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Stephen Hill - Part XIII
Eingestellt am 12. 05. 2018 06:14

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“Seems like the rats are abandoning the sinking ship. Well, actually, there is only one rat and the ship is not really sinking, but anyway..”
“I have no idea what you are talking about!”
“Well, then check your e-mail. I sent you a link yesterday afternoon, I thought you’d have read it by now.”
Stephen walked from the bedroom into his study and clicked his mouse. The screen of his computer flashed up and Stephen opened his e-mail account. He looked at his inbox and saw that Sally Fielding had sent him a message entitled ‘MIT – Erin Brock’ the night before at 6:45 pm. The message itself only contained a link for Stephen to click on. The link sent him to a page of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, its Faculty of Mathematics, to be precise. And to Stephen’s surprise, he saw a nice photograph of Erin Brock on that page. Underneath her picture, there was a text that read:

Newly appointed Adjunct Professor


Discrete Mathematics

Erin Brock will be an adjunct professor in the Mathematics Department starting next term. She received her Ph.D. from Yale in 2000 under the supervision of Noam Bellkies, after which she joined the theory group at Leibniz Research in Redmond, WA for a year as a postdoc. From 2001 to 2007 she was a researcher at Leibniz Research and affiliate faculty member at the University of Hailsham. Brock’s research is in discrete mathematics, with interests including discrete geometry, coding theory, cryptography, combinatorics, computational number theory, and theoretical computer science. She received the Bucsela prize as the top undergraduate in the math department in 2001. We’re happy to announce that she’ll soon be a part of the MIT family.

“Do you have it?”, Sally Fielding asked him through the phone.
Stephen was pausing for a moment. Although this announcement clearly meant something in regards to his whole issue with Hailsham, he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Was Erin Brock going to drop the issue because she was moving on to the MIT, or would she be just as determined because she had nothing to lose? They couldn’t fire her now, because she had already quit and had gotten an even better job. You do not want to mess with someone who is going to teach at the MIT, right?

“This might be good for us”, Stephen slowly replied.
Sally fielding just grunted.
“How on earth could that be good for us? She is the only person who can exert leverage on a guy like John Stewart and now she is off to the MIT. Case closed. Worse, actually: Case dead.”
“Maybe she will be even more determined to follow through on this”, Stephen interjected. “After all, she has got nothing to lose.”
“Don’t be stupid”, Sally retorted. “Do you really think she wants a scandal? Especially now that she is already out the door? What kind of an impression would that make on her new employer? A professor who has left nothing but scorched earth at the university she came from. No, no, I’ll tell you what: She’ll be keen on keeping a low profile. You know: Fly under the radar until she’s at the MIT.”
“I think you underestimate her, Sally”, Stephen said, but even to himself, his words lacked all conviction.
“Well”, Sally said. “Only one way to find out?”
“I guess you’re right”, Stephen said. “I’ll try to get an appointment. If possible, this week. You want to tag along?”
“Well, just let me know the time and day of the appointment and I’ll be there if I can, okay. Unless you absolutely want me there, then we’d have to check both our schedules now and agree on a few open spaces.”

Stephen hesitated. On the one hand, he didn’t want to give the impression that he was too scared to go alone, on the other hand, he wanted Sally there to prove to Erin Brock that he hadn’t been sitting idly by and that he had managed to convince Sally to join the fight.

“I’d like you to be there, too”, he finally admitted to Sally.
“Alright then, I’ll get my schedule.”
They both discussed the days and times of possible meetings with Erin Brock, and when they had agreed on four open spaces in their schedules, Stephen put the phone down and picked it up again to call Erin Brock’s office. The secretary offered him an open slot on Friday at 10am and he agreed although it meant that they would have to wait three full days to meet her. Be that as it may, he called Sally back and gave her the time and day of the appointment.
“See you then”, Sally said. “And remember: Chin high, puffed chest.”
“Okay”, Stephen said, laughing mildly at that expression. “I’ll try.”

