The professor was droning on about how to read a painting, how you needed to look at the figures within it, how they directed your eye by glance and gesture so that you could divine the artist’s intent. The dark-haired girl—he figured she was a New Yorker–had sat down next to him even though there were other seats open. He had seen her before, in the little grocery store on 57th Street where the old Jewish women would complain about the prices openly and audibly, muttering “Goniff!” as they walked the aisles.
She was too close for him to look at her unless something odd or funny happened in the art history class, and since they were getting a scolding of sorts from the professor on the quality of the papers they’d handed in, it was a time for looking straight ahead.
The professor was little, and as he sat there listening to how the man thought they’d all failed miserably in their second assignment, he thought how he wouldn’t care what the guy thought if he didn’t need a good grade. So instead of telling the guy to take his class and shove it, recalling the song that had played over the radio on assembly line he’d worked the past summer, he just sat there and took it.
The dark-haired girl seemed to bristle; she had probably been going to MOMA and the Whitney since she was a little girl, and was defensive about the criticism the professor was showering indiscriminately upon them. He wondered if she thought he hadn’t understood the assignment, and was dragging her down. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye; she turned towards him, and appeared to be looking for sympathy. He gave her a look that conveyed, as best he could, the unfairness of it all.
The professor wasn’t letting up; he’d asked them to critique a painting and a sculpture, and some people had done two of one and none of the other, or just one, or hadn’t done anything but describe a piece literally, or hadn’t done much of anything. He thought he could expect that they, the best and the brightest he’d been told, would get something as simple as that straight, but apparently not. He wondered if the guy was being mean to them because he had nobody else in his life he could beat up on.
Across the room there was a woman with long hair, a bad complexion, and black glasses with thick lenses; a plain woman, he thought, who hides behind a bohemian pose. She seemed to be taking it all in without the same outrage as the woman beside him. Maybe she wasn’t from New York and didn’t feel the same sense of superiority as the woman beside him.
The woman beside him shifted uncomfortably. Maybe she was one of those who already had her life after college in Chicago all planned out–grad school, job at a museum, or the reverse, maybe she’d end up a professor too. She didn’t want a C on her record, that much he could tell.
“And so,” the professor was saying, “I’m going to hand all of these papers back to you, ungraded, and ask you to do them over. I didn’t find any of you that understood the assignment, or if you did you failed to express it in writing, which is really all I’ve asked of you.”
He felt a release of breath from the students assembled around the four tables formed into a square. He was ready to rewrite the thing if that’s what the guy wanted, but he got the sense that others weren’t so willing; maybe they weren’t on scholarship as he was, so they had other options. He looked at the woman beside him, who was fuming; she probably had every waking minute the rest of the semester planned out to the second. Some kids had already bought their plane tickets home when they arrived at the beginning of the semester they were so organized.
No one said anything until the plain cum bohemian woman broke the quiet that had descended on the room.
“Excuse me,” she said almost politely as she raised her hand.
“Yes?” the professor replied.
“I wanted to know . . . exactly what kind of fucking power trip are you on?”
The students were silent as they waited for the professor to respond; they’d never heard anyone take on an instructor like that. “Well,” he began finally and a bit uncertainly, “I’m just saying that there are certain minimum standards that I expect students to satisfy in order to get a grade in my course.”
The woman let his words hang there in the air for a second. “And who the fuck are you?” she continued. “Some of us have been here three years already. Nobody ever tried to pull this kind of shit on us.”
The professor drew himself up and took a moment to collect his thoughts. “Well, I . . . I mean, I know you . . . may worked hard but you sort of . . . missed the point and . . .” He couldn’t actually tell her she shouldn’t talk to him that way; those days were gone, we were in college now, and paying for the privilege.
The bohemian woman looked around the room for support, but for all the collective outrage that must have been swelling up in the hearts of the young men and women who lined the room, no one said anything.
Finally a guy with a beard, who earlier in the semester had stopped the student-teacher dialogue with the aggressively-stated observation that “The position that art should be apolitical is itself a political position,” spoke up.
“If we’re going to do the papers over you should at least give us an option. If we don’t re-write them we get like a B minus, if we do we can get a higher grade.”
This offer of compromise touched off a back and forth as to fairness which he had no stomach for. He wanted to get into the New York woman’s panties was what he wanted, he thought to himself. Why did the class have to erupt on the day when she’d sat down next to him for no good reason at all, as far as he could see?
“All right, I’ll set a floor of B minus,” the professor said. “I expect people who want a higher grade will turn in their papers by 5 o’clock this Friday.”
The announcement of this deadline touched off a group groan, with the woman from New York expressing the greatest exasperation of anyone in the classroom. It was the end of the fifty-minute session, and people started to get up to leave. The professor was surrounded by students seeking relief or exemptions from his harsh ruling, with the bohemian woman and the New Yorker standing next to each other, arguing their case together as if they improved their chances of prevailing by joining forces.
He looked back at the woman from New York as he left the room. Her veins were bulging along her neck, and he thought that’s what he would have seen if things had gone right and he’d had her in thrall to him in his bed, back in his room.
Con Chapman is the author of two novels, ten published plays, and over 40 ebooks of humor available on Amazon. Contributor to Boston Globe and Herald, his work has appeared in The Atlantic and The Christian Science Monitor, among other print publications.
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