by David Norwood
I looked forward to when the grounds across campus were cut. It happened every two weeks, and today was one of those days, and it just so happened to be the last day of the semester—the front of summer vacation. Mowers growled like angry dogs as they passed by my office window. Weed eaters buzzed in the distance like tiny planes. I enjoyed the noises in anticipation of seeing the beauty they were creating across campus. On days like today, I would leave work proud and excited. These were the days I enjoyed talking to others about being a professor in the English department. You mean, you teach there? That place with the gorgeous lawn and picturesque landscaping? I had just submitted final grades and was deciding where to go to celebrate the end of the semester. Smitty’s Pub was all I could think of that was nearby. So, I slid my laptop into my backpack along with a few books and left.
Egg-shell blue stretched across the sky. One of the men cutting grass tipped his hat as I left the English department. His weed eater buzzed next to him like a giant wasp. Another man was driving a mower onto a trailer. Their day was ending too. I politely smiled and proceeded to walk the half mile to Smitty’s.
The route across campus to Smitty’s was beautiful. It threaded between freshly edged sidewalks, buildings from the 1920s, university banners hanging down from rod iron light posts, and joyful students huddled together as they strolled along. The culmination of my prideful journey was the immaculate crosshatched lawn glistening in the sun like a major league ball field. It was as if someone had intentionally angled each blade of grass by hand.
I approached Smitty’s and went inside.
Beer mugs thudded against the bar top. The uproar of students came from many directions. I found an open spot at the bar, sat down, and ordered a beer. With it came a coaster and a receipt. “Let me know if you want to start a tab,” the bartender said. She was gone before I could answer. I laid my card down and grabbed my mug of beer. A foamy white tonsure penciled around its amber center. Slivers of ice slid down the mug’s thick glass. I took a wide sip, unaware of the coaster stuck to the bottom. The coldness massaged my neck and lifted mental weights. I clunked my mug down.
“Professor?” The voice was familiar and filled with surprise. I turned and noticed a young man, a student of mine, half-drunk. His feet stumbled over themselves like a wind-up robot. He was heading toward the bathroom. He raised one hand attempting to say hello. His eyes slanted and his smile beamed.
“The best and the brightest,” a man sitting next to me said. He tittered as we made eye contact. He was much older than me, most likely in his late fifties. His orange shirt was a bright overtone to his dark leathery skin and dirty blonde hair. His face was stubbled like sandpaper. His hands were dry and cracked. But, he was calm and his movements were fluid. He wasn’t drunk, but his appearance welcomed my a-worker-with-a-beer-in-his-hand stereotype. I didn’t mean to judge, but this was a bar, and his worker-look on a Friday afternoon wasn’t alone. I noticed similar colored shirts—some bright orange and some neon yellow—spread out in the bar.
“Oh well. The semester is over. He’s just celebrating, and from the looks of it a little too much,” I responded followed by soft laughter filled with reminiscence.
“You teach, do ya?”
The man nodded as he took a sip. “It sure is a pretty college, and I hear it’s a good one.” I recalled instances when freshmen misspoke and referred to the university as a college. I would instantly correct them. This isn’t a vocational school, indeed we offer you the full spectrum of knowledge. But, I suppose he was trying to be nice. Besides, I felt proud being a part of the beauty others saw as they passed the campus. Pretty. It sure was.
“Yes, we have a beautiful campus and not to mention a very high ranking. A nationally distributed publication recently put out a very nice article about us.” I took a sip of my beer and glanced over at him. He just stared at me—you don’t say. A man sitting next to him apologized for interrupting and asked him a question. The man in the orange shirt leaned in to answer, moving his hands as if to explain a concept or process, something I could tell the other man should have already known.
Another student approached me. “Professor? I’m sorry to bother you, but do you know when you’ll submit our final grades?”
“I just submitted them before I got here. You should see an update soon.” His eyes thanked me. But, I could tell his mind was forming another question. He hesitated, perhaps feeling awkward and a little embarrassed to see me out of the classroom. The man in the orange shirt finished his conversation. He glanced over upon ordering another beer.
Finding the courage to speak, the student said, “I’ve been thinking about graduate school, but I’m not sure if that’s something I should do. I’m not really sure what that will buy me in the long run.” His eyes glared toward confusion. I took a sip, nodded, and turned to face him. His concern was a common one.
“If you’re thinking about it, do it, especially if you’re single and don’t have any kids.” He nodded like he did in class.
“But, why? I mean, a master’s and doctorate sound cool, but I’m just not sure if that’s for me.” His face turned back toward confusion.
“I was the same way. I think everyone feels that way, to be honest.” I noticed the man in the orange shirt was now listening. “Think of it this way. A lot of people are getting bachelor’s degrees nowadays, so to some extent, a bachelor’s degree is no better than a high school diploma—it’s something society expects. But, if you get a master’s degree, you’ll stand out amongst those trying to get the same job. Graduate school proves to others that you can work hard, are passionate, and can commit to something.” I spoke with confidence. His eyes widened with an apparent liking.
“I guess I haven’t thought of it like that before.”
“And, it sort of ties together with all the things you’ve most likely heard in high school, about making the best grade and getting into a good university—all for your future.” I paused for a second. “This is it.” I smiled as if having let him into a private club.
“Thanks, professor. I’ll keep thinking about it.” He held out his hand for me to shake. I shook as I turned back around toward the bar top.
