Sunday Essay: You Or Someone Like You

By

Let me start off by saying I love getting to teach writing. It’s the only job I have ever had that I didn’t despise—every other job has been some boss or company taking my time in trade for something as meaningless (but not, sadly, useless) as money. There really aren’t many down sides to the job for me. Sometimes it’s too much work away from people I love and my own writing, but what job isn’t? A good friend once told me she’d had to make peace with the fact that the time she spent teaching (to do it right) would cost her at least two books over the course of her career. And then she said she figured she’d help enough writers on their path to publish books of their own that the world had a greater number of books she cared about and loved than the two or three books of hers it may have lost.

That sounded kind of beautiful to me. She struck me as something of a saint. Full of grace and angelic wisdom and a quiet, intense intelligence. I hope to someday approach how well she navigates the world. Even while I fall short of that, I try to remember what she said. And it reminds me, again, that I couldn’t have a better gig.

But this piece is an account of one of the down sides of the job, which any professor/teacher/instructor has probably encountered if they’ve taught for a while. It’s about the loons who fuck up your class.

It happens. These people, if you are not careful, can make all the good students drop out and make your boss wonder what the hell you did to have set school records for attrition in an elective class.

And to be clear: the kind of disruptive force in a classroom I’m talking about is not simply a “crazy” person. I like crazy people. I am a crazy person. Doctors have tagged the label on me more than once. I’ve grabbed the bus at the stop closest to the hospital having forgotten to take off my 72-hour observational plastic wristband ID a few times. Which, I should tell you, freaks people out—even on mass transit, whose riders casually look the other way at an awful lot of things.

But/and, there are the truly unhinged students and they can be a disastrous/creepy/sometimes frightening influence in a classroom.

One, not my first, but one of my most memorable, well, sort of off people, was a student I’ll call Karl. He’d worked in several cities in Europe. I remember him telling me he was a coke-dealing bartender in Copenhagen who had logged a Mick Jagger-esque number of sexual conquests over the years. He was later a coke-dealer/bartender in a hip joint in Paris, where he had again maintained his astounding pace and quantity of beautiful women whose only desire in the world, it seemed, was to fuck him.

I hadn’t heard any of this prior to the first night. No, that first night, he came into the room before any other student, about six foot four and, to be fair, a very good looking guy. He looked like someone who’d be chain smoking in a Truffaut film with Jeanne Moreau or something. He would have been much more attractive if not for the leather pants (black, which is fine, piped with bright red, which is not), leather jacket and an M&M red motorcycle helmet that all but screamed “middle-aged guy trying too hard to cling to youth.” And kind of a silly youth at that.

He strode (a clichéd word, but accurate in this case—he was one of the few people who have EVER strode toward me…and the only one who didn’t, seconds later, pummel me into a bloody mess on a barroom floor) and confidently announced in some vaguely European accent, while poking me in the chest:

“I drove a Ducati across the fucking country to work with you!”

At this point in my “career,” I had published, maybe, 5 or 6 stories in literary journals. Only a couple of the journals had any prestige and, at that time (late 90’s), only ONE of them had an on-line version that simply put up the same stories and poems that appeared in the printed issue, where my story had earlier appeared. So, I figured, he’d maybe read that story, or (even weirder and better), this guy had tracked down and read and loved all my stories in obscure literary magazines.

I had probably never been more flattered in my writing or teaching life at that point. I mentally forgave him poking me in my chest. I listened to it in my head: I drove a fucking Ducati across the country to work with you!

“Really?” I said.

He waved dismissively. “You, or someone like you.”

Which was, of course, not the same thing. It was, in fact, astoundingly FAR from the same thing.

After this, I found out his history of cocaine and sex. His latest bartending job had been in New York, with the same results as all the other jobs. He was making me uncomfortable. Plus, I was still pretty…well…pretty hurt by what he’d said. Most students don’t realize they have this power over their teachers and/or professors—the power to, at times, make them feel incredibly shitty and unworthy of ever standing with their backs to the chalkboards of life.

You, or someone like you.

