A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-December, 1989

Tuesday, December 12, 1989

8 PM. I’ve just been reading a term paper by one of my best English 102 students, Kara Rodriguez.

I know she worked hard on it – the subject is Dr. Seuss – but while the paper is interesting, I can’t enjoy it because every line requires another correction if I’m to get all her errors in syntax, tense, spelling, word choice, etc.

Probably I’ll have to grade the rest of the paper holistically; otherwise, I’ll spend hours on these damned term papers.

The lack of quality and the probability of plagiarism make me wonder if doing a research paper serves any function for the students. Perhaps it’s just beyond them.

Up at 6 AM, I spent another hour reading the Narcissism and Me page proofs and didn’t find any errors worth correcting.

I suppose I should feel great knowing how few people can or ever will write as well as I do, but actually it’s depressing.

My BCC students – even many in my fiction writing class – wouldn’t be able to “get” my new book; the stories in it are beyond their grasp.

So who are all these people buying Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum? (Patrick liked the joke I repeated to him: “What do you get when you cross Umberto Eco with the Godfather? An offer you can’t understand.”)

Maybe one day I’ll be able to teach English to students who can understand and appreciate the kind of literature I enjoy – but I doubt it will happen.

As predictions for the 1990s appear in the paper daily, I keep reading about the coming “professor shortage.” But as long as I don’t have a Ph.D., they’re not going to hire me at a university unless I unexpectedly get famous. You’d imagine they’d rethink the value of a doctorate as a credential by now.

Do I sound pompous?

When I left for school and turned on my radio, I heard my name mentioned when a talk-show host, Debbie Ellis – I was on her show in February 1988 – read a Herald article that mentioned me.

Peter Levine, a 45-year-old Plantation man upset about C & S Bank’s senior discount, filed the same complaint with the county Human Rights Division that I did back in 1986.

Sure enough, WNWS’s Sandy Peyton asked me to be on her show with Levine tomorrow, but as much as I like to talk to the public, I begged off because of the pressure of finals.

However, I did speak to Sandy on the air by phone today and told her how my case was resolved. (The Herald story just said I dropped the suit before it got to the Board when actually the Division dismissed my complaint once I refused AmeriFirst’s offer of the discount on the condition I keep silent about it.)

I also spoke about intergenerational tensions and made some good points before I had to rush off to get a haircut.

(It seems like I’ve been rushing all day, and once again, I still haven’t gotten to reading the main section of today’s Times.)

At school, I felt very harried as students kept coming in with excuses, questions or demands. I was glad that Bill in the lab spent most of my remedial class giving a grammar test and an evaluation form.

I was glad to get – by FedEx – a copy of William Greider’s The Trouble With Money, the first of Whittle’s Larger Agenda Series with advertising (for FedEx itself) scattered throughout the handsome, slim volume. I only wish I could dig into the book right away.

See, my students could never understand a person feeling that way about a book. Nor could they fathom why I’d want to get involved in a public controversy over age discrimination. Of course, they’re the ones who are missing out on really living.

I gave Nikki a $10 tip for my haircut – a combination Christmas and baby present; she’s enormous now and will be leaving to have her baby by Caesarean in a few weeks.

I rushed to Nutri/System, where I found I lost only half a pound. However, I’m happy to stay on the program another week.

Back at my parents’ house, I made fudge cupcakes and the dairy whip, which I’ll have soon.

Oh, and next to Nutri/System, at the shipping-and-postage place, I sent off the stuff to Book Masters along with a note asking them to do the cover type.

Well, tomorrow I’ve got my 8 AM class final from 8-10 AM and the 11 AM class final from 10:10 AM-12:10 PM, so I should have time to catch up on my grading and maybe even my reading before my final fiction writing class at night. 

Wednesday, December 13, 1989

4 PM. Today was unexpectedly traumatic. I can’t believe I’m so shaken up by what happened.

Last night on The Wonder Years, Kevin lost faith in his hero, an algebra teacher, when the man didn’t seem to be able to catch other students who were cheating.

In the end, however, Kevin learned the teacher was merely biding his time and the guilty got punished. I thought, Wow, I’d like to be like that teacher and catch some students who were plagiarizing.

Unfortunately, I learned today that doing that feels horrible.

I had planned only to be in class during our appointed final time to pick up term papers and hand back other papers.

One by one, my students straggled in, the fuck-ups giving lame excuses (I told them all the papers would have to be in my mailbox on Friday or else), the others dropping off their work.

During my English 102 8 AM “final,” Elaine Connors, an English 101 student, came in with her paper. “It’s on araptheid,” she said, “I changed my topic.”

What?” I said.

“Araptheid,” she said. “In South Africa.”

Apartheid,” I corrected her.

She noticed my expression and asked, “Why do you look that way?”

“Well, at least you could learn how to pronounce the word,” I said.

