M A T T H E W S C H M I D T
I feel worthless, tell my girlfriend.
“You have a job,” she says.
It’s true. A crummy high school gig tutoring English students. The quintessential position hack writers hold. Can’t put out a book, can’t get a college post, no direction, few prospects, though many ideas. One consisted of writing poems exclusively as numbers and punctuation, codex provided. A journal even published one of these avant-garde beauties, giving me ample courage to attempt further obfuscation. Look at that torrid diction. Not even monks can sit their asses to nirvana with equal chutzpah.
I’d been slavish, eagerly attempting to impress my new superiors: attentively scouring the humdrum classes, acclimating myself as audience. The lay of the land consisted of a cruise-liner sinking amidst an oil spill. All the students rats, clamoring for hot Cheetos.
I can’t hear myself give instructions, their voices akin to jet engine plants on testing day. “You have a worksheet in front of you. We’re going to watch a five-minute video, then you’ll annotate the article, write a 3-5 sentence summary, and answer the questions on the back.”
“You know Fortnite, Dr. Birch?” one asks.
“PJ, we can talk about that after you do the assignment,” I say.
“He thinks he’s better,” Jamie says.
I have no idea what Fortnite is. I turn the video on, volume up.
“I can’t hear it,” someone says.
“Everybody needs to be quiet or no one’ll hear it.”
Clowns, every last one of them. Actually, I’m not really tutoring at this moment. Now, I’m subbing for Mr. Carp, he of the gin nose. It’s not surprising, I can barely stand working here three days a week. Carp’s been here ten years. What a fool. Then again, look who’s refereeing his hyenas.
In Mississippi, schools are ranked by letter grade. Our high school sports a hard F. Thus, the federal government provides money to hire extra help. I came in there. Fifteen an hour for twenty hours a week. Yes, please. Only, I spend several days observing, then entering test data from years past, going to half-assed meetings where Mrs. West tries to teach the entire English faculty how to teach this week’s lesson. Finally, I suggest a plan to tutor small groups of students for several weeks. It takes another two just to hash out the details. Then, no rooms are available. Most of my time is spent walking the halls.
As I try to tutor three upper-level kids one day, they tell me they’re not dumb.
“I never said you were,” I say.
“Then why are we here?” they ask.
“Because Carp chose you.”
This triviality continues as they claim high test scores on ACT practice tests and the latest state measurement. I agree with them. There isn’t anything else.
The oil spill comes from above; ship, a hulking wooden ark promising much more than it can reasonably supply. No doubt, the city is poor. Poverty breeds, y’all. No manners, few consequences, little discipline, parents mostly absent. Truth doesn’t sound better through a megaphone. This is a hostage situation.
Suppose you’re a young dog and someone chains you up for days on end. People, animals, the sun, come and go. You’d want to break out and run manically. You’d want to screw and jaw and fool.
“You’re a doctor, right?” Oscar asks.
“Yeah.” I admit this sheepishly, knowing I’m walking the plank.
“Let me ask you this: why’d you get a job here?” he says.
“I wanted a change,” I claim. What a lie.
“You’ve taught college though?”
“Then why don’t you become some administrator somewhere?”
Ha. That’ll be the day. People handing me power. Before the session is over, Oscar postulates his belief that hurricanes are caused and controlled by the government via remote. He illustrates it on the board between grisly outlines of North America and Africa, Florida thick as a frank. He demonstrates that they always run up the eastern seaboard.
“Cause there’s land there,” Gabi says.
I nod, try to explain conspiracy theories. Masters of gab, attention spans of sea stars, they harry teachers until their initial points have long been lost . . .
Oscar does have a point: I should be doing something better and he knows it. If only either of us could find footing within systems that cherish our necks under their boots.
I never miss an opportunity to discuss religion with evangelists. They give you a pocket bible, bend your ear. One kid, Simon, spent fifteen minutes escorting me across campus, providing good news. The good news: I am a thinker and a piece of paper proclaims it. It says doctor and philosophy and confers. The bad? It’s terminal. End of the line. All you can do is teach others how to make it to the station. Then, you’re on your own.
You can think whatever wherever, nobody gives a damn. Except evangelists. Their fervency makes me feel alive. All their blood and breath used toward conversion. Salvation. If it were provable I might follow, repent. Still, what of all the people born before Jesus walked? Virgil led Dante through hell to purgatory, but he’ll never reach paradise. His pagan life not absolvable. Even Simon’s namesake was sawed in half according to apocrypha. Sure, he’s considered a martyr, a saint, yet he was split like a decision. No one can prove his origins. He’s an idea, a woodcut. Accounts aren’t balanced, will never be, despite zealotry.
At the end of our journey I thanked Simon, said I’d think about it. Off he went looking for a follower.
Weeks into my first job in four months, Mrs. West asks to speak with me. She outlines an opaque explanation concerning the disbursement of funds. Seems the principal and school board didn’t understand each other at the monthly meeting where they voted to hire me. The money has been spent elsewhere.
“We can offer you eight hours a week,” West says. “Maybe four here and four there before the tests.”
“To be clear, you’re still going to pay me for the time I’ve already worked?” I ask.
“I assume so.” An uncomfortable pause follows. I keep looking at her. “You’re definitely going to be paid.”
I don’t even live in this city, drive forty minutes to and from for work. Eight hours isn’t worth it—for me or the students. They don’t want to be yanked from class, to be seen as different from their peers. Less work is done in large groups and these students don’t care what I have to offer. They enjoy riding the waves while there is a ship.
I could’ve stayed in Mississippi, handed out vests, thrown preservers, stayed with my girlfriend. I could’ve been a better man—if not a good one. Perhaps I think too much, never arrive anywhere. I’m no doer, goer. I’m an armchair staple, a flightless bird, a substitute, my value mostly theoretical. How can I offer my body to be sawn? What could I realistically change? Activists still participate in hierarchies, and the powerful have shown—repeatedly, with malice—they’re eager to use their teeth.
No, I’ve retreated to the Midwest, a haven outside the spotlight. Flyover country. Fields and hills, no massive bodies of water. If you can swim in the grass, the grass will not kill you. It might harm you, like it did this summer when I was cutting down dead trees. I wore the poison ivy on my arms and face for two weeks. Angry skin, an inferno in miniature. This winter I’ve decided to burn, standing beside the barrel, watching stumps and branches ashen the color of the ark I left in the Gulf, the only water I’m left with.
Matthew Schmidt’s poems have been published in Pleiades, The Seattle Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and elsewhere. He is an associate poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review and the Co-Founding Editor of the Iowa-based literary editing and educational nonprofit 1-Week Critique.