Summer Reading

And, to keep you entertained, dear three readers, a little more summer reading lite: Installment 2 of my unpublished best-seller “And to the Republic.”  Click here for the first installment. (And apologies for the line-breaks between paragraphs–I still can’t get WordPress to indent for me..)

And To The Republic
(A work in progress by Carl J. Luna.)

Chapter 2

I found Travis in his office, door ajar, staring at his computer monitor and tapping away on his keyboard. The office was the standard cubicle but with floor to ceiling walls-– all grays and topes with modular furnishings.  His office, however, was about half again larger than most.  And it had a window. I had an interior office with no window.  Kind of like a phone booth (if anyone remembers that quaint bit of antiquity) on steroids.

Travis was dressed in his usual two-piece faux Brooks Brothers, no doubt bought at one of the chain outlet stores that specialized in brand-name knock offs.  He was higher on the totem pole of power than regular professors, to be sure, but that hadn’t come with too great a pay increase.  Many things had changed since Spokane, but not the lousy pay.  Dark blue suit, white shirt, blood red tie: he always looked like a cross between a real estate agent and a Watchtower peddler.  Not that you saw much of either, as of late.  I, more than most, should know,  being married to one.  A real estate agent, that is, not a Watchtower peddler.  Though I hadn’t been seeing much of my own personal real estate agent much as of late.

I stood at the door a moment, waiting for Travis to notice my presence.  At six foot two inches and two hundred (ok, who am I fooling, two hundred twenty) pounds of pear shaped splendor,  I was hard to miss as a presence.  But Travis kept tapping away at his desktop, eyes glued to the screen, oblivious to the world.

Right.  Travis saw all, knew all.  He knew it was just after four thirty—regular quitting time for nine hour days that started at seven thirty– and he had commanded me to be there just after four thirty so I would be there just after four thirty.   Leaving me standing in the doorway was just another way of letting me know whom I was and, more importantly, whom he was.

Travis Nixon, Curriculum Integration and Coordination officer of Tidelands College, our local campus liaison to both the State and Federal Departments of Homeland Security: Education Division, Secondary and Post-Secondary.  B.A. University of Chicago,  Ph.D in Philosophy, Duke.  Like me, a fellow with an educational pedigree that should have led to a place other than a large community college on the edge of the Pacific.

Not that there was anything wrong with community colleges.  They served their critical niche.  They provided more than a decent education .  Where sending your kid to  a big name school meant you forked out seventy or eighty thousand dollars a year to have your kid spend most of his college career being taught by graduate students who often spoke lousy English, California community colleges provided real live Ph.D.’s to enlighten your kid at a literally a few percent of the cost.  And the people were nice and professional and collegial.

But it lacked the panache, the ego-sastisfaction and the social clout of working at a brand name.  Once you thought you were heading for Broadway, local dinner theater just never feeds the career hunger as thoroughly. He and I shared that hunger.  A hunger that, since you couldn’t feed it, ate you instead. You could see it in his eyes – restless, darting and dark.

I remained at his threshold a few moments, unwilling to make the commitment of fully entering the office, least I was able to deal with him with a handful of sentences and make my escape, small talk dispensed with.  He knew I was standing there—I saw his eyes shift from the screen just enough to pick me up in his peripheral vision before they returned to the data—but he continued staring and tapping away at the keyboard for a good thirty seconds before he acknowledged me.  And then it was only to look up for a moment and nod at his visitor chair before returning his gaze to the screen.

Travis thought I was an arrogant prick.   He was right on the last count, to be sure.  Indeed, by my own count, my prickishness quotient had skyrocketed over the past decade or so.

Once I was the epitome of the “nice guy.” Always armed with a  joke and a smile to brighten the day of  others, I used to  work my way through the office like a warm spring breeze, sincere compliment to a colleague here, a conspiratorial commiseration with an over-worked secretary there.  I was a freakin’ force of social nature.
As hopes and dreams faded, as mundane reality overturned misplaced fantasy,  I hardened.  Ungracefully, rudely even.  The happy joke replaced with biting sarcasm.   Compliments left unspoken, eyes averted to avoid the necessity of conversation.  I became something of a social armadillo, wrapped up around a chewy center of self pity, self loathing and a general disinterest in the plight of others, covered by a sugary shell of puerile wit.

In other words, a prick.

But arrogant?  No, that had disappeared long ago.

