The Teaching Assistant

Here’s another passage that didn’t make the cut because it was a little too close to my own life. I also wasn’t entirely enamored with the use of “you” in this one. It struck me as if the narrator were trying uncharacteristically hard to be chummy with the reader.

The Teaching Assistant

The only reason large universities have graduate programs is so they can palm the majority of their freshmen off on underpaid, overworked and completely unqualified teaching assistants. And before you get the wrong idea, I should point out that academia’s definition of “assistant” is probably much different from yours or mine. You probably associate the word with assistance—as in, “The teaching assistant assisted the professor by meeting with students after class to discuss the intricate and subtle web of phallic imagery that weaves its way through Moby Dick.” The average university administrator, on the other hand, might—with a perfectly straight face—say something like, “Lacking any experience whatsoever, the teaching assistant will assist the university by devising a syllabus, planning lessons, leading class discussions, grading papers, lecturing and serving as a friend, counselor and mentor to fifty or so odd freshman while completing graduate-level coursework, research and examinations each semester.” In fact, no teaching assistant I’ve ever met has actually assisted anyone.

Not that I’m complaining. My grandfather was a coal miner. Dwayne Coleman’s a cop. Anthony Gambacorta doesn’t have a job at all, and Sean Sullivan will probably spend a separate eternity in hell for each dollar he ever gouged from an unsuspecting customer back when he was selling cars for a living. In contrast, none of my classrooms have ever caved in, my students have rarely threatened to shoot me, I’ve never stood in an unemployment line, and except for the occasional hex on my immortal soul, the afterlife shouldn’t pose much of a problem either.  At least not as far as my students are concerned.

“That’s a Junkie”

Here’s another passage I cut because of the reference to Charley’s students and also because it had more to do with my own life than Charley’s. With subsequent revisions, I got increasingly better at inventing a life for Charley and separating my life from his. In terms of story, these cuts allow the narrative to move along more quickly without getting bogged down in largely irrelevant flashbacks.

“That’s a Junkie”

Instead of saying I was an Academy grad, I told my students I was from Northeast Philadelphia, which was true, to an extent. All my best beatings happened there, and it wasn’t until I started high school that my family moved out to the suburbs. I played ball for the Mayfair Shamrocks, I told my students, on rat-infested fields that were littered with broken liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia. I was an altar boy at Our Lady of Ransom, the church on Route One that was famous for looking like a flying saucer. The guy across the alley from my parents grew pot in his backyard, and my friends and I used to think his tiny arboretum was a wonderful glass clubhouse until we wandered in one day and he came storming out of his basement in sandals and a pink bathrobe, barking obscenities and wielding—we all agreed—a gun, a machete, a hatchet, a baseball bat and a golf club all at once.

We threw bottles to hear them crash and picked through piles of medical waste behind a nearby public health clinic, prizing the discarded dental tools and plaster castings of crooked teeth we found in open trash bins. We roofed each other’s toys and peed in each other’s inflatable swimming pools and ambushed each other with crab apples, and we all rode bikes our uncles had found in the trash, and one day when we were playing on Glenn Steiner’s patio, a junkie came staggering up the sidewalk, coughing up blood and tripping over his own feet. When he fell face-first in the ivy out front, Glenn ran into the house to get his mother, who came hobbling to the front door on crutches because she’d just had corns removed from her toes.

The junkie wore a yellow shirt and greasy blue sweatpants and was crying for someone named David. He had curly hair and tattered sneakers and shivered violently on Glenn Steiner’s ivy. He threw up and rolled over. He hugged himself and cried out for David again. I was six years old. Glenn was seven. We were playing on his patio, and a grown man stumbled up the block, crying like a baby.

“That’s a junkie,” Glenn’s mother said before hobbling inside to call the police. “That’s what happens when you mess with drugs.”