An Alternative to Ditch-Digging by Cliffton Price

On the first day of class, you’ll see the best and worst college has to offer and every fucked-up thing in between.  You’ll be all in a panic, nervous, twitching, waiting anxiously for the moment you wish you’d never have to wait for again, with your backpack or your knapsack all packed and perched on your back and a copy of your schedule or a copy of that copy clutched in your slightly sweaty hands, as the freshmen around you fall into the motions of looking up from their schedules to look at the buildings then back down to double-check the name of the building on the page with the one written on the building before them a couple dozen times only to repeat the whole process—and on a more complicated scale, seeing as how the buildings come equipped with multiple levels while their schedules do not—when they finally locate the building they need and enter it and start seeking out the classrooms in which they’ll have their classes.  Everyone’s all dolled up in the latest fashions and anti-fashions and fashionable alternatives to fashion, hair just so, make-up made up, shoelaces tied, looking all right, looking fine, looking for those significant others who might just be lurking on the stairs or under a tree or in the third row of their Calculus I class, you never know.  And installed in each and every heart is that overwhelming feeling that this year is going to be their year.  Forget all the fuck-ups and the clusterfucks and the fucking bullshit of semesters gone past: this time around it’s going to be better, everything’s going to change, this is the Year of Me.

You’ll see professors dressed in their finest tuck-and-gather actually arrive to class on time, their syllabi, fresh off the presses, held lovingly to their chests; and they’ll smile at you and ask all about you and make you feel welcome and tell you how much fun you’re gonna have taking their classes.  And sadly enough, you’ll believe them and smile back at them and try to make them feel welcome, too, until you happen to glance down at the syllabus on your desk and notice how the ink has all smeared together after too much time together with all the other syllabi in professor so-and-so’s—you’ve already forgotten his name—nicotine-stained hands and after too little time alone between the printing and the stapling and the passing-out, but which remains just readable enough to tell you that you should have went straight on to ditch-digging after high school because there is no way in Hell you can successfully write one 12-15 pg. paper in a single semester let alone the four that this particular course calls for.

After class, you’ll head on over to the campus bookstore where you’ll be happy to see they’re giving out free hotdogs and Pepsi’s and cans of toxic shaving gel to anyone who buys a book because at least now you’ll have something halfway decent to eat before you kill yourself by consuming the entire contents of the free can of toxic shaving gel after you discover the price of the cheapest book on your Required Reading list could buy you the presidency in any third-world country.

Perhaps in front of the Union Building or somewhere along the Quad, you’ll see someone you haven’t seen since the first day of class last semester, and you’ll stop and talk about so-and-so whom you both sort of know but whom neither of you has seen in quite some time and how long it’s been since you’ve last seen each other.  You’ll try and try to remember her name so you can say it to her face-to-face when you both say goodbye to one another for yet another semester, and in trying so hard to remember, you’ll miss your chance to correct her when she asks about your endless onslaught of Psych classes, which you haven’t majored in since before Elementary Ed. and a semester or two after Criminal Justice, and which you didn’t get the chance to correct her on last time you saw her either because you were trying so hard to remember her name then, too.  So after a couple of minutes of her talking and you trying to remember, the two of you say goodbye for another semester with her saying “Good luck with Psych,” and you only saying “Goodbye.”

You’ll see friends and roommates and fellow classmates and students you’ve never seen before voluntarily engage themselves in a week-long power struggle with the University which they never would’ve had to volunteer for if the University had allowed them to sign up for the classes and the profs and the times they wanted and sometimes desperately needed—as in graduate or don’t graduate on time—in the first place (i.e.way back during the middle of the previous semester when everyone was forced to go see and then spend some quality minutes with their faculty advisors who would discuss at length the what’s and what-not’s surrounding each advisee’s respective tentative schedule for the upcoming semester, which never much helped out in the long run seeing as how after you had obtained the elusive must-have signature of your advisor you were next required to march on over to the cramped smelly basement of one of the coed dorms at the designated University-issued time for students with last names starting with the same last letter as yours and who were classified in the University books as holders of the same exact class rank as your own and wait in line until way past your designated time and also usually way past the next group of identical last-name-starting-letter-and-class-rank students’ designated times and quite possibly the next to finally get far enough ahead in line to see the poster-board-and-black-marker conglomeration that awaited everyone just inside the double doors of the restricted, can’t-get-in-unless-your-next-in-line section of the hall’s basement which posted the latest-minute reports on which sections at what time-slots of which classes had been filled to their student-holding capacities and which told you, more times than not, that every class you wanted or desperately needed had been filled already, leaving you with no other option than a voluntary spot in the front lines of the week-long war to be waged against the University in the opening week of the upcoming semester), their final objective: little pink slips of University-processed paper, signed and dated by the agreeing-to-add professor, with the words PERMISSION TO ADD gloriously centered at the top of each one.

