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The Open-Door Policy

by Edna Faye Kiel

    Books, class notes, student papers, and institutional memos scattered across the office. The screen saver, bouncing across a state-of-the-art Mac, added movement to the confusion. Usually, Eugenia Van Dyk worked best in the midst of such chaos. She accepted a long time ago that others would judge her professional worth by the condition of her office, but she hadn’t spent thousands of hours on therapy to let herself be bothered by that. Besides the chaos had its own order. Her students soon learned that she could retrieve their papers from the stacks and piles as quickly as she learned their names on the first day of class. Anyway, her office probably didn’t look much different from most of their apartments, so the atmosphere was less intimidating to them. Ms. Van Dyk, or Gen as some of her students called her, was approachable, the highest compliment Eugenia wanted to achieve for herself.
In fact, her office door, despite its public display of Eugenia’s untidiness, remained open. The practice was part of her pedagogy. Teaching at a community college meant working with students who could be accepted into third level education without demonstrating any minimum requirements. The policy agreed with Eugenia’s politics; however, it also demanded a file drawer full of strategies to overcome the fears and lack of confidence many of the students brought with them about learning.
Her practice, no doubt about it, was also prudent. For every student eager for a second chance, there might be one anxious for trouble. By keeping the door open, Eugenia decreased risks for misinterpreted discussions. One-on-one conferences in her office were indeed welcome, but also public -- like her mess.
Eugenia’s students, however, soon learned that the laxity they perceived in the state of things in her office was in no way an indicator of the expectations she had for them in the classroom. Her first day philosophy was quickly put into practice: “I’m probably the only one in this room that believes that each one of you can do better than you think you can. My job is to put you on a tightrope -- a tightrope of learning -- keeping it taut enough to challenge you to go beyond what you already know while granting enough slack to motivate and interest you.”
    She gave that speech after she had demonstrated that she could remember all their names after one review of the roster. Her experience on the stage had given her the gift to use visual cues to help her memorize quickly.
In a way, Eugenia taught as if she were playing a part in a play. Her preparation was meticulous. She figured out what she wanted to achieve in a given class hour and then blocked the time to do just that. Also, she never entered the classroom without getting into character. That process began as she dressed for work each morning, deliberately choosing a costume that complemented the day’s instruction. The exception to this was during the first week of a new term. Then, believing she would be more difficult to psyche out, she selected very different styles each day for surprise appeal. If she kept the students guessing about her personality, they just might focus more on the classwork than on pleasing the instructor they thought they knew. How many times had she overheard, “Ms. S… likes it done this way,” or “I never take a class from Mr. E… I could never do things his way.”? Eugenia understood why students did this, but hated it.
Her tactics worked. In spite of her demands and unconventional methods, her classes were usually the first ones to fill, and students often praised her at the end of the term for her insistence that they work hard. Such success, however, made her defeats so much harder to accept. She felt betrayed by those students who resisted her, since she would have to break character, giving up her role as the strict but compassionate coach and taking up the gavel of the judge. She faced just that situation today. She awaited Crystal, whose first draft of a research paper had the distasteful odour of plagiarism to it. Eugenia always associated plagiarism with bad smells. She’d sniff out the suspected offense as one tracked down the rotting source of some noxious fume that burst from a just opened refrigerator. Sometimes the mould was so obvious that the clean-up, although unpleasant, was swift, as in the times the student quickly confessed and apologetically -- sometimes even gratefully -- accepted the consequences. Eugenia had a feeling that Crystal would not be one of these. From the first week, Crystal’s frowns from the back row disrupted Eugenia’s rapport with the other students. All of Eugenia’s usual approaches to compromise did little to relax Crystal’s agitation. She defied the process of research and writing at each step and then submitted a draft that carried out none of her original ideas. Eugenia was nosing her way through this very draft for the fifth time that afternoon, rehearsing over and over how she wanted to play the scene.
Uncharacteristically, she found little to ease her discomfort in the script she had. She tried to cheer herself up by congratulating herself that she had scheduled Crystal before Jon Michaels. Jon, stationed at a naval base near the campus, was one of Eugenia’s successes. She had taken him from developmental English courses to this final college-level comp and enjoyed immensely the gratitude of his admiration. Jon’s conference would be thoughtful and stimulating -- her reward for having lived through Crystal’s.
Her contentment, however, was short-lived as tension invaded the room. Eugenia looked up to see Crystal, silently leaning in the doorframe.
“Oh, Crystal. I didn’t hear your knock.”
    Eugenia was sure there had been no knock, but decided it was best to give the benefit of the doubt.
    “Please come in.”
    Eugenia motioned toward the chair strategically placed on the wall opposite to the doorway.
    “How are you this afternoon?”
