Teaching Duncan, 2009
By Anna B. Moore
Duncan is skinny, with bristly short hair and eyes half open. He’s stoned a lot. One afternoon he comes to class and it’s obvious he’s either shrooming or smoked something laced, like you had decades before, when you were eighteen and smoked a joint in the late afternoon in a cute frat boy’s bedroom and then walked the campus with your friend and GOD DAMN were you high, dizzy but not dizzy, circling through all the possibilities in the warm spring air as lawns stretched out around you like giant welcomes.
But you never attended class in a state like the one Duncan is in now. Your first-year composition students are crunched together in a circle, which you ask every class to move into on the first day no matter how small the room, so they can see one another and build conversations and relationships around writing. Today they will offer feedback on a paper about gun violence, another on sex trafficking, and one more on ocean pollution. As they begin, you realize that Duncan is, in fact, tripping; that he must have started dating Julia, since they are holding hands and seem to believe no one can see their laps; and that Julia is also tripping. They are tripping together. In your class. When they attempt to comment on each paper, their words melt like butter. Then they giggle and can’t stop. Other students look at you, them, and you again—where authority lies. Why don’t you ask them to leave? Why do you allow them to stay?
Because Duncan has already talked to you about his struggles to quit drinking and using. You don’t want to shame him.
“Do you know what you want to write about?” you had asked during your initial conference. This one is your favorite, where you help the student decide.
“Yeah.” His chin was pointy, his voice arrestingly deep. He sat in front of the window, which was slightly filmy. Through it students tabled for their clubs or events and walked along the wide pathway with their backpacks and their friends. A few cut through on skateboards. Duncan had propped his in the hallway, right outside your door.
“Can I write about myself?”
“Of course! You need to narrow it down a lot, though, and incorporate research. Credible research.” In one corner, your filing cabinet was packed with all the writing assignments you’ve ever created. “You study it and then explain it to readers in the context of your experience.”
He bounced one knee.
“Like, how does this research help explain my experience? You need to unpack it.”
He nodded. “Okay. Well, I um… might have a problem with alcohol, actually. That’s why I picked this topic.” He pushed his heels up off the tile and let them drop.
“My parents are really worried.”
Your parents were worried about you, too. Way back then.
“I really think it will help if I just write it all out,” he said.
“Maybe.” You were about to say that doing so might be a good journaling exercise, a good start, but—
“And for my group’s presentation, I want to have a mock AA meeting in class,” he said. “They already said yes.”
“That means Alcoholics Anonymous.”
You knew what it meant.
“That’s really interesting.” You said this to students often. A lot of the time it was true. “Let’s see where the writing takes you, okay?”
So far, it has taken Duncan into tripping with his new girlfriend. They are now laughing so hard that they twist and bend in their desks like wind-up toys.
Students stare. Class is almost over.
The following class, they’re both absent. Then Duncan returns. Julia never comes back. You meet with him twice more to help him find sources: a .gov on substance abuse in juveniles and two journal articles: the first about the effectiveness of intervention, and the second about how addiction affects sibling relationships. He says he’s working on a draft and you do not ask to see it before his workshop because he seems so engaged with the process. You choose to believe this instead of read an addiction narrative like Duncan’s, which without the filters of time and age and experience would so unpleasantly illuminate your own alcoholism. Which your husband, in the last few years, has become angry about. You have exhausted his sympathy supply, drinking behind his back (you think) after your two young children are asleep. He sees that you’re drunk—again—and goes to bed in disgust as you sit in the living room and dance in your mind to memories that you convince yourself are pinnacles of joy, and you wake up so sick with guilt and hangover that you cannot tell them apart.
You worry about allowing a mock AA meeting in class. Will they open the meeting with “How it Works,” the first few pages of a chapter in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, pages that you know from when you were a teenager? Will they ask the class to say the Serenity Prayer? Or God forbid, the Lord’s Prayer, at the end? And what is the purpose of this, meeting, exactly? Duncan is obviously way too close to this topic and cannot write about it from any sort of research-based perspective. You agreed to his choice way too fast. But whenever you ask, for whatever good reason, that a student give up a topic they love, you let them down as a mentor for not catching it sooner, and they resent you and put less effort into research and writing for whatever replacement topic they choose. So you let it go.
A few students in Duncan’s group attend open AA meetings, where outsiders are welcome, to take notes and prepare. The day of the mock meeting, Duncan brings a CD player and puts on Kanye West and lights incense. His group of 5 sits facing the class. They each introduce themselves as an alcoholic, as they would if the meeting were real. Each of them shares some vague personal experience with partying and a little research they gathered.
Before Duncan reads his paper, he asks if it is okay to go over the 3-page limit so he can read all 7 pages, and you, of course, say yes, because you can find no boundary, you have never been able to locate a boundary or limit in any circumstance in your entire miserable failure of a life, and Duncan reads 7 pages of his own experiences with pot, mushrooms, and alcohol, and concludes the draft with a long and detailed description of a bad trip he’d had the month before, where he realized, as he sat on his friend’s balcony, that he was definitely, definitely not an alcoholic.
The class is riveted.
