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SUMMARY: Landon Bridges is freshly christened history professor at the University of Maryland. He loves teaching, believing it both a noble calling and a way of helping his young charges become wiser and better human beings. Sadly, being both odd and socially inept, Landon’s not a very good teacher. Then he suffers a devastating personal setback, one that leads him to contemplate taking his life. What happens next will surprise and delight you. Please note that italics are typically used to indicate what a character is saying or thinking to himself.
WARNING: This story is a work of adult fiction and intended for mature audiences only. Unless otherwise noted, all of the characters in the story are fictional; any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. While some of the places described or mentioned in the story are fictional as well, others may be real. However, some liberties may have been taken with the truth to enhance the story. Please note that the story may describe, depict or otherwise include graphic portrayals of relationships between men and/or adolescent boys that are homosexual in nature. If you do not like or approve of such discussions or it is illegal for you to read such material, consider yourself warned. If you continue to read this story, you are asserting you are fully capable of understanding and legally consenting to reading a work of adult fiction.
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NOTES: Please check these notes every week. If there’s something I want to alert you to as I post each chapter, this is where I will I do so. November 12, 2015: As I think it will help, I would strongly encourage you to read the introductory post for this chapter if you have not already done so.
Did you ever make a fool of yourself in front of family, friends or loved ones? Suffer a humiliation so deep and powerful just recalling the memory today is still painful? Or could your pain have some other origin perhaps? Be rooted in some crushing defeat that left you devastated and wondering whether you could even go on?
If so, dear reader, be thankful this Thanksgiving season. For whatever petty embarrassment you suffered, however overwhelming your disappointment may be, they are of little moment compared to those in the tale I’m about to relate.
Indeed, even telling it today is embarrassing for reasons you will appreciate soon enough; and yet looking back on it now, I revel in the disappointment I suffered, the humiliation I experienced, so many years ago; and should you doubt my veracity after reading the tale, I assure you everything I say did indeed happen although perhaps some of the details have receded in memory for reasons soon to be obvious.
I was a younger lad at the time, on my own and teaching at the University of Maryland, one of those fine American land grant colleges and universities that have educated so many young men and women over the years. It was the beginning of the holiday season and I was away from home for the first time in life; away from loving parents and the warmth and comfort provided by family.
That alone would have made Thanksgiving miserable for me that November, but there were many other things not going well in my life at the time; so much so I even contemplated putting an end to my existence if you can believe how foolish I was in those days.
But now perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself and should go back to the beginning to spin my tale. Read on then, dear reader, and draw strength this Thanksgiving season from my humiliation and failure; for soon enough you will understand why I revel in them today.
I was born and raised in a small New England town, the only child of a loving mother who doted on me and a distant father who taught English at one of those obscure liberal arts colleges that dot the New England landscape. My father was a quiet man with a fondness for teaching and all things English; and because I admired him at some level, I suppose I must have inherited my own fascination with the English language from him.
I lived a quiet, sheltered, life as a youth, one filled with books more than friends. Not that I didn’t want to have friends; I did. But no mattered how eager I was or hard I tried, other boys and girls considered me odd because of the way I spoke in fully formed sentences using unusual words I had discovered reading the dictionary every day for at least an hour as my mother insisted I do.
Books are the best friends to have, she used to say. They’ll never abandon you like people, Landon.
I wondered about that at times; not because I believed books would ever abandon me but rather because I wondered whether people would ever befriend me.
I was not a popular boy growing up. I never liked playing with girls and boys seemed to feel much the same way about me. I didn’t play sports or the games they enjoyed. My favorite game was reading the dictionary and none of the boys seemed interested in playing it with me for some reason.
Indeed, because my last name was Bridges and I seemed different than them in so many ways, most of the boys loved nothing more than taunting me with their take on an old English nursery rhyme.
Landon Bridges falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
Landon Bridges falling down,
Such a lady!
I tried to pretend it didn’t hurt, but it did. It hurt a lot; and what hurt even more was never having a friend in elementary or high school. No one liked me or wanted to spend time with me; and while others gathered at the local soda fountain to have fun after school, I would spend my afternoons alone in the library.
