Surveys show that the average American believes he or she will live a longer-than-average life. They can’t all be right. In fact — let’s think this through — approximately half will eventually be proven wrong.
In short, the average American wrongly believes that he or she will do better than most. Hence the brisk sales of lottery tickets.
“C is an average grade,” I tell my students. “C means you’re doing just fine. B is a good grade, a better-than-average grade, and an A is an outstanding grade reserved for truly outstanding work.” I’m lying of course, and I suppose they know it. University-wide, the average grade is a B-minus. Higher for some subjects.
Grading can be heart-wrenching in any class, but writing classes are the worst. It’s not that the grading process is too subjective. It’s that I feel in advance the shock and disbelief of the students whose very thoughts and attempts at expressing them have rated below average. And so Ds inevitably creep up and become courtesy Cs for all but the most flagrant failures. Then, like a conga line, the other grades crowd each other forward. Still, the students don’t consider their grades inflated.
Tonya is one of the worst writers I’ve ever known. She’s also been absent seven times out of twenty-four, and she postponed her presentation three times. Finally, on the very last available date, with no possibility of further rescheduling, she left a message with the department head saying she’d had car trouble and wouldn’t be able to make it to class.
Tonya comes to my office the day before finals. “So I’m probably getting a C?” she says.
“At best,” I say. I will let Tonya resubmit her half-complete reading log one more time. I will let her make last-minute additions to her writing portfolio. Theoretically, she could improve those two grades enough to offset everything else. Still, I fully anticipate that a D or even an F will be clearly justified in her case. She will, of course, complain. So will a handful of other students, saying, “But, Ms. Braithwaite, I thought I had a B at least.”
Am I like them? My life, like a homemade sweater, seems to have turned out significantly smaller than I once planned, though not uncomfortably so. It’s been a long time since I believed myself destined for great things. But even now I’m not immune to feeling that I am worthy of something better.
Here’s an interesting coincidence: three Kims are central to my life. The first Kim is my father. (My grandmother wanted unique names for her babies.) Speaking to him in person or on the phone, I call him “Dad.” Speaking to my mother, who hasn’t seen him since my brother’s wedding, I refer to him as “Kim.”
My father used to phone me once a week. Now I call him about three times a month, and our conversations tend to become strained. I knew he’d have a hard time accepting it when I moved in with a woman, and I promised myself I’d never rub his face in it. But it’s difficult to say much of anything about my life without mentioning Helen. Dad won’t admit it, but I’m sure the reason he doesn’t call me is fear that Helen will answer the phone.
The second Kim is Helen’s best friend and, from my perspective, an occasional nuisance. For years this Kim has been telling Helen that writing is her true vocation. When I first came into the picture, Kim expected I’d share her vision. “Helen’s problem is that she tends to talk herself out of what she really wants most, don’t you think?” Kim says to me. Helen’s life has followed a pattern similar to mine: Drawn to many subjects, she postponed deciding on a career and entertained a variety of dreams. And then suddenly she was in her thirties.
“The odds against success as a writer are pretty high,” I say to Kim.
“But she has so much talent!” Kim says. “Would you want her to settle for anything less than her full potential?”
I wonder if Kim sees me as an obstacle to Helen’s success. “To tell you the truth,” I say, “what I want most for Helen right now is health insurance” — something that I, not being a man, cannot provide for her, even though I have a good job with full benefits.
The third Kim is my student. Independent study. She’s the most promising writer I’ve seen this year.
My Kim — as I think of her — trusts that the universe operates by design, progressing mysteriously but nonrandomly toward its goals. Never before have I met someone who believes in reincarnation and is also so dry, ironic, and sensible. It just goes to show you, no patterns are preordained. Anything can wind up combined with anything else.
My Kim has her own artistic doubts.
“Do you have a word of wisdom for me?” she asks.
“All I can tell you is I think you’re talented,” I say. “To me you seem to have as good a shot as anyone.”
Years ago, desperate for any kind of work after getting my BA, I answered an ad — a flyer, actually — for a sales job. “You sound like the kind of person we’re looking for,” said the man who called me.
“I do?” I said.
“Can you come for an interview on Friday?”
We had been talking for less than two minutes. I had expected it to take a little longer to establish my desirability. “Uh . . . I mean, yes, certainly, I’d be delighted.”
“Let me explain a bit more about the interview situation,” he said. “You’ll be one of a hundred people coming in to talk with us.”
“A hundred?” I said. No wonder this guy could afford to rush through the phone conversation. One job, divided by a hundred applicants, equals a 1 percent chance of success, assuming the candidates are equally qualified. And I had zero sales experience.