An hour after that phone call Stephen was sitting in the lounge of the teaching staff. He was trying to concentrate on the correction of a term paper, but his mind kept wandering off. He was thinking about how lightheartedly Sally was dealing with the issue. She had been treated just as badly, she had even been threatened by John Stewart, but still it seemed as if she was taking this topic not all too seriously. She obviously was still able to lead her and enjoy her life, to continue working at Hailsham and to be rather indifferent to this whole issue. Stephen wished he had her stamina. To him, the conflict was existential, it bothered him to an extent that was almost unbearable. His mind was constantly occupied with the question whether he would give way to moral corruption if he stayed at Hailsham and whether he had the means and the cunning to confront John Stewart. In his imagination, he had already seen Erin Brock being awed by his resolve to fight this out. He had imagined himself walking into her office, with Sally Fielding in tow, and he had imagined Erin Brock’s unbelieving eyes as he laid out a plan of how to bring John Stewart and his mob down like a house of cards. But now, with Erin Brock out the door, it felt as if he had to start from scratch, and as if he had to either go alone at it or drop the whole thing. All in all, it was pretty devastating. One moment, he expected Erin Brock to say: “No way I’m backing off. Now more than ever. All hands to General Quarters!”, the other moment he imagined her apologetic facial expression and the words “I’m sorry, but it’s over!”.

Stephen looked at his watch. It was half past ten. In five minutes he had to be at his literature class for freshmen. It was a voluntary class where students were able to discuss literature rather freely and exchange their ideas about books they had read or were reading. Stephen had given them a list with contemporary and classic French literature, from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to Houellebecq’s Extension du domaine de la lutte. One of his students had volunteered for today’s class to discuss his reading of Albert Camus’ La Peste. Stephen was actually very grateful for this class, because it didn’t demand any scientific expertise on behalf of the students. It was like a book club, with the difference that Stephen got paid for attending or hosting it.

After greeting his class, Stephen got right down to brass tacks.
“Today we’re going to discuss a piece of existential literature. Patrick Brandis will give you his thoughts on Albert Camus’ La Peste. Where is Patrick?”
A young, good looking but rather slim boy with long black hair got up. He was seemingly nervous but also excited to be presenting. Stephen remembered this feeling from when he started out as the teacher. He too had had stage fright, and he had been nervous throughout many of his first lessons, but at the same time he enjoyed the attention he had gotten. It had turned into involuntary addiction. But then again, there was no such thing as voluntary addiction.