Well, shit.

The class filtered in. Eight out of the nine other people in the workshop were women. Normally, I probably wouldn’t have noticed this, but—right away—it was clear that this Karl guy was not only creepy…he was creepy in a very Male way. The vibe in the class was unusually tense from the get-go…everyone, except for the other guy, seemed uneasy around Karl.

It turned out we had two creepy guys. The other guy was (he would easily have held the title for “creepiest student in the room” were it not for Karl) named Raymond and he was twenty-two years old. When I read his name on the roster, I recognized it as the name of a student I’d been warned about.

Not just warned. Repeatedly warned. I’d been warned about Raymond from everyone in my department. From the woman who scheduled the classes. From the janitor, it seemed. From the woman who gave out parking tickets at night.

Raymond had written, on every evaluation he’d ever filled out, that we were all shitheads who couldn’t spot his genius (this, by the way, does not hurt the teacher’s feelings when it comes from a person like Raymond). He refused to alter so much as a comma in his work. Raymond was, however, a little scary and, no matter that he’d had five other people try to help him prior to my workshop, he still managed to write stories that were so cliché-riddled (and incredibly violent clichés at that), it seemed like he might have been paid by the cliché.

Raymond did not say much. He wrote several stories about dead things. Every living thing that could die and had EVER died on earth, it seemed: bugs, raccoons, zebras and bunnies and people—they all became an undead version of themselves. And pissed off and blood-thirsty versions at that. They would come alive (or become undead, as the case might be) and kill living things (again, all living things). But/and the NEWLY killed things would stay dead.

When we workshopped one of his stories, I asked (I was trying, after all, to help) why the newly-killed people and rats and warthogs and kittens and Lhasa apsos (and so on) did not then become part of the dead/undead menace of killing machines that walked, crawled, slithered, flew or undulated the earth of his stories. It seemed like a valid logic question.

He looked really angry and shook his head like I was a moron and he spoke in a quiet voice that made it sound like he was fighting tremendous rage. Like Billy Jack talked before he kicked the living shit out of a group of yokels. “That’s not how this world works.”

“But,” I said (and I did wonder sometimes if my life would be worth living if I had to have too many more conversations like this and sound even vaguely invested in them), “if the DEAD things KILL other things…that means the things they KILLED are also now DEAD things…so, why aren’t THEY, too, the undead killing machines the original dead things are?”

He looked at me blankly. Then he shook his head.

I said, “Does anyone see the, uhm, maybe the logic issue here?”

No answer. I looked around the room for help. Karl looked angry—I’d learned that talking with him about anything other than him seemed to anger and bore him. Seven women (I’d already had one drop, sending me an email saying, “those two guys creep me out. And you talk a lot.”) who seemed enormously uncomfortable with Raymond. No one talked. Crickets.

Then Karl yelled, “Fucking burn the fuck out of the new dead things and they will be fucking dust and fucking ash and no one will be fucking confused!” He threw his arms up and down and pounded the table several times…a gesture we’d all become very familiar with. A gesture that seemed to mean he was excited in some way. Whether it was anger, pleasure or disgust, the gesture seemed the same. He said, “Problem fucking solved. Burn the fucking dead shit!”

Fair enough. Actually it may have, on balance, been better advice than I could think of, even if Raymond rolled his eyes and shook his head for the hundredth time that hour.

The class was structured so that each student would have their worked critiqued by the class once or twice. But I saw and commented on every piece they wrote. I had them write one story a week. Karl had signed up to be critiqued just once—the ninth week—so only I had seen his work.

And every one of Karl’s stories were first-person narratives about a guy who was from, at various times, several cities in Europe. He was a coke-dealing bartender in Copenhagen who had logged, yes, a Mick Jagger-esque number of sexual conquests over the years. He was later a coke-dealer/bartender in a hip joint in Paris, and, well…you get the idea.

