I received The World’s Biggest Piece of Shit Award in 1990. My name was written on the award in fancy calligraphy. In front of the whole class, Mrs. Kerris, our English teacher, handed me the award. She wasn’t worried about getting fired, as she was retiring anyway. Her thing was she was pissed that I got stoned before her classes. I mean, she was teaching us important stuff about the happy poet who loved his body. That would be Walt Whitman. She showed us a movie where the actor playing the old bearded poet walked singingly through the village. We saw Walt bathe in a creek, singing his poetry as he soaped himself up and spit streams of water through his lips, the passerby thinking My my, what an eccentric fellow. Mrs. Kerris simply hated that I didn’t seem to care about my own body.
Back then, I had a friend or two. Back then I even had ideas on what I could do as I went along in life. I fancied that I was a lover of music, not just punk rock, but classical, folk, and disco, and the world was full of wonder, I was told, and great masterpieces like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Men had built bridges. They’d flown to the moon. Mrs. Kerris told us of a book about a whale that was supposed to be a magnificent expression of what it means to be alive. As I was extremely impressionable, I imagined that stuff could be important such as the adults around me did, and when I read the book, years later, about the whale, I thought I was moved. But I wasn’t. I just thought I was. I understood the tricks of the writer. I may have been impressed, but in the end what can one say of it? One cannot make a friend of a book. I felt stupid trying.
Of the other awards given out that last day of high school by Mrs. Kerris, one was The Best Equipped Mind Award. That gem went to Patricia Alligood, a skinny orange-haired girl who, unlike me, always had something to say about the stories we were given to read for homework. Whereas I sat in the back of the class, in the seat farthest away from the teacher, Patricia sat in the front row. On several occasions Mrs. Kerris asked the class, “Doesn’t that sound like a writer’s name? Patricia Alligood? I’m sure that we will all be buying her books before the century is over.” Patricia died before the century ended. Her head was cut off by some crazy guy in Gainesville, where she attended U.F. on scholarship. Some of the other awards were Most Experimental Thinker and Wittiest Sense of Humor. There was the In The Spirit of Dylan Thomas Award and the Cute Like Jane Smiley Award. Me, I got the World’s Biggest Piece of Shit Award.
To this day I see it clear, me the loner guy in the back seat stoned, the walls of the room plastered up with posters of her heroes, James Joyce with the funny glasses, Virginia Wolff, Emily Dickinson. A quote by William Faulkner on the wall read “READ READ READ” and her absolute favorite, Flannery O’Connor, whom she’d said she’d been close personal friends with before she died of lupus at the unfortunate age of thirty-nine. Mrs. Kerris had a kind of wall-shrine dedicated to Flannery, with photos that she herself had taken, peacock feathers and silver saints. It was in this atmosphere that Mrs. Kerris, pretending like it was a joke but hoping to humiliate me nonetheless, said, “And the World’s Biggest Piece of Shit Award goes to,” and you can fill in my name after that, go ahead, I don’t care.
Listen, my name is detestable to me. I don’t like to say it, never have.
Mrs. Kerris was getting me back for repeatedly going stoned to her class. She may have expected the class to rise up with a unified laughter that would condemn me for the rest of my days, but not everybody laughed. Though I was a loner for the most part, some students may have seen the cruelty in her jab, and sympathized. They all off them anyway turned their heads my direction to see what I would do. Would I run out of the classroom as I had done once before when she tried to bust me for my pot smoking? I’m sure I may have looked horrified, but I stood up and walked across the room and collected my award and returned to my desk. Mrs. Kerris finished calling out the awards and before I knew it, high school was over forever.
Now, twenty-five years later, I stare at these books and feel the waste and stupidity. Some are left over from my marriage to a woman who had collected all the great books. Somehow I still have her great books. Others I bought during graduate school, and still others I bought for myself. Without naming names, I’ll just say that these are the best writers the world has produced so far, that though Mrs. Kerris was limited in scope, I do teach the work of her most cherished writer to students at a university in Boston where you’d think they could offer you more than a classroom full of flunkies—no, not flunkies, I could never feel that way about anybody. Call them dunderheads, numbskulls, plonkers, stinky cheesers.
I’m staring at my books right now, hating them from the couch, it’s a dingy couch, a love seat not long enough to stretch out in. I’m in my underwear. My bare shins and feet jut over the armrest like cannon aimed at my books. I gotta get rid of them. It’s obvious, but could my hatred for these greats be related to my classroom full of numpties? As it’s the fall semester, the students that flunked College Writing Two during the spring semester, are in my class, along with some transfers from other schools, and a few adults who’ve come back to make amends on their lost chances of the past.
