Not Waving, but Drowning: A short story starring Tom Hanks

I know you’ve seen this movie.  You know, the one where there’s this guy stranded on a deserted island and time goes by.  At first, he doesn’t seem to know how to survive, but as his rescue starts to become increasingly more unlikely, he becomes increasingly more resourceful.  He learns to, you know, like harvest and consume the flaking sun-burned skin on the back of his eye lids as a source of protein, along with tree bark, his own finger nails, and eventually even the thin sheet metal from the wreckage of the plane that dumped him there in the first place.  (Hey, a guy’s gotta get his iron intake from somewhere if he ever plans to build muscle).  The pitiful man on the brink of isolation-induced psychosis is usually played by Tom Hanks, or someone else whom we just like so darn much that it breaks our heart to see him out there all alone in the middle of nowhere and perhaps never coming back.  (Although, lately, this role has found its way to the likes of Blake Lively and others of her stripe, and the dangerous island is replaced by a tiny rock and a Great White shark, for obvious reasons (i.e., teenage boys don’t want to look at Tom Hanks, and a whole island provides way too many options to maintain the microscopic attention spans of the types of people who came to see Blake Lively).

The film becomes agonizingly angsty, as would-be rescuer after would-be rescuer fails to notice our stranded hero who is “not waving, but drowning”.  Of course, you know where I’m going with this.  First he sees a far off cruise ship, and he rushes to light a signal fire.  In Pixar versions, that signal fire might even be constructed of pond fronds that spell out the word H-E-L-P (and later burn out the bottom of the P’s loop to form a different word).  Somehow though, 3,000 vacationers on the deck of the cruise liner, fail to notice our stranded hero and his signal fire that was large enough to effectively singe the eyebrows off Shadrack, Meishack, and Abendigo.

Later, a plane’s pilot can’t seem to recognize that the United Airlines fuselage, covered with old tarps and rags for shelter, is actually anything out of the ordinary for Shipwreck Island, and he fails to call it in.  Eventually, our hero gets desperate.  He measures the tides, gathers driftwood, packs up as much freshwater as he possible can fit on his make-shift raft and makes one final last ditch effort at freedom.  He clears the crashing tides only to drift out just far enough to be pummeled by Hurricane Harvey that just happens to decide to make raft-fall that first night.  When our hero wakes up, he is nearly drowned and lying on the shores of, you guessed it, Shipwreck Island all over again.

 

. . . . .

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like Tom Hanks at YC.  Now that Jared has joined TeLS I am in a department of one.  I am the only full-time language instructor at YC.  It’s gotten bad, but I don’t carry a volleyball around with me or anything like that (yet), after all, I still have YouTube.  But, let’s face it, I get lonely.  Every month at YC, I wonder and I worry, how do I survive on this deserted island?  Like Hanks, I try each and every trick that I can think of to save myself (recruit more language students, in this case).  The most aggravating thing about recruiting and promoting your YC classes is, you never know if what you are doing is successful.  If you have a bad year, you try harder to put yourself and your classes out there, but when that bad year is followed by an even worse one, what can you conclude?  Especially when, the next year, out of utter panic and frustration, you do nothing to recruit, and suddenly the students are coming out your ears.

Finally, on a lazy afternoon when you’ve all but given up hope that a boat will ever find you, or that the students will ever realize that they need to take your course and find the way into your classroom, suddenly a miracle happens, dual enrollment washes ashore.

. . . . .

The movie seems to always end the same way.  Picture a young millennial who’s stolen daddy’s yacht and takes his girlfriend for a joy-ride well off the coast.  He spots your tiny secluded island and thinks it would be a great place to spread out his red and white checkered tablecloth and pop the cork of his champagne.  Suddenly you wipe the crusty perfectly good protein from your sleep blurred eyes and stare into the eyes of your unlikely rescuer.

“Dude, are you alright?  What happened to you man?”

Hearing human language jars you for a minute because it’s been about six months since you’ve wasted words from your dry and swollen throat on even your favorite volleyball, but eventually you begin to respond when he cuts you off.

“Listen, should I like go try to track down some Coast Guard guys for ya?  I could probably be back in about two or three hours.”

When the young hedonist sees the sudden panic that immediately floods over you, as you contemplate the possibility of your unsuspecting rescuer leaving your sight, he reluctantly brings you aboard.