This main Karl-esque narrator, though, had another character trait that showed up in every single story he did: He wanted to fuck his brother’s daughter. That would be his niece, who was fourteen years old. Every story had the narrator finding ways to visit his brother in Paris and finding creepy ways of being around his niece and, when his niece (thank goodness, for her sake) was not around, he would—again, in every story—slink into her room and go through her things and sniff her panties.

It was…well…difficult to read about this every week. I wished I had his brother’s phone number. I wondered what to do, exactly but found myself with few options. Plus, it was a writing class—not a class where people DID the things they wrote about as far as I knew—and I wouldn’t, ugly as the work can be, want to be someone who blocked a writer’s material. It was, though, a trying eight weeks of reading Karl’s work, while always commenting on what was good but/and pointing out the whole niece thing could really offend readers (hoping to get through more to Karl about what he might be doing, than what he might be writing).

Week nine arrived. And I dreaded the workshop where Karl’s work would be read. I worry a lot. I’m a full time worrier. But most times what I worry about in life doesn’t turn out as bad as I fear it will. This time, though, I was right to be concerned.

The night of class, even before we started, the looks on the faces of the other students made it clear I’d read the situation correctly, and we were in for a tough night. Three women hadn’t shown up. The rest looked either angry or shell-shocked, which seemed to make total sense. I extended the banter I usually do at the start of class as long as I could—I asked for any news anyone had from the world of writing. Nothing. Well, how about the world of publishing? Zip. Maybe the world itself…surely someone must know something about the world.

But no one was talking. When it finally came time to talk about Karl’s story, the quiet continued. Usually, I try to get class started by getting out of the way a little—letting the students set the tone for the discussion and only starting to jump in (and, as is my habit, rarely shut up) about halfway into a critique, unless there’s an issue of craft or a total lull in the room. And this was starting to make a normal “lull” seem positively raucous.

I don’t have many rules in class. I try to be a descriptive, rather than prescriptive person when I work with writers. I do, however, have a rule in class that—with any first person narrative—the group is not to mistake the author for the narrator. There are reasons for this—narrative persona and the author NOT being the same person…issues of biographical criticism being largely problematic for workshops (especially fiction workshops, where some writers want the privacy that fiction may afford), and a bunch of other reasons influenced both by a concern for people’s feelings and by narrative theory.

So, I’d ask them to say, for instance: “On page seven, where the narrator goes to Trader Joe’s…” instead of, “On page seven, when you go to Trader Joe’s…” and so on.

Finally, a very brave and understandably troubled young writer (she was maybe 25 and frighteningly talented—I hope that class didn’t scar her and cost our world a fine writer) said:

“On page 3, where the narrator…uhmm. Well, where the narrator…well, when the narrator’s brother and sister-in-law…well, the whole family, really, are gone…the narrator goes into his niece’s room and…” She paused for a very long time. “Well, I guess I’m trying to say I was troubled when the narrator…went into his niece’s room and….well, sniffed her underwear.”

Karl looked over at her, then around the circle, smiling widely. He waved up and down and then started pounding on the table and shouted, “THAT IS ME!!!”

So much for the whole Narrative Persona verses Author issue.

No one spoke. I tried to save what little hope might be left. To try to turn this into a “teachable moment” as one is supposed to do when shit goes horribly awry in the classroom.

I said I agreed with the student that the scene was troubling. “How about anyone else? Did any other readers feel troubled by that scene?”

Arms shot up. Except for Raymond, who was drawing in a notebook.

Karl said, “You don’t understand what is happening? I am sniffing her panties!”

“No,” I said. “We’re following the action. We understand what is happening in the story.” I went on to explain that a 40 year old uncle making a trip to his brother’s house solely for the purpose of trying to fuck his 14 year old niece might, well, offend readers. And that the panty sniffing scene was pretty much in the same boat, as scenes go. That the reader might be so offended that they wouldn’t read a word beyond that scene.

I started to talk about other narratives that assaulted their audience’s sensibilities—by writers who, of course, MEANT to assault their audience’s sensibilities. I hoped at least this part might be of use to the rest of the class.

I said, “You know, in narrative, it’s cool to offend the reader, but you better be aware you’re doing it and you better have a purpose, or it’s just weak writing.”

