I teach the geology class that you go to in your dreams. I have never graded an assignment, scored a midterm. No one shows up until the day of the final exam. You must identify 3,827 types of rock indigenous to earth terrains and some space rock. That was our week five unit, which you missed. You need 3,827 correct answers plus the extra credit question in order to receive a passing grade in my course.
I’m not here to discuss the final. You should have come to my study sessions. You stare frantically at the paper as the questions rearrange themselves. The classroom is a large laboratory, all hard surfaces, and when your stool squeals under you, its echoes bounce in agony. You spy a familiar Greek root and try to bubble in the scantron, but your pencil turns into a flaccid worm. I warned about worm-pencils on the syllabus. Why didn’t you read it?
I wrote that syllabus in my apartment last winter, sitting cross-legged on my patched velvet couch, with my fawn-colored bulldog cuddled up beside me whining for supper. Cataracts wall her eyes like basalt, which you wouldn’t recognize. The sound of her breathing is a network of steam pipes. To you, I am an old crone or your seventh-grade crush or the large Mexican woman who failed you on the driver’s test. My dog, sightless, still sees me more clearly than you do. I’m not going to tell you her name. You wouldn’t care.
You watch the clock do its melty spiral dance. You drop your head down over your paper, anchoring it against the breeze of the classroom door that’s thrown open twice a minute by other panicked dreamers seeking calculus exams, semiotics finals. A girl walks in naked and shy, clutching a satchel over her vagina. You gaze at her breasts and move your mouth as though in prayer, hoping this will turn into another kind of dream altogether.
You cannot leave. You enrolled in this course. You will fail this test and it won’t be my fault. I am not an unkind woman but you have made it my job to watch you suffer.
While you whimper, I make notes on the index cards spread on the desk, revising my reading list for next semester. There’s a new translation of Volokhnrenik’s seminal text on marble-cutting, and I have ordered 28 copies into the bookstore. I read it in my breakfast nook while Topaz yelped for strips of maple-glazed bacon that I can’t feed her in good conscience because of the diabetes that has claimed her eyes. Next semester, twenty-eight copies of that textbook will be returned, spines uncracked, but the book is valuable and necessary.
You approach my desk with the test, all two hundred pages bound with industrial staples. “Can I just go to my car?” you ask. You have the wild panic look.
“Once the test has been administered, no one is allowed to leave. Are you done?”
You riffle through your pages. The text drifts like a reflection on an agitated pond. You have drawn pictures in the answer boxes, remarkably deft ink sketches of your dead uncle’s hands and face.
My grade report is already filled in: a column of F’s. In the Instructor Comments field for every student I have written the same note: You could have tried harder.
I didn’t mean to tell you the name of my dog before, Topaz. It’s the answer to the extra credit question. You won’t make it that far through the test packet.
Every semester I submit these grades, wondering how I have failed. In my long years teaching in this laboratory on the fifth floor of the labyrinthine school-castle with its erratically shifting classrooms, I have never lost my dangerous hope. In a few weeks, I will wait for a new crop of students on the first day of class, holding a stack of syllabi warm from the copier, and I will press my face to the pages as the dervish clock ticks its endless dance and one by one my students fail to arrive.
I will show up twice a week at my appointed hour, reading lectures off of my index cards, listening to the click of the projector slides, no louder than the clearing of a throat. Perhaps my voice will float under the crack of the door and these important facts about rocks will get learned.
For the week-five unit on space geology, I will bring in the moon rocks that I found in my husband’s bowling bag after he passed. He worked for NASA—accountant, not astronaut—and received these moon rocks as a secret santa gift the same Christmas he surprised me with Topaz. This anecdote is written neatly on an index card that I will read aloud at the end of a Thursday lecture, before assigning the homework.
I will stay late in week ten to offer the first of my four study sessions for the final. There’s no one at home to walk Topaz, so I will bring her to school with me. She and I will settle in the classroom to give our study session, me reading the gentle teacherly jokes off of my index cards and pausing for laughter where I have written myself notes to pause. During office hours, I will eat a small bag of dried raspberries. When the cellophane crinkles, Topaz will yip aggrievedly, running her cold slick nose up my calf. I wonder, some days, the sense in withholding these small treats from her. She has only a few months and I care for her so. I worry, at times, that in trying to protect her I am failing in my greater obligation, to ease her suffering.
Kat Lewin earned her MFA from UC Irvine, where she was a recipient of the Henfield Prize for fiction. Her work has appeared in PANK, Word Riot, Flaunt Magazine, and other publications. She is currently revising her first novel.
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