Song of the Adjunct

Panic Attack

Because mine is a commuter school, I’ve come to expect a fair amount of tardiness. Many of my students live more than an hour from New Orleans. They drive in from towns called Geismar and Westwego and Bayou Lafourche (pronounced La-Foosh). Every day there’s a wreck on the Twinspan; every day the spillway is clogged. And so, day in and day out, they’re late. But I can roll with these punches, for I am still young, and I am still the cool teacher of Freshman Comp.

But even the cool comp teacher has his limits. This fall I had a student who I’ll call Amanda. Fresh out of some podunk high school off of I-10, she had green eyes and slinky black hair. Her semester began with promise. Her first essay extolled the virtues of casino-style gambling, and her second argued that no good-hearted human being should ever be forced to work at J.C. Penny’s. She saw that my syllabus encouraged creativity, and she embraced it. She was funny, and I liked her just fine.

But then something happened. She started showing up late. And not just a little late: late-late. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty-five goddamned minutes. After a week, hoping to stop this nonsense, I decided it was time for a serious talk. “I’m not here to chastise you,” I said one day after class. “But tardiness like this won’t cut it. If this class were a job, you would’ve been fired by now.” Amanda looked at me with her big green eyes, nodded solemnly and swore she’d never be late again.

And then she was late every day after that. And so I sneered at her when she strolled in. But beyond that, I stopped caring. After all, the semester was coming to an end, and I’d be rid of the annoyance soon enough. Besides, I had bigger tragedies to face. I’d burned the last seven weeks working my way through the first ten pages of a new short story, one that was to be a part of the collection I’ve been cobbling together since grad school. I’d spent most of the previous summer stalling out on new fiction, and teaching four sections in the fall wasn’t making writing any easier. But this new story would be different, I told myself. I was ten pages in, and there was no way in hell I was going to give up. But one day, sitting at my desk in the liberal arts building, I came to the awful realization that I didn’t know what came next. I’d written myself into a dead end, and after a few days of near-frantic worry, I knew I had to scrap the story. Seven weeks, I thought. I quit my writing regimen, upped my daily martini intake from one to two, and slogged through the semester’s remaining weeks feeling like a failure. “You’re not a writer,” I told myself. “You just teach freshman comp.”

Then came the final day of class. And—surprise, surprise—Amanda rolled in late. So late, in fact, that my other students, having dropped off their final essays on time, were already filing out the door. Amanda came up and handed me her paper, and I took it without meeting her gaze. Then she wrapped her hand around my wrist and looked at me—really looked at me. “Mr. Torrey,” she said, “I need to tell you something.”

“All right,” I said. My bullshit detector was on high, but as I stared into her eyes, I was struck with the firm sense that whatever she was about to tell me would be the God’s honest truth. She drew in a huge breath and asked if I’d hug her, and I did it without even thinking. “Mr. Torrey,” she said into my blazer, “you don’t have any reason to believe me. I know you must think I’m lazy or that I don’t care or—” She was crying so hard she had to stop. I told her it was okay, that I’d listen to her, and then she said every time she drives to school, she suffers from this unspeakable feeling of terror, as if her whole world’s about to fall apart. It’s been going on for months, she told me, and by the time she gets to school, she’s so overwhelmed that she has to sit beside Lake Pontchartrain and stare at the waves. “I just couldn’t walk into your class like that, Mr. Torrey. I couldn’t walk in and have everyone see me in the middle of some… ”

“Panic attack.”

“Yeah,” she said, wiping away tears.

I looked at her right then, and all I wanted to do was say, honey, I know what you mean. I’m supposed to be writing a book. I’m supposed to be almost finished by now, but I can’t get a single story done. And, for the past few weeks, I’ve woken up every day and said to myself that I let this semester slip through my fingers, and if I let one slip, then why not another and then another, until I spend the rest of my life teaching four sections of comp and never finishing anything worth reading. I want to tell her that maybe I’m having a panic attack right now, too. Maybe we’re having one together. I want to tell her I’m sorry I misjudged her, that she is in some way heroic for even making that terrible drive every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. But instead I put my hand on her shoulder, and I said, to her and to myself, “Just keep going. Everything will be okay.”

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.