5 April 1995

by jkatejohnston

Dear Max,

Last night I dreamed that the Dorothy Allison reading at Mills was all a fake and we were really all being lured in to watch two professors give a lecture. All the grad students were lying around in a church, and I kept running up and down the rows kicking at their feet. Then I was screaming at Cynthia Scheinberg, the professor who supervises the tutors, and she told me I had to go to the lecture too, so I ran away. Then I was walking on green grass high above the bay. I could see the golden gate bridge, and it seemed very close. There were huge, piled up waves just below, and then I saw that there were two white cows in the waves, and then I saw a man in the water, trying to save them. 

Soon the cows were on shore, and one was walking down the beach toward me. It carried me in its mouth, which didn’t hurt, except that I had a scab on my knee, and that did hurt. Then we were up on the grass, and there were all the grad students and Cynthia listening to a guided lecture on Nature.

What does it mean?

Do you think it has something to do with the kind of day I had at school yesterday?[1] A professor from the history department came to the tutors’ meeting to tell us the formula for a history paper. Then he told us some of his teaching methods. He assigns drafts and instead of correcting mistakes or saying what the student did wrong, he underlines the mistake. Then it’s supposed to be a learning experience for the student to find out what’s wrong with the part he underlined. Even if students come to his office to ask him, he won’t tell them. They’re supposed to look it up, but how can they when they don’t even know the name of the mistake he thinks they’ve made?

“Oh, just tell them,” I said.  No one responded to this.

Then Cynthia was praising him for assigning drafts, and he said, “It’s not apparent to me that it helps.”

“If you would tell them what they’re doing wrong it might help,” I said, “It just seems like less suffering for everyone.”

“For one thing,” he said, “It’s not in my best interest, to do that, is it? There’s grade inflation to think about, and the registrar wants a certain number of D’s and C’s.”

I felt a kind of swooning despair and afterward imagined saying, “Maybe we tutors could help them make more mistakes, then your job would really be secure.”

And it wasn’t just what he said, which was bad enough, it was his light, ironic tone—like aren’t I a bit daring for saying this thing which we all know is true but most of us don’t dare say? And then I saw Cynthia nodding with wide eyes and thanking him for implementing Writing Across the Curriculum. I expected her to say her standard thing: “Fascinating!” but she didn’t. Leanna (the Root Vegetables woman) had some constructive thing to say, and then the hour was up, a little burst of applause for our guest (Princess did not clap), and the meeting was over. I felt like kicking him in the shins on the way out.

I was in a mad despair, and I was meeting Constance immediately afterward for a tutoring session. Earlier that morning Constance had been in a screaming rage because the tutor she was supposed to meet didn’t show up. I was next door, going over a paper with Mayumi, and I didn’t know it was Constance. I just heard someone in the office next door, about to tear the place apart, and I thought, good and kept on going through the paper with Mayumi. When Mayumi left, there was Constance, pissed and in tears because her tutor didn’t show, so she and I went over her paper for a few minutes, though we both had to go. So she signed up for a later session with me—the session right after the tutors’ meeting, by which time I was in a screaming rage. 

I was very glad it was Constance I was meeting. I didn’t have to worry about scaring her. I was sitting at the desk with my face in my hands, and I had almost forgotten about her, then there she was, and I told her what happened at the meeting. “I hate this fucking school,” I said.

“So do I,” she said, “My first day back after Spring Break, and already I’m insane.” I told her about the guy’s manner, his light, easy tone. “What a fucking slime dick!” she said. I really love her. Good writer too.

Later, Rita, the head tutor came in. Constance was gone. I was sitting on the desk in despair again, and I told her what was wrong. “Oh, yes,” said Rita, “The politics of teaching. I was surprised he came right out and said that.”

I felt like flying at her throat. It didn’t bother her at all.  She found him as daring as he found himself.

It seemed like a good way to tell the quick from the dead. If things like that don’t bother you, you’re dead. 


[1] Note added 2013: I was still in grad school at Mills. I think I had class Tuesday and Thursday and spent all day Wednesday tutoring. Then I fled back to Santa Barbara to be with Teresa and work at Patty Montana from Friday to Monday. When I was at Mills I stayed on campus in this abandoned dorm from the twenties. I think they charged about $25 a night, bathroom down the hall, and the place was almost always empty except for me. It had a kind of haunted elegance with all its old furniture, lot of cobwebs, fine dust on the floors, and I’m sure it wasn’t up to earthquake code. It was nice.