Spitballs hit the blackboard just inches from his head. He whirled around to face his classroom, too late to catch anyone in this mutinous act. It irked him to know he lacked the respect of his students. They made no effort to hide their mirth. Two nights ago he had been held up at gunpoint, robbed of his wallet by youths wearing bandannas to cover their faces. In the parking lot, behind the school, at dusk – they stole his car too, going on a joy ride before abandoning it. Victimized and humiliated, he stood. Had he not been deprived tenure – which would have assured his place of honor as a professor – this indignity never would have occurred. But with the declining interest in higher education, cutbacks, slashed budgets, the prestigious university had dismissed him and reduced him to this trivial pursuit of teaching (no, attempting to teach) these pubescent barbarians. He was tempted to select the usual culprits and banish them to the principal’s office. But their ranks were growing every day. What was the point? Would they be interested to know that Rome fell in precisely this manner? From within the city walls, an implosion, he informed them. Apathy. A divided populous who lacked interest! A mix of cultures and racial physiognomies stared back, as dense as wolves and sheep, all grinning at him. Perhaps they knew this and – like the ennui of ancient Rome – didn’t care. He could never reach them. He instructed them to open their books and continue with the assigned reading. A hand shot up. The boy asked if they would be tested on the material.  It made him sigh.  How could he best explain it? Pacing down the row of seats, he rubbed the palms of his hands in front of his face like a praying mantis and dabbled with the mathematical probability of all their futures – the high percentage rate of drop-outs, unwed mothers, incarcerated criminals, welfare recipients, drug addicts. He told them, Students, life was a test. They could choose to: 1) simply exist and accomplish nothing or, 2) apply rigorous effort in an attempt to improve their minds … and still fail. That was a hard cold fact. The odds were stacked against them. So why even bother? What good did it do to learn that the innate physical and mental capabilities of humans had not changed one iota for about forty thousand years? True. Yet, how could one explain all these outward changes – the invention of the wheel evolving into cars, the harnessing of fire into rockets and bombs? Should it even surprise them to know that man’s oldest pastime – congruous with sports – was warfare? Was that not their goal? The prizes gained from defeating others? Capturing wealth and power? He had their interest now, unstable as it was. The fate of a Byzantine emperor came to mind who, in the ninth century, had been out-witted in battle, captured by a tribe of marauding heathens who turned his royal skull into a drinking goblet. His students were as quiet as a pack of stalking predators. He tossed them a meaty free-for-all question: Would they like to hazard a guess as to what was considered by many to be the greatest achievement of the Roman Empire? Warfare, chariot races, public baths, togas parties? No—the triumph of peace! Albeit brief, for a few historic hundred years or so, a person could travel from one end of the Mediterranean to the other without hindrance. His students were unimpressed. He sat on the edge of his desk. Suspicious of them all, he searched their eyes. He risked turning his back to pick up the chalk. He told them to imagine themselves as God – the omnipotent creator and destroyer. Here it was: Life. He drew a horizontal white line across the length of the blackboard to represent the span of time life existed on Earth. Where did man fit in? He began to erase the line, starting at the beginning, stating names – protoplasm, the reign of protozoa, plant formations, fish, amphibians – ending with the rise and fall of the dinosaurs and stopping. He had erased the entire line. He walked back to face them, holding up the eraser. What portion did man and woman fit into this long line of predecessors? With his fingertip he plucked white lime off the black felt and displayed it. Roughly, that much, he informed them. But was that all they were? Insignificant specks of dust, according to God? Assuming God exists, challenged a student. Ah, a show of interest, good! Assuming, he amended. Well? Why should a God – or anyone for that matter – care about mere specks of dust? To their surprise he slammed his palm against the eraser and exploded a plume of particles into the air, accompanied by his voice to—Wake up! Sweeping a hand through the dust cloud, he advised them to start wondering who and what they were and how they came to be – for life and death were everywhere. The atoms that were once an emperor, once a Brontosaurus, still existed. They were merely redistributed, passing like time through their lungs every moment. Tomorrow would come fast. Soon they would be dead. And their fleeting speck of an existence – did it even matter? Yes, he thought so. Because each of them, no matter how seemingly insignificant in this mad teeming world they struggled to survive within, mattered. For they were history. The bell rang, ending his class. He turned and began erasing the names of the celebrated figures he had prepared to lecture about – Constantine the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustus – achieving fame, their place in the history books. Why? Were their lives more worthy of respect? Did God give a spit more for them than the condemned gladiator, the unfortunate galley slave, or his inner-city students? He listened to the slow stampede of their feet going out the door – a decibel quieter than other days, which made him leery. When he turned around he saw his stolen wallet and car keys placed on the desk.

Excerpt from Light-Years in the Dark: StoryPoems (see more)

photo-art design by todd crawshaw