New York |

The Embarrassment

by Benjamin Woodard

edited by Amy Shearn

At the end of class one September afternoon, the professor watches as the unfamiliar student slinks from the room amid the usual hurricane of young bodies rushing toward freedom. It is only the second week of the semester, so the professor doesn’t quite know each student’s name, there are twenty-five in all, but he’s certain this face is not one he recognizes. A quick check of his roster confirms his suspicions: there are no new additions. After he shuts down his computer and raises the classroom’s projection screen, the professor concludes that this student entered the wrong room, was too embarrassed to acknowledge his mistake, and instead sat through the professor’s entire two-hour lecture. No wonder the student stared down at his phone the whole time, the professor determines. He was probably texting friends about his error.

While packing his satchel and turning off the classroom lights, the professor thinks of his own embarrassments, some of which still haunt him decades after their occurrences: walking in on his college roommate masturbating; crying in front of his very first classroom of students. He has always been one to absorb such displays and feel shame, a trait he blames on his Roman Catholic upbringing, yet the professor believes his students are quick to come to terms with their own flubs. In fact, the professor imagines this slight young man approaching a table of other slight young men right now in the campus courtyard: “Wait until I tell you more about what I just went through!” He wonders if such rapidly shifting moods can be attributed to shortened attention spans. He’s certain he’s read a study on this very topic, something about cell phones and screen time, or maybe it was a documentary on PBS, and as he steps into the hallway and sees a cluster of young adults in the distance, the professor’s mind returns to the slight young man, who is now most likely turning his fumble of a story into a performance. Like many cases of embarrassment, the professor acknowledges, once shame becomes humorous, it mutates into an anecdote, and, stopping for a drink at the water fountain, he imagines a future in which such a story will benefit this wayward student: one day, he will quite possibly be a less slight and far older father, and his child will suffer an embarrassment of her own and refuse to open her bedroom door. The house will be a modest ranch, and the far older, less slight man will stand in the hall and ask his daughter to let him in, and when she refuses, he will coax her to speak, learning that her humiliation is due to a childish mistake: earlier that day, she will have accidentally called her teacher Mom within earshot of several peers, so the daughter will now be locked in her bedroom, certain that she is the laughingstock of the fifth grade. The not-so-young man will absorb his daughter’s narrative through a bedroom door as he stares at wood grain and peeled stickers, and when she has finished venting through choked sobs, he will remember the time when, in his freshman year of college, he entered the wrong classroom. He will recount this to his daughter, explaining the petrification that accompanied his first weeks of higher education and his shock when he realized he had made his mistake. When he hears his daughter snicker through tears, he will indulge her with additional details, taking the opportunity to fine-tune his memory for exaggeration. Instead of spending the entire class on his cell, for example, he will tell her he forgot it at home, or that the battery was dead. Rather than a two-hour lecture on composition strategies, he will tell his daughter he suffered through three. He will explain the boring projected slideshow, the unbearable coldness of the room. Not to mention the professor, who spoke with such a monotone that he could put an angry bull to sleep.

Now descending the first of three flights of stairs, the professor decides that, in his story, when the not-so-young man tells this version of the past to his daughter, she will continue to laugh, and by the time he finishes, she will have opened her bedroom door for him. In this case, the professor concedes, he’s fine with his own transformation into the butt of a story; his humiliation is required to strengthen the bond between a father and daughter. This will be an important, life affirming moment, and he will be the catalyst, the only other participant in this reconciliation. When the pair hug, the professor imagines, the warmth of her father’s arms will embed itself into the not-so-young man’s daughter’s core, such that when the not-so-young man dies, many years later, his daughter might provide him a moving eulogy at his well-attended funeral. The professor realizes, stopping mid-stair, if this were real, he would be long dead himself by then, what a thought, but no matter, because in this scenario, the daughter will stand next to a large poster of the not-so-young man’s face, which itself will be propped vertical by an easel, and she will slowly tell those at the mortuary of the erratic relationship she shared with her father. She will cry. The mourners in the parlor will cry. And when this future child, now an adult, speaks, she will remember the story of her father sitting in the wrong classroom, and will decide to tell this tale to the crowd, fully aware that she only recalls a few details.

The professor reaches the ground floor and crosses the college’s small welcome area, which is congested with students lounging at tables between classes. He stops behind the security desk to check his mailbox, but there’s nothing of interest: a flyer for the pizza shop across the street, a pamphlet for the university’s library, a postcard announcing the art gallery’s new show. Always garbage. Nothing worthwhile. He drops all three in the blue recycling bin and returns to his walk, where he finds the slight young man’s make-believe daughter waiting for his imagination to continue. He realizes the mortuary he has placed her in is the same one he visited to say farewell to his uncle when he was fifteen. This strikes him as odd, for the professor has spent time in several mortuaries, including when he arranged his mother’s funeral just last year.

