Wednesday, November 2, 2005

My man Friday

Three signs that the Armageddon is upon us: our nation is lead by an aristocratic chimpanzee; the snows of Kilimanjaro have melted; I now have a new teaching assistant.

Of course, he is not the savory coed for whom I had hoped.

I at first thought that Nawaz was on the wrong floor when he showed up at my office door. After all, the elevator is rickety and unreliable. I saw his swarthy complexion, the shining part in his hair, the greasy smudge of his mustache; I knew right off he wasn't a writing student. Being brown myself, I'm acutely aware of how much darker I am that the rest of the writing program faculty and students; the complexion of your typical state university MFA student springs from somewhere between St. Paul, Minnesota and Fargo, North Dakota.

My director had capitulated after my incessant grumbling and a few heated exchanges even though none of the other writing faculty has a teaching assistant. Our department is poorly funded as it's a relatively new program. What's more, no fiction writing alums go on to make a living wage, let alone enough to give charitably to their alma mater. But to her credit, the director turned the paperwork over to the student employment office. I did my best to skew the job description toward the feminine, as my main motivation for the position is to fill my office with what my blue collar friends refer to as "sweater meat." I specifically requested a strong writer with influences ranging from Jane Austen to Jane Hamilton, excellent penmanship, theatre or drama experience and a soprano singing voice. I also added a maximum weight of 120 lbs, though I left the reason for this requirement blank as I couldn't think of any way to justify it.

What I got was Nawaz.

I was, of course, livid.

This Pakistani architectural student does have excellent penmanship. And despite his six-foot frame, the gawky fellow probably meets my weight requirement. His English is passable once you get past the accent, but when I asked him who his favorite writers were he rattled off a list of engineering academics.

Prof. B. Trout: Tell me Nawaz, do you read fiction?

Nawaz: Feek-shone?

B.Trout: Heavens!

I tried to frogmarch him out of the office, but he clung to my desk and verged on tears as he begged me to keep the job. It turns out he was short on funds and was unwilling to write to his father in Islamabad, despite the man's wealth, because the extra money always came with unreasonable conditions and browbeating.

Nawaz: (visibly sweating) I can't go to my father...I would be shamed! Pleeeeze! Professor Trout, I need this work!

BT: How can you grade fiction when you don't even know what it is?

Nawaz, because of the terms of his student visa, cannot work outside the university. It being so late in the semester means that, if sent back, he will not find work until after the winter break. I took pity on his emaciation and finally resigned myself to not having a proper teaching assistant with which to decorate my office this semester.

BT: Okay, you've got the job. The rules: show up only on payday and I'll sign your time sheet.

Nawaz: But that would not be honorable. I will stay the required hours.

BT: Christ!

And so he sat on a stool by my window, grinning, reminding me of one of those dark and lanky Etruscan sculptures I saw in Volterra at last summer's workshop. I sat fuming, smoking my pipe despite the building's uncivilized ban on fumer. Finally, just for kicks, I tossed Nawaz a stack of papers and a red pen.

Nawaz: What shall I do?

BT: Grade these. Pick a letter...A, B or C. Write it at top. Circle a few words at random and place either an exclamation point or a question mark in the margin near each one. Scratch a few notes on the last page.

Nawaz: What sort of notes?

BT: Use your imagination. It's a fiction class.

Nawaz: Is this honorable?

B. Trout: It's an exercise (lie). I'm trying to teach them (another lie) to look at their work from a different, random perspective.

Despite my crushed hopes and my frustration at not having a female assistant, the mischievous devil on my shoulder looks forward to the outcome of Nawaz's grading efforts. After all, my students have been demanding more feedback. For my part, I've begun to put together a meal plan that will properly fill out this Pakistani skeleton. Nawaz is Muslim, albeit upper-class and secular, but I'm still careful to avoid pork. The South Asian section of my food library is robust, and I'm excited because I haven't put it to use in some time.

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