Unlike the rest of the boys, I liked reading. From an early age I found myself fascinated with history and all the heroes and villains who populated the pages of the history books I read voraciously. Eventually I chose history as my major at Williams College and then pursued it further in graduate school at Harvard.
I liked college and university rather more than elementary and high school. I hoped to make more chums for one thing; and while that never worked out satisfactorily, I did find my calling in teaching the youthful charges Harvard entrusted to me as a Teaching Fellow.
I worked hard to engage them with the subject; worked harder still to mentor them as a tutor at Adams House where I spent countless hours conversing with them over lunch and dinner. I loved spending time with my students whether in the classroom or elsewhere.
I was twenty-seven years old when I finally received my doctorate from Harvard and considered quite fortunate by my peers when I was offered a teaching position at the University of Maryland.
Teaching positions were hard to come by in those days; and even though the appointment I received from the History Department was for one year only, I was assured I would be extended for a second if my performance was satisfactory.
I had no reason to doubt it would be. Indeed, I welcomed the challenge. But soon enough I began to realize the task was much different at Maryland. For one thing, I was no longer just one of a number of Teaching Fellows helping an established professor. I was on my own now and had to do everything myself.
I was no longer teaching just one class each week. I was teaching all of them and doing so without the help of teaching assistants of my own. Compounding the problem, my classes were much larger than I was used to. It was impossible to provide the kind of individual attention to students I believed I was best suited for.
Perhaps the most important difference of all was that I was living in College Park; far from home, far from where I had been born and raised and everyone I knew continued to live.
I couldn’t just get in my automobile and drive home to see my family whenever I needed a home cooked meal or the love my parents provided. I couldn’t walk over to the Graduate Student Union to meet with my peers or wander into the dining hall at Adams House for lunch or dinner with my young charges as I had done at Harvard.
Everything was different now.
I had been exiled from Massachusetts to Maryland and found starting out on my own daunting to say the least. Still, I took sustenance from a book my father had read to me as a boy called Goodbye, Mr. Chips; the story of a much-beloved schoolteacher and his long tenure at a fictional English school called Brookfield.
I don’t recall why I liked it so much and realize now the story is a bit saccharine. But it had moved me deeply as a boy and I had grown up wanting to be like Mr. Chipping; to wear tweeds, counsel young minds and end my life beloved by my youthful charges.
By the time I finished at Harvard I understood Mr. Chipping had lived in a time long since departed. But the idea of mentoring boys and girls, helping them become outstanding young men and women, still burned deeply within me.
Most who knew me considered me daft with my fondness for British mannerisms and tweed clothing as well as my addiction to strange English words like daft. Say what you will, however, it was comforting to start my journey through life with a firm understanding of how I wanted it to be lived.
And yet now, as the middle of November approached, I was beginning to think they might be right; that I might be daft after all. It seemed to me I was not doing a very good job teaching; indeed, that I was botching the task quite badly.
I would spend hours preparing lectures that were much too long to fit into the fifty minutes available to me for each class; then spend more hours still trying to squeeze them into the allotted time while covering all the material in a way that would prove interesting and exciting.
I even tried to spice them up with amusing anecdotes from history that would summarize the main points I was making pithily. But all I seemed to be accomplishing was earning the scorn of my students at Maryland.
They seemed to be focused entirely on the bottom line. What they would need to do to finish the course successfully; what was expected of them to earn the A they were convinced they deserved and certainly nothing less than a B.
Some of them even enlisted their parents to call me in an effort to better understand what was expected of them. Being older themselves, I suppose they thought their parents would better understand someone like me they considered quite ancient.
It really isn’t that hard I would explain to the parents patiently. Yes, history was about facts after all and some knowledge of facts would be required.
But what I was looking for were students with the same passion as me for the subject matter; students willing to listen attentively in class, ask challenging questions, and write a scintillating essay or two during the course of the semester summarizing what they had learned succinctly.
Sadly, the parents didn’t seem to understand this any better than their progeny. Soon enough there were complaints to the head of the History Department. I remember him sitting me down and trying to explain what I was doing wrong. From what I gathered, there were two main concerns.