Karl said, “What the fuck is fucking offensive here?”

A student named Mary said, I’m not going to dignify this story by talking about it.”

It struck me that not only was she right, she should probably be running the class.

I looked around at the blank faces. “Why don’t we take a break?” I said.

After break, we were down to only four students. I sent people home early, more exhausted from that hour than any four hour class had ever made me. I pretty much sprinted to a bathroom that was far away from the class and hid for fifteen minutes at an alternate exit in hopes that Karl was not waiting to talk with me. I made it to my car, thinking I’d at least seen as bad as that class could be. And I told myself, over and over, that there was only one week left.

The next week, I came to class about ten minutes early. A minute later Karl walked in. Ten minutes late, Raymond came in with a copy of his story “Mudmen”—about a race of men made of, well, of course, mud, who killed everything in their path. The story had been passed out the week before. I hadn’t had the nerve to even look at it until the day of class.

Mudmen was illustrated. On the cover page, a Mudman (I guessed) was driving a medieval (of course) sword through the back of a very human looking figure with torn jeans, a sports jacket and glasses. Not just a very human-looking figure, but a very me-looking figure. The only solace I could take from this frightening development was that he’d drawn me, I was happy to see, looking pretty thin.

The Mudman was brutally disemboweling a slender obscure writer. It could have been worse.

Before driving to work, I’d shown it to my partner Gayle, thinking maybe I was being paranoid. She said, “What the fuck is that blob doing to you?”

“It’s a Mudman,” I said.

“What?”

I explained as best I could.

Later, on campus before class over coffee, I showed the picture to two people I taught with. Bruce thought it looked a lot like me.

Margret said, “You should make a copy of that, dude.”

“Why?”

“You know. Make a copy and give it to one of us in case.” She looked at Bruce. “Well, in case anything happens.”

I asked them if they really thought he was dangerous. They’d each had him in class. They nodded.

“Really?” I said. “He didn’t do anything to you guys.”

Bruce said, “He didn’t draw a fucking picture of a Sasquatch ripping my guts out.”

“It’s a Mudman,” I said and they looked at me, confused. I shrugged. “I only have to make it one more week.”

“Unless Mudman knows how to stalk,” Margret said with a smile that comforted me, somehow. If she could laugh about this, how bad could it be?

I said goodbye and headed to class.

Only one more class, I kept thinking. I would later get emails from several women, thanking me for the critiques and apologizing but saying they would never walk into a room with Karl again. They mentioned Raymond, too, but he seemed to be a notch lower on the creepy scale—which he was for me, as well, until I saw his artwork. A couple students said I should have done more to make the room a safer space. That seemed fair. Even they, however, realized it was a tall order and said so. One student emailed and said she wanted to fuck me. She seemed a little crazy, too, but clearly not the kind of crazy I had any major issues with. Flattering crazy people were kind of nice. But everyone who dropped mentioned the two men and wished I had gotten rid of them, or shot them at twenty paces, or simply (and this WAS a good idea, in a way) moved the class to another classroom and not told Karl or Raymond where we were.

I had no power to kick people out—I could only tell the higher ups and I had told them. Repeatedly. If we changed classrooms and got found, there was a chance we’d face the wrath of Mudman. Later, though, I thought maybe I just should have lied to Karl and Raymond and acted like I had the authority to kick them out.

Still, it did make me feel slightly better that most of the class didn’t seem to blame me for their lousy experience, instead blaming the wanting to fuck his underage niece panty sniffer guy and the creepy kid. But, when people aren’t happy with the experience of a writing class, it weighs on you. Or me, at any rate. The other students’ overall kindness didn’t erase my guilt (but then, I suppose only death will erase most of my guilt), but it helped.

Those emails would come later, though. The night of that last class, none of the other students showed up.

The three of us (well, two, since Raymond made Beckett’s later plays look talky) talked about Mudmen for about as long as I could stand before I called it a night.

