Third trimester: 35 weeks.
“Okay, people. Remember that I can outlast you any day of the week,” she said, although the warning — one she had issued many times over the years, in many different classrooms — now sounded flaccid.
“Somebody, please, take a stab at filling in the blanks of the Magic Thesis Formula: ‘By looking at ____, we can see that ____, which most people do not see; this is important because ____.” Ramona’s hand trailed the blackboard where she had written out the formula. The other hand on her hip, she tried to affect a posture of annoyance, but in truth she was contemplating the impact of the room’s heat on her clothing choices for the day. The air conditioner was out, and she had unwisely chosen to wear a low-cut summer sweater and beige trousers. The victim of unruly hormones, Ramona had been sweltering for the better part of an hour, but it was only now, her backside on display to a room of 20 year olds, that she realized there must be a crease of sweat outlining her butt crack and knee pits. Too late she remembered the words of her mentor, a woman with four children and 35 years of teaching experience: “Only fools write on the blackboard.”
As she waited for a response, Ramona tried to focus on the positive: at 35 weeks pregnant, she had but three days left in the classroom before her maternity leave began. Assuming the baby did not make an early appearance, Ramona could use this summer school paycheck to purchase the dishwasher that was certain to save her sanity — no hand washing all those bottles and nipples and pacifiers! — and do more good for her marriage than any therapist or weekend seminar.
“One more day of lecture,” she whispered to herself.
“Would someone please say something?” Ramona hobbled to the long table, choosing to sit rather than hold the uncomfortable pose any longer. The department chair had once chastised her for sitting on tables while lecturing, but within the last two weeks, the baby had shifted its position and was now perched comfortably atop her sciatic nerve. The exquisite pain each time she moved her left leg forced her to waddle about and now, to sit. Curiously, her students had taken all of this in stride, never asking her about her new and strange walk just as they had yet to ask her about her pregnancy.
Ramona’s eyes swept across the room, and this quick inventory revealed ten expressions more likely to groan, “Uncle!” than participate in the thesis exercise. Because her remaining students had hung in there through A Room of One’s Own, she naively expected they would manage “The Yellow Wallpaper” with their usual aplomb. (Out of 20 students, six had dropped the first day of discussion, the day she taught “La Belle ZoraÃ¯de.” Four more dropped the day she lectured on Judith Shakespeare, the day the recurring themes — motherhood, insanity, suicide — of these particular texts had been made clear.) She regarded the remaining ten students as the survivors, the committed, the Navy Seals of English composition. Never mind her class roster, the document verifying that eight of these ten were graduating seniors with no choice but to remain on this sinking ship.
Even Paula, the student who had testily taken issue with Woolf’s depiction of Shakespeare (“But he’s Shakespeare! She can’t describe him like he’s a fraternity brat!”), had nothing to say. Paula sat in the front row, and at this point in her teaching career, Ramona could easily profile a student based on where they chose to sit. (Front row center = male overachiever; front row side = female overachiever. Back row = slackers. Peripheral vision = smart asses.) With even Paula shutting down, Ramona realized these students had no intention of her letting her coast through these last three days.
“The Magic. Thesis. Formula. I know you all have something to say. We’ve done this before.” Ramona loathed those gimmicky four words, but the MTF, as she sometimes called it, usually enabled even the most rhetorically challenged students to drum up a working thesis. All they had to do was fill in the blanks.
Still no one responded, and Ramona decided to take off the gloves. She would have to rely on the Fickle Finger of Fate, another foolproof strategy that nevertheless made Ramona cringe whenever she said it.
“All right. You leave me no choice. It’s the Fickle Finger of Fate,” she warned. She had only resorted to this measure three times in her teaching career, and it had never worked well. Remembering this made Ramona worry for the first time that morning that she might not be able to pull off this lecture. As if something lurked on the horizon.
“Paula, it’s you. Tell us what you wrote down during the Free Write session.”
“Uhhh, I didn’t write anything down. I’m having trouble with this one.”
“You didn’t write anything down?” During Free Write exercises, everyone wrote something down, even if it was their next iPod play list.
“I find that hard to believe. Let me see your notes.” Paula blushed fiercely and tore the sheet out of her binder. Ramona could not say why she had started down this road of humiliation, not only for herself but also for Paula, who was a good student and didn’t deserve abuse.