. . . . .

After months and years of feeling like I was wandering around on the razor’s edge between absolute YC starvation and rescue, I wipe the sleep from my eyes just in time to see my possible rescuer wash ashore, clothed in a 21 Pilots concert shirt and snap chatting the answers of the chemistry quiz to his friends.  Yikes!  My hope for rescue lies in the text-worn hands of millennials.  As my discipline is increasingly being shoved down to high school student, I’m faced with recruiting high schoolers from area alternative schools like AAEC to take part in our concurrent enrollment programs.  These students are often as unreliable as the flippant and glib yacht thief, out for a joy ride with his girl.

. . . . .

“Wow Buddy, how long have you been out here?” he says as you shuffle aboard.  You can’t answer as you take in your surroundings.  There’s a small plate of what looks like strawberries and cheese near a small Jacuzzi with two glasses half-way filled with champagne.  Your mind only registers the food and you attack it like a ravenous wolf, not caring what your young host has to say about the matter.

“Jeez Buddy!  You’re making a mess, my girl is going to be up here in a second.  You can’t go around acting like that.  Stop it, get ahold of yourself.  Stop it” he shakes your shoulder but you go on eating.  “You look disgusting, look at you” he says, trying to pull you away from the food.  You feel crumbs all over your face and beard, but it barely even registers.  “Hey, you can’t act like this when Cheyenne’s up here, you’re going to really freak her out.”

“Water” you manage to cry as you pour out the champagne and dart your eyes around the sprawling vessel.

“Don’t got any water buddy.  Just champagne.  We’re celebrating our 3 months anniversary.  We met in the club.  Mom said I’d never meet anyone good there, but even she likes Cheyenne.”

You push him aside and start lapping up water from the Jacuzzi, but the chlorine in the water nearly makes you wretch.  Your eyes meet and he looks at you with utter disgust.  You’re too thirst to feel any shame.

. . . . .

My eyes darted around the tiny chemistry room where I had been invited to AAEC to share a short pitch intended to get students excited to sign up for SPA 101 at Yavapai College.  The entitled high schoolers scrolled through their phones and looked completely indifferent.  As I became cognizant that no one was paying attention, I’m sure I started to look panicked.  This was my one shot to quench YC’s thirst for language students, and I was blowing it.  The room was crowded with college-prep students who already had a Starbucks addiction and a proclivity to try and complete all of their school assignments on their iPhone.  How can I maximize my Netflix time and minimize my Canvas time for my college classes and still pass? And how late is Starbucks open? were the questions that floated around in their minds.  I didn’t know what to do.  I felt like I was on that island, not waving, but drowning.  I was desperately looking to them for help, literally thirsting to death, and they were at best indifferent and at worst, freaked out by my “awkward” earnestness and sincerity.

“Many of you will need to take Spanish at the universities as a part of your BA degree and many of you, especially those headed to UofA, will need Spanish as part of your BS degree as well.  It makes a lot of sense to get these courses out of the way while here at YC.”  Blank stares.  I felt like I should do a backflip or something to catch their attention.  The crazed look in my eye wasn’t enough.  They were cruising right on past me without even seeing me there on the island, stranded.  Then, suddenly, one student looked like she actually saw me and was willing to come at least close to shore, if not pick me up.

“I’m thinking about taking Spanish because my dad speaks Spanish, but does Yavapai offer any other languages?”

“Well, yes, we do offer some American Sign Language courses, but . . .” I’m starting to get sweaty now and I’m sure the panic is coming through in my voice, they’re about to cruise right past the island.    “But we encourage students to take Spanish because it is so prevalent in our area.  Every time I enter Walmart I’m able to speak in Spanish with someone.  I’ve never seen anyone using sign in our area.  The deaf community is very small here.  Plus, we have all of the courses in Spanish needed for transfer.”

“I hear that ASL is way easier.  I’m going to take that.  You don’t have to worry about verb conjugation or a whole bunch of tenses and stuff.”

“Yeah, me too!”

“So, how many of you are thinking about taking American Sign Language?” Nearly the whole class raises their hands.

And the huge crew ship full of very intrepid tourists sails right on past the island without even knowing I’m there.  When they were within sight distance, too many of them were already headed to the all-you-can-eat buffet to notice me anyway.  Feeling too weak and defeated to light even a tiny signal fire, I gather up the promotional materials that I was supposed to pass out, and I make a hurried exit.

