It was the beginning of February and the ground was covered with snow. As I walked to class at my new college I stared through the fog that the cloudy, unseasonable sixty-degree weather had created. “Is this a metaphor? I know I’m not thinking clearly. Dr. Carpenter told me not to connect external things to my thoughts. Am I going to start hearing voices again?” Trudging the puddly pathways and up the stairs to the Liberal Arts building, I walked through the doors where Contemporary Lit took place.
“Okay, everyone. Please take your seats,” Professor Padley said.
I stared at the muddy water on the floor and all the footprints of students who had walked up and down the aisles of the class that day. I tried to identify my shoe print as Professor Padley began handing out an assignment.
“Did anyone see our Golden Knights hockey game on Saturday?” Quiet murmurs echoed through the room. “Lemme tell ya, we look good. They’re going to make the playoffs that team is. I’ve been teaching here for forty years and I haven’t missed a hockey game.”
I nodded to pretend I cared.
“Did you see the game Daryl?”
“No, I missed it. It wasn’t on TV,” I replied.
“You have to subscribe to Campus TV’s News Channel. Great stuff I’ll tell ya. Anyways, let’s get class started,” Professor Padley said. He waited for the handouts to finish circulating. “So, you’ll have to write a paper on one of the books we’ve read. It will be four to six pages double-spaced. You have a week and the paper will be about thirty percent of your grade so take your time with it.”
The professor began reading through the prompts. I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I felt like Charlie Brown. After discussing some of the writing prompts and sitting through a discussion of The Grapes of Wrath, I drove home to the house I had grown up in.
I put my boots away and walked up the stairs to the computer room. After logging into the word processor I looked at the prompts trying to decide which one was the easiest. I read them several times. “I can’t process the words. How am I supposed to do this? I don’t remember anything we read. I read the SparkNotes,” I thought.
I remembered myself in the classroom at my prior school three months ago. I was wearing a hemp-hooded sweatshirt, my hair was unkempt, and I was able to put my hand around my forearm halfway to the elbow. The professor was asking me questions but I couldn’t speak. I was screaming inside my mind but I couldn’t create any language. She furrowed her brow and asked someone else to answer the question.
After staring into the computer screen with this memory for nearly an eternity I realized only several minutes had passed. Time was slow these days. After choosing the easiest prompt I looked at the computer, waiting for the words to flow onto the screen. Twenty minutes of this lead to a blank document.
“Hey, honey, watcha doin’,” my Mom asked. She was leaning against the frame of the computer room door. The sunlight glared off the screen as I tried focusing again.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I said.
“Honey, you’re doing fine. What can’t you do?” she asked.
“This paper. I can’t write anything. I can’t think.”
“You’ve almost completed your degree. We talked about this. I’m not throwing away all that money for the time and effort you put in to not get the degree.”
“I can’t do it,” I said quietly. I hunched forward in the chair and my shoulders were turned inwards. I clasped my hands in my hair and rested my elbows on my knees. “This is insane. What happened to my life?” I thought.
“Honey, what’s on your mind?”
“I can’t do this. I read three books and I can’t remember anything.”
“You have to get this done though. If you don’t complete the work, all the money we spent for your degree will be gone.”
I stared at the tan carpet that was ripped by the cat.
“What book did you read?” she asked.
“The Grapes of Wrath. I read the spark notes.”
“Okay, so just go back over them and you’ll figure it out,” she said. Her hand was on my shoulder. I was still hunched in the computer chair staring at the carpet. I moved my hand and watched its shadow on the floor.
“I’ll just sign out of school. I can’t do this.”
“You only have two classes left. I’m not letting all this money go to waste. Do you have a copy of the book?”
I pointed to my bag and she took out the book. “How much time do you have for the paper?” she asked.
“One week. Why do you ask?” I replied.
“I’ll tell ya what. I’ll do the work for the papers, you just keep going to class, and we’ll get this degree done and over.”
“I guess so,” I said. I exhaled slowly and looked back up at the computer screen. I hugged my Mom and left the room.
Two weeks later I was slouched in my chair towards the back of the classroom hoping Professor Padley wouldn’t call on me.
“Daryl, I have your paper here. Excellent work I might add. We really should discuss this paper with the rest of the class.”
