campus went on strike last spring), but some of us have walked the hallways of, say, the English department for decades alongside the ‘real’ professors and many of them still refuse to acknowledge us even as benign biomass passing by. A lowly adjunct can look them in the eyes, smile, say hello, and get nothing but the blankest of stares. This used to bother me, until I realized they were in the grips of that stale old cool kids’ table illusion. I’ve learned a boatload about people from this job, especially myself, and am happy to be a fully functioning human being again, except when I go completely batshit at the end of each semester. It’s another thing my students and I have in common.” (website)