. . . . .

“Hey man, I’m going to put you below deck.  You just can’t act like this up here.  Cheyenne is going to be freaking out!”  You try to pull yourself together, not wanting to be separated from possible water sources and any possible food above deck.  The famous Cheyenne emerges from below deck wearing next to nothing, obviously Jacuzzi attire, and she stops short when she sees you.  She looks at you like you’re a tyrannosaurus rex, about to chase her down and swallow her whole and she starts to whisper something to your host.

“No, it will be alright” you hear him say in a whisper.  “Yeah, he’s been out there for a while.  I think he was like lost at sea or some cray cray thing like that.  Don’t worry about it, we’ll drop him with the coasties as soon as we can.  He’s not going to ruin our day.  No he’s not.  I promise.  I PROMISE!  We’ll drop him off as soon as we can.  Well I couldn’t just leave him out there, could I?  Just look at him.  Well I don’t like it either.  [even lower whisper now] Of course he creeps me out too, but we might even be saving his life.  No.  I won’t leave you alone with him.  Of course I won’t.  Just relax, it will be fine.”

“Hey, what’s your name old timer?”

“Tom Hanks” you reply, in a horse voice that doesn’t even sound like your own.  When was the last time you used it?  It was getting hard to remember now.  You’re eyes were darting everywhere and you knew it had to make you look crazy, but you can’t seem to control them.  A ship like this had to have more food and water stored somewhere.

“Cheyenne and I are going to try and scrounge you up some food.  We have to have something besides booze on this tin can somewhere.”

You just kind of nod, still in disbelief.

. . . . .

“You okay Professor Kleinman?”

“What?  Oh.  Yeah.  I’m good.” I say as I run into the principal at AAEC on my way out the door.

“Do you think you’re going to get these students to sing up for languages at Yavapai?”

“I think so” I mutter.  “Most of them are taking ASL.”

“That’s great!  Yes, American Sign Language has been very popular.  Our students do very well in that course.  Come back any time though!” he says, as I bewilder my way out the door, still thirsty.

At the more traditional high schools, I’m no more likely to be rescued.  They too are engaged in a world languages “partnership” but their program is one of dual enrollment, where students do not take classes at YC; rather, they use YC curriculum to create a course taught at the high schools by high school instructors.  Dual enrollment partnerships are even more bleak than concurrent enrollment programs.  In the traditional high schools, I feel like a castaway whose been brought aboard, not a personal yacht, but a huge cruise ship, and then, instead of offering me food and water, they fleece me.  I’m held down and they rifle through my wild beard and rags looking for my wallet.  The bloated high schools, with students bursting at the seems, have the audacity to say, “not only do we have our students, we also want our students to BE your students and we want to pirate your curriculum and use it here.  Moreover, not only will we henceforth not send you students, we will also commandeer your curriculum and use it as our own”.  Ouch!  Kick a starving man while he’s down, why don’t you!  The student-rich high schools, rob from the student-poor (YC) in order to give back to themselves, in a kind of weird take on Robin Hood, bent on self-aggrandizement and greed.

Students at these “partnership” high schools take a YC Spanish placement test in order to qualify to take dual enrollment classes in languages.  When (not if) their students don’t pass, the instructors often come to me and beg for the test’s standards to be lowered or for some other exception to be made (even though we’ve used these tests for our own students for years).  When I suggest that, perhaps, some students who did not pass the placement test, take our pre-requisite class in the summer at YC in order to qualify to take the dual enrollment class that they didn’t know enough to test into, once again the answer to the dying man is, “there’s no water for you”.

“Well, I don’t know.  Students probably can’t afford to take Spanish classes with you” they told me.

“You’re telling me that juniors and seniors in high school can’t work during the summer and earn a whopping 300 dollars?”  Can’t, or won’t?

“Taking a normal class at YC is just not an option that will work for our students” the say.