First, I wasn’t making it clear exactly what would be tested. I had never thought that especially important because I wasn’t looking for specific facts so much; more a student’s considered reaction to the material being presented.
The other complaint seemed to be that I wasn’t being casual or informal enough; indeed that I was coming across as a bit pedantic and stuffy. As with the boys and girls I had known in my youth, I was still seen as odd and standoffish.
I didn’t understand why, but tried to do better; tried genuinely to improve. But it was hard and that was discouraging because there was nothing more I wanted to do in life than to mentor young boys and girls. To help them grow in wisdom as the inspiring words above the Dexter Gate at Harvard put it; above all, to help them become outstanding young men and women.
So there you have it in a nutshell, dear reader. I was alone; far from family and the few acquaintances I had, disliked increasingly by students and parents, and considered something of a problem by the leaders of the History Department.
It was discouraging; and what made it even harder was that, in addition to being alone, I was a homosexual.
I knew this because my mother had told me so. She had asked whether I preferred boys or girls as friends when I was twelve and I had told her the truth; that I much preferred the companionship of boys. Having told her, she explained there was a word for that, homosexual, and there was nothing wrong with liking boys better than girls.
At the same time, she warned me it should be our little secret as some people didn’t like homosexuals and it was best to keep silent about anything having to do with sex.
Knowing I was a homosexual had never been an issue for me. Indeed, I was puzzled by why people seemed bothered about something like that. It wasn’t like I had anything against girls after all. I simply preferred spending time with boys. Why anyone could possibly object to that was beyond me.
The whole thing had come as something of a surprise, of course. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what being homosexual entailed exactly. My parents had never explained the facts of life to me growing up so I was pretty much in the dark when it came to anything having to do with sex.
But having already firmly resolved never to marry, I didn’t think I needed to know all the details.
I did think it would be nice to have one or two friends who were homosexual like me, people with whom I could do things from time to time; things like attending a lecture, going to concert, or whatever else helped elevate the mind.
Not that I was completely fooling myself, of course. By the time I reached Harvard I realized I was attracted to the physical beauty of my young male charges, but took comfort once again in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
Even though he was married, I had always thought Mr. Chipping was probably a homosexual like me but had understood at some level how inappropriate it would be to seek any kind of relationship outside the classroom with one of his charges.
Like every great teacher, he understood he needed to be a mentor and role model for his students in all things. I was pretty sure that was the only reason he married; to set an example for his boys. I admired him greatly for that, but a lot had changed since those days.
I didn’t think I needed to go that far to be a good role model like him. Mr. Chipping would have been a great role model even unmarried. His students loved him and I loved him as well and wanted nothing more than to be like him in most things
But it just didn’t seem to be working for me at Maryland for whatever reason.
Superstition never played a role in my life growing up. I was fully committed to the life of the mind; or at least I thought I was until all of that changed on Friday, November 13th. That was the day that turned out to be the worst in my life; the day I was summoned to meet with the chairman of the History Department.
“Thanks for stopping by to see me, Landon,” he said. “Let me begin by saying I believe you have the potential to be a wonderful historian. That paper you circulated within the Department a couple of weeks ago on how the closing of the western frontier contributed to the rise of the imperial movement in America was nothing short of brilliant. I hope you realize that.”
“Thank you very much, sir,” I responded, beaming. “That means a lot coming from you. I’m still refining the arguments, of course, but I hope to be able to finish it up during winter break and then send it off to the American Historical Review for possible publication.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Landon; they’ll be lucky to have it,” he replied. “Unfortunately, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. Our appointments committee met earlier this week and decided not to extend your contract for a second year. Of course, nothing will change for the moment, at least not immediately; you’ll still be our colleague for the remainder of this academic year.”
“However, I wanted to let you know the decision now so you could begin searching for another position sooner rather than later,” he added. “I regret this, Landon; I truly do. However, there have simply been too many complaints for us to ignore; and while you’re an excellent historian, you may want to rethink whether teaching is the right calling for you.”
“I see,” I said, doing my best to conceal just how devastating his words were.
They say there are five stages to grieving, the first two being denial and anger. I skipped straight over them to the third; bargaining.
