At 26, I took my first teaching job, as a visiting assistant professor of English at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Given the state of the academic market, I was fortunate to get it; but at the time, with my Eastern upbringing, secret ambitions, and new Harvard Ph.D., I felt like the unluckiest man imaginable. Though “culture shock” was becoming a much-overused term, it seemed applicable to the disorienting blend of Larry McMurtry and David Lodge that was now my life. I had a number of good students, but they don’t make many appearances in the journal I kept; 20 years later, I blush for my snobbery.
I arrived, never before having seen the city or university, a couple of weeks before classes began.
August 15, 1978: As the taxi heads “downtown,” I’m struck by a flatness so absolute as to be unreal: The dusty ground is relieved only by patches of exhausted grass.
August 19: When you walk along the sides of the roads–plenty of them don’t have sidewalks–people in cars sometimes stop, asking if you need a lift. They’re just puzzled by the sight of anyone not in a car.
August 30: In the morning, before going to the office, I have to stop at the bank, and at the Buster Hanks men’s store to buy a tie for the faculty meeting in the afternoon. There is no tie in the two suitcases I’m living out of, and not being sure of the customs of the country, I decided that I ought to wear one just in case. Going out the door, I’m told by the salesman: “Y’all come back; I’ve got your suit size.” (Meaning, by Lubbock standards, extra small and scrawny.)
September 4: On the way to a movie I slipped down a gravel-splashed incline near the shopping center. I cut up my forearms and nearly blacked out. This is the way I discover what must be the only hill in Lubbock.
September 13: K., a football player the size of an apartment house, comes to the office in the afternoon holding his composition like a dog holding a dead bird who’s beginning to realize he’s done something wrong. Here is a fellow who really wants to learn, has had his few brains miseducated in Texas public schools, and is treated like a circus animal by the coaches for a scholarship worth just a few hundred dollars a semester. How can it be worth it? He lives in the “football dorm” and says, “I’ve got this roommate who’s a real big linebacker. God, I thought I was dumb till I met him.”
September 29: As I walk into my 7:30 a.m. freshman composition class, I hear one girl tell her neighbor: “I jes’ can’t believe the pope died agin.”
We at last get paid. Out of $1,388, they–the federal government and the retirement people–got $391. I almost wanted to run out and join the Proposition 13 people, or sign up for Reagan.
October 10: After class, O. comes by to talk about his paper. He’s like so many of them–he’s 22, is married with one kid and another on the way, holds down a full-time or nearly full-time job, and is registered in four courses. Is it any wonder they don’t really learn much? How do they even survive?
October 22: Around 7:00 I decide I ought to go mail a bundle of job applications. It is pleasant, still clear and sunny. But by the time I turn west on University Avenue I notice that, very quickly, part of the sky is turning brown. Cars’ headlights are beginning to come on. The wind is picking up. And the dust is beginning to blow. In a few moments it’s like being at the beach in the middle of a storm without rain. For a few minutes I duck into the doorway of a store. A Mexican kid comes along and smiles, and we walk together for about a block. He tells me that in the spring it will be worse.
November 14: [I was getting few nibbles on my job applications.] The dread comes when I get back to the apartment. There is nothing in the mailbox except a telephone bill and a notice that I owe the Commonwealth of Massachusetts $3.94 in back taxes.
November 23: Thanksgiving at the Unitarian Church. The minister reads the Mayflower Compact and we sit down to eat. They are a remarkable group, these Lubbock Unitarians. Inside their little schoolhouse there is a mural with Christ, Socrates, Gandhi, and Buddha–and a poster with a Fellini quotation. At dinner there is talk of Tibetan bells. And, still, these free-thinkers have adopted the protective coloration of the area–frosted and teased hair, polyester, “thank yew,” and Instamatics. I found this strange combination very appealing.
November 27: I give my students back their outlines and paragraphs. After class I console B., whose introductory paragraph consisted of four “sentences,” three of which were fragments. I have learned to give F’s.
December 1: Some of them are so lazy that you forget there are others who actually do worry. But most of them are lazy. When I asked one if his paper hadn’t actually been written in 15 minutes, he said, “Closer to five.” In class earlier this week I asked them to define “verbiage” (they never use the dictionary). I said, “What word does it sound like? A word I sometimes write on your papers.” (I was looking for “verbose.”) One kid smiled and asked: “Garbage?”