Eugenia was left to assess this on her own. Crystal remained mute while she settled on the chair. Eugenia’s desk was situated so that she had to turn her swivel chair to face Crystal. Crystal’s huge brown eyes, staring back at Eugenia, would’ve been stunning if they hadn’t been so sullen. Thick hennaed hair fell over a skin-hugging black turtleneck to the waist of her black leather mini-skirt. The skirt slid as she crossed her black-stockinged legs to reveal more of her stocky thighs and all of her knee-high black suede boots. Calculated. Monochromatic. Eugenia realized she was meeting her match, especially when Crystal completed her pose by perching crimson fingernails over the raised knee. Eugenia cancelled any scheme to reduce the stress with small talk.
“I asked you to see me, Crystal,” Eugenia began, knowing full well that Crystal already anticipated bad news, “because I have several questions about the draft you’ve submitted.”
    Eugenia paused then at least the length of a paragraph. Usually, the guilty student interrupted at this point and initiated a series of excuses that almost always led to a full confession. Crystal’s silence dared Eugenia to plod ahead. Eugenia decided not to waste precious time and energy.
    “First of all, the content confuses me. The discussion does not carry out any of the ideas your preliminary research indicated. What happened to the subject that was approved?”
Eugenia scrunched her forehead a bit, affecting a bewildered but concerned expression while looking straight into Crystal’s staring eyes. Finally, the eyes blinked and Crystal’s mouth spilled forth, “Oh, yeah. Well, that one didn’t work, for I just didn’t have enough information to get the required ten pages worth.”
    One red fingernail discovered an itch behind her right ear.
    “And I went home over Thanksgiving, so I couldn’t use our school library. I talked to my boyfriend about it, and he gave me this idea, and I thought it sounded more interesting anyway, and you said you wouldn’t accept any late papers, so I just wrote this one.”
Compound sentence logic: each idea had equal importance. Eugenia needed no other proof of the difficulty she faced. After years of teaching writing, Eugenia had devised a way to assess her students’ thinking patterns through the sentence structures they preferred. As long as the art of the subordinate clause escaped them, so did deductive reasoning. Crystal, obviously, had spent more energy getting around the system than learning expository writing. Eugenia turned back to her desk, picked up the troublesome paper, and pretended to read a few pages.
After some minutes, she faced Crystal again, ready to lead her up to her second pointed question.
    “Well, I’m not surprised you had trouble with the original subject. If you recall, I expressed just that concern at each of our scheduled conferences, but you assured me that you could make it work. But in deciding to change your subject, you had a lot to do in a short time. Tell me, Crystal, what kind of help did you seek in writing this?”
    When the conversation got to this stage, guilty students would usually describe books they consulted or a friend or parent who was very useful to them. From that, Eugenia could ask the writer to identify specific passages that reflected these sources, which, of course, were never cited in the student’s draft. She would then clarify the techniques of scholarly documentation. Full admission of “carelessness” would generally follow. But that was in the easier cases.
“What do you mean?”
    Crystal’s face muscles stayed relaxed but her eyes blazed. Eugenia noticed that the red fingernails were now rubbing up and down between interlaced fingers.
“How did you get your information for this one? Did you read anything? Did you consult with anyone? What did you use to finish this draft?”
    Eugenia’s voice remained steady, but she knew Crystal was prepared to fight back.
“Well, I already told you I talked to my boyfriend. He goes to Shoreline CC, so he let me use his card to check out some books from their library.”
“Can you remember any of the titles of them?”
“No, but I didn’t write any of them down yet. You said we didn’t have to have a bibliography with our shaped drafts. The books are still at my parents’ house. They were too heavy to carry back with me. I was planning to do the bibliography next week-end.”
Eugenia decided it was time to call Crystal’s bluff.
    “Crystal, can you understand why I may be asking these questions?”
“I guess it’s because you don’t like my paper.”
    Eugenia flinched. That’s the way, Crystal. Move the discussion to the personal taste of the instructor. Oh, you’re good.
“Whether I like this paper or not has nothing to do with this discussion.”
    Careful, Gen. Keep the tone objective, professional. She bent forward, leaning into the posture of an advisor.
    “Remember, my job is to evaluate how well you demonstrate the principles of research to your writing. One of these is documentation. Can you show me a section whose information you learned from a book? I don’t see any references to titles or authors in the text.”
“Oh, well, the ideas didn’t just come from one place. After I read, I just pulled all the ideas together. Can’t we do that?”
Eugenia ignored such feigned innocence and moved the discussion to the third level of inquiry.
    “Crystal, let’s look at a specific passage.”
    Eugenia leafed through the pages, looking for the phrase she had selected before the interview.
    “Uhh, this one, for instance. On page six, you write, ‘… The investigative team made use of indefatigable precautions …’ What does indefatigable mean?”
    The most aggressive of her tactics, it was sure. When students couldn’t answer questions about their own writing, the cause was so obvious only the most obstinate would not fluster out a confession, no matter how unpleasant the moment turned out to be. Eugenia braced herself for an outburst.
But the masquerade Crystal had maintained began to twitch itself into a fiercer stance. She uncrossed her legs, threw up her chin, and shot her accusation through a pointing hand.
    “You don’t think I wrote this.”