“That’s a lot to think about,” the man in the orange shirt said. I looked over at him. “College. Careers.” He looked over at me.
“I know. It’s a turning point in so many lives.” I immediately began judging again. Not college, university. This poor guy is probably just a high school dropout anyway. Low income. Mediocre job. Just a poor guy in a bar barely making a living. “I just try and keep them on a good track.”
“I keep wondering if I should tell my kids to consider college.” His eyes darted to me. “I don’t want to make ‘em go, though.”
“I think it depends on how you look at it. I tell mine it’s the most important choice they’ll make,” I said. His mouth creased and his brows furrowed.
“Hell, I tell mine getting married is the most important choice they’ll make,” his expression loosened, “that and just being a good person.” I nodded. My judgmental side was growing frustrated. I understood his simple explanation, but he didn’t get what I was saying. I wanted to tell him he was being an idiot and to stop acting so stupid, that going to a university was the best thing anyone could do after high school. But, good manners wouldn’t allow such behavior. I had to try and persuade without coming across like a fool myself.
“I just mean, I think in today’s world, you need something to set yourself apart from others. Not to mention, those who typically go to college have better job security and higher paying jobs.” I found myself regurgitating what I had heard over the years, and I suddenly became aware he might take offense. I began thinking of a defense tactic, but he simply nodded and took a sip of his beer.
“I hear ya, but then you got all the college tuition and student loans that come with it. Some kids graduate and take a mortgage with ‘em. And, if they don’t get a job, they’re screwed. Hell, some don’t even make that much starting out.” I could tell I wasn’t getting very far with the man in the orange shirt.
“That’s true, but with a little perseverance, it will pay off. And to those who struggle afterward I say: maybe you should have been more aware of your grades and shown more interest in your major … that you should have let it work for you … so perhaps go back and change majors, and then maybe things won’t be so bad.” I waved my hand to emphasize my level of confidence.
“Or, don’t bother going in the first place,” he said looking out the corner of his eye. “I teach my kids to work hard and be proud of what they do. Like them folks did back in the day. The ones that would engrave their initials into their work, to show they made it, and what they made was something they were proud of. Swords. Shields. You name it.” He waved his hand in the same manner as I did earlier, but not to mock. He was equally as sure in his belief as I was mine. “But, if my kid wanted to be a doctor, for example, to help people, I guess I shouldn’t discourage him, right?” He shrugged his shoulders—damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I quickly found myself needing him to agree with me. I began judging again. Stupid! Dumb! Idiot! What’s he know about academics anyway? Of course your kid should go to school to be a doctor!
I turned in my seat a little and calmly spoke, trying to persuade. “If you were going to start a restaurant, you’d want to have something to stand out in the crowd, right?” He slowly nodded. “And, especially if you were in a crowded space, like starting out in a big city, you’d need something unique. Original.” I paused for emphasis. “For example, I’m guessing it would be incredibly hard to start a pizzeria in New York City.” My eyes asked rhetorically. He chuckled.
“I hear ya,’ he said.
“So, you’d want to offer something that stands out in the crowd. To me, going to a university—especially getting a master’s and doctorate—is just like that. It’s something that gives you an edge, a necessary edge. You simply have to be unique to stand out these days.” I slightly turned and grabbed my mug. I rested my arm on the bar top and took a sip. I hoped we were done talking or could at least talk about something else. If he thought going to college was a bad idea, well then I guess I would just have to feel sorry for him. Besides, all I wanted to do was celebrate the end of the semester with a few beers, not debate the importance of going to a university.
The man in the orange shirt laughed to himself. I saw that a few men next to him had now begun listening to our conversation. “I don’t know Professor, I can sure make some pretty damn good bacon and pancakes.” The other men quietly laughed, as did I. “Ain’t too much unique going on there.”
Then, the man in the orange shirt turned a little my way. “Did you hear about the guy walking down the street and how he came up on three men standing next to a pile of bricks?” I shook my head no. “Well, the man walking down the street asked the first guy standing next to the bricks, ‘what are you doing?’ And, the guy said, ‘laying bricks.’ The man nodded and walked over to the second guy, ‘ok then, what are you doing?’ and the second guy said, ‘I’m building a wall.’ The man, still intrigued, walked over to the last guy and asked, ‘well, what about you?’ and the last guy said, ‘I’m building a place for my people to worship.’” The man in the orange shirt smirked. He took his final sip and stood up. “Like they say in the Bible though, ‘in the end, it’s all meaningless.’” He reached out his hand. “Nice talking to you, Dr.?”
“Dr. Phillips,” I said quietly.
“Paul Jenkins.” His hand shook like a rock, and then he left.
I looked around the bar. Students clamored at nearby tables. The overhead televisions blasted news and sports. Low music played in the background next to a pool table. Sober students came in as the drunk ones left, even though it was just five o’clock. I watched Paul Jenkins and the men he was with leave the bar. In pairs, they got in work trucks carrying the lawn equipment I saw earlier. Jenkins Lawn Service was plastered on the doors of each truck. I sighed deeply and turned back toward the bartender who was putting away clean mugs.
“Another round? Maybe some food?”
About the Author:
David Norwood lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with his wife and four kids. He enjoys bringing his imagination to life with words on paper and especially looks forward to his free time so he can read, write, and stare at the trees in his backyard. His stories can be found in Corvus Review, Furtive Dalliance, and forthcoming at Peeking Cat Poetry. You can also find David at https://norwoodpages.wordpress.com/