She went off with her boyfriend, who was hanging back at the door.

During the break, I caught Barbara and Adrienne outside at the table where we usually hang out. I happened to mention the TV show and plagiarism and the apartheid paper when Adrienne got all excited.

She ran to her office and brought back a paper that was identical, line by line, down to the dot-matrix type; the only difference was the page heading featuring each student’s name.

At first we were enthusiastic, xeroxing the papers to prove the plagiarism, calling Betty, telling other teachers. It was as if we’d caught a criminal in the act.

When I went back to my English 101 students, I told each one about it and even showed them – without letting them see names – the two identical papers.

It know it made at least one student nervous when I said, “Oh, we English teachers share all our papers so we can catch these cheats.”

A group of students were hanging outside my door after they’d handed in the papers and they seemed agitated. They were waiting for someone, or at least this girl Caroline was.

Later, as I went to the bathroom, I saw her in excited conversation with a guy I’d never seen before. She must have been trying to stop him from handing in his paper to his teacher because it was identical to hers.

(I know Caroline did the work because I saw her in the library, and the paper isn’t good enough to be bought.)

I felt triumphant that I’d caught students in the act.

But when I saw Adrienne again as she was going back to class, and we discovered we had another identical set of papers – “Is Elvis Alive?” – it started to feel less funny.

After taking my paycheck, I left for lunch, as I was starving.

Later, Adrienne called after she’d confronted both students (hers were guys, mine were girls).

This guy Casey denied knowing my student, Elaine, but admitted he bought the paper from someone at the University of Miami and gave it to a girl in his math class whose name he didn’t know.

The other student – who had his mother call last week, outraged because Adrienne tried to accuse him of plagiarism when she first got the paper – said he did the work, but that my student Jerusha – with whom he’d cheated on his girlfriend – took the paper when she stole his computer disk.

Adrienne got the confession out of Casey because she played an old cop trick and said that my student (Elaine) had confessed.

With the other guy, she had him call Jerusha, who didn’t admit anything but said, after the boy talked to her, that she would take the F. She kept asking to speak to me, but I’m glad I wasn’t around to talk to her.

The worst part is that both Elaine and Jerusha wrote decent in-class papers; they didn’t have to cheat. They’re just lazy and didn’t want to do the work.

The only thing I felt my BCC students had going for them was they were nice kids, but now I saw them as creeps. These girls appeared to be so sweet.

I think about how often I talked in class about plagiarism and how pathetic the people who did it were.

Even though I felt I was a sophisticated cynic about teaching BCC students, at this moment I feel so disappointed in human nature.

Now every paper seems suspicious to me. I’m glad I don’t have to look at these kids anymore.

Yes, maybe the research paper is a bad idea and maybe I was an incompetent teacher, but not everyone in my classes cheated (though perhaps the majority did).

I feel so disappointed – but I said that already.

Dr. Lipton’s funeral was today; I found his obituary in the Times. I knew only his wife’s name, but not his children’s or grandchildren’s. One obituary notice called him “a mentor to many.”

I was his patient from the day after Thanksgiving 1966 to just around now in 1969, twenty years ago.

Whatever mistakes Dr. Lipton made in treating me, they were the faults of his time and his Freudian training.

He was a good man, an honorable man, and I can’t help contrasting him with my BCC college students.

Thursday, December 14, 1989

1 PM. I feel somewhat better today as the experience of yesterday recedes.

Last night I talked with Betty before class, and I spoke about the situation with my fiction writing students.

Morris says humans are motivated almost entirely by self-interest, and so I shouldn’t be surprised at the cheating.

Betty, on the other hand, believes the vast majority are honest and I shouldn’t lose my faith in students.

We had a pleasant, smaller-than-usual fiction writing workshop, and I came home at 10 PM, had my Nutri/System fudge cupcake, and lay awake for several hours.

This morning it was very cold when I got up. Despite the pressure of the end of the term, I’ve been keeping up with my exercise, and I worked out before I left for school.

I had my remedial students write what grades they deserve, and I got many compliments about my class. I’m glad they didn’t have to write research papers.

Now I have to head over to Miami Springs High School to teach my word processing class.

Friday, December 15, 1989

8 PM. I’ve been waiting for my last day of full-time teaching at BCC for many weeks, but the day was so grisly, I’m numb.

Rodney Jackson, the bookstore manager, was found shot through the head, not 50 feet from the classroom I was meeting my students in.

He was a nice guy, a full-time student, whom I didn’t know except by sight. (South Campus is so small that I know most people by sight.)

It must have been a robbery attempt; the store was robbed this time last year, and they never caught the thieves. Because students sell back their books at the end of the term, they keep a lot of cash in the bookstore to start the day.