Yes, once I had been arrogant.   One of the youngest to earn a Ph.D in poli sci  in Georgetown history – twenty six, for chrissake.  Award winning dissertation on processes of social change.  I was an easy shot at tenure track at one of the top twenty, if not top ten schools.  But Mary wanted California.  She wanted out of DC and the east coast as soon as possible. So I took the first tenure track offered—a small but prestigious private school in the Bay area.  Took it and blew it.  I took seven years to blow it, but what the heck.  In my twenties and thirties life looked like an endless highway of opportunity.   That I had blown my professional head gasket without even knowing it, leaving my career a wrecked heap on the shoulder of said career highway, would take years for me to realize.

Okay, so I didn’t publish.  I decided I was in it for the teaching, anyway.  The chance to influence young minds, mold the next generation and all that.  Okay, so I didn’t play politics, didn’t kiss up to the department Chair or Dean, didn’t fawn over their works and accomplishments.  And maybe, amidst the happy little conspiratorial winks and nods with secretaries and grad students, I impugned the Chair’s and Dean’s reputation a tad.  And getting totally looped the night before a major presentation at the American Political Science Association convention one year and being a lot too honest about what drivel our Chair’s new book, “On The Record:  Management of Public Records in the Veterans Administration”  really was and, then, being so hung over I was barely coherent during my own panel, certainly didn’t help.  And my chair walking out of the hall halfway through my presentation was certainly not a good sign.

So, when tenure didn’t come, I left.  Not in a huff, but in an optimistic burst of good will, looking forward to new opportunities.  (Well, maybe there was a little huff.  But it didn’t last long.)  Mary had hated the Bay Area – too damp, too expensive, too far from her family to the south. Of course my family lived in SoCal, too, which I took as a darn good reason to stay north.   But I gave in and took the job in LA at a California state school.  Not tenure track, but sure to lead to it once my brilliance was fully appreciated, I reasoned.  A few years and no publications of note later (oh, there was the book review here, the odd chapter contributed to an anthology – completed only after months of desperate pleading by the editor—there) and I was back on the market.

Then came the job at Tidelands Community College—“Where Knowledge Meets the Sea” as the motto went–back in my ancestral homeland of San Diego, the town I’d been running from for two decades.  Tenure track.  Good pay and benefits.  Job security.  And, best of all, they were gaga for me – what with my Ph.D. from the big school and all.

Yeah, I was really arrogant back then.  But a few more years of no publications, having my few feeble tries rejected by the peer reviewed journals, a few more years of a sagging gut and receding hairline to help underscore that my best years were probably already behind me, a few more years of Mary passively aggressively letting it be known she had thought she had married better than what she got, a few more years of watching my happy toddlers turn into increasingly sullen and resentful, jaded, teens, and the arrogance leeched away.  Along with the bonhomie that arrogance can afford.   I wasn’t arrogant any longer.  Just disinterested to the point of rudeness.

Tenure meant I wouldn’t lose my job short of shooting one of my students or superiors for stupidity beyond the right to live, I suppose.  But that left me, at 46, with 16 years of drudgery to retirement in a job I didn’t really like any more.  And who knew how many years of an increasingly loveless marriage, until one of us worked up the nerve to pull the trigger and put the damn thing out of its misery.  My best years were behind me, and the years ahead looked increasingly less promising.

So Travis was only half-right about me.  But I was entirely right about Travis.  He was one hundred percent, FDA certified, grade A arrogant prick.  And, as CIC, he didn’t have to even try and hide it for niceties’ sake.

He turned at last, after another minute or so of determined tapping, and looked at me, a smile only as deep as his lips plastered across his chinless face.

“Hi Travis,” I said, subtly but observably holding his little summons in my clenched fist.

“Marcus, I need to talk to you about your upcoming program review.”  The smile drew tauter, his little lizard tongue probing anxiously—hungrily—at the back of his perfect, capped teeth.

Program review?  That’s what he wanted?  When Travis called for one of his little tête-à-têtes you were never certain if it was over some bureaucratic drivel like that or to help him raise the undead.  He was capable of dealing with either–of that I was sure.

I inadvertently sighed, feeling a bit of relief that the matter was so trivial.  In days gone by I would have blown off program review in which  I, as department chair, was responsible for documenting all the goals and plans for our department so deans would have something to read to justify their pay.  Eventually, after suitable hounding from the requisite dean, I would have tossed something off on the word processor and submitted it– fashionably late, of course.  No longer. Under the Travis New World Order,  to miss such a deadline got you a tick, and we’ve already discussed why you didn’t want to get ticked off.  So I had completed my review, which was due the following Monday, five days away.  Digitally stored, it awaited but one key stroke to unleash it in all its fury.

In retrospect the sigh was a rookie mistake. A classic dropping of the guard.
“Yeah Travis,” I smiled.  “All done and ready. Want me to send it to you before Monday?”  I tried to play it cool, but I fear relief tainted my inflection.