You call on someone to start the feedback process. At your insistence, students had tried to make a semicircle facing Duncan’s group, but this is impossible given the size of the room. As they go from student to student through what resembles a semi-circular bumper-car jam, each one says, in a different way, Your paper was really good.
Are they serious? Maybe. But especially in a first-year composition class, who would say anything of substance in response to a paper like this? It is personal narrative that leads to what the writer believes to be true. The only research Duncan includes are 3 lines from sources like goodtherapy.com.
The last student says, “I’m happy for you. I’m glad you figured everything out.”
“Me too, man.” Duncan smiles. “Me, too.”
Why is The Program presenting itself to you in this way, right now? You do not believe in God, and you do not believe in destiny, and you know the universe does not try to tell anybody anything. You believe that coincidences like this can be prophetic and chilling but also misleading, that people use them in order to believe something is watching out for them, that they have a path. But there is no path. No one is watching out for you. No one is watching out for anyone. That is such bullshit, you think that night as you pass out, your sleeping husband as far away from you as he can get, his bent knees right at the edge of his side of the bed. You wake up at 3am with the shakes and a low churn of nausea and a headache. You take a tranquilizer and some Ibuprofen and tell yourself a whole bunch of lies as you fall asleep again.
Three years pass. Your children are a little older and your husband a little warmer, either because he has accepted you or because your consistently renewed efforts to hide and justify your drinking are working.
But maybe your husband is warmer because he no longer has to sleep with you. Most nights you pull out the bed in the living room sofa so you can drink more and stay up later and relive conversations in your mind with people in your life who made you angry or distraught or happy. You tell your husband that you hate how your snoring and chronic waking keep him from sleeping—and you do—that this arrangement is a good idea until your sleep problems get better.
You are working on them, you tell him.
And this must be true, because you think about your problems, all of them, all at once, all the time.
You see Duncan on campus, tabling in the lawn outside your office for an outdoor club he started. You make eye contact with him but say nothing, because he always looks away and whenever you get the impression from students that they don’t want to talk to you, you respect it.
Later that week, you invite your dear friend, who enjoys wine but never excessively, over to drink with you. Your husband is pissed.
Jesus! you say to him, throwing up your arms, wine opener in one hand. You invited her because it’s Happy Hour. It’s Friday. God! Could he just leave you alone?
Your friend arrives and sits with you at the kitchen table; your husband sits on the sofa where you will sleep, not wanting to be anywhere near you, and reads on his laptop. Then he says loudly, A student just died. He walks into the kitchen and reads aloud the story in the local paper. You and your friend carry your wine into the living room as your husband reads aloud the story in the local paper.
“Who?” you ask. He says Duncan’s name again. You tell them he was your student and that you knew him well. They hug you. The three of you go to the kitchen to talk about all that’s happening—the university president is furious and trying to put limits on parties—and you fill your glass to the very top, right in front of them both, and shrug. You know your husband will not object to anyone drinking in the face of loss, so you say, If I ever needed extra wine, it is right now. Then you tell them you need to be alone for a minute, and you go to your bedroom and close the door and chug all the wine in a few swallows as if you’re competing at a kegger, something you do every day but never let anyone see.
Duncan had gone to a bar with his friends to celebrate his twenty-first birthday. The paper said he drank a shot for each year, consumed as many as he could, and then let his friends take him home to his apartment. When they returned the next morning, Duncan was unresponsive. He had lived for over a week in the hospital, on life support, and then his family decided to take him off life support.
Then he died.
“What did you think of the meeting?” Duncan had asked, three years before. He wore a baseball cap backwards, a tee shirt with a soccer ball, tennis shoes without socks. He’d propped his skateboard against the bookshelf that time, the top surface stacked to the ceiling with student portfolios from years and years of teaching, piles of time, piles of stories that you thought you needed to keep.
“It was interesting,” you said. On his turn at the meeting, he had reiterated how much better he was. He said he’d been sober for over two weeks and knew that whenever he did drink again, he would be able to handle it.
“However,” you began. From the nose of his skateboard, a psychedelic sticker of the shaka sign gleamed orange, yellow, bright blue. “I did think your paper would contain research and discussion of your research.”
He winced gently. “I know,” he said. He looked at his toes. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay! It’s okay,” you said. And it was. It always was. Then you asked the question it always took you too long to ask:
“Do you understand how to introduce that research, and then explain it to us?”
“Okay. Let’s get started.” He pulled his chair over to your desk and you soon reached that moment, the one that teachers create every single day, when the student says, Oh, I get it, and their soft eyebrows go up and their shoulders relax and they sigh with relief, with the surge of knowledge that feels new. And Duncan planned out his revision, his writing and research spread on the surface between you, and the world at that moment was so tiny, so visible, so good.
For the last two decades, Anna B. Moore has been publishing creative nonfiction, essays, and short fiction in a variety of literary journals and magazines, including Shenandoah, Black Warrior Review, Brain Child, American Scholar, and most recently Smokelong Quarterly and Hippocampus. She is currently seeking publication for her finished novel and writes from her home in Northern California. Much of her published work is available on her website, which is terminally in-progress: https://www.annabmoore.com/. Tweet her at @AnnaBMoore1.