Anyway, the professor visualizes the daughter standing in his uncle’s mortuary. He sees her retelling of the moment he just experienced three floors above: there’s her father, again a slight young man, sitting in the back row. He realizes he has entered the wrong classroom, yet remains seated so that he doesn’t disturb his peers or draw attention to his mistake. At the funeral, the daughter will not be able to recall the subject of the class, so she will make it up on the fly: Human Sexuality. This will bring a chuckle from the mourners, such an unusual sound for the solemn space, and the laughter will encourage the daughter, much as her own laughter encouraged her father so many years earlier. She will want to lift the spirits of those in attendance, for that’s what her father would have wanted, so she will continue making up lies. The professor of the Human Sexuality course was a buffoon, dressed in stock character tweed and Buddy Holly glasses. He made crude hand gestures and balloon animals out of condoms. He used slang and didn’t seem to know anything about female anatomy. The more the daughter will speak, the professor figures, climbing a new set of stairs presently to enter the satellite campus’s parking garage, the louder the laughter will erupt from the parlor, and soon tears will become joyful sobs. By the time she finishes, the room will bobble with energy, which will carry itself to the cemetery and, later, the local Knights of Columbus reception hall, decked out with photos of the daughter’s father and platters of sandwiches.

Placing his satchel in his car’s trunk, the professor hears, from across the humid cement parking garage, a shriek of glee, and for a flash, he wonders if his fantasy has spilled into the real world. But no, it is merely a pair of women pointing at a cellphone screen. The professor brushes off the noise, but the sensation of laughter continues as he drops into the driver’s seat of his Toyota Corolla. In his head, the guests all laugh about the terrible professor, and he wonders why the story has taken this turn. All he can picture is a reception hall full of people eating sandwiches and laughing about the dead man’s professor. Nobody can stop talking about the tweed jacket, the condom balloon animals. Staring out the windshield, the professor watches the mourners, one by one, leave the reception hall and return to their normal lives. They arrive at their offices the next day and tell coworkers—hygienists, shoe salespeople, librarians, mail carriers—about the funeral, and every single one of them recalls the story of the Human Sexuality professor, indulging it with their own quirks. The professor imagines the convoluted narrative spreading like a viral game of telephone. And to think, in this false reality, he will be long dead and unable to defend his honor!

Yet do colleges still teach Human Sexuality? The professor does not know for sure. As a novice writer, he enjoys the spinning of a good yarn, but never has one gone so far off the rails. Perhaps it was something he ate? Maybe the leftovers were bad? And in asking himself this question, right as he is about to turn the ignition key to start his car’s engine and flee, the professor remembers he has left his empty insulated lunch bag behind in his classroom. His heart lurches. His mind has been so caught up in the misplaced student that he forgot to grab the orange bag from the lectern shelf, and since he won’t return to campus until next week, he should walk back to retrieve it, lest someone ransacks the room over the weekend. Thus, the professor hoists himself from the driver seat, locks his car, and treks back across the humid parking garage, passing the women shrieking at a cellphone and failing to catch a glimpse of the phone’s screen. It is plausible, the professor tells himself, considering new options, that this story he has fabricated has less to do with the lost student and more to do with his own classroom reservations. Maybe he needs to amplify his enthusiasm with the students. Maybe he has turned into one of those professors who go through the motions, who have lost the glimmer that keep their pupils coming back and asking if they also teach any other classes. What if, he thinks, returning to his invented scenario, the slight young man had come to the wrong classroom yet had been entertained? If he had been so impressed he decided to enroll in the class? His retelling of his error far in the future would become a story of accidental fortune, of stumbling into prosperity. At the slight young man’s funeral, his daughter would speak of the professor as a hero, and she would remember his name, because the professor would have become a mentor to the slight young man. Maybe the daughter would have known the professor, too, because his close collaborations with her father meant so much to both of them that her father would have insisted on inviting the professor to Thanksgiving dinner when she was a child.

Actually, the professor thinks, opening the stairwell door, thanks to advancing technology, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he could be alive at the time of the slight young man’s death. And after her father’s funeral, the professor might stop by the make-believe daughter’s house to check on the daughter’s son, to see how the boy is holding up after losing his grandfather. The professor will try to make this encounter something like an invitation to the lad, who himself will be without a father figure, to let the boy know that he can stand in as a role model if necessary. And the boy’s room will look much like the professor’s boyhood bedroom, with posters of animated characters and drawings covering the pale blue walls. The professor descends the parking garage stairs while thinking this and enters the welcome area once more. A blast of air-conditioning assaults his damp forehead. The same students huddle around the same tables, yet the volume of their conversations is now deafening. The professor marches past and hears snippets of dialogue—“Swear to God, man,” “No way did that happen”—before he turns down the hall. He is winded from all of the up and down (who designed this place?), as well as his mental gymnastics, and when he reaches the stairwell to his classroom, he sees that the nearby elevator is also available, so he chooses to take a respite, steps inside, presses “3,” and waits for the doors to close.

