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February 12, 2018 Fiction

For The People In The Back

James Figy

For The People In The Back photo

Due to a clerical error, 265 students registered for my English 101 course. Monday morning, my syllabus copies form two stacks of blue paper, each three feet tall. The secretary explains they made copies based on class size. “I don’t have this many students,” I say.

She swaps the reading glasses on a chain around her neck for regular specs on another, but still has to ask, “Name?”

“Davis,” I tell her. “I’m an adjunct.”

She swaps glasses, pokes at the keyboard methodically, and shows me the roster.

“That’s not my fault,” I say.

“Really,” she replies, switching specs, “we’re all a little to blame.”

I wheel the syllabi upstairs on a furniture dolly through a rabble of students. I think, What if I just keep walking? But Dr. Gartner pushed for me to get this, so there’s no choice. Students crowd in as soon as the door unlocks. The luckiest claim computers and chairs, while others accept fate and sit crosslegged on the floor. Only a third make it inside. I walk the hallway, distributing stapled papers.

With twenty pages of student names, roll call consumes the class period. Inexplicably the adjunct office printer cut off the last name column. "Is Kaylee here?" I ask. Ten students raise their hands.

From the hallway, a boy sitting by the water fountain pokes his head in: “We’ve got a couple.”

“Kaylee A?” I say. A few hands lower.

The boy says, “Still got one.”

“Okay—it’s K-A-Y-L-E-E.”

Only two hands remain in the classroom.

“Was that A-I?” one asks.

“No, A-Y.”

“Was that I-E?” asks the other.

“It’s K-A-Y-L-E-E.”

“She’s out here,” shouts the boy in the hallway. 

“Jesus H.,” I mutter, a little too loud.

The boy says, “He’s out here, too.”

 

In a private meeting, the dean admits there’s nothing we can do. His eyes are locked in a permanent squint by decades in academia. Around his neck hangs a gold St. Jude medal.

“They’ve paid to come,” he says, “and some—many, in fact—are the first in their families. Do you think it’s appropriate to take away this opportunity?”

I tell him no, tell him my garden variety liberal beliefs want them to bloom. “It’s just that I’m not enough people for 265 students.”

“Davis,” he says, as if imparting great wisdom, “I remember my first year teaching. There are always issues to overcome.”

To scream that this is ridiculous would let down Dr. Gartner, and automatically destroy the reference I need to get a good teaching job, one that pays more than shift manager wages at Taco Bell. So I stare at the dean’s necklace and its inscription that requests, reasonably: Pray for Us.

“Give it time,” he says. “A few will drop, and no more can register now.”

And by the start of week two, fifteen students drop, lightening the load to an even 250. But it’s still chaos, an hour and 45 minutes of me sprinting through Esch Hall.

Wednesday, I drive back to my parents’ home, where I’m living temporarily, and call Dr. Gartner, hoping to commiserate. She tells me she went through the exact same challenges as a young teacher.

I ask, “You taught 250 students in a 25-seat computer lab?” 

She laughs and says, “You’ll all get through it together if you try to do right by the students.”

 

Week four, I start to develop a system. For announcements, I borrow a megaphone from campus security. “For the people in the back,” my voice booms, “remember that draft two’s due Friday.”

I have the class count off by tens. Voices trail down the hall, circle back, like the massive wave I never was able to start at Pacers games growing up. By the time they’re all counted, a dozen students have forgotten their numbers. We count again, but somehow it ends up worse, and then it’s time for class to end.

Next class, I divide up groups of 25 and call in each using the megaphone for a ten-minute lecture, then send them out with a worksheet or group assignment. Besides the amount of paper I’m wasting, I feel good, like things are coming together. They haven’t mastered comma splices, but they will.

After week five’s hell of trying to read every second draft, I just have them grade each other’s papers. It’s easy to accept I have no control; from kindergarten to grad school, others have always dictated what to do. I drop my cellphone policy, as well as my attendance policy, due to a CDC-level epidemic striking everyone’s grandparents around week seven. 

The weird thing is: I want them all to remain in my class. Each Kaley—no matter how inanely her name may be spelled—has become a prized pupil.

 

Week ten, the secretary appears, both sets of glasses hanging around her neck, and a glare in her eyes. She demands I hand over the megaphone, citing numerous complaints by faculty. “On all four floors,” she says. From that moment, the students’ attention drifts off, and I can’t wrest it back. Grades drop because they aren’t listening and aren’t turning in the work. The classroom swap is a mess; only half the groups make it in most days.

At the end of week 13, the dean sends out an email saying due to union restrictions, the university can’t let an adjunct teach 250 students and must, therefore, funnel all of my impressionable young minds into sections of 101 next semester. Student emails inundate my inbox. None want to leave, and not just because they think my class is easy. They want me to do something.

I don’t leave my room all weekend, just stare at glow in the dark stars in my childhood bedroom. I worry about my class, about my future prospects, and about what Dr. Gartner would think if I did something rash, but then I remember she already told me: Students come first.

Monday morning, I don’t even think as I fire off a scathing email to the dean. Just kidding, I carefully consider the rhetorical situation and keep it passive aggressive. But to show my newfound guts, I copy my entire class on it. BCC, but still…

My students slouch in the hallway, giving appreciative but hopeless smiles. They know it’s a lost cause, but for some reason they showed up for class anyway. I stand in front of the door, but instead of opening it, I lift up the megaphone borrowed, this time without permission, from campus security. 

“For the people in the back,” I say, “know that we’re going to get through this together like we always do, somehow.”

image: Aaron Burch


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