Travis stared at me for a long moment.  And, for a moment, what looked like an honest to God real smile seemed to be tugging at the corners of his liver-lips.  “I’m sure you’ve got it all together, Marcus,” he said, the pure smile now gone, the public smile back in place, “I just wanted to be sure you covered the points in the new directive on curriculum guidelines development.”

“Sure,” I smiled back.  “I’ve got the guidelines and reviewed each of our department member’s syllabi for compliance.  Everything’s okey-dokey.”

He frowned, pursing his lips, looking like a sad basset hound.  A rabid sad basset hound, to be sure.  “You are aware that new revisions to the State guidelines on curriculum content were released yesterday?”

I looked at him, mouth open but nothing coming out for a few seconds.  “New guidelines?” I answered, hesitantly. “Yeah, I saw them. And read them,” I hurried to add.  Of course I had seen and read them.  They’d arrived in my inbox that day in an email from Travis, red flagged and all.

“And you integrated them into your review of all course content, including lecture materials and readings?” He stared intently at me for a moment, than settled back in his chair, bringing his hands together to form a contemplative teepee with his fingers.

I felt suddenly like a five year old having to tell his kindly old (if psychotic) kindergarten teacher he had thrown up in the finger paints.    “Well, no, I haven’t, Travis,” I answered, inadvertently displaying my unease by rubbing my brow.  “I thought the guidelines were for next time around and we were to use the existing ones.”

Travis frowned, which was actually his most natural expression.  “The revised guidelines come directly from DHS-E through State CIC for immediate implementation,” he stated.  “DHS-E” – Department of Homeland Security, Educational division.
Responsible for ferreting out subversive ideas from the national educational complex.

State CIC was where Travis wanted to be, one day. The state watch dog agency on all California public education, always looking to sniff out subversion.  I’m certain he thought he would—or should—make that big league soon.

“It’s not enough to simply look at a syllabus and compare it to the legally mandated course outline of record under the new guidelines,” he explained.  “Anyone can write a syllabus that complies with the state outlines.  It’s what goes on in the classroom after the syllabus has been passed out that really matters.”  He sat forward abruptly, putting his hands palm down on his desk.  This was a sign Travis the true believer had appeared – or, at least, Travis the bureaucratic climber who knew how to look like a true believer.

“The only way to know what goes on inside the classroom is to have a detailed auditing of all course materials.  Lecture notes, readings, videos, powerpoints–the whole enchilada.”

I resisted the urge to sit back and roll my eyes, something a younger me would have done automatically.  “I didn’t think we had to implement those guidelines yet,” I repeated instead, keeping my eyes and voice steady.

“I figured you had, Marcus,”  Travis answered in an understanding voice. “That’s why I wanted to chat with you.  The public demands that what is taught with their taxpayer’s dollars conforms to what they believe, not whatever some tenured old liberal professor takes it into his mind to teach.  That’s what the new guidelines seek to guarantee.”

My younger self would, at that point, have stood, lifted my chair and hurled it against a wall before stating the mantra “academic freedom” and  storming out of the office and lodging complaints with both the Academic senate and our Union president.  But the union was gone – busted like the old airport screeners’ had been, in the name of national security.  And our Senate President, Gabriel Acosta, was as much a true believer as Travis.  I had already resigned myself to the simple truth that, post-Spokane, academic freedom–to teach and say in the classroom what our professional training told us we should–was a nice little piece of a past we professors could no longer afford. Not if we wanted to keep our jobs.

What I was gearing my self up to was the task of sifting through all the course materials of the other five members of the poli sci department – not to mention the dozen plus adjuncts I had on staff—in time to meet the Monday PR filing deadline.  What I was gearing up to was accepting the realization that my weekend had just become  FUBARed and, worse than that, explaining that fact to Mary.  Who I feared, might have theater tickets or something already.  Then again, Mary hadn’t been putting a lot of effort into our relationship, so I was probably over worrying on that score.

“Gee, Travis,” I managed, “I didn’t realize the guidelines applied this time around.”  I kept to myself the thought that he hadn’t bothered to mention that in the email.  What thy visited upon Travis would be visited a thousand bureaucratic ways back on thyself.

Travis paused for a long moment, starring at me.  And then that honest to God smile came back to tug at his flapping lips.  “Well,” he said, drawing out each consonant and vowel sound, “I guess it really doesn’t matter so much this time around.”   I must have visibly relaxed, because he became sternly serious immediately, the smile gone.  “But I want you to be aware of them and be ready to file a revision after the initial review next month.”