You’ll enter the Humanities building or the Science Center at the dawn of the opening day of classes and observe several huddled forms of fellow students participating in what appears to be a voluntary slumber-party at the white-linoleumed feet of office doors and lecture halls as they wait anxiously for their saving professors to arrive.  And maybe you’ll feel a twinge in your stomach of the injusticeness of it all when you realize that these huddled forms represent the go-getters and the overachievers and the make-it-happens of your beloved university, and when you understand something that these students can’t afford to allow themselves to understand at the risk of losing all utterance of their well-kept hopes, namely that there’s a very good chance that the little white index card scotch-taped on the window of so-and-so’s particular saving prof’s office door isn’t actually displaying the days and times of the prof’s office hours for the semester that’s currently beginning but instead has been left up from the semester before, thus meaning that the man or woman so-and-so left his or her bed for ain’t coming when he or she thought they were, if at all.

You’ll see them in your classes, sitting up front and asking questions and just generally showing the prof how attentive they can be and what a contribution they would make to the class as a whole if said prof would just sign their pink slips and let them come aboard, all of which gets thrown out the window at the end of class when they trample and mangle and stampede each other half to death in a rush to be the first one to fall to their knees in front of the prof and beg and cry and plead and basically show said prof what incredible whining assholes they can be.  They’ll be outside your classes, too, just waiting for the door to open so they can bowl you and all your classmates over and join the throng-in-progress at your professor’s feet (which brings up the age-old question college faculty have to ask themselves each and every semester: Who would you rather let add your class to their schedule: the dipshit freshman who actually suffered through your entire opening-day arsenal of piss-poor jokes even though he didn’t have to in order to show you what a good student he was, but who, quite probably, wasted valuable time laughing at your wife-related puns for a signed pink slip he would never see; or the dipshit senior who didn’t even show the consideration to stop in and listen to a couple of your suicide-inducing quips on higher learning, but who you can’t help to admire because of it, since even you are aware of how fucking incredibly unfunny your jokes happen to be and how rare it is for someone like yourself to let anybody, whatever their ranking, add your class to their schedule, so why waste valuable time for nothing?).

And at the end of the day, you’ll be sitting in the dining hall wondering for the gazillionth time how anyone could make food taste this much like shit, not to mention, produce the same shit-tasting food in such a variety of shapes and colors, when your friend or your roommate or your roommate’s friend who you know has spent more time in the trenches than out of them during the course of the day walks in and collapses in a pink-slipless heap near the salad bar, hair all out of whack, eyes red and swollen and glazing over, backpack looking more like a stuffed Hefty bag than the leather LL Bean number he was sporting when you saw him prior to opening day, and proceeds to just sit there for a while, panting and eyeing the sliced hard-boiled eggs and radishes and black olives as if he had no idea what planet they had been grown on, until you can’t bear to watch him watching the salad stuffs any longer and you ask him the one thing he has been heaped-up there waiting for you to ask, namely “How’d it go?,” which you are relieved to see breaks the spell between him and the olives and the eggs and gets him off the floor and on to the chair next to you, from where, after a moment gulping down one of your six Pepsi’s, he launches into a full-blown, four-alarm, profanity-riddled tirade on how he had slept the night before in front of Professor Such-and-such’s office on the third floor of the perpetually-dark-and-foul Criminal Justice building with nothing but a thick layer of dust between him and the floor and simply a thin wrapping of  the University’s Scheduling Packet between his person and the foul-smelling dark air only to learn come morning that Professor Such-and-such no longer kept his office hours in his office in the Criminal Justice building but now preferred to keep them halfway across campus in the Sociology building and only by appointment, the phone number there no where to be found in either building or anywhere on campus for that matter, and how he had tracked down Such-and-such anyway and had sat in not one but three of his classes trying to obtain his signature and listening to his piss-poor jokes but to no avail, seeing as how the very second after Such-and-such said “See you next time,” he beat it out the classroom door and out in to the hall like his dick was all afire and disappeared each time from your friend or your roommate or your roommate’s friend and from all the other potential addees somewhere among the great thick throng of students and profs who tend to accompany the first day of class, all of which takes him about twenty minutes to say and doesn’t even come close to recounting all the horrible trials and tribulations your friend or roommate or roommate’s friend has suffered through as a volunteer on the first day of the week-long power struggle he and the University are engaged in.  He goes on for another twenty-five minutes or better, drinking three more of your Pepsi’s in the telling, and ends off by leaving the chair beside you and collapsing heap-like back at the salad bar where he assures himself and the sliced hard-boiled eggs and the radishes and the black olives that all will be made right come tomorrow, “All will be made right come tomorrow,” then promptly falls asleep.