Earlier this evening, during my class marked for applying feminist reading tenets to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” one of the three “adults” in the room, a woman nearing fifty, said, “If I had written this story, I can’t imagine that anybody else would ever want to read it.” The woman, to describe her, was Kim-Davis-like in demeanor, only minus the religious fervor. I’m talking of the Kim Davis who met the pope after going to jail for refusing to grant marriage licenses to gays in Kentucky. She was all over on Facebook, so I’m sure you know what she looks like, enough said. Whenever I’m teaching, Kim sits back there with a twisted scrutiny on her face, her eyes riveted upon my person. I gave her comment a professorly response and ended by saying that Flannery O’Connor is widely accepted as a genius, which I believe, or believed until tonight. Not tonight. It’s been with me all along.
Then, when I was showing them techniques in analysis, which is always a challenge where dunderheads are concerned, an African-American girl called me out on my comment about the broad, innocent cabbage Bailey’s wife’s face is compared to. I had said, “In order to interpret an image and direct it to an argument, you gotta break it down into its parts. What are the qualities of a cabbage?”
A student raised her hand. “It’s purple,” she said.
“And what could purple symbolize in a feminist argument?”
Nobody had anything to say.
“What about green? Cabbages are green too. Does green bring anything to mind?” I said.
“Jealousy,” a student said.
“And maybe some of you have heard about being green, how like if you walk into the Alaskan wilderness in winter with only a sack of rice, you might be considered green? Or if you never skinned a pig before and were trying to skin a pig without having been taught how to skin it, you might be considered green? You might try and skin that pig with a steak knife, and cut your finger, and get blood all over the meat, or accidentally nick the intestines so the stuff inside spills out all over the meat. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would you? When you’re green it means you don’t know what you’re doing in a thing. When you’re green it means you don’t know jack.”
Nobody, not even the Kim Davis adult, had heard of green standing for inexperience.
“What are some other cabbage qualities?” I asked.
“They are cheap,” one student said.
“They have layers,” another student said.
“Excellent, sure,” I said. “And what happens when you start peeling off the layers?”
“They keep on peeling off,” the student said.
“Is there a prize inside?” I asked.
“No, they’re all the same. There’s nothing inside but what you see on the outside.”
“Would you compare your mother’s head to a cabbage?” I said, and said, “Not just a cabbage, but a cabbage with a green handkerchief tied around it with two points sticking up like a rabbit’s ears?”
No, everybody agreed, it wasn’t a flattering way to think of a woman, so I put in that this might be a site of lack, lack being a thing I’d already told them about, saying it originated with Sigmund Freud’s notion that little girls, upon seeing their brothers with hotdogs between their legs, grew up feeling that they were missing something. Using the “reappropriation of lack” tenet, they could equally distribute the hotdogs of life, put a little ketchup and mustard on them, and create a feminist argument.
I still was thinking of the cabbage, though. Seemed like we’d bare to got started on the cabbage, so I said, “Do some folks eat cabbage more than others?”
At that an African-American student said, “You’re old,” kinda soft, but loud enough for the class to hear. She may have been pissed that earlier, upon seeing that she’d only turned in three pages of the four page essay that was due, I’d reminded the class that if you only turned in 75% of your essay, grading started at C. In practice this wasn’t true, but I wanted everybody to do well, I don’t know why. In truth her writing suffered on all five levels of “the rubric” that I was, as a teacher, beholden to. The higher-ups checked our grades, and when our classes averaged out above a C at the end of the semester, we got a letter from the director saying we needed to cut back on our generosity.
In any event, I wasn’t finished with the cabbage. I said, “Where do you get cabbage? How about Kentucky Fried Chicken? Where else can you get cabbage?”
“You’re so old,” Shakweena said, a little louder.
“Hey, I do remember when the first man landed on the moon,” I lied, and said, “I think of cabbage as a rustic kind of food.”
“Oh yeah, sure,” Shakweena said, and pointed at an imaginary person and said, “You over there, I can tell you eat cabbage, yeah, I can just look at you. I can see that you eat cabbage.”
“If you don’t know anything about cabbage,” I continued, “you can look it up. Just type cabbage into Google, and there you go. I’m sure there’s a whole history regarding—”
“That damn woman is a racist honky,” Shakweena said to the air, as if she was not in a classroom filled with people. “How dare she call me a nigger.”
“Apply the tenet,” I said. “If you think she’s calling you personally what you just said, you can argue that. That’s what you call a strong claim, because a lot of people would disagree. I think you could make that argument, but you gotta address the counterarguments. I encourage you to do so. The first thing you gotta do, as I’ve said since the start of this course, is what?”
