The Iceman Cometh

legion

All the people were amazed and said to each other, “What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!” (Luke 4:36)

A True Story of Angels, Demons, and Freshman Composition

A long while back, I was a graduate student in English at the University of Idaho. As a teaching assistant I taught three sections of freshman composition each year. Since I was only slightly older than most of them and younger than a few, I had to establish some sort of authority based on something other than age. I finally settled on experience. I would start the first day of class by saying, “I’m up front here because I know something that you need to know.” That generally took care of it. The students accepted it at face value.

Except for one guy. He had failed the class twice before and came into my section with a BIG chip on his shoulder. I wasn’t overly concerned. I’d had problem students before. I’d do what I always did. My plan was to ignore him.

From day one it was clear that this guy resented everything and everyone that suggested he didn’t know it all already. The very first day he came in late, dropped into his desk with a disdainful crash, folded his arms across his chest, and leveled an Ayatollah stare at me that could have oxidized metal. In that terrifying instant I knew I was looking at the most demonic academic terrorist I would ever see in my life.

And so did the rest of the class. Their gaze shifted from me to him and back to me. Whether I liked it or not, the stage was set, the gauntlet thrown in my lowly, teaching assistant’s face. The whole universe stopped moving in those moments. I could hear the wooden tick, tick, tick of the clock on the wall. My palms went ice-cold; my heart pounded in my rib cage like a wild animal; I had to pee like you wouldn’t believe.

There was nowhere to run. I knew if I lost this one, I’d lose the class for good. I would be known as The Wimp. (And trust me, when you’re trying to teach 800 pound football players how to read poetry, you don’t need that hanging over your neck too.) There was only one thing to do. I gathered all my remaining strength and composure, braced myself against the podium, took a deep breath and . . . ignored him hard.

But he wouldn’t let me. He taunted me every day by coming in late, loudly enough to disrupt whatever was going on. He would talk when I was talking (though I never saw any student actually listen to him), whistle during in-class work time, mumble “This is stupid” audibly enough for the others to hear whenever I made an assignment, and generally keep turning the intimidation screws tighter and tighter into my psyche.

Through it all I clung desperately to my strategy. I smiled feebly at his fiendish behavior and pretended not to hear his caustic remarks. But I could feel (as, no doubt could he) the slow, but certain weakening of my defenses. Like the siege of a walled city by a superior army, he was biding his time, starving me out. The rest of the class watched in morbid fascination as their instructor slowly melted away like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Then one day he launched the mother of all attacks. I was returning their essay assignments which I had spent the better part of my valuable weekend grading. As usual his had a lot of red ink on it (my one feeble satisfaction). I handed him his paper and continued doing the same with the others. All of a sudden he held up his essay, pointing dramatically to my scarlet-inscribed comments, and spit venomously, “What’s this garbage?”

Once more the class froze. They saw the ax falling inexorably toward my vulnerable scholastic neck. From all around me, quietly at first, but growing louder and louder until they became a swarm of jeers, I could hear hundreds, no millions of voices chanting “Wimp! Wimp! Wimp! Wimp! Wimp!”

This was it, the moment of truth. There he was, holding his essay in one hand and my future in the other—Satan himself. This was Judgment Day. The face off could not have lasted more than a few nanoseconds, but it was long enough for a transformation to happen in me. Gone was all pretense to meekness. Gone was my weary, time-eroded mantra “Knowledge is power.” Gone were Gandhi and Yoda and Mr. Rogers. I’d had enough. I was no longer Mr. Dweeb. I had no more cheeks to turn.

Rising from the primal engine of my soul roared a thunderclap, a divine firestorm of indignation and retribution. I stopped in my tracks, slowly straightened my back, and turned toward him with the terrible certainty of a gunslinger. With a voice like steel, as level, controlled, and potent as anything Clint Eastwood ever said, I said to his face, “That’s funny, that’s exactly what I thought when I read your essay.”

He blinked, then sank slowly back into his desk like a leaky air mattress. It was over. With a word I had cast the demon out—well, made him shut up anyway.

I finished handing out the papers and taught the class like nothing happened. But it took everything I had to keep from kissing myself and breaking out into some kind of primitive victory dance. In fact, I’m not so sure I didn’t do just that when I got back to my little office. The iceman cometh.

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