“Now, are you already thinking you can’t get the job?”
“Uh . . . no, but . . .” Logistically, how could they possibly talk to a hundred candidates? They would have to have teams of screeners, whittling down the pool. I imagined a hundred people arranging transportation and perhaps time off from current jobs, getting groomed and dressed in their best. It was indecent for this one employer to waste the time and hopes of so many people. I thought of the other ninety-nine candidates and wondered how many considered themselves strong contenders.
“ ‘But’. . . ?” the man on the phone prompted.
“Well, I wonder if it’s really a good idea for me to spend a day on something with such low odds of success.”
“Thank you, I think I’ll give the interview to someone with a more positive attitude,” he said. He had already hung up before I understood that I had just flunked his screening process; the precise quality he was looking for in a salesperson was an unwavering faith in being plucked up from among the multitudes.
To my surprise, Tonya does a lot more work during finals week. She supplements her writing portfolio with three new essays — all awful, but still. And her reading log contains three new pages of notes covering six chapters — not exactly the readings I assigned, but, oh well; reading is reading, isn’t it?
“I’m going to go ahead and give Tonya the C she wants,” I tell Helen over dinner, though I know she will be annoyed.
“You can’t do that!” Helen says.
“I feel I have to recognize all the labor she put in over the last week.”
“What about recognizing the students who have been working hard all semester to learn?”
“Everyone who fits that description is getting a B at least. C is plenty bad enough in today’s context. Students look at a C as a severe punishment, I promise you.”
If I sound unhappy, I’m not. I’ve been very lucky. Sixty percent or more of all PhD’s in English never even get a chance at the university careers for which they’ve spent years preparing (upwards of eight years, on average). This time last year I wasn’t sure I would even be able to support myself, and now here I am providing for both me and Helen. By local standards I am well-off, with a salary above the median for this impoverished Southern county. There’s the tenure hurdle to clear yet, but I’ve already cleared an even bigger hurdle by getting a tenure-track job.
Both Kims think I’m too negative — mine and Helen’s. Who knows what Kim, my father, thinks of me? Personally, I think I’m a realistic person who seems negative only to unrealistic people.
“Sometimes things happen for a reason,” says Helen’s Kim.
“Everything happens for a reason,” says my Kim. She doesn’t believe in coincidences.
I do. Aren’t the three Kims an excellent example? It can be shown mathematically that the number of potential coincidences is so great that it would be almost impossible for none of them to happen. Take birthdays, for instance: By the time you have gathered twenty-four people together, the odds that at least two will have the same birthday are better than 50 percent. And by the time forty-five or more people get together, the probability rises to over 90 percent. And “Kim” is scarcely an uncommon name.
For Christmas, Helen’s Kim bought her a membership in a program designed to encourage one’s creative impulses. I look at the workbook. Faintly New Age in flavor, it claims the main obstacle to artistic success is self-doubt. What a racket! A pyramid scheme built on wistful dreams. It’s mathematically impossible for there to be as many successful artists as there are purchasers of this program, no matter how devoutly the buyers follow its instructions.
Like the average English professor, I have an unsuccessful book manuscript in a drawer. Should I (a) revise it, (b) try again to get an agent for it as is, or (c) give up and start another project? Evidently the actual manuscript fails to realize the full potential of my magnificent design. Just like life. Should I assume I’ve done the best I can with the materials, or can they still be shaped into something better?
Once, years ago, I encouraged Helen’s writing endeavors, but the mood of those conversations has deteriorated over time, and now I refuse even to get into it.
“Kim is always willing to encourage me in my work,” Helen says.
“Well, talk to Kim, then.”
“You lavish attention on your students’ writing.”
“Yeah, but only for one semester each,” I say. “Anyway, you can’t stand it when I get teacher-y with you.”
“You just don’t think I can ever be good enough, do you?”
“Honey, I have no idea. Only you can decide how far and how hard to pursue it.” Should I get my own manuscript back out of the drawer?
“But you really don’t want me to.”
“Well . . . I guess it wouldn’t be my top-choice career for you.” If I could do my own life over, I think I’d take up medicine or law. Or be an actuary maybe.
If either of us is jealous of the other one’s Kim, neither admits it.
Last year, when I was still a graduate student and applying for this job — this job I was very lucky to get — Sharon, the English-department secretary, asked me for an update: “How did your interview go?”
“I thought it went really well,” I said, practicing my positive attitude. “I haven’t heard anything back yet, though.” Four weeks after the interview it was perfectly obvious I was nobody’s first choice. But there was no point in saying so to Sharon, who, in addition to being intelligent and tactful, is a very upbeat person.
