He was of average height and build, with blond hair and a disconcerting smile: his mouth expanded, his teeth flashed white, but his eyes expressed no joy or excitement. At best they looked nervous and slightly desperate, like those of an animal caught in a trap. At worst they looked dulled over, like the animal resigned to its fate, seconds from death.
With magnanimity I confessed that I hadn’t yet learned his name.
“It’s Kyle,” he said.
I probed for the last name in the time-honored way. “Kyle…?”
“Kyle,” he repeated. His dead-eyed smile sprawled across his face.
“Okay. And you’re the one with the roommate who…?”
“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Wilson. I won’t be late again. My dad was angry, but I told my mom what you said about plugging in my alarm clock even though it has batteries and she said you were completely right. I just didn’t know.”
He looked so crestfallen I apologized for not having cared more, though frankly my heart wasn’t really in it.
“…and I’m sorry your father was angry at you,” I concluded.
“He wasn’t angry at me, Mr. Wilson.”
“Okay, then. Well, what can I–”
“He was angry at you.”
I tried to hide my irritation. Angry at me? Because his kid hadn’t managed to come to class on time? Would excusing the tardiness have been fair to the students who had gotten up when they should have, and who had spent twenty-five minutes in an active discussion that Kyle had missed?
Already I wanted Kyle to leave my office. “What brings you here, Kyle?”
He smiled nervously and said that he would be presenting on Friday. Since he was the first one to present, he wondered if I could tell him what the grade would be based on.
“Effectiveness,” I said grandly. “You have to be able to identify the important points and convey them to your fellow classmates. But don’t worry. I’ll be there to make sure things stay on track.”
“Are we graded on creativity? You said we should be creative.”
“Absolutely!” I said. “The best presentations are the ones with energy. Teaching’s not as easy as it looks, you know, especially on a Friday morning on a campus where the parties begin on Thursday nights. Not all students have learned the trick of plugging in their alarm clock.”
This was meant as an olive branch, but he only nodded seriously. I sensed that he was a little dull, and that he knew that this was one of his weaknesses. Something he would have to overcome.
“Have fun with this,” I said. “Surprise me.”
On Friday I launched into some preliminaries to warm up the class. I previewed the Michael Pollan essay we would be discussing on Monday. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kyle. I didn’t want to stare at him, but he didn’t look too good. He looked gray.
Oh, great. A kid with stage fright for the very first one. Well, this will be good for him. He’ll need to be able to speak in public to advance in this life.
I wrapped up my introductory remarks and turned the floor over to Kyle.
“Kyle’s not here,” a creaky voice said.
I blinked and stared. Kyle had spoken, but it did not sound like him.
“Kyle…?” I said carefully. “Kyle, it’s time for you to…”
As my words trailed off, Kyle finally rose from his desk. He was wearing a robe and holding a plastic pipe. He had some kind of powder in his hair. He shuffled to the front of the room, using a cane for support.
I thought he might have lost his mind.
“Um…okay, everyone, Kyle’s presenting today—the topic is semi-colons, I think.”
“Kyle’s not here!” Kyle said sharply. He had adopted a high-pitched, quavering, old-man’s voice. Air whistled through his teeth as he feigned anger.
He slowly turned toward class, wincing with fake rheumatism.
“My name is Grandpa Grammar,” he said. “And I’m here today to talk about writin’, or as we used to say, one of the good ol’ three Rs. I know I’m an old man now. But listen up kids: if you’re not careful, you just might learn a little sumpin’.”
He chuckled through his nose.
The audience was stunned.
I should tell you that Kyle’s classmates were impressive in the way that college students at that university tended to be. Young, beautiful, healthy, athletic, popular. They sometimes intimidated me. And now they all took in Grandpa Grammar and tried not to laugh, and I couldn’t blame them, because I was standing there, in charge of this whole mess, and I was tempted to laugh myself.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything. I had to face Kyle and smile warmly and let this play out. If I stopped it now, it would have been worse. I had to let him continue.
There was a moment where I thought he might pull it off. That didn’t last long. Because after his opening speech he paused, and he knew. You could see it on his face. He knew it was all wrong. You could see it in his defiant but suddenly terrified expression: he knew that this was a mistake, that he had gone over the top, that he looked foolish.
But what do you do? You’re wearing a bathrobe, holding a fake pipe. You have powder in your hair. You can drop your stage voice, which he eventually did after some more painfully awkward minutes. But you can’t unpowder your hair. You can’t make your cane disappear.
And throughout this lesson I had to just stand there, watching this bloodbath continue—presiding over it, in fact, smiling and nodding, prompting the class to ask “Grandpa” some questions. All I could do was to try not to start giggling and hope that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed.
But it was! It started awful and got worse. The class had silently agreed not to laugh, and they withheld it, and withheld it, and withheld it, until the first stunning shock started to wear off, and the giggles began and were repressed, and soon the whole class was trembling with the need to laugh out loud, shaking with the need for catharsis, the desire to expunge this feeling that they were spending fifteen minutes listening to a foolish person who had locked himself into a ridiculous position and was now scrambling with all the grace of a circus seal running on top of a beach ball.