“Good morning, everyone”, Patrick Brandis said as he had taken Stephen’s place, who in turn had walked over and sat down on Patrick Brandis’ seat. “I would like to discuss with you my take on La Peste by Albert Camus. For those of you who don’t remember or have never read it, let me give you the gist of it: It’s the story of a plague that is sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. The narrator tells us about various characters that are literally trapped inside this city and all try to deal with the plague in their own distinctive ways. Now, there are, of course, many different characters, but I would like to focus on just one, and, in my opinion, the most important character: Dr. Bernard Rieux. He is the doctor who treats the first patient infected with the disease and also the first one who has the guts to talk to the authorities and tell them that this disease is an epidemic. When the authorities close, or rather, hermetically seal the city, he heads an auxiliary hospital, works long hours and tries his best to treat the patients. He is, in my opinion, the protagonist of this novel, and I would like to tell you, why, at first, it was so easy for me to identify with him. It’s because in the beginning of the novel I thought of him as the hero of the book; he’s an intelligent man in his mid-thirties, he is a force of good in this fight against an evil disease and in the beginning I expected him to develop a cure or to find some other means to save the city and its inhabitants. As I continued reading the book, I was expecting the doctor to do some research on the infected, to learn as much as possible about the nature of this disease and have a sort of Eureka! moment. You know, this moment where he looks at the virus under a microscope and discovers some detail that all the other scientists have missed. But none of this happened. I kept turning page after page after page, but all the doctor was doing was to inject serums, lance abscesses and hope for the best. This Eureka! moment simply didn’t come. In the end of the story, the plague just disappears in the same way it had come: quite sudden and without a discernible reason. Now, at first, I was pretty disappointed with the story, because there really was no climax for me. But then I started thinking about this story and I believe the problem is not with the book but with me. And the problem I was dealing with was my infection, so to speak, with popular culture. Because, every Hollywood movie, every American novel that I’ve read so far, with Grisham’s The Firm being my last, follows the same structure: The hero encounters a problem or difficulty; he goes on this heroic, often solitary journey, deals with temporary setbacks, but finally overcomes the problem due to his cunning and endurance, and in the end finds meaning in life again. But with Albert Camus’ La Peste, there simply is no purpose. Evil arrives, people, among them Dr. Rieux, try to fight it, but to no avail, and then, for no apparent reason, evil disappears again. And this lecture, this bottom line, is so overwhelming to me that I thought about my own purpose in life. You know, I always thought that if I studied hard, if I became successful in life, then I would be able to make a change in life. Should I choose to become a teacher, for example, then I imagined being this force of good in some poor student’s life. I imagined to be an inspiration to other people, and that they would be uplifted by my stamina, my charisma or whatever. But Camus tells me that whatever I choose to do, I should not expect any or too much of an impact from it. We live and we die, and whatever climaxes we tend to experience in our life, they are all imaginary. When I did some research on Camus after reading La Peste, I found this wonderful analogy on the myth of Sisyphus; you know, the figure of Greek mythology that was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. Now Camus argues that all our lives are as meaningless as Sisyphus’ life, and that we all do the same meaningless tasks day in and day out. Take my life for example: I get up in the morning, I come this university, I study hard, I try to acquire knowledge, but in the end, most of this knowledge will be forgotten and every night I go home frustrated because I have to work so hard for this degree. And tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that I will do the same thing over and over again, and all of this to end up as a mediocre teacher at a mediocre High School or college where my life will be just as repetitive. But instead of advising me to just go and kill myself, Camus tells me to enjoy this act of studying despite its poor output. He tells me: enjoy this moment, enjoy this gathering of young and beautiful minds, enjoy the exchange of ideas, enjoy your presence on earth, but don’t try to derive any higher meaning from it. In other words, don’t think about the destination, because there is no destination in life: The journey itself is the reward. And, please allow me this last play on words: Just because your life resembles that of Sisyphus doesn’t mean you should act like a sissy and make a fuss.”

Some of the students roared with laughter at this last pun, and Stephen was mildly amused as well. This approach to literature was so far from scientific that it hurt, but the openness of Patrick Brandis had an impact on him. Of course, he could have told Patrick and the rest of the class what this novel was really about, he could have told them about the implications of World War II and German fascism and about the references to Camus’ personal life as they could be found in the book, but instead, Stephen opened the debate with a much simpler question.

“So”, he asked, “do you agree with the statement that your life is meaningless but that it is your choice whether you find joy in this meaninglessness or not?”

This question was the opener to an interesting debate. Especially the students with a religious background heavily objected to the idea that life was meaningless. They argued that this world as it was could be taken as proof of a higher power and that this higher power had plans for us. Another student then argued that there might be a God, but that he had become indifferent to our fate and that he couldn’t care less about it, like an artist who had become bored with one of his paintings and just sold it off to the highest bidder. That remark was an incentive for further debate and it became more and more difficult for Stephen to contain the discussion within certain parameters. Towards the end, though, the discussion got so off-topic that, for some reason, they were talking more about euthanasia (of all topics, euthanasia!) than anything else. When the lesson was over, some of the students were still in a very pensive mood, but slowly they all dispersed and left the room. It was when the last student had left that, suddenly, Emilio Cortez was standing in the door frame.

“Good morning, Mr. Hill”, he said politely.
“Emilio”, Stephen said, a little surprised. “What brings you here?”
“I came to say goodbye!”, he replied.
Stephen didn’t understand.
“How do you mean?”
“DACA was repealed, haven’t you heard?”
Stephen only had a vague understanding of what DACA was. He only knew that it was a protection for children of illegal immigrants, children who had been brought to the US a long time ago. But not for one second had he thought about the possibility that Emilio could be in the US illegally. After all, he got into Hailsham. They must have checked on him before admitting him.
“You’re the child of illegal immigrants?”
“Yes, I am!”
“But weren’t they going to replace DACA with something else, some other form of protection?”, Stephen asked, not knowing what else to say.
“It might be challenged in court, but there are already stories of immigrants who are being deported as we speak.”