Catching his breath, his gaze focused out the opened elevator doors, the professor continues to engage the slight young man’s future grandson, a tear skating down the boy’s cheek as he sits on the edge of his bed. The professor will enter this room and slowly ease himself to sit on a creaking desk chair, yes, and the boy will refuse to look him in the eye. He will be ashamed of his sadness. Frustrated to be seen crying by the old professor, but the professor will not let this deter him from telling the boy about the first time he met his grandfather. Unlike the previous incarnations of the story, however, the professor will tell the boy the absolute truth, or, at least, the closest version of the truth his ancient brain will recall. He will say that the boy’s mother exaggerated at the funeral—though what version would she tell if she knew the professor in this scenario?—and that the true story was far simpler. The professor will tell the boy that he spotted his grandfather immediately one September afternoon and wondered if he was in the wrong classroom, and he will explain to the boy how, after class, he couldn’t stop thinking about the slight young man, and that like in a storybook, he happened upon the wayward student while returning to his classroom to retrieve his lunch bag. He will tell the boy, “I stood in an elevator, and who stepped in next to me but your grandfather. And as we rode, I told him he shouldn’t feel ashamed of his mistake, and that everyone errs from time to time.” He will continue by filling the boy in on some of his own embarrassments: the masturbating roommate, the crying in front of students. The boy will listen to all of this and his tears will dry. He will take the wrinkled, paper skin hand of the old professor and thank him, perhaps. Maybe he will begin affectionately calling him “Second Grandpa” from here on.

The professor considers all of this as if he knows the slight young man will one day marry and father a daughter who accidentally calls her teacher Mom. As if there’s a possibility he will one day eat a turkey dinner with these imaginary characters and comfort the adult daughter’s son in a bedroom that looks exactly like the one he grew up in as a child. Not once does he remind himself that, in six years of teaching, he has never mentored a soul. All the while, the elevator fills with students. There are so many that the professor is pushed to the back of the chamber, and their boisterous banters break him from his trance. The professor looks at the group of faces. What he needs is for the slight young man to be one of them. The professor wants to look the student in the face, to say something to him that propels his narrative, yet he is not within the cluster, and the professor deflates. To think this way is unhealthy, the professor tells himself. There are other responsibilities calling for his attention away from the university: grocery shopping, lawn mowing. What pattern will he mow in the grass? How many more times will he have to mow before the autumn air kills the yard? He taps his foot as the elevator doors slide shut, and voices that seconds before easily escaped from the open chamber bounce left and right off the walls. The elevator slowly ascends. Bubblegum snaps in mouths. A pair of young men freestyle rap. One girl speaks loudly into a cellphone by the professor’s side.

As he creeps toward his floor, the professor, fully aware of his actions, allows his mind to wander back to the slight young man. He sees himself twelve seconds into the future, walking into his darkened classroom and finding the slight young man picking an object up from the floor near where he was seated. When the student sees him, he stands and says, “My pen fell out of my pocket.” The near-future professor approaches the lectern and removes his orange lunch bag. “I forgot my bag,” he says, and in the shadowy space, he can make out a smile on the slight young man’s face, which is haloed by a hallway light that reaches its fingers into the room. The professor imagines his future self then telling the slight young man that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, that people get mixed up at the beginning of the semester. He sees the slight young man understand this statement. The professor can’t quite put a bow on the moment—these elevator students are too distracting—but he imagines that this will somehow change the initial narrative he concocted while walking to his car five minutes ago.

The professor reaches his floor with all this in mind. He says, “Excuse me” twice before the students hear him and reluctantly move out of the way. Nobody says a word about him after he leaves, yet as he nears his darkened classroom, his shoes clicking on the waxed tile floor, the professor considers how every action is like a ripple in water, gently rocking the life of each person it encounters. Every embarrassment is a lesson learned; a story gained. Decades ago, when he had walked in on his roommate masturbating, for example, though the professor pretended to see nothing, he knew to always make his presence known before entering a room. And his roommate, who at the time grabbed a blanket and threw it over his lap, learned to always lock his door. The professor tells himself to write an email to this former roommate when he gets home. Then he clears his throat and enters his classroom, announcing himself to whatever waits in the darkness.