Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bears Think They Know Everything

Bears think they know everything, and this bear was a prime example, glowering down his muzzle like a disapproving spinster with a lorgnette at the end of her nose, an eight hundred pound spinster with matted brown fur and teeth the size of my fingers.

Usually, petitioners before the king in his ice palace stood with heads bowed, eyes averted, often wringing their caps in their hands, but bears have no conception of social niceties. “You must move your people,” the bear said, looking my father in the eye. “You might have three days, or only one.”

“The ice people appreciate the concern of the bear people and thank them for it. Inform your people that we will appease the volcano gods.” My father dismissed the bear with a wave. Beneath my flowered wreaths, I smiled.

The bear did not understand. It tossed its thick head. “We bears do not know your volcano god. We only know that the mountain will rain fire and poison. Your palace will melt. Your people will die in agony. We humbly ask you to avert this tragedy.”

The king had already turned away, but I was in a unique position to teach a higher understanding. “Friend bear,” I addressed it, “the ice people can read the signs as well as the bear people, but as a creature of the forest, you do not grasp our spiritual learning. Faith marks our path.”

“Princess, it’s true that we do not understand faith. We animals have only science to guide us.”

I could see the mud caked about his ankles, the parasites crawling over his fur. My father did not believe such creatures teachable, but a queen speaks to even the simplest subject with love and compassion, out of pity for its condition. “Then let me tell you of the gods. The lord of the volcano trembles from loneliness. At dusk, we are to be wed. He shall be lonely no more.”

The creature shuddered, perhaps awed by the power of our religion. “At dusk,” he growled, “you shall suffer burning death. Your skin shall blister from your bones as you asphyxiate on choking fumes and drown in liquid fire.”

I recoiled on my dais, upsetting some of the bridal wreaths, which my maids were fast to recover. Truly, the bear people were ungodly and simple. While its words shocked me, they enraged the king. My father signaled and six soldiers advanced, axes raised. Poor, dumb creature. I had provided an extraordinary opportunity. It chose its fate.

Raising itself up on two legs, it roared, sending a flurry of ice flakes down upon my shoulders like snow. It spun around, knocking the soldiers off their feet. And then it advanced, with speed unpredictable, and plucked me from my bridal bower. Flower petals billowed away as I was heaved, face-first and upside down, over its shoulder into the stinking, lousy fur. The bear’s bones jarred my body as it barreled through the line of soldiers, slid down the ice steps, and bolted through the ice garden. I heard the snapping sound of formations breaking under the bear’s careless paw.

“Stop, beast! You do not know what you do.” I yearned to sooth the volcano god, please my lord, and save the ice people, along with the foolish bear people and the other animals of the forest. I pleaded with it not to steal my future, my right as princess to become queen and wife to the god.

But the bear did not stop. It ran along, pursued, at first, by the clattering of horse hooves, and then ran farther, into the dark forest, leaving my father’s men behind. The stench of the animal invaded my nostrils, and its coarse fur rubbed my flesh. Perhaps I lost consciousness. When I woke, bears surrounded me, a mass of bears all moving together, like a dark storm cloud blown by a strong wind, like an angry, churning river.

“Would the ice people hear reason?” a bear asked.

“What do you think?” answered another.

“I saved one of them, at any rate. One less victim for their barbaric ritual.”

“Stupid animals!” I shouted, in a voice most unbecoming a princess. “You have doomed us all.”

The bears paid me no attention, only grumbled among themselves, and walked on.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Big Scary Man Syndrome

He was three hundred pounds if he was an ounce, and every inch of him radiated mean. I call it Big Scary Man Syndrome. You’ve met these guys: so afraid that people will reject them based on their looks that they take special pains to be preemptively jerky so they can reject you first.

I consider those guys a challenge.

But this guy was really pissing me off. I had assigned my twenty-five freshman composition students an in-class essay, and no sooner had they found their pens and settled down to write than this bullhorn parked his frame in front of my classroom door and began screaming into his cell phone.

“Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?”

Dirty looks had no effect. Some of the kids started laughing instead of writing. I stepped into the hall, all five feet and one hundred pounds of me.

“What did you say?” he screamed. “Now can you hear me?” He hadn’t moved an inch.

“Excuse me.” I favored him with the winning smile that had melted so many Big Scary Men before him. “You get better reception in the stairwell, or outside.”

“I get fine reception right here,” he shouted and turned away, still shouting. “Sorry, I can’t hear you.”

With two steps, I stood in front of him again. “It sounds like you’re not getting fine reception. And this is a classroom building. And you’re screaming in front of an open door.”

He pushed his chest into my face. “I’ll scream if I want to.”

“I’m asking you politely to take your call somewhere else. You’re disrupting my class.”

“I’m taking my call here.” He was breathing on top of my head now, his face red.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, resisting the urge to raise my voice. “This is a classroom building, not a phone booth. Professors are trying to teach. Students are trying to learn. You are interfering with the education process. This is not an appropriate place for you to stand and scream.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he spat, the ironic emphasis he dropped into the word “ma’am” indicative of anything but respect. “I’m sorry my call is interfering with your learning process.” Then he reattached his mouth to the phone. “Listen, are you listening to me?” he screamed.

Now I had twenty-five pairs of eyes on me as every kid in the room watched to gauge the force of my authority, an authority this guy hadn’t bothered to evaluate. He thought he could dismiss me based on size, but being short has taught me assertiveness. Plus, it’s the rare three-hundred-pound male bully who actually takes his aggression out on a small woman in public.

“I’m asking you nicely to take your call elsewhere, because this space is for learning, and you do not have the right to interrupt my class. I can call campus security if you need help finding an appropriate location for this behavior.”

At last he looked me in the eyes, and while I remained five feet tall, clad in jeans and sandals, he gave a nervous shake of his head, finally realizing to whom he was mouthing off: a professor. “Oh, uh, yeah, sorry,” he said, and dashed away like a shamed puppy.

I turned back to the room, aware now of the rapid thunk of my heartbeat in my chest.

Some of my students had already gone back to their essays, but a few smiled and nodded approval, grateful that I could stand up to a bully, or take their education seriously, or provide a good show. I don’t know which. And, in the back row, my two biggest slackers, bad boys who wrote about smoking pot and missed class to go skateboarding or raving or whatever the heck it was that eighteen-year-old boys did, watched with wide-eyed amazement as I made my triumphant return after a confrontation from which they would have run. I had their attention for the rest of the semester.