And if you’ve got a keen eye and your attentive and you know your shit from shinola you might just spot a couple of what you privately refer to as “rare breeds” or “two-timing ones,” which happen to be that sort of student or, more to the point, anti-student, who set foot on campus only twice during the course of an entire semester excluding Finals Week: once on the first day of class when it is imperative they do so due to the University’s strictly-enforced attendance policy which says that any student failing to attend the first meeting of class he or she is currently enrolled in come first day of class will be automatically dropped from said class’s roster, and which also infers that it will be a cold day in Hell before the University allows a student who has failed to attend the first meeting of a class he or she was enrolled in come the first day of class to be allowed back in to said class after he or she has already been dropped from it’s roster; and then again on the very last day of class, which might seem a bit after-the-fact and asinine and too-little-too-late to you but which makes a good deal of sense to the two-timing rare breeds who, believing as they do in the age-old doctrines of “you’re only as good as your last game” and “a good last impression beats out a bad lasting impression,” waltz back into the classroom at the close of the semester like they had been doing nothing but waltzing into classrooms since long before any regular-attending students were even born, take a seat front and center, and proceed to ask and answer questions to beat the band and generally show the prof what a good student they could have been if they had ever attended any other class meetings besides the first and last ones, a fact they sincerely hope their profs will forget come turn-in-the-grades time.

The last day of class, then, is like the first in many respects, but in a quasi-rewindish, retrospective sort of way.  Your professors, who after the initial class meeting regressed in a perpetual skid from professional garb and hearty smiles to jeans and T-shirts and heartless frowns, of a sudden stop wishing you dead and once again wish you well, their ties back on and tied tight, faces grinning the grins of gameshow hosts and sharks near chum, as they pass out near-unreadable 86-pg. study-guide-packets for a two-hour final exam 10 years in the making.

You’ll go on over to the bookstore to sell back the books your professors said you would use extensively but which you never once opened except to search for the number of the girl you met in the Union Building who said she could “solve all your troubles, if you know what I mean,” which you never did manage to locate, and find out they’ve ran out of free hotdogs and Pepsi’s but that there’s plenty of cans of toxic shaving gel to go around which might come in handy the next time you want to shave seeing as how the joint profits made from all the books you’ve just sold back couldn’t even come anywhere close to buying you your own can of generic shaving cream at the Just A Dollar store downtown.

Outside Old Main or the Library, you’ll bump into someone you haven’t bumped into since the last day of class last semester, and you’ll stop and talk about so-and-so whom you both sort of know but haven’t bumped into for a while, and who, rumor has it, plans to graduate in one-week’s time, which neither of you can really believe.  You’ll try and try to remember what her major is so you can ask her when you both say goodbye if there’s the slightest possibility that the two of you will have any of the same classes together come next semester, and in trying so hard to remember, you’ll miss your opportunity to correct her when she calls you Jim instead of John which you should have corrected her on the last time she messed up your name but missed the opportunity to do so since you were trying so hard to remember what her major was that time, too.  So after a couple of minutes of her talking and you trying to remember, the two of you say goodbye for another semester with her saying “Goodbye, Jim” and you only saying “Maybe I’ll see ya around.”

You’ll see friends and roommates and fellow classmates and students you’ve never seen before dive back into the trenches, this time around acting more out of necessity than for any voluntary reasons, their goal: thin slips of yellow University-issued paper, signed and dated by the agreeing-to-categorize-a-student’s-class-status-as-incomplete professor, with the word INCOMPLETE blazoned pathetically across the top of each one.  The same friend or roommate or roommate’s friend who had had such a rapport with the sliced hard-boiled eggs and the radishes and the black olives a semester ago will be right there along side them, telling it to anyone who’ll listen how Professor Such-and-such did everything possible to ensure that his students wouldn’t have so much as one fucking clue what he was talking about at any given time during his class, and how that “faggot in corduroy” failed to tell your friend or roommate or roommate’s friend about his 3-Absences-From-Class; No-Way-You’ll-Pass policy, which, apparently, your friend or roommate or roommate’s friend has just recently learned Such-and-such strictly stands by.

And yes, your “rare breeds” resurface, looking all tan and healthy and generally mentally sound from a semester spent sleeping in beach chairs beside coolers full of beer while you popped a nut simply trying to make all C’s.  But that’s all behind you now, you’ll tell yourself.  In another week, Finals will be over and you’ll be back at home with your mother and your father, both of whom have never been to college but who’ll tell you at least once a day while you’re with them how fine it all must be and how lucky you are to actually be doing something with your life.  Somewhere in there, you’ll get a haircut and pick out some new clothes.  And on the night before you go back, you’ll hardly sleep a wink, but when you do, perhaps you’ll have a dream where you finally remember her name.

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About the Author

Cliffton Price’s work has appeared in MARY: A Journal of New Writing, Inside Higher Ed, and in the Pudding House publication, Love Poems and Other Messages for Bruce Springsteen, and is forthcoming in Artichoke Haircut, Lunch Ticket, and r.kv.r.y.