The charge hit Eugenia straight in the gut. The next few minutes would have to be played very carefully. If she allowed herself to get defensive, this whole thing could end in a grievance, and Eugenia didn’t have enough proof at this stage to face down a dean.
    “I’m trying to understand how this draft came to be, Crystal. You must admit that I have reason to question the work. The writing does not carry out your original plan, your note cards seem incomplete, and the documentation is absent. Beyond that, the language of the prose is so different from your conversational speech that you must agree that I would expect a reference to some source or another. In its present state, I can not evaluate it properly. I need your help in understanding what to do.
Crystal’s anger exploded in a series of even harsher accusations.
    “You’ve never liked me from the start. You wouldn’t give me the help I needed. You’re just not a very good teacher.”
Eugenia channeled all her energy into her response.
    “None of those statements is true, Crystal, and because I am asking you to face a very difficult problem, I am going to ignore them. I cannot accept this writing as it is. What do you think would be a fair solution to this?”
The question had the desired affect. Crystal’s anger turned itself into a whimper. The two faced each other in the moment’s tension, each one of them daring the other to relinquish the power it gave them. Eugenia tried to keep eye contact and realized it was her turn to be played. With an excellent sense of timing, a soap-opera tear dropped from Crystal’s wide right eye. Eugenia was insulted that Crystal had reduced herself to such amateurish levels. When belligerence didn’t work, try for sympathy. Eugenia called her bluff again.
    “It’s okay to cry, Crystal,” and then sat back to wait, letting her silence inform Crystal that she still wanted an answer to her question.
Despite being fully visible from the open door, Crystal didn’t give up. The whimper developed into sobs, embarrassingly loud ones. When the red fingernails wrapped themselves around a heaving abdomen, Eugenia allowed her sympathy to take just one action: she shut her office door. As she did so, she noticed that Jon was seated in the chair right outside her office. His small smile signalled that he understood his appointment would be delayed.
Crossing back to her chair, Eugenia again took charge. She picked up the tissue box from the top of the file cabinet and handed it to Crystal. As the two met eyes, Crystal’s tears stopped immediately. She blew her nose and daubed at the mascara streaks she knew must be undoing her face. One hand brushed back her hair.
“Do you think you’re ready to discuss a solution now, Crystal?”
Eugenia allowed her voice to soften, not wanting to flaunt her triumph over the current moment.
“You know,” Crystal came back, “I know people in Seattle I could get to come after you.”
    The fixed gaze had returned. A
larms went off inside Eugenia, but she managed to come up with an unrehearsed line.
    “Crystal, be careful. If I believe I am being threatened, I can take legal …”
    Crystal cut through. “I have contacts with gangs, you know.”
    At that, Eugenia could not disguise her anger. Swivelling, she reached for her phone in the top corner of her desktop. Her panic increased when she realized she couldn’t locate the number for campus security. It was on a card taped to her filing cabinet, but a stack of overdue library books hid it from view. In the second or two of her searching, she lost awareness of Crystal until a shriek shattered her ear.
    “I’ll show you then.”
    Red fingernails flew past Eugenia’s shoulder to grasp the shears Eugenia had forgotten among the papers. The action swung her chair around. Eugenia grabbed for the sidearms and saw the shears slice Crystal’s wrists. One, two, three, and then four. Red and black flashed before Eugenia while the shears slashed and slashed into the taut flesh.
    Eugenia knew she must act, but her fury delayed her. How dare this little hussy upstage me with a suicide attempt? How dare she take advantage of me this way?
    “Ms. Van Dyk. Ms. Van Dyk. What’s going on in there?”
    From behind the closed door, Jon’s urgent voice pulled Eugenia into action. She lunged forward, trying to capture one of Crystal’s forearms. Crystal, anticipating the move, backed against the door -- the knob now turning and rattling from the outside.
    “Damn,” Eugenia screamed, realizing the security lock was still on. She reached forward again, that time feeling the shears knick the top of her index finger. But, once again, Crystal outmanoeuvred her. Eugenia’s defense, however, had stopped the slashings. Eugenia seized the chance to speak.
    “Give me the scissors, Crystal. Give it to me now.”
    The command was firm but not menacing.
    Crystal said nothing, but lifted one hand with the bloodied shears in it toward Eugenia. Eugenia, never diverting her eyes from Crystal’s, slowly opened her hand, palm side out. The blades kept coming, their red stains getting closer and closer.
    As they made contact with her own flesh, Eugenia took possession of the scissors, folding her fingers around the handle. But then, Crystal’s empty hand formed into a fist, striking directly at Eugenia’s arm. Eugenia’s hand flew back over her shoulder, and the shears clanked to the floor, throwing her off balance against the bookcase. Her head hit each of the shelves as she, too, crashed to the floor. Jon was now banging on the door.
    “Ms. Van Dyk? Gen, please. Do you need help?”
    Eugenia grabbed for the legs on the conference chair, hoping to pull herself upright, but found that the room swirled against her. The legs on the chair wouldn’t stand still, and the air filled once again with more red streaks. Then the red descended towards her and circled her throat. The circle tightened and then tightened some more. Denied the oxygen to fight back or scream, Eugenia succumbed to a Monday night stage: no lights, no play, no applause.


Taken from ‘Nothing is Ever What it Seems’ (1994), pages 32-43.

Edna Faye Kiel

The Attic