As a rule, I don’t teach drunk, and I’m not an interesting enough person to take part in any other substances that I wouldn’t be allowed to imbibe in while at work. So, on the whole, I’m a sober teacher because it doesn’t take anything synthetic to make me weird. However, recently a stick was thrown into the spokes of the bicycle of fate, and I was riding the handlebars. I’ve caught the flu. Naturally, I’ve been battling this malign viral enemy with all the tools modern medicine can offer me. So, mostly I’ve been drinking a lot of tea and taking copious amounts of cold medicine. I also put whiskey in my tea because someone suggested it has healing powers, and I’m the absolute easiest person to enable. Anyway, this story is not about the whiskey in my tea–which only happens at home. This story is about cold medicine and 24 rubber ducks.
When I was a kid, I lived in a town with a curfew of 10 PM for people under 18. If a child was found roaming the streets after 10, a police officer would swoop down upon them lights ablaze and escort them home. I was brought home a lot. Maybe it’s because of these rather tame clashes with authority when I was a child that led me to break little rules as an adult: sometimes I “accidentally” don’t scan things at the self-checkout lane in grocery stores, or I borrow rolls of tissue paper from bathrooms at work, or I lie my way into school orientation groups to get free lunches. Or, like yesterday, I disregard the instructions on a box of cold medicine.
I did not know medicine had come as far as it had. About 5 years ago, I used to take cold medicine to help me sleep. I’d down a few pills and pass out watching Star Wars on my computer. Medicine has come a long way–apparently. The directions on my off-brand box of cold medicine said something along the lines of “take 2 pills before bed.” There was a daytime version, but those were farther under the sink and I didn’t want to reach that far, so all I was left with were a few beautiful green gel capsules of the nighttime medicine. When I opened the packet my hands were shaking a little because fevers are not known for lending you the steady hands of a surgeon, so I accidentally found myself with 4 shiny green oblong capsules of cheap medication. I’d like to say I stopped to consider the implications of taking a double dose of something that used to knock me out within half an hour, but I did not. The only thing I stopped to do was fill a little cup with water before tossing back all 4. Then I caught a bus and went to work.
Some might wonder why I didn’t cancel class, and that would have been a fantastic idea if I had not canceled the day before my medicated adventure, and I do not believe in canceling two days in a row. Riding the bus, it takes approximately half an hour to get from my home to campus. In the space of that half hour, I managed to comment on 3 drafts, send a few emails, and get absolutely stoned on cold medicine.
In the main office of the building I teach in, English faculty can congregate to heat their lunch or make copies or covertly rob the lost and found of notebooks. It is also where you can rent a basket of rubber ducks. I like to think every English office in every college has a basket of ducks for young teachers to borrow because every teacher should use them at some point. I use them to teach research.
Ducks in hand, I went to my classroom 25 minutes early. I was swerving a little because I was dizzy for some reason. By then, I could feel every hair on my body as it shifted with the movement of my clothes. Every time I blinked, I had to struggle to pull my eyes open again. I wanted to sleep like a new parent wants to brag about their kids, and I was far more justified. It took me until I got to the door to realize I hadn’t changed into my work clothes. I’ve long wondered about the line between casual and business casual and between business casual and formal. As far as lines go, however, I was somewhere in the territory of homeless or comic book store filth. My fashion Venn diagram is a disappointing infinity sign representing the unfavorable union of general slobbery and an untoward fascination with wizards. I was wearing dirty running shoes, ancient jeans I’d been wearing for the entire span of my sickness, and an oversized red sweatshirt with “Unseen University” on it from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. And, seeing that it was too late to go back to my office, I committed to teach in the clothes wear every time I’m sick, my stained, weathered, perfectly me-shaped uniform of the flu, my fluniform.
It’s here that my memory gets hazy, but I do recall some specifics of the class. I remember using the word “duck” a lot, and I remember that the lesson I taught was based on a consistently developing mock research project centered around observations each student made about the rubber duck they had been assigned. I also remember, with concerning clarity, one exchange between a student about the research process he would go through to learn more about his duck. To contextualize, the duck he had been assigned was one of 2 mechanized duckies, a true plastic horror of gears and wheels that I think had been designed to roll across the floor after being wound, but instead just vibrated and thrusted its bulbous duck head forward, a cuckoo clock monstrosity. The conversation went something like this.
Me: What observations have you made about your duck?
Student: it’s plastic, yellow, its beak is covered in blood, it has wheels, a long neck, screws in its wings, and one eye has been gouged out.
Me: Like most ducks, yes. Now, tell me how you would go about finding out how this duck came to be with you on the beach that night.
It’s important to note that the assignment these students had been given was to analyze a toy duck that had supposedly washed up on the shore of a beach they were visiting late at night.
Student: First, I would ask my mother.
Me: A good start. Mother knows best.
Student: Then, she would tell me to go to our pastor because clearly the duck is possessed.
Me: Yes, I noticed that too.
Student: Then, the pastor would send me to the Vatican to speak to the pope.
Me: Of course, I would too.
Student: And the pope would excommunicate me.
Me: For bringing a possessed duck to the holy city?
Me: That’ll happen. Where to next? Has your search ended?
Student: No, next we’ll go to our good friend Satan, who we’ll find was the original owner of the duck but lost it on the beach.
Me: Sometimes these things happen.
I think I remember this conversation with such clarity not because it was inspired by my drug-addled feverish head, but because it seemed completely normal. The only abnormal part of the whole scenario is that I was sitting in a chair and spinning the entire time. I do not, however, remember if the chair was spinning or if it was just me in a flu-driven carousel.
Every day, I put up a powerpoint slide that tells my students exactly what we’re doing that day. I do this, in part because I’ve read a bunch of dry theory that talks about giving students agency in their academics and understanding what they’re doing gives them a sense of control in a world that, for the most part, will consistently try to rip every bit of power they have from them until they die alone, screaming in the dark. And I also do it to remind myself what my lesson plan is. This is the slide from my sick day.
My day did not end after teaching. After that, I sat in my office for 4 hours waiting as students from my other class trickled in to pick up my feedback on their drafts. Each student who came was privy to a sight few in the world have witnessed: a once-proud teacher reduced to a huddled, sniffling mass entombed in a huge red sweatshirt clutching a teacup, but they still got excellent feedback because it’s the first paper I had returned to them, and if I’m going to die doing anything, it’ll be proving to a pack of kids that they can draft and re-draft until they die and I’ll still have something to say about it. Students who visited me were also treated to my caramel-scented breath because I was constantly sucking on Werther’s Originals because I didn’t have any cough drops. Had any students failed to knock, they would have seen me with my face on my desk, drooling, half-asleep and whispering to my computer because I genuinely believed it would tell everyone my browsing history if I didn’t beg it not to–not that there’s anything truly shameful on it, but I don’t really need anybody to know just how much time I spend researching the Flat Earth Society and trying to get them to talk to me. This is the state I’ve been reduced to after only 3 weeks back.
I missed it so much.