“Ask questions,” several students said together.
“Why would she call you that? What would be her reason, and intention, for calling you that? Was that the patriarchy at work on her? What might a feminist say about—”
“I ain’t no goddamn feminist!” Shakweena said, again to that imaginary person standing in the middle of the room.
Another student chimed in that she was “highly offended by Flanstory’s use of the n-word.”
“It wasn’t just the n-word,” the only black male in the class put in. “It had the er at the end. That’s a whole bunch of bullshit I don’t need.”
“And you a honky-ass white motherfucker just like her,” Shakweena said, looking right at me now.
Nobody said a word after that. We were shocked and still. The students were all looking at me, waiting to see what I would do, and already growing impatient. I fancy that I am well tuned to the gestures and expressions of people in general, even as seen from the periphery. The sense I got was that pretty much every student was mad at me for making them read that story that “made no sense.” The story was racist, they said, and did not show sexism at work, and my students kept saying stuff like, “I didn’t understand what was going on,” and “That grandmother was so damn annoying,” and “Why did that guy act so weird?”
I was no kind of disciplinarian. I couldn’t invite Shakweena into the hall for a talk. It wasn’t me, and what would I do anyway? Spank her? I said, “You might be right, Shakweena. I’m probably exactly what you said, and don’t even know it,” and then suddenly I was telling them the story of receiving The World’s Biggest Piece of Shit Award in 1990. I wasn’t talking shit on Mrs. Kerris, my high school English teacher. I was just telling what happened. I didn’t care if they were interested or not, but they were very interested now, riveted, I would even say. I mentioned the shrine Mrs. Kerris had made to Flannery O’Connor, and how she had known the author who said the thing about the cabbage. Mrs. Kerris’s face, as a matter of fact, did look kinda like a cabbage, I said, something about the hair, the way it fell in layers over her head and looked like the edge of a cabbage leaf where it wiggled across her forehead. I said about how Mrs. Kerris’s class was right after lunch, so I always was stoned. I told them all sorts of things they didn’t need to know. My story brought the class together, helped us bond, and everybody seemed to be trying harder. The discussion that followed my story turned out rich, and by the end of class most students, Shakweena and Kim Davis included, understood a good bit more about turning the tables on the man.
The next week, though, I get an email from the director, saying that Lisa Horne, my prissy white blond girl student who did not like getting her inflated C+ grade on her previous essay, filed a complaint about me, not with her (the director), or the department’s Chair, which would have been the way to go, and not even, either, with the dean. She went straight to the provost, writing that Professor (my name), made racist and sexist comments in class, that he had a hole in his pants, that he was a druggy, and that he was “very unprofessional in general” and that—yes, the director was quoting from the student’s letter—“you should seriously look into his status as an employee at such a prestigious university as this.” The director said that the letter was mostly ad hominem, but the impression I got was she was damn pissed over the whole thing. Honest to goodness, I kinda wanted to tell her I was the world’s biggest piece of shit, so what could she reasonably expect? Would she understand? Would she care if I said attacks directed at The Flan feel as if they are directed at me?
I’m staring, though, at my books, like I said, as I stared at them yesterday, and stared at them the day before that, and am staring at them now. I’m staring at them, thinking that they are a big problem in my life, thinking that my job is a problem in my life, thinking that the country I live in is a problem in my life. As it is Friday, I am thinking, the recycle dumpster will be open tomorrow between eleven and one. I imagine myself dumping the books in, box by box, bag by bag, purging myself. There’s no law against it. I used to think that the annihilation of life on the planet would be a shame in that Moby Dick would be lost, and lost would be Flannery’s cabbages and corn, and the lovesome voices of Faulkner’s trilogy, gone as though they never were to begin with. In the end the words of King Solomon are the prize you find after peeling the cabbage down to its nothing core: Life is vanity and a striving after wind. I need to lighten up, so picture Blood Meridian down there in the dumpster, as it will be tomorrow, and Everything That Rises Must Converge, and my bibles and the works of Harold Brodkey, Mary Robison, Joy Williams, and all the other great writers. Thousands of books. All of it will go. The deed is as good as done.
John Oliver Hodges is the author of The Love Box and War of the Crazies. His short story, “Grout,” is in the current issue of Texas Review, and his short stories are forthcoming from Bull, Near to the Knuckle, Crag, and Fixional, Inc. He lives in New Jersey, where he teaches writing at Montclair State University. His first novel, Quizzleboon, is set for release this year from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing.