Join our Writing and Rhetoric Program’s faculty in our flash non-fiction narratives about the most daunting challenges we’ve overcome to make it to class – a creative collaboration featuring Carolyn Sofia, MaryAnn Duffy, and Joseph Labriola.
“Commitment” –by Carolyn Sofia
Twenty-five years ago I was sitting in the gardens at the Gran Hotel del Paraguay, a colonial, 19th-century hotel on the outskirts of Asuncion. Holding my soon-to-be, infant daughter, her dark curls resting on my shoulder, I whispered over and over, “Mbaé’chepa?” – Hello, how are you? – the only Guarani phrase I knew. A doctoral student at Stony Brook and a freeway flyer teaching composition at three different colleges on Long Island, I couldn’t afford to stay four months in Paraguay like other adoptive parents did. Instead, I visited for a week a few times to deal with court paperwork and to acquaint myself with the little doll who was becoming the center of my world. It was Thursday. I was due back on Long Island for my next class on Monday.
Once at the airport on Saturday my worries began to build. Spring Break had come early and winter had apparently decided to stay late. A big snowstorm was approaching North America’s east coast. While the jet was cruising over Brazil, an announcement came that the storm would force us to de-plane in Miami. Thoughts of my daughter were driven away by the faces of my students who were supposed to hand in an important paper at Monday’s class. It never occurred to me that the school might be closed due to snow.
Hordes of passengers crowded the Miami airport. With all flights destined for New York cancelled, every seat was already taken in the waiting area. Like hundreds of other people I ended up fitfully sleeping on the floor as the hours crept by with my arms around my bags. Sometime toward dawn a loudspeaker woke me. The voice said a first flight was leaving for New York; the airline would take tickets from any carrier. Bags grabbed, I began to run. Other people had awoken and were running too, but somehow I managed to get a seat on the flight.
In New York, the parkways looked plowed enough to get to a friend’s house in Nassau where my car was parked. The plan had been to sleep there on Sunday night so I would be closer to the college on Monday morning. As the limo maneuvered over the slushy roads, I felt myself becoming giddy with self-congratulatory thoughts – who actually manages to come from another continent to get to class? And, look how much life had improved – lousy airport food would give way to a home-cooked meal, the hard airport floor would be replaced by a cozy bed.
Laughing to myself on Monday morning, I switched on the TV. The local news channel said the college was running classes as usual that day. Three hours before class was scheduled to start, I went outside to dig out my car from the remaining snow. When I started shoveling, the smile quickly faded. A flat tire! How could this happen? Every movement forward since Saturday had brought another challenge. Had I been out of my mind to go to South America the previous week in the belief that no one would notice, not least of all the weather gods? Life had transformed me into Odysseus trying to sail past Scylla and Charybdis when I was supposed to be Penelope at home with my weaving.
Unbelievably, the AAA sent help quickly, so I got to the campus fifteen minutes early. Surprise: only half the class came. I marked the rest of the students absent and refused to erase the absence even though they complained to the dean that I was too strict.
Did my strictness matter? I hope so. Twenty-five years later my infant daughter is now grown and a mother herself. Those students are probably parents. I wonder if they taught their own children an important life lesson: we show up for what’s important to us.
“How I Got to Class This Morning” – by MaryAnn Duffy
I had just graduated from college with a degree in Philosophy. I had to make the retrograde move from Chicago to my parents’ house in Santa Barbara, California. I was lucky I had a place to stay while I figured out what I wanted to do, but I knew it couldn’t last long between my mom and me. I had to find work and my own place fast.
This morning was the start of all that.
I was reporting to my first assignment given to me by the local temp agency – fill in for as a secretary at a manufacturing warehouse. I dressed in a skirt and stockings, modest heals, my silky blouse – what I thought a secretary should look like.
I got in my used orange Datsun B210 hatchback, manual. It was my first car. A half mile before I got to the job, the car lurched to an abrupt halt in the left-turn lane. The transmission to my first car fell out. I got out, tiptoed around the car when just at that moment, a man in a greasy jumpsuit with long very dark frizzy hair and a three-day beard pulled over on his antique motorcycle. We pushed the car to the side. I hopped on the back of the bike and was safely and punctually delivered to my first temp gig.
