“You knocked?” a fellow student later asked. “He hates that.”
This was my first interview. I had no idea how it was supposed to play out or what to even say. Often, when uncomfortable, I think of my life as an extremely black comedy, and I couldn’t stop imagining a daydream in which I shake Danny’s hand at the door just before someone bumps me from behind, causing my hand to ever so slightly graze Danny’s penis. I stand there and shift my weight from leg to leg, avoiding his gaze, until I readjust my backpack, cough, and leave. Thankfully, no such thing happened. Needless to say, my imagination often scares me.
In actuality, I stood there after the knock, and in response, Danny’s high-pitched, caustic voice came through the door.
“What?!” he asked.
I opened the door and peeked my head in. “I’m your first interview,” I said, motioning toward the sign-up sheet on the door.
“Well you’ll have to wait,” he said, nodding to the person who was currently sitting in front of him in his office, beaming. I mumbled some sort of noncommittal apology and shut the door as quietly as possible, already terrified. I also wondered how the student currently speaking with Danny could’ve possibly been smiling.
After having finally been let in, I sat down just as Danny’s phone started ringing. From there he screamed at someone on the phone, hung up on whatever poor soul was on the other end, grilled me on my taste in literature, criticized my taste in literature, and finally said, his right hand clapping himself on the head, “I honestly don’t think you can handle this class.”
Teachers don’t usually have imaginations. They see you for the moment, until enough time is spent with them to change that. I sat there, my frame shrinking, verbally accosted, and felt as though the image I had put forth was inexact and worthless. I knew I could do anything I put my mind to. So I stood and told him that I thought he was wrong. We volleyed put-downs and promises, me assuring and admonishing him in equal stride, him too tired to really give a fuck about anything I had to say. Finally, as we both stood across the desk from each other, he collapsed into his seat and said, “Okay, sign up. I’m working off of a notion here. You’re certainly determined.” The few stray hairs left on his balding head descended slowly as both of us felt the color in our cheeks shifting from red back to tan.
“Fine. I will,” I said. And added, “Nice to meet you.”
I signed up. Class went somewhat poorly at first, especially in my fevered attempts to fill the silence that his questions usually yielded. After a few terrible answers I actually knew had I just taken the time, I made an observation regarding the repetition of a motif in Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann. The motif happened to point to a more integral structural aspect of the novella as a whole, and he took my very simple observation as an indication of my understanding the entire thing. I quickly became one of Danny’s favorites.
When I stopped being so scared, I answered correctly, and Danny’s perception of me became more positive as that happened. Eventually, I made him my Don. So far, he’s my favorite member of faculty, and a fundamental part of my experience here at Sarah Lawrence. He has caused me to constantly try to produce better work. In fact, the difficulty in pleasing him is part of the reason I like him so much. I could be lazy. I’ve been lazy before. But I can’t be lazy around him. It’d be too much of a blow to my own pride. Everything I’ve wanted to achieve here seems to lead through him. I have to impress him. I even ended up getting a tattoo of an illustration from one of the poems I studied for conference. Danny loved it.
After all, difficult teachers are the ones who often see through us. It’s challenging to feel seen, completely, for what we are. Our work often reflects how hard we are willing to try as well as our ability to complete a task that is set before us. People like Danny have a tendency to reduce us to more childlike states, as they become parental figures who want to see us succeed, but aren’t willing to shorten our distance to the goal. I want Danny to be proud of me.
That’s the charm of our education here. We’re given mentors. At a lot of schools you have to show up for erratic office hours and seek out your preferred teacher constantly. On top of that, no one tells you that you should seek them out. We’re all just a bunch of fucking kids. However, SLC puts us all on an even keel. We don’t have to compete for a teacher’s attention. It’s already there. What you do with it is up to you. It’s nice to be given figures such as these that will help and urge us toward a better future.
If there’s someone here who teaches a class that you’re interested in, but has a negative stigma surrounding them, go for it anyway. Even if you think the teacher is a prick. They’re there to put the fear of God in you for a reason. We’re here to learn, after all. Who wants it to be easy?
I’m interested in teachers who are deemed insane. I’m interested in the ones who have lived longer than I can fully grasp, gathering experience and knowledge later to be doled out to us. Sarah Lawrence is full of these types of people, who’ve seen and understood the more harrowing times in our country’s history, who’ve been beaten, who’ve been told they couldn’t, and who’ve somehow ended up here and now, ready to receive students who are willing to be taken further. These teachers know a lot about time.
That’s the biggest thing Danny has taught me. I know how much time it takes me to read 100 pages of a novel. I know how much time it takes me to write a 9 page paper on William Blake. And I know what time has done to Danny, who is always looking for a fresh batch of students to really try. If you want to learn, try to get to know time. That’s all you truly have. Instead of letting it drag you forward, learn to understand it. Better yet, learn to wield it.