Her décolletage now perspiring, Ramona read the paper. Only four words — “Mommy Dearest,” “nutjob,” “preggers” — constituted Paula’s free writing, echoing down the page, at least a dozen times.
Until now Ramona had felt no conflict of interest between her pregnant state and the texts she chose to teach. She had believed her expanding profile to be invisible, a spectacle to which only she was privy. But these four words discomposed her so that she had no more script for today. She looked at Paula, who had now hunched over, her eyes fixed to the floor. “Well, Paula, you do have something, and it’s a place to start,” she offered, trying to buy time.
WWVD: What would Virginia do? It was a game Ramona played to entertain herself when her students were particularly boring, but today she could come up with nothing. Would Virginia ever teach college English? For that matter, would she teach a Gen Ed course? Ramona’s mind recoiled at the prospect. Her mind had snapped shut. “It’s a place for us all to start. What, class, are the common denominators between “The Yellow Wallpaper” and A Room of One’s Own? What are these two stories about?”
Ramona had never before used the word “class” to refer to her students. Ramona was slipping, and her physical self confirmed this fact even while she struggled to maintain her poise: thin beads of perspiration dotted her hairline, and she could no longer move from the table for fear of displaying her ass sweat. Meanwhile, the life inside her seemed to be gearing up for some afternoon aerobics. This embryonic movement had weeks ago ceased to seem poetic, a cause for wonder; just now it felt as if small stilettos were kicking in time, a chorus of baby Rockettes making merry with her rib cage. She knew if she broke eye contact with her audience in order to look down, she would see brief but discernible spasms beneath her taut sweater.
“What are they about?”
No one so much as moved. Ramona sensed a change in the community spirit; without even looking at one another, the students had gone from confused and frightened to unionized resistance tinged with mounting uneasiness. To calm herself, she thought of the dishwasher: it was stainless steel and had a built-in garbage disposal. The man at Home Depot had locked up her sale when he said, “You could throw a pan of lasagna in there, and it would come out squeaky clean.”
“What are they about?” Ramona heard her voice break, something that only happened in moments of intense emotion, such as in arguments with her husband. She recalled one now, when they had disagreed about who had last washed the dishes.
“What are they about?” Ramona’s eyes were watering. To the uninitiated, her tears seemed a sign of defeat, but to those who knew her best, these tears foreshadowed a tsunami.
Her students did not know her best, and these tears struck them dumb. Except for some shifting and shuffling in the back of the room from the slackers — there was silence. They had never made a teacher cry, and they were embarrassed for her surrender. They were overcome with what the Germans call schadenfreude, the pleasure one feels in witnessing someone else’s misfortune.
“I’ll tell you what they’re about,” Ramona whispered. She stood up now and faced the clock. Doing so put her backside, the unmistakable damp outline of her buttocks, on display to three-quarters of the room. The class dissolved into elbow jabs and index fingers and not-so surreptitious coughing. Ramona continued. “They’re about female artists victimized by compulsory procreation. They are about women who perhaps should not have had children, and who, as a result of their taking on the role of motherhood, suffer tragic outcomes. They are about the costs of oppression. They are about artistic censorship. Self-prostitution. Insanity. Suicide. About needing a space to call your own. A place in which to write. A place where everybody knows your name?”
Her abrupt transition to the lyrics from Cheers an obvious non sequitur, Ramona paused to catch her breath. “And so, tell me, tell me, class, how do you answer Woolf’s call-to-arms: ‘So, what is the good of your writing?'” Her voice had thinned out, exhausted itself, and she could emphasize nothing. She was noiselessly sobbing. Two of the back-row students snickered nervously. Another student had begun to cry quietly. They hadn’t known it would be so easy.
“What is the good of your writing?” The stainless steel dishwasher had been more expensive than their budget allowed, but Ramona wanted to splurge. This particular model had a concealed control pad so as not to mar the aesthetics of her minimalist kitchen. She liked an uninterrupted line, a tidy appearance.
“What is the good of your writing?” Briefly, she thought of Virginia wading into the water, her pockets full of rocks. She thought too of her soon-to-be dishwasher and marveled, as the salesman had demonstrated, that the rinse cycle could make the dishes so spotless. And then Ramona became aware of a release of warm water between her legs.