From the news accounts that led off most TV stations’ local newscasts (there were four or five other murders in South Florida that competed with this one for air time; on one station, I saw Barbara decrying the “senselessness” of the death), early this morning Rodney noticed a suspicious looking person near the bookstore and alerted security guards, who were – as usual – in the cafeteria.

At 8 AM, they couldn’t open the bookstore, so the police were called and they found Rodney dead.

I first heard about it from a couple of students coming in with their term papers, and I didn’t quite believe them – but then Patrick into my classroom on the verge of tears. Rodney had been Patrick’s student, and they were quite friendly.

The whole campus was stunned. Teachers canceled finals while police and the media gathered around the roped-off bookstore.

Rodney’s girlfriend collapsed when she heard the news, and many people were sobbing. One teacher said he couldn’t believe it because he’d seen Rodney this morning and reminded him about getting his academic gown for graduation.

I’d arrived at school at 7:30 AM and went to class at 8 AM, and it’s spooky to know I might have passed very close to the murderer.

In this age of violence and a total lack of gun control, the reality is that what happened to Rodney can happen to anyone at any time.

He was shot in the back of the head, and I’m sure he knew enough not to resist; Patrick told me he was a firearms expert and taught gun safety. Shit.

I didn’t feel like hanging out on campus so I left at 10:30 AM.

When I mentioned the shooting to the teller at the bank, a guy nearby said, “Do you mean Rodney? That’s too bad, he was a nice guy,” and then he went back to counting his money, as if I’d just told him an acquaintance had a bad cold or a fender-bender.

Perhaps that’s the logical reaction in these times. I don’t know.

Yesterday both I and my Miami Springs High School teachers were so tired that we stayed less than two hours. While I enjoy the class, I had a splitting headache and went to bed at 7:30 PM. By this time last night, I was asleep.

This afternoon I visited BCC-Central and spoke to Richard, Mimi and Mick (who’s been on sabbatical but nevertheless comes to his office to write) about the murder and what I’ve been doing lately.

This has been an intense week. Right now I just feel numb.

Saturday, December 16, 1989

8 PM. The term wound down in such a peculiar way that it wound me up, and I feel I’m going through a process of closure.

I’m deliberately avoiding looking at the term papers till tomorrow. Because I don’t have to hand them back right away, I can judge them holistically.

By Monday I hope to have grades made up for the four remaining classes. (I gave all my Fiction Writing students A’s.) My grading standards are subjective and instinctive, but I know I lean toward generosity.

Yesterday afternoon I spoke to Teresa as she and Micki were cooking for tomorrow’s wedding in Englewood, New Jersey. It’s Teresa’s biggest party – not in terms of people but in importance.

She thinks it will be crazy, serving a six-course sit-down dinner in a (heated) backyard tent on a frigid day with snow on the ground.

Teresa said I looked like a different person in the photo I sent her.

I also finally got through to Justin, although I couldn’t speak to Larry because he’d gone to a studio he rented where he can do his artwork.

Justin is temping five days a week – more than he’d like, but he can use the money – while Larry has been laid off from Arthur Andersen.

The Northeast economy is in a recession, it seems. The skid in real estate prices is big news in the media, with New York banks taking heavy losses on bad loans.

Teresa even said her Berkshires house isn’t immune: “The market there isn’t quite dead, but it’s comatose.”

Justin was disappointed that the theater group voted to do Kelly’s play about lesbians rather than his Gauguin play, but at least he’ll be directing the show next fall.

It really helps me to keep in touch with my New York City friends.

During my vacation, I plan to write to friends I’ve been neglecting. I also need to do a thorough, step-by-step job of cleaning my apartment, whose oink factor is rising to an intolerable level.

This afternoon I was a guest on Moore on Money, Marshall Moore’s WNWS business show.

Yesterday I was shocked when I heard the host’s voice on my answering machine because I listen to him every weekend and find I learn a lot about business and economics from the show.

The Herald article on senior discounts prompted his call, and since Peter Levine has been on TV and radio a lot, he called me.

I’d been at the WNWS station before, when I was on Debbie Ellis’s show in 1988, and we sat in the same studio.

Because of heavy holiday traffic, I arrived just as the 3 PM news was going on, and I was let in by a guy who I later realized was this right-wing homophobic host; his nebbishy appearance was shocking because I’d always pictured him as dynamically evil.

Marshall was greyer than I expected. But I like the fact that nobody dresses up for radio. My problem with the medium, of course, is my high pitched, nasal, New York whine – but Marshall said it’s what you say, not how you say it, that counts.

After the show was over, he seemed pleased with the hour and said it was good radio.

One old lady calling in said she hoped I died before I got old, and another, who gave the old sob story about the seniors on fixed incomes to whom I said, “You’re all wet,” gave a great reply: “Well, you’re wet behind the ears.”

It’s all show business, I know, and I’ve learned a great deal from each of my appearances in the media.

