Song of the Adjunct

Boundaries

At the end of my last year in grad school, I received a Friday e-mail from a student who I’ll here call Sharon. Sharon had wheat-brown hair, tan skin and the flawless, almost porcelain face of a child model all grown up. She’d enrolled in both of my courses that year—Comp. and Lit.—and despite her coy and half-flirtatious lack of in-class participation, she never failed to submit her section’s strongest essay.

The subject line of Sharon’s e-mail—“Something I’ve Been Trying to Force Myself Not to Do for a Really Long Time”—caught my eye immediately. But it happened to bloom in my inbox while I was sitting in a shared TA office with another student: a hapless and big-eared meathead from the Atlanta suburbs I’ll henceforth refer to as Jeff. Jeff, too, had enrolled in both of my classes that year, but, unlike Sharon, he wasn’t doing so well. And it wasn’t for lack of trying, either. No, Jeff visited my office at least once a week, stopped by always with a series of panicky questions regarding his grade, or else brought in some slapdash draft that I’d silently groan and then read over. He was really trying, he told me. But it was hard. Hard to choose a topic. Hard to organize his paragraphs. Hard to transfer his thoughts from his brain to the page. And so, of course, I tried to help. But no matter how much personal attention I’d given him, no matter how many times I’d doled out the same tips for cleaning up his paper, he always managed to screw things up. Jeff had eked by in my first class with a D, and this was due in large part to my being a young teacher, still too timid to fail anyone really, let alone a feckless and muscle-bound dope like Jeff. (A former all-state free safety, Jeff, like many less-than-intelligent athletic types, possessed an almost adorably thoughtless smile that can make any form of punishment seem cruel—like swatting the nose of an overgrown puppy.) But such clemency wasn’t going to be granted this time around. No, this semester Jeff had turned in equally bad if not worse papers, and on top of his poor submissions, he’d also racked up a high number of unexcused absences. And so, on this day, as I did my best to give Jeff even an iota of attention while my gaze pulled itself ever toward that unopened e-mail, what we talked about were his chances for passing.

“The way I see it, Mr. Torrey,” Jeff began, his voice slow as a tuba. “If I do really good on my final paper—like, the best I’ve ever done—then I should be able to get through your class.”

“Well, Jeff,” I said. “That sounds like a plan to me.” I was desperate to get him out of there—desperate to read Sharon’s message. “Yes, Jeff,” I went on, “if you can somehow manage to find a way to write your best paper ever, one that really outdoes every single piece of writing you’ve ever turned in to me, and so long as you don’t miss any more classes, then, yes, absolutely, you should be in good stead.”

At this, Jeff nodded his head. “Well then, Mr. Torrey, I guess that’s what I’ll do.”

“Good!” I said, standing and patting his broad shoulders, practically shooing him out the door.

And the moment his lumbering frame had at last disappeared, and once I’d given the office a quick look to ensure no one would swoop by my desk and read anything over my shoulder, I clicked open Sharon’s e-mail.

And this is what she wrote:

Hey. Hi there. Hello.

            So I know you’re my teacher, and I know I’m your student, and I know I probably shouldn’t be sending you this email. But the thing is, I think you’re very kind and sweet and good-looking. And, more so, I see the way you look at me in class, and I know you feel the same way about me.

            So I just wanted to send you this note to say I like you very much, and that if maybe you’d like to come over for a drink sometime (I live alone), well then I would really like that, too. You don’t have to answer right away. Take some time. Think about it.

            And in case you’re worried, don’t think I’m some idiotic teenager who’s going to go squealing to mommy or daddy, or worse yet, who’ll get attached and think this is going somewhere. I know what this is.