“I dunno. Sure,” I said. My heart was pounding in my temples as my breath shortened and adrenaline raced through my mind. “I’m screwed. Why did she write such a good paper,” I thought. A+ was written in bright red cheery penmanship at the top of the page. “Why didn’t she just get me a C plus or a B minus? Damnit…”
“So, Daryl. A lot of research seems to have gone into this paper. I wanted you to read the paper aloud for the class if that’s okay with you?” Professor Padley asked. The entire class turned to me and it felt like looking back would tell them all they needed to know about the paper.
“I umm… Okay.” I began reading aloud. “I should have read the paper before handing it in. Damnit.” Stumbling over the wording every other line I struggled to gain a foothold on the syntax of the paper. I was reading foreign words in a seemingly foreign country. In all my life I had never been called upon to read my work for a classroom, never mind someone else’s.
“Thank you, Daryl. It takes a lot of courage to read in front of the class. So if I may, the inspiration behind your paper was the way the Jode family persisted in such conditions?”
“I did. It made me want to write about them,” I said. A few brows wrinkled. “I umm… Can I sit down?” I asked.
“Why would you want to sit, young man? This is a fine paper. We need to celebrate your work. Wouldn’t you say?”
“I don’t like public speaking,” I replied.
“You may be seated, but see me after class. We should discuss your abilities more,” Professor Padley said.
The class had cleared out and the wind was howling outside. It felt as though the wind would knock me over, which would have been preferable to the event that awaited me.
“So, you’re an excellent writer,” Professor Padley said. “You’re so quiet too. I never would have expected it.”
“Thanks. I just put forth good effort,” I said.
The professor stared at some papers on his desk, holding a red pen. “There’s a campus writing group I’d like you to join. We ought to cultivate your abilities.”
“Oh. I umm… I dunno if I would be interested,” I replied. My heart rhythm slowed a few beats but was still keeping a good pace.
“You might like being a part of the group. Whadaya say?”
“No, I don’t think I can do it,” I replied. “It’s just not for me.”
“Well, I can’t say I didn’t try. Keep up the good work, okay?” Professor Padley said. He was beaming with pride.
“Okay, will do,” I said. I collected what was remaining of my soul and scurried out of the class. “What the hell just happened?” I thought to myself.
“Mom. your paper got an A plus,” I said.
“I do good work,” she laughed.
“The professor asked me to read it in front of everyone.”
“He did. Oh, no. What did you do?”
“I read the paper. And then I asked to sit down and he let me sit,” I said.
“Wow, you dodged a bullet there. Was that the first time you read the paper?” she asked.
“How did you know that?” I asked.
“I’ve known you your whole life.”
I walked upstairs and stared into the computer screen again. I had to post a response to an essay for my other class. “I have no energy. My brain isn’t working. I’m gonna get caught, I’m gonna get kicked out of school. I can’t write my papers, I can’t do my work. I could at least write without my medication. I passed my classes without meds… Why do I even want my medication, this isn’t a life worth having. I can’t spend the rest of my life sleepwalking.”
Over the next month, my health continued deteriorating. I was completing all my school work on my own but the medication’s half-life was expiring. Adrenaline was coursing through my day and night from mania. The voices had returned, sometimes giving me good advice, other times telling me to kill myself. “I just have to complete my classes. How am I going to be a messiah if I cheated through school? I have to tell them she wrote the paper,” I thought.
I met that day in the Liberal Arts building with Professor Padley. His office was decorated with sports memorabilia and literary posters. The baseboard heater crackled in an effort to warm a room that was fated to be eternally cold.
“You wanted to see me?” Professor Padley asked. His white hair was combed neatly to the side.
“I did,” I said. “Thank you for taking the time to see me, I really appreciate your time and your efforts and your willingness to sit down with me and to talk and to–”
“So what is it you wanted to talk about?”
“I umm. The Grapes of Wrath paper wasn’t written by me.”
The sun broke out from behind the clouds and blinded me temporarily. My eyes began watering. “I did the right thing. It’s a sign from God. The light is shining down on me,” I thought.
“Well, there’s only one way we can handle this,” Professor Padley said. He paused for several moments to let the words sink in and to collect his thoughts. “You’ll have to write the paper on your own. I want it done in two days.”
“I’m not getting expelled or anything or kicked out of school or–?”
“Without mercy, how does a society survive?” the Professor asked. That day I was saved from a terrible fate. I went on to write the paper, on how the Jodes persisted through seemingly impossible odds, facing the grapes of wrath, doing everything they could to survive.