Oct 5, 2015 · 12 minutes

Previously: Part One

My first crime was teaching my students to write arguments, which deeply offended the Canadian woman who was running the program.

She wanted me to teach the students to paraphrase the well-meaning essays in the anthology — not that she or anyone else informed me that this was their policy; there were no guidelines of any kind. The first time I met most of the other composition teachers was at the end-of-semester marking meeting, where our students’ final essays were passed around to other teachers. I was looking forward to that meeting, because I was very proud of what I’d done with the demoralized kids who’d been shunted into my “remedial” writing class. At first they’d looked shocked when I'd encouraged them to argue, with each other and the essays in the anthology, but by the end of the semester some of these mute jocks and ESL immigrants could analyze and respond to any of the bland persuasive essays in the book. I’m an idiot in all kinds of ways, but I can get students excited about writing. Now was my chance to show off a little in front of my seldomseen colleagues. 

The meeting seemed like all the other marking meetings I’d attended until it was time to review my students’ grades. The elderly hippie assigned to review my courses seemed offended by something he’d seen in the essays. Not that he was going to say so; he wouldn’t even look at me, and kept leaning toward the professor who was running the program, tilting his head toward her as he talked. It hit me, finally, that this guy wanted to fail one of my best students. It made no sense. This student, a huge, inarticulate jock, had come into my course totally phobic about writing, and by the end of the semester he’d turned into a decent writer with a real knack for coming up with surprising but convincing theses. And his last essay, the one this hippie wanted to fail him for, was his best. 

The essay students had to write about was a dismal, sanctimonious scold by George Monbiot, a Guardian progressive, called “The Case for Banning TV.” In Monbiot’s snotty Oxbridge view of the world, the case for banning this pleb entertainment ran through the Columbine massacre, via Doritos. Yes, Monbiot fearlessly laid the blame for a dozen dead teens right where it belonged: on junk food, and the TV shows that force adolescents to eat them. My student had actually gone out and done research into the lives of the two Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. He discovered that they were both health freaks who worked out every day. He used his findings to suggest that Monbiot’s thesis was incorrect. And he did it well. 

And the hippie wanted to flunk this student? It took me a while to get what the student’s crime had been. Finally I realized that simply talking back to a canonical (i.e. well-meaning, censorious, progressive) text was a flunkable offense. Apparently everyone but me knew that, because when the old hippie read the last paragraph of my student’s essay aloud to the marking group — an excellent paragraph, exactly the sort of conclusion I’d taught them to write — there was a group shudder, a group flinch, and a noise I would later come to recognize as Canadian disapproval, a sort of minorkey, fading hum. They were actually going to flunk this guy if I didn’t do something. 

Now I’m a coward from way back, and God knows I didn’t want to stick my neck out, but even buzzards sometimes gag, and there was no way I could let this guy get an F for doing exactly what I taught him to do. So I objected, or rather started yelping loudly, fighting for my student. I knew even while my mouth was making words that this was a very bad mistake. There’s a feeling of congealed doom you get when you know you’re going to do the right thing and pay for it. I made many perfectly valid points, not that it mattered. I told them that no one had ever told me that students weren’t allowed to challenge the assigned texts, and pointed out, just to seal my doom once and for all, that making students parrot canonical texts was a sure way to make them despise writing. 

I waited, ready to argue. But that was the point; these people didn’t like argument, were terrified of it. So no one argued with me. The professor in charge, a linguist doing temporary duty minding the comp. ghetto, was in no position to reply, since she knew nothing about teaching writing; the hippie was content to sniff and avert his eyes like Queen Victoria smelling something unpleasant. The others — well, two of them — told me later they agreed with me, but only after looking both ways down the corridor. So there was a long silence. Finally the hippie mumbled, dipping his head toward the boss, “I suppose we could give him a B-minus.” But that wasn’t good enough for me. I held out for a B, and got it, and repeated the performance twice more, with other stroppy student essays they wanted to flunk. 

It’s only now, trying to describe all this, that I see how ridiculous it was, getting my students acquitted of misdemeanor insubordination by implicating myself in a capital case of it. The linguistics professor in charge made my crime and its consequences clear to me at the end of the meeting. Not explicitly, of course. Academics in general, and Canadian academics in particular, are specialists in oblique malice. Their martial arts are the nod, the shrug, the anonymous rejection. So instead of yelling, “You’ll never work in this town again!”, she simply shut her folder, ending the business of the day, warmed up her voice a few degrees, and went around the table asking the instructors, by name, what they’d like to teach next semester. She started with the woman to my left and ended with the guy on my right, then stood up, said, “I think we’re done for today,” and left the room. A week later I got an official letter informing me that my employment had ended because I had missed a reapplication deadline. 

That was the time to fight back, of course. Make noise. They hate noise up here. Probably would’ve worked. But remember, we were infatuated immigrants, and all too meek. So it couldn’t be their fault. I sure didn’t remember getting any notice of this deadline they were invoking, and there was no record of it on my email, but this was the Beloved Adoptive Land; they must be right. Besides, there are lots of universities in Canada, right? We’d go someplace smaller, somewhere in the forest like we planned. In the meantime, we got by on our savings and Katherine’s small income. She couldn’t get a teaching job either, but she did find work, first nannying for a hairdresser, then doing a minimumwage night shift at Cobs bakery. It hurt to see her get up at one in the morning to sweat over the ovens. Our money was draining away and I applied without success for dozens of jobs in places that sound like the punch line to a hick joke. 