I’m sure Marshall was surprised with my knowledge of the financial services industry; it was I, not he, who answered a woman’s question about City Federal being taken over.

Although I didn’t get to use some good lines I thought up during a night of insomnia, there’s always next time.

I feel so versatile when I’m being something other than a computer educator or English teacher or a fiction writer and humorist.

This morning I exercised at home rather than try to go to BCC in the rain – though later, after the sun came out, I stopped at the office on my way to the radio station.

I’m still a bit wired and feel I’ve got so much to catch up on.

Monday, December 18, 1989

8 PM. I just took out the garbage, scaring the fat grey cat who’s made his home outside this building.

It’s breathtaking how beautiful it is here, with the lake below my second-floor walkway. Today it hit a record 87° and I was able to go out in a t-shirt and shorts.

Earlier this afternoon, I put sunblock on my face and went out by the pool, where I sat for an hour reading William Greider’s brilliant The Trouble with Money.

I’m sure I will have made my goal when I weigh in at Nutri/System tomorrow. My body looks great without clothes, and this morning I weighed 149 at Publix, where I went to order a vegetable platter for tomorrow’s English Department Christmas party.

It was delightful to sleep until 8 AM today and not rush off to BCC at the first hint of dawn. I got to the school at 8 AM.

They arrested Rodney’s murderers, a young black man who worked for him at the bookstore, and the man’s brother or uncle; both are only 18.

I don’t know why they killed Rodney in the robbery or what made them think they could get away with it, but probably they wanted the money to get drugs.

Betty had a constant stream of visitors, both students and adjuncts, at her door, so I left my memo for her in her mailbox.

I’ve gotten late papers from everyone but one student, whose grade I’ll hold off on until tomorrow. I handed in the grades for the other four classes at the registrar’s office.

At 12:30 PM, after reading the Wall Street Journal, I left school. Apparently, a lot of teachers, like Adrienne and Peter, didn’t bother to come in today.

I turned in my – or rather, Greg’s – xerox charge card to Cynthia, and my Post-it Note name over Greg’s by the door had fallen when I got to the office, so I just threw it away. It’s Greg’s office again, as all traces of my occupancy are gone.

Basically all I have left to do is turn in the grades for that one class, attend the party tomorrow, and get my final paycheck.

Although I’ve longed for the end of the term, I won’t be surprised if I’m a bit at loose ends for a while. Full-time teaching at BCC gave these past four months a great deal of structure, and I’m sure I’ll feel at a loss until I get into a new routine.

Crad, getting the second batch of my English 102 students essays on “One Live to Give,” writes that they were “worse than the first batch. I hardly know what to say. Doesn’t BCC have any entrance requirements? I get the impression BCC is just one big diploma factory: get ’em in, move ’em along, and get ’em out.”

He continues: “I don’t know how you can consent to be a part of such a mediocre institution. BCC is a pseudo-college for pseudo-students. Your students are not real people because they cannot think. They’re already part of the scrapheap of history. They’re two-dimensional, like cartoon characters.”

Of course, BCC is probably better than most community colleges and Crad is much too harsh in his judgment, but I can’t deny I’ve lost whatever patience I once had for dealing with community college students.

Instead of my bringing them up to my level, they brought me down to theirs; I know it’s hurt my writing to read so many bad papers from BCC students.

I just hope Betty isn’t offended by my memo’s honesty. BCC is her life, and she’d be very hurt by Crad’s remarks because she really believes in the school’s mission.

Well, I’ll see what she says to me tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 20, 1989

8 PM. Up at 6 AM, I flipped on National Public Radio and learned that the U.S. had invaded Panama during the night.

Last week, the drug-running dictator Manuel Noriega “declared war” on the U.S., and over the weekend a couple of American soldiers were killed. Bush, still smarting from criticism over not acting decisively to help the coup attempt in October, apparently felt enough was enough.

As of tonight, fifteen American soldiers have been killed and scores wounded, and there are casualties among Panamanian troops and civilians caught in the fighting.

Noriega is in hiding, and our government is offering a million-dollar reward for him. The opposition leaders who won the May election that Noriega nullified have been sworn in as the official government, but they don’t yet seem to be in control.

I’m not sure how I feel. Right now everyone’s backing Bush, but if this drags on, it could get messy. Grenada was the quick invasion Americans liked.

It just makes me feel the world is even more unstable and scary.

At 4 PM, I went to see Betty, and it was good to unload on her for an hour.

While she understood my frustrations about the workload and students and curriculum, Betty said I fit in so well in the department and everyone was really glad to have me aboard this term.

She let me switch my spring term English 101 class for an English 102. That will still mean dealing with all those papers, but at least I can teach literature. I’ll try to be more disciplined and more prepared.

Once again, hope triumphs over experience. Meanwhile, I’ve now got two weeks off.