Stephen felt blindsided. There he was, one of his brightest students, and he told him that he was probably going to be deported. But he told it rather calmly and there were no police officers standing next to him, he wasn’t handcuffed and he didn’t cry or shout. He just stood there. The gravity of the situation didn’t shine through. And Stephen simply didn’t know what the appropriate response was. So he chose to ground him and calm him down.

“I don’t think you should worry too much”, he said. “There are approximately 800 000 kids like you. They won’t be able to deport them all. I suggest that you go home now, keep a low profile and wait what happens. If I learnt one thing in life, than it’s this: Things are never as bad as they seem. I’m quite sure that some district attorney or other legal expert will file a lawsuit and stop the repeal of DACA. Don’t worry, okay?”

Emilio remained silent. He probably asked himself how he was supposed to keep a low profile when there was a piece on him in the New York Times, but he also realized that he had ambushed his teacher. He didn’t know what kind of reaction he had hoped to get from Mr. Hill, but he was disappointed. Somewhere in the back of his mind he had expected his favorite teacher to go berserk and immediately organize a riot protesting against this outrageous decision on behalf of the White House administration. But instead Mr. Hill told him to go into hiding, as if the problem was with him and not with the government. And obviously, Mr. Hill was distracted with other things, he seemed absent-minded, his answers were empty and perfunctory.

“You’re probably right”, Emilio finally said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come here and bothered you with my problems.”
“No need to be sorry”, Stephen hastened to say. “Really, there’s no need.”

Stephen clumsily approached Emilio and gave him a tap on the shoulder, but for anyone watching it must have looked pretty awkward. Emilio cringed and shied away from his teacher. He mumbled something, turned around and just left.

Stephen was already sitting in his car on his way home, when it dawned on him, that Emilio probably had hoped for more at their latest encounter. Maybe he had expected Stephen to offer and pay for legal assistance or at least a little more empathy. But Stephen had more or less given him the cold shoulder. And now that Stephen realized it, he spent the rest of his journey home exculpating himself. You see, Emilio, Stephen said in an imaginary dialogue, I have a lot on my plate right now. I am fighting the Provost of this university in a battle of the highest importance. I’m having issues with my daughter who is so estranged from me that we haven’t talked, I mean, really talked in more than a year. When I get home, I work hard to prepare my classes and at the same time, I’m on the phone with colleagues at our university whose interest I represent and who expect me to do their fighting for them. I feel the deepest empathy for you and the likes of you, but I simply cannot take on the entire world, okay?

As Stephen pulled up in front of his house, he had already granted himself absolution. When he left the car, he had forgotten about the whole issue. He had bigger fish to fry and there was this meeting with Erin Brock he had to think about.


Thursday night, Stephen had trouble falling asleep. He told himself not to be too nervous about the meeting with Erin Brock, but telling himself not to be nervous had the opposite effect. He lay in bed, turning and turning, trying to empty his mind from the thoughts that bothered him. He lay awake until 2am until he finally dozed off and caught some sleep.

When he woke up at 8am the next morning, he knew instantly that he wouldn’t do well at the meeting. He was dazed and confused, felt sleepy and unenergetic. He hadn’t just been deprived of sleep, but of hope, too. What’s it all for anyway?, he asked himself.

A little less than two hours later, he bumped into Sally Fielding in front of Hailsham’s main entrance. They had intended to meet in front of Erin Brock’s office, but Stephen was happy to meet her before, because he had been afraid to be waiting alone in front of Erin Brock’s office and maybe bump into her. That would have been awkward.
“Here we go: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, Sally said jokingly.
Stephen smiled.
“And who is who?”, he asked, just to make conversation.
“I don’t know, I’ve never seen it. But they die in the end, don’t they?”
“I believe they leave it to the viewer, but yeah, their death is very probable.”
They walked down the hallway and Stephen got more and more nervous the closer they got to Erin Brock’s office. He tried to play it cool, but he knew that he was only kidding himself. Sally, however, was as calm as she seemed.
“We’re here to see Mrs. Brock”, Sally said as they entered the door.
“You have an appointment?”
“Yes, we do?”, Stephen said. “My name is Stephen Hill.”
Erin Brock’s secretary checked the schedule in front of her and then pushed the button on the intercom.
“Mister Stephen Hill is here to see you and…?”
“Sally Fielding!”
“..and Mrs. Sally Fielding!”
“Send them right in!”