In high school I suppose he’d have been skewered. Thankfully these were college students, and most of the laughter was kept inside. But it was there, and it would come out afterwards, somehow. You knew it would. It had to. Forces that powerful do not just dissipate into the universe without ripple effects. It’s the Principle of the Conservation of Shame: in an isolated system, once shame is created, it can never be destroyed without consequences to its target.
I almost felt sorry for Kyle. But I also kind of resented him for having blown up my class like this. The first one! What was he thinking? This ain’t high school, kid. You’re not in Kansas anymore.
When it was finally over and he took his chair, I thanked him abundantly, praising his creativity and the strong points he had made. And then, because I knew I’d be bombarded by questions about costumes and grading and whether Kyle’s presentation had somehow set a standard for the presentation grade, I said something mild about how this was the first time in all my years of teaching that we’d had a “substitute” come in to teach the class.
Everyone looked relieved. Except for Kyle, who sat in his desk, his face red and puffy, staring at me with a plastic grin under dead eyes.
That weekend I wondered if Kyle might drop the class. But he was back the next week, his hair brown again. Something in him had faded, it seemed, but now and then he would volunteer some comment and I would think I had been mistaken. Maybe he was more resilient than I’d thought. Maybe he had bounced back.
Teaching is like that: you run down all sorts of imaginary rabbit holes, thinking a student is angry when actually they’re tired, or that someone hates the class when actually she just hates the guy sitting across from her and wishes he would stop raising his hand. All I could do was to put Kyle and his presentation out of my mind.
And then, on the day before Thanksgiving, Kyle surprised me at my office hours.
Everyone else had gone for the holiday; the entire building was empty. I had thought I’d have a chance to catch up on my work, undisturbed. But I acted as if I was thrilled and honored.
“Kyle!” I said. “Hello there!”
“I wanted to talk about my presentation,” he said in a tone that made me shiver.. He smiled; his eyes were as empty as a pair of tiny black holes.
“Grandpa Grammar!” I said with a huge smile. “Five points out of five! Great job. Oh here—you forgot this.”
I pointed at the cane he’d left behind. It had been sitting in the corner of my office for weeks. I hadn’t wanted to bring it to class.
Kyle didn’t look at the cane. He stared at me. “I was the first one to go,” he said.
“Yes! I appreciated it. Always hard to be first.”
“Did I do too much?” Kyle said.
He was still standing in the doorway. Something about his demeanor made me rise from my chair.
“Too much? Five points out of five, Kyle. I’d take the money and run!”
“The others thought it was stupid. Really, really stupid. They thought I was stupid for bringing Grandpa Grammar.”
I paused for a moment, thinking I might have misheard him. Bringing? Or being?
“It happens sometimes,” I said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
His smile grew wider. “Did you think it was stupid?”
I forced myself to stay composed. “No, no—how could you have known what was the norm and what was…not the norm?”
“You said, ‘Be creative.’ ‘Surprise me,’ you said. Those were your words.”
“I meant like, do a PowerPoint or something,” I said, with more irritation than I had intended. “But look, you were creative, and you did surprise me. So good job on all that. And listen, you got a four point five overall, which rounds up to five points. Five points out of five, Kyle. You can’t do better than that!”
“I hate Grandpa Grammar,” he said. There was a ragged edge to his voice. “I wish he’d never been born.”
“It’s a big school, Kyle,” I said. “People here are very self-involved. They’ll forget all about it.”
“That doesn’t matter,” I said. “You’ll move on. All my students do. They move on and leave me behind. Who knows where they go? I’m just here. Not with them.”
It was not cheering him up. He swallowed hard, staring at me. He still had not sat down. “I hate Grandpa Grammar. I wish I could kill him.”
I probably should have said that he was overreacting, but for some reason I took a different path.
“You can. You can! Just put him out of your mind. Learn from this and move on, Kyle.”
They were not words he wanted to hear. He stood for a moment, lost in thought. He started to sway, and I had this strange fantasy that I could just push him a little, and he would be sucked out the door and gone forever, as if he were standing in the doorway of an airplane. Just one little tap…wooooosh…
But he was there. He didn’t leave. He was thinking, and what he was thinking was apparently awful.
“I think you should go now,” I said, taking a few steps to the corner of my office. “Here’s your cane.”
Kyle whirled at me, his expression full of anger and confusion. “I don’t want that!”
“Kyle, take the cane,” I said gently. “It’s yours.”
His voice grew louder. “He’s dead!”
“He’s dead, remember? I just killed him!”
I shook my head, baffled.
“He’s dead!” he shouted again. “Give that to his widow!”
I paused, knowing I was about to say the wrong thing, but unable to help myself. “There’s a…Grandma Grammar?”
“You’re not taking any of this seriously!” he screamed.
Then he turned and stormed out of my office, leaving me holding the cane. I listened to his footsteps echoing down the hallway. Finally I returned the cane to the corner, because I could not think of another place for it to go.