“If you don’t get this job,” she said, “it’s because there’s a better job that you’re meant to get on down the road.”
Automatically my eyeballs headed toward the ceiling. I caught them and forced them into a look of eager anticipation, but not quick enough. Sharon noticed the flicker. She held my gaze and compelled me to look steadily into her eyes. (How does she do that?) “I really believe what I said,” she told me. Some kind of channel opened up between her benevolent eyes and mine, and Sharon irradiated me with her positive-attitude ray gun. She really believed she could zap it into me and make it stick, thereby causing a chain reaction of practical benefits in my life.
“I really, really believe that,” Sharon said again, not releasing my gaze.
In the Book of Hard-Boiled Rationalism, fervor does not constitute evidence, but I didn’t have the guts to stand up to her. Besides, it is indecent to parry kindness with epistemological debate. So I gave the only response I could think of that was both sincere and gentle: “Thank you.”
Sharon’s faith and benevolence reminded me of my grandmother — my mother’s mother, that is, not Kim’s. Over the one summer I spent with her, I heard her testify many times: “I know that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the true Church. I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of the Lord.” Grandma had that magnetic-eye trick too. “I know,” she’d say, “I know,” trying to pour the faith directly into me. In the desperation of adolescence, I wanted badly for it to work, but alas, it wouldn’t stick.
This is as good a time as any to mention that my grandmother lived into her nineties. Three of my four grandparents did. This is adequate grounds, don’t you think, for supposing I’ll be similarly long-lived? Plus, I exercise and eat healthily, so I have earned it, right? Because I am so much more conscientious than average.
Tonya has a great deal of physical presence. She is taller, more poised, and better dressed than I am. I’ve never attempted that accessorized feminine style — silk shirt with matching earrings and purse — and even if I did, it wouldn’t suit me the way it does her. I bet she does very well on job interviews.
“The registrar’s office put a hold on my records, so I couldn’t look up my grades online,” Tonya says.
“Well, you ended up with a C for the semester in this class.” I have trained myself to use phrases like “you earned” or “your scores added up to” when discussing grades, never “I gave you.”
Tonya radiates disapproval and dismay, and, irrationally, I search for something I might have done wrong. Maybe I could have been more demanding and encouraging with her early in the semester? I sometimes have to remind myself not to write people off. Am I any good? I think. Am I good enough?
“I need a B average to keep my Hope Scholarship,” Tonya says.
“My job requires me to give people the grades they earn, not the ones they need.” I look directly at Tonya, the way any teacher of unshakable integrity would.
“Was it a high C or a low C?”
It was a charity C, I think. “It was . . . very far from being a high C,” I say. Hey, that’s a good phrase. I’ll remember it for future use.
“Was my writing really that bad?”
Yes, I think. Of course, one never says such things. Tonya’s voice is as rich in overtones as an organ. The question itself is designed to demonstrate how grievously I’ve underrated her. “No,” I say, “your writing was perfectly fine by the standards of this class. But, Tonya, you never did the presentation at all, and that was 10 percent of the grade. And, you know, I’m actually not even supposed to pass people who’ve missed more than 20 percent of the classes.”
Does Tonya ask herself, Am I any good? Or does the confidence she brings into my office go down to the bone?
I go home to Helen and let her tell me that I deserve all I have and more.
Does Sharon think that being a department secretary is as good as she can ever do? As an exercise, I try to envision a smart, popular girl dreaming of growing up to be secretary of an English department. It doesn’t seem likely.
Or maybe the secretarial job is just a way station on Sharon’s path to her true destination.
Or maybe what she said about my being destined for better things was supposed to apply only to me and not to her; in other words, maybe some people have grand futures rightfully appointed for them, and others do not.
Those are the only three logical possibilities. Which of them is right? Anyone?
I remember when Fantasy Island was the latest thing on TV. Ricardo Montalban played wealthy Mr. Roark, who made people’s fantasies come true on his island resort. While my teenage brother watched the show, my mother and I picked away at its premise. For instance, a man and a woman would be staring intently into each other’s eyes across a cafe table and a waiter would bring them water. “Is that guy just a waiter,” I’d ask, “or is he somebody whose fantasy is to be a waiter?”
“My fantasy is to be one of those three hundred extras lying on towels on the beach when Ricardo Montalban walks by,” my mother said.
“Shut up,” my brother would say. “Shut up, shut up, shut up.” As soon as he could afford it, he bought his own TV and watched in his bedroom.