“I’ve been trying to improve, sir,” I said. “I’ve been doing everything I can to respond to the different points you counseled me about in October. Nothing is more important to me than being a good teacher and I think I can be if given the chance.”
“I’ll redouble my efforts, sir; I know I can do better. It’s merely a question of . . .”
“I’m sure you have tried, Landon,” he responded, cutting me off. “Unfortunately, we’ve concluded it’s simply not going to work. Our decision is final.”
“I see,” I said, crushed at his summary judgment.
Realizing there was nothing to be gained by pursuing the matter further, I thanked the chairman for his help since my arrival and made my way back to my office. Gathering up the things I would need for the weekend, I stuffed them into my briefcase, made my way to my automobile, and then headed back to the apartment I rented in College Park.
Upon my arrival, I sat down on the couch and promptly burst into tears.
How long I cried is hard to say; to me it seemed like a very long time indeed. The tears flowed endlessly; the sobs proved impossible to throttle.
Why, Landon? I asked. Why has your life been one failure after another?
Why no friends?
Everyone else had friends as a youth. You never had any.
Everyone else had friends in college and graduate school. Why were you different that way?
You’ve spent your whole life deluding yourself, Landon; telling yourself those students you taught at Harvard liked you.
It’s a lie. They never liked you.
None of the students at Adams House ever invited you to join them at lunch or dinner.
You invited yourself.
None of your students at Maryland like you.
They find your lectures boring and pedantic.
To be sure, some of them flatter you, just like they did at Harvard. You know the reason for that, Landon.
They’re doing it in the hope of boosting their grade.
Face it, Landon. No one loves you. No one ever will.
You’ve failed at everything in life, including the one thing you cherish more than anything else.
You’ll never be Mr. Chips!
You’ll never be anything except a stuffy pedant.
It went on like that for hours as I reviewed my life and failings.
Yes; I was intelligent. And yet, smart as I was, I would have traded everything to be loved by someone; or, if not loved, to be respected or even merely helpful. In the end I realized my entire life had been a failure; and in my despair I began to contemplate whether the world would be better off without someone foolish and ridiculous like me around.
I was useless, worthless, without any redeeming value. I was totally bereft of those human virtues people like and admire. Worse still, I realized it was never going to get any better.
I had been trying for twenty seven years to be useful to someone; anyone really. And yet there wasn’t a single person in the world who had ever benefited from my existence or ever would for that matter.
Kill yourself, Landon, I recall thinking.
As Lincoln said, the world will little note nor long remember if you do.
One of the problems with being so committed to the life of the mind is that reason has a way of being far too practical.
And just how do you propose to do that, Landon? a voice whispered.
How do you plan to kill yourself?
Focusing on the question, I soon found myself laughing hysterically. I didn’t have a clue how to go about killing myself.
I didn’t have a gun to do the deed quickly.
I didn’t have any poisons or pills or even a garage where I could turn my automobile on and asphyxiate myself.
The only thing I could think of was filling a tub with water and then slitting my wrists.
Oh, be serious, Landon, an inner voice counseled. Just how do you propose to do that? This place has a stand-up shower, not a tub; besides, bleeding out like that is much too slow.
All right, then, I responded. Why don’t I just throw myself off the balcony then? Is that okay with you, Mr. Voice of Reason?
Too messy, Landon; try to be considerate of the poor soul who ends up discovering you as well as the person who has to clean up the mess you’ll be leaving behind.
Besides, knowing you, you’ll land on someone else and kill them rather than yourself. Do you really want to be responsible for hurting some innocent person?
Stymied, I looked around the apartment. Ever since arriving in Maryland that fall, I had spent every Friday and Saturday evening alone in the place; preparing lectures, grading exams, and trying to discover ways to make the courses I was teaching more compelling to my students.
Looking up at the clock, I could see it was almost 9:00 p.m.
Do something, Landon, I said.
Get out of this apartment and do something different for a change.
Deciding to take my own counsel, I quickly settled on the Jefferson Memorial in downtown Washington as my destination. Even though Jefferson was far from my favorite President, his memorial was one I had visited on several occasions since my arrival in the area.
It was also my favorite. You could sit on its steps and stare out at the Tidal Basin and allow yourself to get lost in your thoughts without anyone bothering you.
