“For Zack (that is for AALR to celebrate ‘Rolling the R’s’)” by Karen Tei Yamashita

It’s been awhile. Well, if we’re celebrating how many years of Rolling, is it one hundred already? Okay, it’s not that long ago, but this is not about Rolling. It’s about Zack, Zack as a newbie teacher of creative writing. It’s all very fuzzy now, but I think my colleague Micah Perks and I convinced Zack to come to UC Santa Cruz to teach creative writing for a year, which year I don’t remember. At first he moved into a room in my house dis-occupied by my traveling daughter. But after about a month, my daughter moved back home, so Zack kindly agreed to move into his office. Well, agreed is not really true, but this is a writer who has said that his home is his email address, and it was a pretty big office. Micah helped him haul in a futon bed from her house, and he set up camp in the Kresge creative writing annex. Besides our offices, the annex had a small lounge, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. Perfecto. After awhile, he made friends with another professor who also lived in his office at Kresge College, and pretty soon, Zack knew where to take showers, where to wash and dry his clothing in the coin-operated student laundry, the route to the gym, how to order out for pizza, how to raid the student cafeteria. This business of living out of one’s office was apparently a time-honored tradition. Well, we are talking Santa Cruz. If you arrived in the morning, you’d find Zack coming out of his office in his bathrobe, hair shoved upward in the wild sleep pattern of that evening. He’d yawn and stretch and look at you like, did you bring me my coffee? Then he’d say that he’d been up all night writing, which is what writers usually tell you in the morning, like it’s a badge of something. I want to say here that Zack finished his novel Leche while living in that office, and I felt that we had contributed significantly to his literary career. But then, he must have revised that first draft another ten times, so we could never make that generous claim. The other claim we wouldn’t want to make is that we initiated his teaching career.

The thing about teaching is that you figure if you do what your teacher did, it should work. Even if your teacher was a hard-ass who crossed out all of your precious words and circled one lousy sentence, saying This is it, and somehow you were tough enough to come back and write from that one leftover sentence and then get published, I guess that’s the teacher you emulate. I wouldn’t say that Micah Perks and I have cultivated a warm and fuzzy creative environment like the two mothers we are, but we are not tiger moms by a long shot. Micah Perks has always thought of herself as the bad cop, and I’m the good cop. I say to students: You need to work on this. I shake my head. Wait till Micah sees this; she’ll fix it. Actually, everyone knows we’re pushovers. So when Zack arrived, we thought Zack will really fix it. When Zack wasn’t fixing haywire student writing, wasn’t teaching or in his office writing, he was usually at my house, eating dinner, watching TV, and snoring on my couch. One day he appeared in the doorway and announced defeatedly, Karen, I screwed up. Maybe I was bringing the pot roast to the table. What’s that supposed to mean? No really, he said. Today I told the students their work was shit, that I wanted to vomit. I put the roast on the table. Oh yeah? I laughed. Vomit? Ha! What are you worrying about? It’s fine. They need to hear the truth. Let’s eat. Okay, I admit this was a missed opportunity for mentorship, but what did I know? I never got an MFA. In fact I never participated in a workshop, but here I was teaching. Shouldn’t Zack know better than me? At the end of the year, Micah reported the bad news. Zack’s teaching evaluations were horrible. She quoted one student evaluation over the phone: Listen to this: He said my work was shit and that it made him vomit. I ran out of the classroom and couldn’t write again for the rest of the quarter. Needless to say, this was not the end of Zack’s teaching career. I probably lied or avoided the subject and wrote recommendations to get him jobs in Hawaii and Miami, and there are hundreds of students since then who will attest to his superb teaching skills.

I miss that year of Zack. Maybe some students had a rough time, but if you circle one sentence in these many years of teaching, Zack was it.

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