I attend a regional conference on literacy, and one of the speakers is a woman who went back and got her GED late in life, even though she was already a successful businesswoman. The catalyst for her was her grown daughter’s death from AIDS. “I asked myself,” she says, “ ‘Why is God mad with me?’ ” She’s a compelling speaker, and much of the crowd is with her as she explains that God was sending her a message, telling her to live her life differently. God had another plan for her.
Wait, I think, what was God’s plan for your daughter?
It reminds me of a joke my dad used to tell. It’s a little dated now, but what the heck: Soviet head of state Leonid Brezhnev dies, and the devil takes him on a tour of hell, where he sees a number of other dead Soviet leaders. Lenin is writhing in flames; Stalin is being tortured by a demon with a pitchfork; Krushchev is sitting in a plush chair with a naked Marilyn Monroe on his knee.
“Comrade Brezhnev,” the devil says, “because of your illustrious stature in life, you may choose your own punishment.”
“I’ll take what Krushchev got, please,” Brezhnev says.
The devil shakes his head. “Leonid, you never were the sharpest pencil in the drawer. That’s not hell for Krushchev; that’s hell for Marilyn Monroe.”
Regardless of whether my faith in my talent endures, I must publish in order to get tenure. Looking through a list of writing contests, I find one with a huge cash prize. It’s called “The Power of Purpose.” The foundation offering the money takes an inspirational, vaguely religious tone without specifying any affiliation. One of the judges is the man who wrote the career self-help book What Color Is Your Parachute? The contest sponsors quote him: “We get to choose between our life as a story with ultimate purpose running beneath all that happens to us, like some great underground river, or our life as a string of meaningless events, without rhyme or reason.”
One thing about my grandmother: her life always meant something. To her, nothing just happened. It was all part of a master plan. She had the great underground river, all right. The question is, can there be a great underground river under everybody? (Listen, unless you can bring in an underground river for everyone in the class, then don’t bring any at all, OK?)
A toothless insane person, prematurely aged, accosts me on a downtown sidewalk, asking for a dollar. Is this his ultimate purpose in life? Did the universe somehow guide him to exactly his destined role?
My grandmother knew her religion to be “the one true Church.” Many other religions, she told me, made admirable and valuable contributions. All had grappled with important metaphysical and moral questions. Some had answered almost all of the questions correctly. But only one had gotten a score of 100 percent.
Almost every religion in history has claimed to be the one true Church. At most, one can be right. If my grandmother happened to be born into just that one, it was either an astonishing piece of luck, tantamount to winning the spiritual lottery, or else it was God’s plan.
Not all the various true Churches made a habit of torturing and slaughtering infidels, but plenty did. (I wonder what percent?) For them there are simply two kinds of people: the chosen and everybody else; the ones at the center of the fantasy and the bit-part actors; the deserving and the undeserving. It isn’t only fundamentalists who believe they are more significant than other people.
Maybe I do have something to say on this subject. I could write an essay about this. I could enter that contest. But what’s the use? I would never win.
Remember that salesman who denied me the interview because of my negative attitude? It wasn’t until years later — in fact, it wasn’t until I started working on this essay — that I finally got it: he lied! There never were one hundred well-coiffed, well-dressed, brightly smiling, firm-handshaking applicants gathered all together. The alleged hundred were never anything more than a telephone gimmick.
Thank God I work in a university. I’m so gullible that, really, the ivory tower is my only natural habitat. Let people with thicker skins and less attachment to truth fight it out in the Darwinian marketplace. I need, want, and deserve to remain among the elite who give up worldly advancement in favor of long and faithful study of the true nature of things. I believe — I fully, firmly believe — that I am more suited than the overwhelming majority to the academic life! I know that I am worthy, so how can it be withheld? I’m not asking for the moon here. I need only a B to keep my hope.
Dad, remember how you boasted about me in childhood, the ways I resembled you in speech and thought, the intellectual and romantic successes you were sure would be mine later in life? What do you think now?
The three Kims sit front and center in the audience for my interior debates. Listen, I tell them. I don’t know what I deserve. I don’t know what I can get. And I don’t know how much I can influence the outcome. None of us does.
But look, maybe people who think they’re going to live long do live longer — or, at least, longer than they would have otherwise. Maybe they take better care of themselves. Maybe sheer complacency keeps a heart beating more smoothly, keeps the walls of the blood vessels more supple.
And maybe if you had a better attitude, you’d have gotten a better job, and your book would already have been published, and . . .
Oh, shut up! Shut up, shut up, shut up!