Like I said, I had done that on a couple of occasions, but never in the evening.
Having made the decision, I drove into town and quickly made my way to the place. Soon enough I realized I had made the right decision. There was something about Mr. Jefferson’s memorial at night that helped settle the soul.
I must have sat on the steps for two hours or more. By the time I was ready to leave, I was feeling better and realized how foolish I had been to consider taking my life.
Life is precious, Landon; far too precious.
Martin Luther King was right.
One must always keep hope alive.
Comforted by the words of a man I admired greatly, I stood up and took one final look around.
What now, Landon? I asked.
I could go back to my dreary apartment, but didn’t want to do that. Then I recalled an article I had read in the local newspaper earlier in the week about a newly opened establishment in Washington that was apparently causing some controversy.
I hadn’t read the article closely, but did remember the address and it wasn’t far from the Memorial. The paper said it was a place that catered to people who were carefree and happy or something like that; although why that type of establishment should be controversial was beyond me.
You could certainly use a little happiness in your life right now, Landon. Everyone has the right to be rid of their problems from time to time, even you; to be gay and carefree every once in a while.
Emboldened, I decided to visit the place to see whether I could possibly make some new chums. In the end, the whole thing proved far more exciting than I had thought possible. I had never been in a place like it in my life and remember being astonished.
There was a massive dance floor and scores of young men gyrating wildly under the lights swirling around them, lights that seemed to change colors to the sound of the music. The music itself excited the dancers, bringing their emotions from ecstasy to despair and then ranging widely across the whole gamut of human feeling.
I remember finding the whole thing quite impressive; and perhaps a bit naughty as well as I had never seen young men dancing with one another like that before.
But what choice do they have, Landon? I asked myself. I don’t know why, but there aren’t very many young ladies in this establishment. If those lads want to have fun, I suppose they have to dance with one another; and what’s wrong with that after all?
To my surprise the people were friendly; certainly much friendlier than anyone had ever been to me before in my life. One young man about my age even bought me a glass of ale, something for which I thanked him profusely even as I set it aside.
I never indulged in alcoholic beverages, but appreciated his most generous welcoming gesture and insisted on returning the favor when he finished his own drink.
After we had conversed about the weather or some such subject for fifteen or twenty minutes, he asked whether I would like to spend the night at his place. I assured him my own apartment was just a short drive away and I wasn’t in need of accommodations for the evening.
He seemed disappointed with my response and excused himself. I felt badly about that although why he assumed I needed a place to stay for the evening was hard to fathom.
Maybe it’s your clothes, Landon; maybe he thinks you’re homeless because of those patches on your tweed jacket? You’ve had that jacket forever and you have to admit it’s getting a bit tattered and ratty.
That seemed the most likely explanation. I had been quite reluctant to get rid of the jacket as I had always assumed it was probably very much like those Mr. Chipping would favor.
Perhaps you should think of getting something newer, Landon; something more like the clothing these young men are wearing. They look good in those clothes; certainly much nicer than what you’re wearing.
Later still several young men asked me to dance, but I was much too shy to try something like that.
For one thing, I didn’t know how to dance and wasn’t as graceful as them. And yet, wanting to be friendly, I inquired whether they might like to go for a brisk walk in the night air given how stuffy the place was from all the smoke.
They didn’t seem very much interested in that, perhaps because there was a bit of a chill in the air that evening. To my surprise, one even took offense.
“I don’t do shit like that, man,” he replied, indignantly. “If that’s what you’re interested in, check out the bathrooms; they’re warmer.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but it was the only discordant note in an otherwise wonderful evening.
Sometime after 1:00 a.m. I decided it was getting late and I should get back to my apartment. I took one final look around and then departed in search of my vehicle. I remember thinking the place a bit strange. But it was pleasant enough, even exciting in some ways, and I remember promising myself to visit again.
Having just been sacked that day, I felt like I could indulge myself with an evening away from my academic pursuits every couple of months.
Admit it, Landon. That article in the paper was right. You had a delightful time, one that was gay and carefree, and you’re much happier for spending the evening here.
You should do it again when time permits.