Raymond stopped doodling dragons with swords for hands (or whatever a “hand” is on a dragon). The dragons always seemed to be fighting to the death on the cover of his notebook. Dragons all killed each other. Mudmen apparently killed their writing teachers, among other things. He left. I took my first deep breath of the night.

Karl grabbed his motorcycle helmet and said, “So how do I get a fucking script sold? I could take these stories and make them like DIE HARD.”

I thought about DIE HARD with Bruce Willis saving the world and also being an incestuous pederast. “You’d have to take a screenwriting class. I have no idea how to sell scripts.”

Karl seemed to think for a moment. Nodded. He said, “How the fuck do you read all that Mudman shit and all those girly stories about bad marriages.”

I didn’t want to hurt the guy, but I wasn’t going to lie to him. “Some of them are great,” I said.

“Mudman?”

“No,” I said. “Not Mudman.”

I made some awkward comment about getting back to my car. I knew my good friend Tod Goldberg, who taught a 7-10 pm class like mine, might be in the parking lot and I might catch him and we’d end up, as we often did, talking and laughing for a couple hours before we headed home.

Karl asked me if I wanted a smoke.

I told him thanks, but I’d quit.

A drink?

Sadly, the same answer.

“I have some blow that will keep us up until next week.”

The thought of “us” being up until next week scared me more than getting high for the first time in a decade did.

I didn’t get offered drugs much anymore. And he was not someone I wanted to be huddled on a couch over a table with but, still, I was glad he hadn’t tested my not-so-iron-at-times will with, say, morphine. If offered in a moment of my weakness, who knows? Any good opiate could have me dumb enough to ride cross country with Karl if he kept me stocked. I said, “I wish I could, but I can’t do that anymore.”

“It’s Merk. You ever had it?”

Merk cocaine. A dentist across from one of my apartments in Boston used to sell it to us, along with a tank of nitrous oxide that got replaced with a new full tank every week. Pharmaceutical grade cocaine that could make an opiate addict who didn’t even like cocaine salivate. Clean, incredibly good, with no speed so you wouldn’t chew your gums for ten hours. Fluffy like the way heaven’s clouds are depicted in children’s books.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’d love to, Karl. But those days are over.”

“Your fucking wife, right?”

That was not the reason. Though I can’t imagine Gayle would have been too happy to hear I was on a week-long blow bender with the panty-sniffing guy I’d been telling her about for nine weeks. Gayle didn’t really know the old me. She’d never, for instance, had to bail me out of jail, like some ex-girlfriends had. Or take me to the hospital. Or see me actually hang out with a guy like Karl just because he had drugs.

I realized I missed drugs a lot more than I missed who and what I used to be when I was on them.

We stood there a while longer with, clearly, nothing left to say. If we were still in the classroom, I had no doubt we were so quiet we could have heard the click of the second hand on the clock. Karl seemed sad in a way I felt somehow responsible for, though I have no idea what I could or should have done. Part of me—a large part—thought, fuck him…he’s a truly disgusting creep who fucked up the class. Part of me thought, well, he’s still human and he seemed so raw in his need for company that night, it hurt to be around him.

But, he just nodded and started toward his ridiculous red bike that could go fast enough to kill its rider before they’d ever even reached second gear. I watched him walk away until his black leathers and the dark night blended and I went to my car hoping to find Tod and hoping to talk for a couple of hours and tell him about this crazy fucking class.

But Tod’s car was gone from the teacher’s lot. I felt like a failure. Every good writer and every good person in the class had been scared off and it was my job to create a space where that wouldn’t happen. Still, I had no idea what to do, then or now, with Karl. Or Raymond and the Mudmen. But mostly Karl.

Him, or someone like him, at any rate.

I got in my car and tried to defog my windshield so I could see my way in the dark, west on Sunset to the 405 and then home.


Rob Roberge is the author of three novels: The Cost of Living, More Than They Could Chew, and Drive, as well as a collection, Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life. He is a professor in the University of California-Riverside's Low Residency MFA program and plays guitar with the punk band The Urinals. He recently completed a memoir, Liar. For news and info: http://robroberge.com/ More from this author →