I had been teaching English as a grad student for five years, part-time, when I received an appointment to teach a section of composition at a branch campus of a community college. I had done an internship at the same place a year before, which meant that I had worked for free, grading papers and giving lectures for the regular instructor. Now he was on sabbatical, and his work load was divided up among a few part-time adjuncts, including me.
The course had been going along smoothly enough, I imagine. One day about halfway through the semester, I was answering questions about usage–specifically the difference between “lie” and “lay”–when a stranger walked into the room. He was carrying a large frozen fish, about two feet long, wrapped in a transparent plastic bag. He laid it on the desk of a student who was sitting in the front row. Then, after looking around at all of the rest of us, he said to the student, “Now I want you to tell all of them what this is about.” He took us in with a sweep of his arm. “I want you to tell them in good, proper English.” And he left.
I have no idea what kind of an expression I had on my face, but I did have the presence of mind not to make any more of the incident. The student was a middle-aged woman, ten or fifteen years older than I, and far and away the best student in class. I could tell she was mortified. After class, she apologized to me and gave me an explanation.
She told me the man’s name, which meant nothing to me. Then she went on to explain that he was a friend of her husband’s. He had been telling her and her husband of his good luck catching sturgeon, and he had told her he would bring her some fish.
A few days later, to my surprise, I saw the man again. He was sitting behind a desk in one of the business offices of the college, where he seemed to be working normally at paper work. The incongruity astonished me. Up until that moment, I had assumed he was some sort of displaced person–one of those well-dressed, well-groomed people with a blown fuse–who didn’t have much better to do than to go fishing and to wander into public institutions during work hours. Now I saw that he worked at the college but had apparently little regard for the educational process.
To be sure of his identity, I asked the student. She confirmed that he was the same person, and she told me his name again. It took me a while to absorb the whole idea. I knew that the school where I was teaching was a pretty flaky place. The branch director had told us all, quite explicitly, that they didn’t believe in the grades “F” or “D,” and I had observed that my mentor (now on sabbatical) assigned very little work and graded none at all. I imagined that the man with the fish was acting within the bounds of normal behavior at that school.
Not long after that, I dropped by the sabbatical instructor’s house, to tell him how things were going in his absence. I narrated the incident with the fish, and I told him I was thinking of filing a formal complaint.
He told me that the fellow in question was just a big joker, who had pulled off similar antics with other people he knew. I shrugged and said it was fine if the fellow’s pals thought he was funny, but he didn’t know me and hadn’t come to talk to me about it afterward, either. What might be a gag to someone else was a professional offense to me, I said.
We talked a little while longer, and my senior colleague told me of other strange behaviors of professors on the main campus–faculty members who flagrantly did not show up for class, proclaimed their availability for sexual experimentation, and so forth. I asked him why someone like that, who was obviously tired of his job, even bothered any more.
His face widened as he said, in a semi-conspiratorial lowering of the voice, “You only have to work fifteen hours a week!”
That was his work load–fifteen class hours a week. By his reckoning, then, a person didn’t have to prepare class, grade papers, hold office hours, work on curriculum development, or do other paper work.
This conversation gave me additional insight into the place where I was working. Apparently, people did not step on one another’s toes, and everyone was left to go about his or her own business in his or her own peculiar way. Still, I told the sabbatical instructor that I was going to file a complaint if I didn’t receive an apology.
The next week, the man from the business office approached me at school and told me he had heard I was thinking of filing a complaint.
I told him I had harbored such a thought.
Well, he assured me, there was no need for that. He and that lady were good friends, and it was just a little joke, that was all. Now that he thought of it, he realized he should have said something to me about it. He realized now that maybe he shouldn’t have interrupted my class that way, but he wanted me to know he was just a practical joker, and he was always doing something like that.
We shook hands, and I assured him everything was all right. I really didn’t think a formal complaint would do any good anyway; all I really wanted was an apology, and I got it.
But life has never been the same after that. I don’t know how many times I have been asked to explain the difference between “lie” and “lay” since that day. Every time I have begun the explanation, I have remembered that incident. On some occasions I have managed to give a straightforward explanation and suppress the memory. On other occasions I have ventured into the absurd, with a comment such as “You can lay a frozen fish on the desk,” and then, upon meeting the odd stares of the students, I have gone on to tell the story. But regardless of how I have handled the situation, I have always glanced at the door. That incident took place nineteen years ago and over a thousand miles away, but I imagine there are idiots like that man lurking in many of our hallways; and not all of them have just come in off the street.
The story narrated above took place in 1978. I wrote it up several years later, as indicated, and it was published in an anthology entitled Ghosts in the Classroom and published by Camel’s Back Books in 2001. It is a pleasure to share it with a new audience.