I fought off the urge to smile.  Or look at the wall clock behind him.  Four forty-five,  I figured.  If my luck held I’d be out and into the gridlocked rush hour traffic in a few minutes.  “No problem, Travis,”  I smiled, my body preparing to launch itself out of the chair.  Travis tilted his head in a motion of agreement, which I took as the termination point of our little meeting.  I began to rise.  “Well then….”

“There is,” he said softly, almost whispering, “one other thing.”

I drained back into the chair, the commutation of my sentence revoked.    Travis turned and tapped at his computer for a moment, read something on his screen, then turned back to me.  “You have several faculty evaluations to do this semester.”

A statement.  I nodded.  “That’s right.”

“Teddy Franklin is one of them, correct?”

“I believe so,” I nodded again.

“Teddy,” Travis sighed.  Audibly, deliberately sighed.  “He is a bit of a character.”

“Teddy has his moments,” I said, carefully.

“I was wondering,” Travis continued after a thoughtful pause, “ who would be assigned to the evaluation committee?”

I now paused for a few moments.  What would Travis care about who would be assigned to an eval committee.    That was the province of deans and chairs. Some things had changed, but eval committees were still a relatively rote affair. True, there was a bill pending in Sacramento, likely to be passed and then signed by our former businessman billionaire turned governor who replaced our former millionaire actor turned uber-governor turned Senator—a particularly strong supporter of Patriot III  that had come about after Spokane—that would effectively end tenure in state education.  But that little bit of the past still existed.  Getting rid of us tenured professors was still a Herculean task, no matter how incompetent – or unpopular—we became.

“I don’t really know, Travis.  I haven’t given it much thought.”

“Teddy gets to recommend his faculty evaluators, of course. But you, as chair, can pick a chair designee.  And your dean may pick a dean designee, as well.”

“Well, yes,” I answered slowly. “Of course.  So?”

Travis took a nice, long time to continue, sitting back in his chair, looking me over intently.  “It’s been my experience that Teddy is no strong supporter of curriculum integration.  Indeed, I’m probably fielding two or three complaints a month about him.”

Complaints. Student snitches, he meant.  Members of Students for the American Way, the self-appointed student enforcers of the new Political Correctness.  Well, actually, not truly self-appointed.  More a quasi-state organization, the SAW had increasing influence on national education policy, it’s leaders national figures in their own right, receiving preferred attention from Washington, its regular members something of a cross between a fraternity and the old Soviet Young Pioneers.

“Well, you know Teddy…” I dissembled.

“Yeah, I know Teddy.  And I doubt strongly that much of what he does in the classroom really reflects current course outlines.  Look…” he  continued, leaning over his desk towards me, his voice dropping into a conspiratorial near-whisper, “…people like Teddy represent a past we can no longer afford. This college can’t afford.   He threatens our reputation, our integrity…”

For a moment my old self—the arrogant one—fought to resurface.  “Come on now, Travis.  Teddy may be an old curmudgeon.  But a threat?  And anyway, students love him.  He’s smart.  He’s fun….”

“Which is exactly why he’s dangerous,”  Travis practically hissed.  He paused for a moment and composed himself, the false smile reappearing.  “Look, we all want what is best for the college – and for Teddy.  He’s—what?—fifty-eight?”

“Fifty-nine, I believe.”  Suddenly I really didn’t like the direction the conversation was going.

“Fifty-nine then,” Travis nodded. “He’s already at early retirement age.”

“Maybe, but I don’t think he’s planning to….”

“Here’s what,” Travis interrupted.  “I want you to appoint Andy Locke as chair designee for Teddy’s eval committee.”

“What!?” I exclaimed before I could bite the words back.  Locke despised Teddy, a feeling that was fully reciprocated.  I tried to recover.  “Well, that really isn’t for me…Dean Nguyen…”

“Don’t worry,” he waved me off.  “I’ve already talked to Nguyen about it and she has no problems with it. Look, all I want is to be sure Teddy has a fair and balanced committee. No rubber stamp, no firing squad.  For his good and the good of the college. Right?  And you don’t need to be in the middle of this.  You got a ton of evals coming up.  So take a pass on this committee and appoint Locke as your designee.”

I broke Travis’s gaze—that of a reptile staring down a small mammal—and shifted my focus over his shoulder.  Four-fifty.  The traffic would be horrific now. I’d be late coming home, which would tick Mary off even more than usual.  I looked back at Travis.  The last of my youthful arrogance died.

“Well, if Nguyen’s on board, I guess…”

“Great.”  The honest to God smile actually engulfed his lips yet again.  It was not pleasant to look at.  “So, keep me appraised.”  With that he turned back to his monitor.

Dismissed, I stood and left.  Having just agreed to help gut my mentor.  And my friend.