Lying there looking at the ceiling, you start mumbling about how you used to be a contender. Then you feel ashamed of talking like that. But it comes back: I was somebody, and now I’m nobody. Like the conquered Mayan scribe says on the mural: “My fingernails have been pulled out and now I am no one.” That was a private, nocturnal opinion. In the daytime we made jokes about the various disasters and told each other these were normal immigrant bumps. We did our best to laugh off the little nightmares, like my near-death experience with anaphylactic shock courtesy of a Victoria naturopath. 

You see, I paid this nice naturopath $700 to give me a blood test that would show my allergies — may as well get that cough taken care of, now that we’re in the B.A.L.! It didn’t even occur to me that she was a con artist or that the test would be a fake. We’d come from two years in Moscow, where everyone warned us to be careful; that was the bad place, the scary place. Now we were in the good place. There was no way this nice blonde lady in Victoria could be a fake. So I gave her a vial of blood and seven hundred dollars and she sent the blood off to Alberta for tests, according to which I was not, after all, allergic to nuts as I’d feared. No, according to those tests, nuts were fine. In fact, said my nice blonde naturopath, nuts were good, I should eat more nuts. So after paying her $100 to talk to me for 45 minutes, I stopped off at an organic grocery and bought a pound of hazelnuts -- unprocessed, uncontaminated by anything un-clean and un-green. I took them back to the apartment and started chomping. 

They take some chomping, let me tell you, a whole pound of raw hazelnuts, but I swallowed them like I swallowed the rest of the maple-leaf lies. Twenty minutes on, I started itching. Coincidence. Nothing but coincidence. The itching got so bad I started tearing the skin off my wrists, waist, anywhere skin touched clothing. Then my throat closed up. It was like trying to breathe through a wet toilet-paper roll wrapped tightly in steel wool. The dog looked at me in a dubious way as I wheezed around the apartment scratching my bloody skin and gasping for breath. I finally granted the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the naturopath didn’t know what she was doing. But if I had to leave the apartment the puppy would howl, and if she howled — I thought of “Dawn of the Dead,” those snarling hordes of old toothy zombies. Better to suppress the whole thought and pretend that it would get better soon. 

Maybe if I took a shower... The shower did get results, in the sense that huge itchy welts sprouted all over my body. I was scared then, and dug in the still-packed suitcase for some Benadryl capsules we’d brought. The emergency room staff said, a few hours later, that those three capsules were the only reason I survived. But while swallowing them — no easy thing at the time — my only thought was that I was betraying the nice naturopath and showing a disgusting lack of faith in the B.A.L. The next ten minutes were like watching a horror movie from the inside, morphing into an oxygen-free itching monster. Zombies can drive, it turns out; zombies can even carry a half-grown Great Dane downstairs and into a used Hyundai and drive to the bakery where Katherine works. Well, in my state it wasn’t so much driving as steering. 

I steered wheezing to her bakery, crash-parked the car and staggered in to tell her, “I ‘ink I ‘avin’ awwegic weac-shun.” She didn’t seem to recognize me somehow, but understood what was happening when she saw the car, with the dog poking her head out the window. She dragged me next door to the walk-in medical clinic, where everybody got out of my way with alacrity. A few minutes later I was in an ambulance, sirens blaring, heading for the hospital. Even in that ambulance the slapstick continued, thanks to the butchy paramedic who rode with me. She misunderstood my explanation of what had happened — my tongue was swollen to the size of a cow’s, and I wasn’t speaking clearly. She thought I’d said I ate nuts after being warned I was allergic to them. She looked at me contemptuously as I wheezed on the gurney and said, “Wow, you should get a Darwin Award.” 

I attempted to explain the circumstances: “Nnnuh, Deyy tole mnnee I wathunth ah-ergic to nutth!!!” She didn’t seem to get it, so I tried another tack: 

“’Eeeey, I’n nna thupid! I guh a P-A-Dee fum Buh-khlee! I’th ‘itten thith boothth!” 

She was properly impressed: “Six books? And you’ve got a Ph.D. from Berkeley?” 

“Yaaaaah!” I nodded. 

Granted, my logic was lousy; anyone who’s read many books or met a few Ph.D.s realizes that neither authorship nor an advanced degree is proof of intelligence. But I was dying, ladies and gentleman; give me the proverbial break here. Besides, it worked. 

Again, she was properly impressed, and asked, “What’d you get your Ph.D. in?” 

“Wed-a-wic,” I blubbered proudly. 

“What?” “Wed-a-wic!” 

“Rhetoric? You got a Ph.D. in rhetoric?” 

She guffawed and ignored me for the rest of the trip, my Darwin Award status confirmed. And she told the ER personnel the same story: “Guy ate a bunch of nuts even though he’s allergic to them. A real Darwin Award winner.” By that time my tongue had swollen to the size of a baleen whale’s, and I couldn’t have argued even if I’d wanted to. 

You’d think that would have slapped me awake. But still I never blamed the naturopath. When my face finally deflated and I could talk again, I called her and told her what had happened. Suddenly all the nice was gone. She got very cautious, told me she’d call back after checking her copy of my test results. She called an hour later, triumphantly telling me, “I’ve looked at my copy of the test results and it says you should eat filbert nuts! It doesn’t say anything about hazelnuts!” 

I was embarrassed for her and said almost apologetically, “‘Filbert’ is another term for hazelnuts. I looked it up before trying them.” She hung up again, without a word. When I called her again she wasn’t the friendly hippie lady I remembered; she’d reverted to the tone of a corporate lawyer. When I told her that all I wanted was the huge fee I’d paid for the blood test, she said she’d talk to the company that administered the tests. That’s the last we heard from her.

To be continued...