Friday, April 24, 2015

Outside Looking In

They were the happy ones, the lucky ones, the smart ones, and they saw only each other. He, dressed in his best, might as well have been invisible, standing there with his paper plate of chips, salsa, and spinach dip.

What separated them from him were degrees from elite Ivy League schools, the right kinds of publications, political appointments, national conference presentations and allies. He had none of those -- especially the allies. But he did have ambition and anger.

Though he was the outsider, he felt a contempt for them. They patted each other on the back with their genial academic mediocrity in their closed circle and stroked each others' egos.

He tasted the chips -- dry and stale -- and salsa -- too spicy, if not rancid, and looked around for a seat at one of the tables. He made his way across the room to sit with some of the graduate students.

He was still a lecturer, long in the tooth, having worked teaching survey courses for almost two decades. It no longer mattered how and why he had arrived there, but he mulled it over anyway, trying to discover some solace or lesson from the path he had traveled.

There was the beginning: a love for language, that and the encouragement of guidance counselors who looked at his scores on IQ and Iowa Basics tests. A cocky disregard for practicality and career choices split the waters that kept more sober peers from suffering for art. There were some cautionary influences. A family who disapproved of a son studying "soft" subjects like literature and writing didn't much help.

From the start he was on his own, going on some kind of "hunch" or inner voice. He trusted that to lead him. Now he felt the fool.

It hadn't been a bad job, but so much time at the bottom of the academic ladder had taken its toll. He was bored, unmotivated, lethargic and envious. The road to promotion had been blocked by his department head and the dean and his own lack of initiative.

Now it was too late to do anything about it. His brain was failing him. The cognitive tests and the blood draws all pointed to a decline in function. His only asset was now a junk bond and he didn't know what to do next.

He certainly couldn't tell his supervisor that he didn't know where he was sometimes or that he was dropping the ball of reports, deadlines, student appointments.

So far, he had been able to cover it up. His annual review numbers were good and the secret had been kept for another year.

He didn't know how long he could keep this up.

He took his seat next to some friendly grad students who didn't mind sharing their table. As fellow worker bees aspiring to higher places, they didn't mind the scarlet mark of failure he wore on his back.

Doors open for some, don't for others. That's just the way it is he told himself. You get a tenure track line and that leads to directing a program and that leads to becoming an dean and that leads to provost or president and so on. You don't get the right job and nothing happens, especially when people sit on you, keep you in the trenches of low wage drudgery.

It all came down to choices, and he knew it. He didn't suck up to the wonks when he was in grad school. He taught high school to make ends meet rather than submit papers to academic journals. He wrote for himself in the ways he felt strong about. None of that mattered to the hiring committees. His books never made the bulletin boards of the department, his essays the lists of achievements in the departmental newsletters.

So there he was at the end-of-year awards celebration. He didn't belong, had no group with which he might sit.

He was a leper, the dark elf, the thirteenth floor. He radiated the toxins of frustration and defeat. 

The stars walked across the stage to receive their awards; the audience applauded; the money flowed; careers were made or sidetracked or neglected.

The person who had blocked him from rising rose to take the podium as a grandiloquent punctuation to the ceremony. She was resplendent, full, and hungry for audience attention. Her teeth shone in her smile, a primate in power. Her words spread like sugar spooned out for the pleasure of those who would bow.

She had won. 

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