I woke before my parents, for one of the first times in my life, and walked down to the kitchen. I set a few more things by the door, poured milk over a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats, and picked up the phone and dialed. It was about 6:30 a.m. I expected to leave a voicemail for my advisor, but I was surprised when he answered on the fourth ring.
“Yes, Dr. Melvin? Hi, this is Julian Gray, one of your student teachers . . . ”
“Yes, good morning. How are you doing?”
“Well, sir. Sorry to bother you. I was thinking I’d just leave a message.”
“I can barely sleep at all anymore. What’s up?”
“Well, I’m thinking about taking the semester off.”
A scratchy silence ensued. I imagined my goateed professor’s beard raking the receiver.
“I see. How quickly can you be here?”
“Pretty soon, I guess.”
“Good. If you intend to come back there’s a fair amount of processing that needs to take place.”
I hadn’t thought about that. “OK, uh, when is the earliest I can come in?”
“At 8:30 you can have an appointment with Dr. Chalmers. He’s the school psychologist. Don’t worry, it’s just a precaution. When you are finished with him, come see me in my office.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
Mrs. Warburg already must have called.
“I’ll see you then.”
Two hours later, Dr. Chalmers’s desk was a hodgepodge of rainbow-themed pencils, staplers, notepads, and other office accoutrements.
“Don’t worry,” the psychologist smiled, setting down his Grateful Dead mug. “This is standard protocol. I just have a few questions and you’ll be on your way. Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“First off, when she told me I needed to ‘make an example’ out of one of my students or risk failing, I knew something was off.”
Dr. Chalmers nodded. “Assuming you mean Mrs. Warburg, what did she mean by ‘make an example?’”
“I was to give a kid detention in the next class—no matter how well they behaved—to prove they couldn’t push me around.”
Dr. Chalmers smiled. “So, did you do give a kid detention?”
“I never had to decide. By the time the next class started, the first plane had already hit the tower. We spent the next period watching and waiting to see what to do.”
“Was your mentor with you at this time?”
“No, she ate lunch early. She’s pregnant and had given up the room by then.”
Dr. Chalmers chuckled.
“When Mrs. Warburg came back, she told me to stick to the structure. ‘Kids need that,’ she said. At that point, I thought to myself: I don’t want to be like these people. At the end of the day, I told her I would finish out the week, but it was going to be my last. She told me not to bother, so I got my stuff and left.”
Dr. Chalmers sighed and looked at me. Through his office door, we could hear the sounds of the office staff preparing a party. It was his secretary’s birthday. He picked up a pen and signed a line at the bottom of the sheet. “Dr. Melvin will sign here,” he said.
That had been easier than I’d expected. And in some way easier than I’d wanted.
Dr. Melvin was closing the door to his office as I arrived. He looked thinner than usual, though he had always been thin. He was wearing a long-sleeved flannel shirt, and his facial expression was as inscrutable as ever under the wiry, graying goatee. “Why don’t we take a walk?” he asked.
Down the hall and to the right we walked in silence, until we reached the door with a plaque that said “Faculty Lounge.” I felt strange, privileged even, when he invited me in.
I noticed all the tables and couches were empty as I followed him to the kitchenette. There, a large floor-to-ceiling window boasted an expansive view of the still undeveloped grassy fields in the grounds beyond the baseball diamonds. Without a thought, the professor took two mugs from the drying rack and turned them over.
“Cup of coffee?” he asked.
“Regular or decaf? Lately I’ve started to take mine half-regular/half-decaf.”
The acrid smell of cheap pre-ground beans wafted up as he poured.
“Sounds good,” I said, “Black is OK, too.”
He smiled and like a gunslinger grabbed both handles at the same time and poured before replacing the decanters on their hot plates. Accepting a Penn State mug, I wondered how many other students had been invited in.
We took seats at a nearby table.
“How old are you, Julian?” Dr. Melvin asked, calm and assured.
The professor looked off to the side and scratched his ear. “Mrs. Warburg called me last night. She seemed worried about you.”
I took a breath. “She was probably worried about what I would say about how she runs things.”
Dr. Melvin turned and looked directly into my eyes. “Go on,” he said.
“To start, the high-school faculty lounge is not like this at all. It’s really depressing. One teacher told me whenever he goes home, he has to draw down the curtains and sit in the dark with a vodka tonic.”
Dr. Melvin buried his face in his hands and laughed. I briefly considered telling him about the Army vet who told me one day that he kept a stoolie in his class. He would single out one of the worst students in class and cut a deal: A passing grade no matter what, in exchange for information on what the other kids were up to.
“Sounds like you are following your instincts, “ Dr. Melvin said.
I lit up. “I do, I am. I mean, I guess.”
He reached across the table for the paper Dr. Chalmers prepared. As he sat back, his arm knocked a small stack of books onto the floor. Two landed close to my feet. One of them was John Krakuer’s “Into the Wild.” I remembered it from an English class. It was the story of a kid who went into the Alaska wilderness to find himself and wound up dying of starvation from eating toxic seeds in an abandoned school bus. It seemed at best a questionable omen, as far as my own adventure. The other book was Evelyn Underhill’s “Practical Mysticism.” I bent down to pick it up.
“You should borrow that,” Dr. Melvin said. “I won’t be reading it again for a while.”
“Tell you what, consider this an independent study. I’ll give you until the beginning of next semester to read it and write a report. Do that, and I’ll release you free and clear to come back and finish up.”
“Deal,” I said.
He smiled. “Do you know Jack Kerouac’s books?” he asked. “I think some time with ‘On the Road’ might do you good.”
With that he released me from my semester’s commitments, and signed the paper with a flourish.
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.