Yours,

Sharon

I logged off my computer, left the office and went for a very long walk. It was the last week of the spring semester, and the air was terribly hot. And as I treaded down the main street in the small Georgia town where I lived—past antique shops and empty college bars—I felt at once enlivened and overwhelmed. In my nearly two years as a teaching assistant, I’d never before been faced with anything like this—never really dreamed that such a choice would ever be so blatantly placed at my feet. And, yes, of course, in the past, I’d found myself attracted to a handful of students. Many times, in fact—and why not? After all, I was a man in his early twenties, and all of them were at most only a few years my junior. It was only natural. But aside from perhaps letting my smiles linger on them a bit too long in class, aside from maybe looking the other way when they’d gone one over the limit on tardies or absences—aside from trivial little things like that, I’d made sure to keep it professional.

But now there was Sharon—Sharon, who was not only the most beautiful of my students, but also the smartest, a truth made all the more evident by her e-mail’s candor. Here was a girl, I thought, who’d taken the time to send her teacher a rather brave message, one that managed to both communicate her feelings for me as well as her understanding of the situation’s gravity. This was no normal eighteen-year-old. Of this, I was sure. And as my walk went on, and I neared my apartment, I couldn’t help but allow my mind to wander into simple fantasy. How nice it would be, I mused, to be naked at her side; how nice it would be to do this and that and the other. The times in life when a beautiful woman readily threw herself at you, I understood, were rare as gold, and God knew how badly I needed to get laid. In the years I’d been a grad student, my MFA program’s policy on dating undergrads had taken a turn toward the ultra-conservative. During my first year, a third-year student had gotten a freshman girl pregnant, and the upshot had been a none-too-secret abortion and an angry father threatening to sue. Ever since, the rules had been hard and fast: absolutely, positively no relationships between undergrads and grads. And so, for the brunt of three years, in my sexual prime, I’d found myself quite literally surrounded by thousands of pretty and interesting girls near my age, none of whom I was allowed to date.

I got to my apartment that Friday afternoon and stared at my front door. I’d lived here for years, but in a week’s time, the semester would be over. And just a little beyond that so, too, would my time in this apartment—in this city, in this state. So you screw just one of your students, I told myself. Honestly, what’s the worst that could happen?

The weekend that followed was long and saw me obsessively trying to answer that very question. I sat alone on my back deck, drinking Yuengling after Yuengling and then whiskey after whiskey, trying all the while to decide if it’d be worth it to roll the dice. On the one hand, maybe Sharon would be true to her word. Maybe she’d let me come over to her place, guzzle a couple of drinks and then have my way with her as many times as I’d like—all without telling a soul. But on the other hand, maybe Sharon was indeed just another teenager, and despite the fact that she could write an excellent paper on why “In a Station of the Metro” was saying a lot more than it actually said in its two quick lines—despite the fact that she was smart and ostensibly mature, she was still a woman, and a young woman at that, and everyone knows how irrationally women act. And then, beyond all that, there was the simple but impossible to ignore question of ethics. In the end, I was her teacher and she was my student. And even though she’d earned her A, would that somehow be cheapened if I fucked her? And what if I did get away with sleeping with Sharon? I mean, would that be the end of it? Maybe it would be just the start—maybe I’d end up one of those professors notorious for screwing around.

All these questions, paired with the alcohol and solitude, were starting to make me sick. So I decided to reach out. I spent that Saturday night calling a handful of male and female friends who were TAs. And the results were disgustingly predictable. Every one of my girl friends—every single one of them—was mortified that I’d even considered my options. They told me this would only be the first step in a long journey toward becoming some sad and grey-haired tenure-track goon. And the guys? Of course: they told me to stop wasting my time on the phone with them and high tail it over to that girl’s apartment and fucking unload.

And so, feeling worse than ever, feeling more conflicted about this decision than I’d felt about anything ever before, I opted to stay in, turn off my phone, and see how class went on Monday—the day their last paper was due. If Sharon acted normally then, knowing full well that I’d read her e-mail, then maybe I’d have a better grasp on whether or not she could be trusted. Yeah, I thought, that’s a safe plan.

But then came Monday morning, and as my students filed into class, I felt more nervous than ever—even more nervous than I’d felt years before when I first stood before twenty-five strangers and declared myself their teacher. I put my hands in my pockets and started to sweat. I couldn’t take my eyes off the door, kept waiting for that dreadfully awkward moment when she’d walk in and I’d lose my cool and start stammering like an idiot. But then came five after and no Sharon. Then ten after. Then fifteen and twenty, and then the other students, anxious to turn in their papers and leave, started to complain, and then finally, “Okay guys, I guess I’ll let you go.” And then I stood there alone.

No Sharon, I told myself, half worried, half relieved. And as I thumbed through the essays, I realized there was one more student missing. And that student was Jeff.

I spent the rest of the day in the shared TA office, checking my e-mail again and again, waiting to hear from Sharon, secretly hoping that she’d missed class because of some sickness and not because she felt weird—hoping, really, that I hadn’t blown my chance. And as the afternoon wore on, and as the rest of my grad school colleagues packed up their satchels and left me alone, some part of me—some inner risk-taker—roused itself within my mind and told me to stop being such a baby, to be a man and contact Sharon and get this taken care. Come on, the voice inside me insisted. You’ll never have it so easy with a girl this hot again. Just do it.

And so, I took a breath, opened my e-mail and wrote this little message:

Dear Sharon,

I’ve taken some time, and I’ve thought it over. I definitely feel the same way. Just tell me where and when, and I’ll be there.

Yours,

Will

I read over those words what felt like two hundred times—until the simple sentences barely had meaning. But just before I decided it was time to do it—just a moment before I hit the send button, someone stormed into the office.

“Mr. Torrey,” the voice said. It was Jeff, and he was sweating bullets and holding some paper in his hands. “Mr. Torrey, you’re not gonna believe what happened.”

Jeff barely gave himself time to breathe as he poured into a long and harrowing story that explained his absence—some classic tale about how his car had broken down on his return from a weekend in Atlanta, how AAA had been called but taken forever, and how he had to get towed all the way home and wait for his parents to come and pick him up and then drive him the two hours back to school, and now here he was, and he was very, very sorry, and he desperately hoped I’d understand.

“Jeff,” I said, putting my hand up, stopping him.

“Yes, Mr. Torrey?”

“How many absences does that make?”

Jeff wiped the sweat from his brow, looked down and said seven.

“That’s right,” I said. “And what’s the policy on seven absences?”

At this, Jeff’s already red face went almost purple. “It means you fail,” he said. “But—”

I again put up my hand. “But nothing,” I said. “That’s the rule, Jeff. And you’ve known it was the rule since day one. It struck you as reasonable enough then, but now you’ve broken it, and it doesn’t seem fair. Well I’m sorry, Jeff. But that’s the policy.”

Jeff looked right at me then and put his paper on my desk. He told me my policy was bullshit, and when I said excuse me, he said it again, only louder. “I think your policy is bullshit.” His voice echoed about the empty office, and as I watched his thick chest ebbing and swelling with anger, a sick feeling washed over me. He muttered the word again—bullshit—and I started to think how easy it would be for this guy—this huge fucking guy who’d probably done the best he could on his pointless lit paper, and who probably had in fact just endured the day from hell—I started to think how easy it would be for him to kick my ass. I drew in a deep breath and bit my lip. “Well I’m sorry that’s how you feel, Jeff,” I told him, looking anywhere but his face. “I’m sorry it had to be this way. But policies like this are there for a reason. Without rules, it wouldn’t be school.”

“Fuck school,” he said. “And fuck you.”

And then, just like that, having left his paper on my desk, Jeff slammed the door and left.

It took me a five full minutes to slow my heart, and a full ten to process what had happened—to process just how completely terrified my student had made me. But once I’d done that, and once I’d taken a few more deep breaths, it took me only a matter of seconds to delete my unsent e-mail to Sharon, and to begin a new one to Jeff.

It began like this:

Dear Jeff,

I’ve taken some time to think about your situation, and I’ve decided to reconsider.

William Torrey lives and works in Baton Rouge. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The North American Review, Washington Square Review, Colorado Review, the Hawai'i Review, New Madrid and Zone 3, where his story "Trabajar" won the 2011 Editors' Prize. He is currently at work on a novel. @wshametorrey | wstorrey@gmail.com.