December 2: Before we go to a movie, Julie and I drive out to the Strip to purchase liquor at Cecil’s–outside the city limits and at the edge of the earth. There is nothing but a flat line of land covered by the enormous sky–except, in the distance, a power plant’s spikes. The winds drive the clouds into long thin lines that could be confused with skywriting. On the way back to 63rd Street we pass billboards advising us to “Whoa down!”
December 7: Sandra is one of those I have tremendous respect for–she’s raising an infant daughter, working 30 hours a week at an auto parts place, and making B’s in most of her courses.
December 18: To the office for conferences: I talk to A., who plagiarized unconsciously and whose tears dripped her mascara down her face despite my attempts to comfort her, and to B., who plagiarized deliberately and went out smiling. Example of dialogue:
“What does ‘unmitigated’ mean, Mr. B?”
“How is it used?”
“You used it, Mr. B.”
January 11: My student evaluations. One likes me because I was “humerous.” Another was surprised at how much “grammer” he learnt. One of them–the farm boy from Cooper, I’m sure–said he liked me but that there was “no way on God’s green earth” he was going to make more than a Cñ. Green earth? Where?
February 19: Graded short-answer tests in the evening. Favorite answer: the kid who fills in the blank to say that the Loisels, in the French writer Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” live not on the rue des Martyrs but on the rue des Moines.
February 22: My enthusiasm for office hours is not what it used to be. I suppose doctors also get bored dispensing the same advice; instead of telling them to quit smoking and do some exercise, I tell them to watch their commas and firm up their paragraphs.
February 23: [An early-morning phone call from Vassar.] I’m offered the tenure-track job. I’m flooded with happiness. I fall into my beanbag chair, put headphones and music on, and feel glorious. Then I jump up, shower, and race toward school to spread my news. All at once I am a lame duck, a crown prince.
February 28: A couple of weeks ago part of the library roof collapsed. No one was injured. (That about sums it up.)
March 7: S. came to office hours–I had failed his last paper. It was less than half the required length and said that Cheever’s character was damned unless he turned to Christ–he would “perish in the fire.” When I told him that this was not literary analysis, he wanted to know if I had accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my savior; why I didn’t assign works like The Hiding Place and The Cross and the Switchblade; why we read works with foul language. He left a tract on my chair before leaving. We spent the better part of an hour talking about the purposes of a secular university, separation of church and state, the need to listen to more viewpoints than one. He left with the same look of contemptuous superiority he had on when he came in. I spoke to the chairman about this afterward. He said he was sure I handled it correctly and that, in fact, he feels sure God was using me as his sensitive instrument in helping to temper the fire in a fanatic. We laughed over this.
March 23: The wind is blowing, but not so furiously as yesterday. Wendell [a professor in the office next door to mine] tells me this is the day his brother has to castrate, brand, and vaccinate the cattle on his ranch.
April 14: We ride out on the Slaton highway past grain elevators and the smell of feedlots, pay the $3.33 cover charge at the Cotton Club, get our hands stamped, and go in. Mary taught me–and I stumbled through–the Cotton-Eyed Joe. During the John Paul the men hold hands and dance a circle around the women, who hold hands and move in the other direction. Then the music stops and each man dances with the woman he’s wound up opposite. At one point I wound up with a big lady in red pants and Betsey wound up with a beer-bellied man who owns a flower shop in Abernathy and whose wife looks like Margaret Dumont. He says to Betsey, “Honey, I’m gonna git you twice!” And he did.
May 3: To the office to grade the short-answer parts of the test. Fill-ins. One of the sophomores fails to remember “We are not saints, but at least we have kept our appointment” and puts down “but at least we have kept our virginity.”
May 15: I am presented with a rubber chicken as a final token of appreciation, and as I head for the boarding ramp they all break into “Happy Trails.” The last thing I see before the plane takes off is a jackrabbit running across a field near the runway.
From The American Scholar (Spring 1999). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (4 issues) from 1785 Massachusetts Av. NW, 4th Floor, Washington, DC 20036.