The class is ghastly. These are the worst, or at least the most clammed-up, students. Ren probes away at them for a while, hoping to bring some of them out, but has no joy. So he begins his analysis. He works methodically through the text, section-by-section. Explain a little. Ask some questions. Explain a little more, ask some more questions. But nobody is biting. The atmosphere is frosty. The students’ horror that the smallness of this class will force them to say something has frozen them all up, and they all know what each other is thinking, and that’s reinforcing their fears, like a feedback terror loop.
No-one wants to be the one who has to talk. Everyone is making a bigger effort than everyone else to say nothing. Gone are any attempts at looking intelligent but shy, to convince the seminar leader, with a look, that while they aren’t worth asking any questions of today, they’re really a very good student who is listening hard, and who will hand in an insightful essay that will more than make up for their reticence in class. The students today are prepared to look as thick and uninterested as possible, as long as it puts Ren off asking them questions. One is looking out the window the whole time. Another is looking at her phone. She looks like she’s about to start typing a text message on it, should Ren dare to ask her something.
Ren wants this to end even more than the students do. He could say he doesn’t feel well, which is definitely true, and leave the room, but he isn’t going to do that, for the same reason that he turned up today. You don’t duck out of your classes. Before they’re assigned you can try to get a lighter load, that’s acceptable, although too much trying will get you a bad name. But once you have your teaching assignments, you do the job.
Of course, taking your seminars is less important than taking your lectures. While it is important that students turn up to most of their seminars, because that enables them to develop various skills, no individual seminar is important in the way that an individual lecture is. So in theory, an academic cutting a seminar was less of a big deal than cutting a lecture. But still, you just don’t do it. You have to turn up, and do a good job. Similarly, you don’t walk out of a seminar halfway through, unless you’re about to vomit blood all over the carpet. And it’s better if you do vomit blood all over the carpet, because then the students will think it reasonable for you to cancel the rest of the class, whereas if you just walk out they’ll be suspicious. (And they have cheap, dirty carpets in the teaching rooms at Grayvington. After a couple of days the stain would barely be noticeable.)
So, as ill as he felt, Ren isn’t going to cut the seminar short. In theory he could have showed them his Technicolour bruises – they would have earned him a hall pass. But that would mean stories about him spreading all over the campus, getting more lurid by the minute.
So for all these reasons he keeps going, although it’s mostly because he’s stubborn and not wimping out is a matter of pride for him. Also, he’d been bladdered last night, so it’s really his fault. He’d feel guilty about blowing off classes because of that. It’s never a good idea to drink too much the night before you have classes, and he had ignored that. But if you are going to burn the candle at both ends, then do it. Don’t burn the candle at one end, and then say you’re too bushed to attend to the other end, sorry, got to have a lie down now. Work hard and play hard, that’s his motto, not play hard and then go to bed with a cold compress when the shovels and pickaxes are handed out, saying you’re feeling a bit peaky.
All these thoughts briefly flit through Ren’s mind as he starts to flag. He tries to buck himself up for the final stretch. What he really needs is a Christian. Could any of these unlikely types be a Christian? It seems doubtful. Most students go along with Thomson’s argument, but sometimes a Christian will, quite reasonably, take issue with the idea that the situation with the attached violinist is analogous to that of a pregnant woman. He can’t ask outright whether anyone is a Christian, but he tries to tease it out of them. Even the most reluctant Christian could afford him another ten-fifteen minutes of worthy debate, and then he could finish early.
But the shutters have really come down now. Even the two students he’d managed to get grunts out of have shut up shop for the day. Twenty five minutes left, their expressions seem to be saying. I can stone-face it out for the last half of the class. Next week I just won’t come.
It’s ridiculous, Ren thinks. We all just want to go home. But we can’t say it. Whatever he says in this seminar isn’t going to make any difference to these students, even if, as seems unlikely, some of them are better than they seem. You can’t presume that just because a student is quiet that they’re less bright than the talkers. Not at all. Often the talkers are dimmer than the others. Often the brightest students are shy. He wasn’t a big talker as a first-year, realising that he knew little, so he has sympathy for the ones who are quiet but who look intelligent, and who are clearly listening hard. But he has a good look at each student in turn as he talks, and his hopes are dashed. As he drones on, boring them and himself senseless, he thinks longingly of his bed.
And then, a miracle. One of them has started speaking. It sounds like… can it be true? Yes! He’s talking like he’s a Christian. God has sent his cavalry after all. Not the student Ren would have picked. An olive-looking guy with a baseball cap, and chains, and sports jacket. Probably Greek, and brought up in a religious household. Not what you would call articulate. Halting and confused. But he’s speaking. Ren feels like Oliver Sacks at Beth Abrahams, as the first encephalitic patient on the ward responds to L-DOPA. He tries to prevent a big Robin Williams-style grin from spreading across his face. Play it cool, he thinks, don’t scare him off. Act as though a student like you talking in a seminar is the most natural thing in the world, and no big deal.
Ren doesn’t know whether this guy really is much of a Christian, or whether he’s just worked out that he can play this role as a way to pass time. Or to look like he’s contributing more than the Sleeping Beauties in the rest of the class. Perhaps he’s willing to assume any role in order to rise above being cast as just another cadaver.
It isn’t a great conversation, it’s stilted, and full of misunderstandings, and it takes great effort from Ren to keep it going, but keep it going he does. It sounds like the guy is parroting things his parents have said, but in this situation it doesn’t matter what you bring to the party, as long as it’s alcoholic. Fifteen minutes to go. Then the girl next to him starts chipping in a bit as well. Ten minutes to go. Ren has to do some talking. Then a late burst from the Grecian. Not bad. With three minutes left on the clock, Ren calls a halt.
Some of the others, the ones who don’t run off scowling as quick as they can, look at the Greek guy appreciatively, with admiration, and maybe a bit of jealousy thrown in. He looks happy, and even a bit smug, as though he has had the balls to go up and chat to Miss Universe at a party. For a brief few minutes Ren even starts to feel good about seminar teaching. Normally after taking a Funeral you feel like what a godawful waste of your young adult life and your glorious talent this job is, but now it’s like he’d just presided over a Roller.
Ren sits and waits while everybody else leaves before he risks moving. His leg is like a dead thing. Perhaps it is dead. It did look that way on the damaged part of his thigh. Maybe he should go see his GP for a second opinion – that A&E doctor didn’t really give it a proper examination. He stands up, with real difficulty. He remembers long, all day-hikes he did in the Scouts. What a piece of piss they seem now, compared to the struggle he’s going to have to get back to his office.
After he is sure everyone is gone from the corridor outside he drags his leg out of the room with him, like he’s suffering from alien leg syndrome. A cold dead thing, like nothing on Earth. His happy glow dissipates, and the usual feeling you get after taking a Funeral class returns with a vengeance. The thought of doing this sort of thing for another forty years is almost too much to bear.