So, local area high schools want to take our classes, our students, and our curriculum and in exchange they want to give us _______________ (please, please, please, someone reading this blog fill-in the blank with some benefit for Yavapai College of dual enrollment).  I have racked my brain trying to determine how dual enrollment can possibly be a partnership in the true sense of the word.  You know, where you get something and I get something.  The only way in which I can figure that YC may benefit from this partnership would be the possible bolstering of summer enrollments.  Students who fail the placement test could take our classes in the summer to remediate and then qualify for Spanish dual enrollment at the high schools in the fall.  It’s a plan that should work, if the schools were willing to partner with us, throw us a rescue line, share with us even a measly drop of water from their vast cisterns.  That’s my idea, anyway.  Call it a last ditch effort to be rescued, climb aboard the ship, and find something, anything to drink . . .

But, just as you’re about to take a sip of that one solitary bottle of water tucked in behind rows and rows of bottles of champagne that are stowed there for the affluent, they catch you and say, . . .

. . . . .

“Hey man, you can’t drink that stuff.  Cheyenne needs that water.  After she gets a little champagne tipsy, she always gets crazy thirsty.”

Your hands tremble as your young host pries the bottle away from you.  Your eyes meet Cheyenne’s and she turns her head away with a mixture of equal parts disgust and pitty.  “C’mon man, let’s get you cleaned up a little”.  He takes you below deck where he leads you into a tiny bathroom and closes the door behind you.  You have that strange Castaway moment where you flip the light on and off again, shocked by the magic of electricity and your sudden appreciation of something that, before, you never even gave a second thought.  Your stomach still aches though, and the light switch isn’t going to fill that void.  You need sustenance.

“Hey buddy, you going to come out of there?” you hear your host’s voice outside.  “What are you doing in there?”

“He’s probably trying to steal your toilet paper” Cheyenne’s voice suggests.  “That old bum, he could be up to anything in there.  Scott, I swear, we are done!  I can’t believe you picked this guy up; this was supposed to be our romantic weekend.”

“What did you want me to do Cheyenne, just leave him out there?”

“Yes!!!!  You bring this creeper on board?  What were you thinking?”

“Listen buddy, I’m coming in.”

You hear the sound of keys and suddenly your host and Cheyenne are standing before you in the hallway, staring.

“Oh my G . . . Buddy, what are you . . .?”

“Scott, he’s eating your toothpaste” and the look on their faces melts from pity into something much worse.  They’re afraid of you.

“If you’re not going to do anything, I will” and with that Cheyenne slams the door and turns the lock.  “We’ll let him out once we get to shore”.

You flip on the light and see yourself in the mirror—blue paste all over your beard and lips.  The shocking sight and crazed animal glint in your eyes stops you for a minute.  Who is that staring back at you?  For a sliver in time you think of the fear you saw in the eyes of your rescuers turned captors and you understand.  You feel a spark of embarrassment as you begin to remember shades of who you once were, refined and civilized, like them, and compare it with the rabid thirsty demon staring back at you in the mirror.  The shame lasts but a moment before you go on shoving the cool blue liquid into your mouth, savoring the sweet taste as it slides down your throat.  Delicious.  The ache in your stomach subsides and you lift up the lid in search of water to accompany the meal.

. . . . .

“Whoa buddy, you’re really jumpy.  I didn’t mean to scare you.”

It was principal Robins from the large local “partnership” school.  “No worries, I’m just a little bit out of it today,” I say.

“How’s our Spanish dual enrollment partnership going?”

“It’s going well” ever the optimist.  “We had about 5 of your students pass our placement test and if I get the okay to lower the cut scores like your teachers want, we might get enough for you guys to run a small section next fall” I offer.

“That’s great.  Looks like a real win win.  I love dual enrollment!”

“Yeah, me too” I say.  I also love training new dual enrollment teachers, credentialing them, driving out to observe them, teaching them how to use Canvas and enter grades, fighting with them over cut scores, dispensing common final exams to them, teaching them Spanish, teaching them how to administer our content, worrying about whether they complete required YC trainings and documents, and doing this all for free, I think to myself.  Because we are “partners”.

“Just let me know if there is anything else that we can do for YC.”

Else? I think to myself.  What was the first thing?

“Actually, there is one thing I can think of right now” I say, a quiver in my voice and a crazed look already starting to play across my face.

“Well, you just . . . uh, name it then” the principal says with noticeable vacillation, obviously banking on the hope that I would never actually take him up on the empty offer.

“Oh, it’s nothing really.  I was just wondering, do you guys have any bathrooms around this place that are stocked with toothpaste, by chance?”

 

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