Stephen and Sally passed the secretary and walked towards the door to Erin Brock’s office. Stephen forgot about his manners, opened the door and walked in first. It was only when he was already through the door that he thought about Sally behind him.
“I’m sorry”, he said, turning around and holding the door for her.
“It’s okay!”, Sally said, smiling.
They walked up to Erin Brock who had already stood up and had straightened her skirt. She extended her hand and shook Sally Fielding’s hand first.
“Sally Fielding”, Sally said, “colleague, ally and comrade-in-arms.”

Erin Brock smirked rather than smiled.

As Stephen had shaken Erin Brock’s hand, they sat down. After a short pause, it was Stephen who began to talk.
“I’m not quite sure where to begin. Well, the last time we met, you told me to approach other teachers who presumably have had their share of experience with Mr. Stewart. That’s why Sally Fielding came here with me today. She was, may I say ‘threatened?”
Sally nodded in consent.
“Well, she was threatened by John Stewart”, Stephen continued, ”and she also was forced to change her grades. She has already got tenure and she is willing to speak up about what is going on at Hailsham, but then she told me about your appointment to a post at the MIT, and naturally, I, we wondered what that meant for our project, so to speak, and if..”
“Let me stop you right there”, Erin Brock interjected.
Stephen looked up at her. He felt like he had to insist, he felt like saying something along the lines of ‘Let me finish!’, but instead he just held his breath.
“Yes?”, he asked.
Erin Brock took a deep breath.
“I’m out”, she said. “I’m sorry, but I’m out.”

Stephen nodded meekly. He had thought about reasons as to why she had the responsibility to follow through on this, why she couldn’t just leave and work at some other university. He had thought about how best to appeal to Erin Brock’s dignity and pride, how to reach her heart and win her over for this last battle, but now as he sat there, he drew an absolute blank. He was shocked and paralyzed by Erin Brock’s riveting candor. She didn’t zigzag, she didn’t swerve or cajole, she just told them to their faces: “I’m out!”

Nobody said anything for quite a while. It was as if time had been instantly frozen or as if they were sitting there quietly waiting for a photographer to come in and take a picture of this pivotal moment. But nobody came.

“You’re a cunt”, Sally finally said. “You’re a cowardly, chicken shit, cantankerous cunt!”
“Okay then!”, Erin Brock said and got up. She walked around her desk and straight to the door. She opened it as wide as possible and made a gesture that was unmistakably asking them to leave.
“This meeting is over!”
Stephen and Sally got up and left the room, Sally with her head held high, Stephen with his head down and looking like a teenage boy who had just been told off by the principal. Silently they crossed the outer office and within seconds found themselves back on the hallway.

“Now that was a waste of time”, Sally said.
Stephen said nothing. He was utterly devastated. His mouth was absolutely dry, he was trembling, slightly but uncontrollably, and he was on the verge of fainting. He did his best to conceal his discomfort and tried to get away from Sally as fast as possible.
“We’ll talk”, he said and left her standing there in the hallway. She probably felt how shaken he was but made not attempt to follow him. After all, he was a grown man. That was what she thought at least.

Stephen, as if benighted and mentally deranged, walked all the way back to his car like a zombie. When he reached it, he got out his keys, mechanically opened the door and got into the driver’s seat. He held on to the steering wheel for a full five minutes and only slowly came to his senses. He looked through the windshield, not noticing the passers-by who were on the way to their cars. It took him another five minutes until he was able to start the engine. When he put his keys in the ignition, two sentences from a famous poem came to his mind:

Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.

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