I crawled off the back of his bike, hiked my skirt down, and gave him a big hug. When I swung around to walk in, I saw the whole staff looking out the window watching me thanking my knight in shining armor. I sat down in the cold warehouse at a grey metal desk, sticky with the years. Someone plopped a six-inch stack of paper-thin receipts in front of me and told me to put them in alphabetical order. I was also to answer the phone and yell back to the manufacturing area, “Phil, the phone is for you.” It was loud and cold and fluorescent.
I called the woman at the agency and told her I couldn’t do the job and walked out.
Even though my relationship with my mom is difficult, my mother did – in a 1970s feminist kind of way – tell me to learn how to type so I could always support myself as a secretary. And typing got me out of temp work, into high-paying legal secretarial and paralegal work, which got me through graduate school, and as far away from that stack receipts and warehouse as I could get.
That’s how I got to writing class this morning.
“Classathon” – by Joseph Labriola
Of course it doesn’t start. The one time you actually plan to come early to school. In hopes of finishing those homeworks you forgot the day before. In hopes of getting everyone back their writing a class day early. They’d appreciate that – you think.
But your car isn’t starting, and likely won’t anytime soon. What to do? You could call a tow truck, or a friend for a jump, or say the heck with it all and make a nice breakfast instead as you figure things out. There’s still hope though. Hope to grade those homeworks. If you move quickly.
There’s a bus stop right up the road, maybe a quarter mile. The only problem – you think as you stubbornly begin trudging – is that its all uphill. But as long as you catch a bus, you might make it in time after all.
Panting, you sprint the final few hundred feet parallel to the bus as it slides up to the stop. You huff your way on-board, amazed by your seemingly Olympic achievement. At least the sun hasn’t fully risen yet – you think – patting the sweat from your brow. It’s early September, after all, and about to get a whole lot warmer today.
The bus is slow, of course. The ‘stop’ buzzer is broken so the whole ride is orchestrated by the same, long, whining, electronic ‘EHHHHHHH….’ for stop, upon stop, upon stop, upon stop…
But you should still make it – you hope – at least until the driver slows down to the side of the road. This isn’t a stop – you think – despite the ‘EHHHHHHH….’
“Engine’s overheating,” the driver gets up to declare. “Liability issue. Have to wait for a replacement bus.”
Replacement bus?? – you think – never so angered by such a seemingly non-angering phrase. “Do you have any idea when?” you ask, as congenially as you can.
The driver shrugs, reading his morning paper. “Could be minutes. Could be an hour.”
You have a moment of pause. Reflective emotions: rage, defeat, humor, and finally determination.
You sprint off the bus and begin down the street. The good news is, the trek uphill earlier turned out to be the perfect warm up. The bad, you have two-and-a-half more miles to go. But the Gods know you’ve come too far to give up now.
Of course the tenuous clouds are obliterated by the rising – and warming – sun as you continue on. Of course the ‘replacement bus’ whizzes by you only about quarter mile into your classathon.
You check the time, actually running the final mile or so with your backpack on. By the time you reach class, bursting through the doors, five minutes late, panting and drenched in sweat, your students gape as if you’re mad.
But you’re not mad. Not anymore.
You are triumphant.
“Sorry…” you say, catching your breath. “That I’m late… I wanted to get you back your homeworks today…but it just didn’t work out.”
Most still seem too shocked by your appearance to comment, though one brave, confused soul, asks, in all honestly, “What homework?”
Please feel free to like, share, and comment with any of your own daring travel anecdotes in the comments section below!
Joe Labriola is an author, blogger, and lecturer of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. He enjoys writing, swimming, and cooking crazy Joe-coctions. His more eccentric hobbies include collecting beach glass, reading great books at bars, and describing himself in the third person when writing "about me" biographies. Please visit some of his very professional social media sites for more info!