The first day of the last year

After poker, sex and forgetting, I face a room full of faces and suddenly remember.

By David Alford
September 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Ninety-nine percent of what happens on the first day of a class is
dependent on the mind-set I have going in. The ratio of preparation to
action is ridiculous. All summer serves to make me ready, a fact that
non-teachers never understand.

Like brewing a really good sauce, the process cannot be rushed. The
only way to walk in calm is to go through the cycle:


The first month: Recovery from last year, involving chiropractic, massage, drinking, poker, sex and forgetting.

The next six weeks: Simmering time, when only subliminal things happen beneath travel, reading, more drinking and more sex.

The last two weeks: Slow onset of worry, thinking and planning, the demise of sex, notebooks filling up with scribbles.


Last year of a long career and I'm finally ready. I get up about 8 a.m. for
a 1:30 class and immediately swallow a Pepcid for indigestion. I debate what
to wear; choose Levi's and black T-shirt, a statement. I
can do whatever the hell I want. I check out my water filter paraphernalia
from backpacking and bag it up. About 11, I take off from my ranch and
drive the 25 miles down out of the mountains, across the Stanislaus River
and up the other side to Columbia College, following a logging truck up the
grade from Parrots Ferry Bridge while rehearsing my opening scenario.
I'm feeling the usual mixture of nervousness and exhilaration.

After parking in the faculty lot, I grab the huge pile of summer
mail and head for my office, bumping into a staff person I've been turned
on by for years. I get by her, wondering how I look, and dump the junk
on my desk. Little over an hour to go. I go over the scenario again, check
out the course outlines and begin deep breathing exercises. Shit. I remember
a hand-out that needs to be run off, so I run down to the duplicating room,
where I encounter a faculty guy with whom I share a mutual dislike. I smirk at him,
and get the damned copies out of the machine.

More breathing exercises, pacing, fumbling with the water filter
gear. 1 o'clock. I start packing. 1:15. I grab the bags and start walking
across campus toward Sequoia 11. I try to manufacture some emotion: This
is my last year. Nothing comes.


Two classes, back-to back: intro. to philosophy and old world culture.
Philosophy is jammed into a tiny room, people are wall-to-wall and on the
floor. "I'm famous," I think, and then remember that enrollment is up at the
college. I walk in through the mob, unpack the
attendance form and waiting list, set up my water filter gear, take a deep
breath and look up at the throng. A smile from Barry, who loaned me his
wonderful "Vince Guaraldi in Grace Cathedral" tape, and warm greetings from
Vicki, who drenched me with her domestic grief last semester, and several
others create a sense of reunion. I tell the waiting list people to hang
on until Wednesday to see who drops. I feel hyped, charismatic, fascinating. Shit,
man. There is no way this can go wrong.

I don't say anything, just start pumping water from my cooking pot
into my water bottle, using my old MSR three-stage water filter. I've done
it several times before, I know what to do. The trick is to make sure
they never realize that this is more for me than it is for them. I'm the
one fighting nausea after all.


"Imagine this pot is a gorgeous Sierra lake, like
Buck or Huckleberry. No problem if the filters are clean, right? Water gets
through. Now comes the lesson. What happens if the filters are clogged?
Nothing gets through, right?"

Silence and intense attention. Gotta make it light, though.
Students can spot pretentiousness a mile away.

"So, these filters are not clogged. " I unscrew the water bottle
from the filter and sip some.


"O.K., punch line time. Your mind is like this water pump. Filters
clogged, nothing gets through. You could see this coming, huh? So, we start
off philosophy talking about how our minds might be clogged, nothing gets
through." A few groans but I can feel that I have their attention.

"Somebody grab the chalk and record the class's ideas about some of the
possible ways your mind might be clogged and prevent
new ideas from getting in."

A big guy in the front row gets up and takes the chalk. Usual list of
mind clogs fills the board: religion, prejudice, ego, ignorance, racism
and so on. The guy can't spell: We've got "prejuice," "consciesnness." I
quell the undercurrent of ridicule by suggesting that anybody who feels he
could handle the board better could take over the chalk. No takers. The
hecklers shut up. "Conservatism" is up there, spelled correctly. I ask the
donor for clarification. "Rush Limbaugh is the ultimate mind clog," a
sandal-clad, Ho Chi Minh-bearded redhead veritably shouts, inducing general
rustling and murmurs of assent. A guy in a fire-tech training
uniform, Marine haircut, prominent muscles, shouts back, "Hey, you
prejudiced against Rush, huh?" The rest are watching to see my reaction.
Always the first test: How is the teacher going to handle the flack.


I feel a smile coming on. Here we go. Summer is over. I
look up at the clock, glance out the window where hot afternoon sun is
bleaching the pine trees, flickeringly remember how the sun had felt on
granite boulders in the high country, look back at Ho Chi Minh and over to
the fireman, smiling more broadly.

"Nobody has a monopoly on mind clogs," I say. General murmur of agreement.
A polite girl in the front row hastens to disarm the moment, sweet
benevolence blooming on her intensely focused face. She almost rises up
out of her chair with saintly inspiration as she whispers
something about "tolerance," "listening" and a lot of other good stuff, some
of which I can't hear.

God, I think, I love these people. What the hell. I don't care
what anybody says on any of these topics. We're having fun. After giving
the girl my blessing, bestowed like the pope gives dispensations to the
faithful, I smile out at the room, distributing general benevolence on
conservatives and radicals alike. How could any of them truly hate each
other when I am loving them all so patently? Then just as quickly I
realize my absurdity: We don't even know each other, for godsake. All of
my emotions are truly fake, unless I am capable of more generic affection
than I've ever demonstrated in my whole life. You fucking phony, I think.
While they are still bubbling and boiling, I'm in an internal monologue
about my own hypocrisy. I ring down the curtain on that bit of blarney and
turn my attention back to the class.

"So, what about ego? How does that work as a mind clog?" The
fire tech guy is glaring at Ho Chi Minh, but isn't likely to burst forth
again. Barry, the sweet guy in the back row. takes off on a serious
commentary. And so on, for another hour. A couple of them drop by for
handshakes, a hug, a breeze of conviviality, a few procedural questions, and
I'm out of there.


I walk around the building during the break between classes,
steadying myself from dizziness. Tall, slowly bending pines surrounding the
walkway contribute to my feeling of seasickness and disorder.

By the time I reach the classroom door for the old world culture
class, I have established some sort of equilibrium. Another group of
students jams the room, four or five continuing from the previous class,
knocking off two requirements in the same afternoon. Already I am
massively tired.

I cut to the chase without any games whatsoever, passing out the course
outline, answering a couple of questions about requirements, explaining the
central rubric for the course on the blackboard, reinforcing the reading
assignment in "Epic of Gilgamesh," making a couple of wry comments and
dismissing them.

I sit down in one of the student chairs. Goddamn. The whole summer to get
ready for this and I'm fucking worn out. I slowly drive back across the
river and up into the mountains. And then I remember: I didn't eat any
lunch! Of course! What the hell good does it do to have a class outline if
my stomach is empty? I sit on my deck and stare out at
the meadow, wondering at my own stupidity. What happened to "relaxed
awareness?" O.K., I tell myself, I'm taking my own philosophy class.
Maybe I'll learn something in my last year of teaching.

David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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