Back in the days when we all thought that being a college instructor was the best way to skate through life, I actually ended up as a college instructor. It was really the only job I could get from South America, where my wife Brenda and I had been riding dirty buses for many months and teaching English in spurts, but not finding a way to make enough money to survive even for a while if we returned to the States.
So when a college teaching job at Oklahoma College of Liberal Arts cropped up, I risked most of our travel cash to fly alone from Lima, Peru to Oklahoma City, and then hitchhiked down to the interview from the Oklahoma City airport. It was over 100 degrees out as I stood on the highway hoping that at 85 mph cars could even see me and my thumb against the hayfields behind. Arriving in this distinguished manner, with my tie undone and my suitcoat over a sweaty shoulder, I’m sure I looked like an upscale drifter. This was definitely not the cool and smooth way to walk into an interview. However, they seemed glad to see me and gave me the job. This made me suspect that no one in the States wanted it enough to come to the middle of Oklahoma for an interview, and they had to draw from nomads in South America.
Brenda probably would not have married me if I had not promised to take her to South America, but more about that later. She had only an Irish passport and we’d left the States before she could receive Green Card she’d applied for when we married. A few customs people mentioned that it would be difficult or impossible for her to get back in, but we thought we would deal with it when we returned. It turned out that she would have had to reapply from outside the States and live in that country for 4 months…unless somehow we could place her again as my wife within the States. So we thought we would fly to the Miami airport with our last nickel, and try to run the border. Ah, youth!
We choreographed a careful entry back into the States at the Miami gate, with Brenda using her unmarried name and US Travel Visa in one line, while I went through another line about the same time. We had to let other people ahead of us, in order to to make our entry at precisely the same time, thinking if we could delay the correlation of the immigration folks, we could get into the States and out of the airport. Dumb kids trying to trick the system… but it worked. And that is how Dostoyevsky discovered Oklahoma.
Not knowing our exact status but fearing the worst, we traveled inside the U.S., up to Chickasha, Oklahoma where the college was, and I started being a college instructor. The English department had a fellowship for Communications and I had done some sports writing and I guess that was close enough. They also had a couple of freshmen English courses, which it was the duty of all junior instructors to teach. They had a recommended curriculum, which had the students read Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mocking Bird, and some play or other. All of the freshman English instructors followed along with the recommended reading …except me.
“Has anyone decided to use other materials besides the ones the book store has?”
I raised my hand.
“What will that be?”
“The Possessed, by Dostoyevsky”
“That’s pretty difficult material. Even Crime and Punishment is a bit much for freshmen.”
“I think it’s the best novel ever written, so why not teach that?”
Well, they did let me teach it though it was going to be difficult for the bookstore to find the paperbacks in translation. At the instructors’ coffee afterward, the opinions of my new cohorts had me surrounded.
“You’ll die.” One of the instructors said. ”It’s all we can do to get them to read Huckleberry Finn. And that’s in English.”
“This is translated just fine,” I answered. “And they need to know that other cultures have literature.”
“But it’s so borrrring.” Said one female instructor who tapped her pen knowingly.
I laid my hand out flat. “You haven’t read it.”
“But it sounds boring,” defended another instructor. I stood up and stared down at them.
“These are student radicals plotting to pin an equipment theft on one of their friends who is going to commit suicide to prove he is better than God. And another student radical is running through streets of Moscow at 2 O’clock in the morning trying to find a midwife for his pregnant wife who is about to deliver the child of another man who abandoned her. Not only that, the narrator is really funny.”
Not a splinter of agreement, not even a recognition of something they had not known before.
“And most of our freshmen are Indians, here on grants from the Anadarko. This will not work.”
“Death in front of the class.”
“My problem,” I said, and they were glad to admit that.
Meanwhile, my wife Brenda was now an illegal Irish immigrant. We decided to call the Immigration Service in Dallas and see if we could finesse it now that we were inside the States already, and maybe they wouldn’t ask how. On the call, I said that we had some kind of confusion — that I have a job teaching in a college here and we came into the States on her travel visa.
“Well,” said the kind Southern Lady who may not have been expecting honest confusion. “They shouldn’t have done that at the border.”
“Well,” I said. “Here we are, pretty settled in Oklahoma now. What should we do?”
“Well,” she said, “I don’t know how this happened. But I suppose that since you are in and have a respectable job and all… Just bring her down to Dallas next week and we’ll get her a Green Card.”
Good old down home folks.
Meanwhile, I had my first classes and after the first hour struggling with Russian names the students began to see the characters in The Possessed as real people, actually real students. Like most college age students, some had trouble with the concept of God. One of the novel’s main characters, Stavrogin, says he doesn’t believe in God, but then says he also doesn’t believe he doesn’t believe. Maybe a tough concept for Bible Belt folks, at that. But then…a most curious thing happened.
The bookstore called and said they had way too many orders and some would be delayed. As far as I know we had enough for the class, but this was odd indeed. After the second week I walked around the campus and noticed many Indian (now Native American) students sitting under trees with copies of the book, deeply involved in reading in a way we had never seen them. The bookstore got its order in and soon the book was everywhere…everyone in this part of Oklahoma, it seemed, was reading The Possessed. Well, maybe not all the townspeople…but some. Meanwhile, the other instructors were pissed because their students were all reading this bizarre existential Russian novel and not the Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird they had been assigned.
I do not know how this Russian writer tapped into the cultural veins of the Indian students from Anadarko, but the number reading the book on their own made it look as if I had started a cult. I’m enthusiastic when I teach something I like (which I have always finagled my way to do), but I am not a great enough teacher to transplant the crazy Russian soul to plains of Oklahoma. I just put the book in front of them, and Dostoyevsky did the rest by himself.