The rest of the semester was uneventful enough. We only had four more classes. Kyle attended all of them, paying attention, not showing any visible signs of anger or frustration. Everything seemed stable.
I thought his final paper would be the last time I saw him. I hoped that would be the case. It turned out not to be.
Just before break, he came to my office once again. I was there late, trying to get final grades submitted before Christmas. Once again he had decided to come at a time when everyone else had already started their holiday. I heard his footsteps coming down the hall, echoing in the emptiness, before he appeared.
The thought flashed into my mind that he had been planning this for days. I didn’t like where it was headed.
“Happy holidays!” I said. “You and I must be the only ones left on campus, Kyle!”
He didn’t acknowledge this. “I brought you this,” he said. “It’s a letter of recommendation. I need you to fill it out.”
“No. I’m applying for the junior MBA program,” he said sourly.
“Ah,” I said.
He glanced at the cane in the corner.
“You forgot that last time,” I said quietly.
His face scrunched up as if I’d asked him to taste something he knew was poisonous. “Here’s the form,” he said, thrusting a piece of paper toward my face. “It has to be typed.”
“I know how to write a recommendation,” I said.
He was looming again, breathing through his nostrils, his hostility mounting.
“Yes, I do,” I said.
“Yeah, well, there’s a lot you don’t know!”
He hesitated. “Things!” he blurted out at last.
“Then perhaps I’m not the right person to write this,” I said, nodding at the paper, which I still had not taken from his hand. “Maybe you need to find someone who knows about things.”
He started complaining that all his other classes were lecture classes, and I was the only instructor who actually knew his name, and he needed two letters, and it wasn’t fair if I didn’t do this, and he might not get into the junior MBA program if I didn’t, and his dad wanted him to get in.
“You need to write this,” he said.
“What does any of that have to do with your performance in my class?” I said. “Why would I recommend you over any of my other students just because you need me to? What have you done?”
“I’ve put up with a lot of shit in this class. You owe me.”
“You’re thinking of this the wrong way,” I said. “This is not something to which you’re entitled. It needs to be something you deserve.”
“I pay your salary!” he said. “That’s what my dad said. He said that if you won’t write it, he’ll take care of it.”
“Is that a threat, Kyle?”
Kyle’s face was bright red. “I was Grandpa Grammar,” he fumed. “You have to recognize that.”
“You gave a presentation that was well-intentioned but somewhat limited in its effectiveness, because your audience was trying so hard not to laugh.”
Kyle’s eyes grew wide. “Here’s the form,” he said, thrusting the paper at my chest.
“And there’s your cane,” I said.
He looked at me with contempt. It was the first time I’d ever seen any kind of life in his eyes.
Then he left my office, and I was alone again.
I wish I could say I looked fondly on Grandpa Grammar, the foibles of youth, an earnest misstep. I wish I could say that my student had learned a lesson from the experience, and that gosh darn it, I learned a little sumpin’ about myself too. That’s how these stories go: it would be easy to write. It just wouldn’t be true.
The truth was that I hated Grandpa Grammar as much as Kyle did. I hated how young Kyle was, and how foolish he’d been, and the awful awkwardness of his expression when he’d realized his mistake. I hated all the brilliant ideas that turn out to be horrible, and how you have to live in the aftermath of all that failure—failure made worse by the embarrassing memory of your own optimism. I hated thinking of Grandpa Grammar in my classroom, but I also hated the images of Kyle putting together his costume, finding the pipe, putting the powder in his hair, picking out his cane. As much as I hated having the memories, imagining what had come before was worse. That scene gave me chills.
And I hated all those thoughts because they reminded me of all the times I’d done similar things myself. I hated that they had to exist, that once they were out there, they survived, and they never went away.
After Kyle had left that wintry day, I took the cane and hurled it into the dumpster I passed on my way to the parking garage.
Goodbye, Grandpa Grammar, I whispered. May you rot in hell.
I eventually softened and wrote Kyle the letter of recommendation. I hope Kyle moved on. I’d like to think I have too. Sometimes I tell myself I have.
But the truth is I have no residual fondness. Where that should be, all I feel is regret and relief. I still hate Grandpa Grammar. I still wish he’d never been born.
And I still remember that cane. I remember the cold handle, and the shiver that rippled through me as I grabbed it. The creepy dead feeling as I walked it down the elevator, wondering if Kyle might be waiting for me somewhere in the shadows, if I’d have to use the cane as a weapon to fend off Kyle’s attack. I remember the breathlessness with which I approached the dumpster, and the awkward weight as I flung the cane away forever, and the echoing clang as the handle hit the metal.
I remember the horror of knowing that everyone loved teaching and teachers, and that education was a glorious thing because it opened so many doors, and that this was a generally accepted truth, but that that wasn’t how I felt.
This was not a fresh start. This was an ending. A bleak ending with nothing but emptiness on the other side. A winter that would last forever, and not a single evergreen in sight.