Office Hours: Custodied


Office Hours, Episode One

This is the first installment of a mini-series by Chris Adams, art faculty member at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas. In “Office Hours”, Chris logs various dialogues and dilemmas of the university-level studio instructor.

There’s a Dickey’s BBQ that I go to for lunch on Thursdays because I like the special they feature that day. It’s also one of a handful of places I like so far in this little town where I teach art at a community college. As it’s close to the school, there is almost always a group or two of faculty and staff there getting away from campus for a quick escape. Normally they talk shop, or family, or church, but not today. Today all eyes were fixed to one of the TV’s hanging in the dining area. Two of the TV’s almost always feature sports, and those TV’s were being completely ignored. Today all were fixated on the third TV that featured news. There was another school shooting being covered at a community college in Oregon. Ten dead with more wounded according to the talking heads on the screen. I had never seen a table not engaged in conversation, but the TV was doing all the talking this time.

Naturally, there were more than a couple of discussions about guns on campus and the laws being discussed that would allow for the right to carry firearms on campus. Most of my colleagues oppose it, but there are a couple of the professors who support it. “Why shouldn’t we be allowed to protect ourselves?” they ask. You can probably already envision a lot of head shaking, sighing, and eye rolling. Your vision would be correct. Our own personal Martin Riggs fantasies or arguments against Martin Riggs fantasies would have to wait for another day. We are teachers, after all, and there are art history, music, and design classes to get to.

Martin Riggs, fictional character from the Lethal Weapon franchise

I sat transfixed by the TV at Dickey’s, too, that day. It was hard to enjoy my plate of spicy cheddar sausage while listening to the poor adjunct professor of chemistry that CNN had on the phone. He was hiding while the drama unfolded. I don’t remember a word he said. The visual barrage of graphics and images that flash on and off on news channels is dizzying. Too much, too fast. While the adjunct talked, the banners in the screen reported ten dead. Then 20+ injured. Suddenly, the suspect was reported cornered. There was still not a peep out of the other people in the dining area, who were also not paying attention to their pulled-pork plates. A newsflash: the shooter had been taken into custody. One of the locals, who was on his way out, exclaimed that his being captured alive was a shame. “He shouldn’t have been custodied!” he shouted. I was temporarily distracted from the drama, not by this man’s declaration, but by the transformation of the noun ‘custody’ into a verb. ‘Merica.

We all looked at our phones or watches about the same time. It was time to get back to the school. As I was heading back to my office, I couldn’t help but think about that adjunct chemistry professor and his current Johnny-On-The-Spot role. Did he have windows he was avoiding? Was he in a chair or under a desk? What was he up to before the shooting started? Was he in some communal office (and was it stuffy like mine)? And damn it, I just wasted a plate of spicy cheddar sausage. I wasn’t hungry anymore. I felt a little ill to be honest.

Back in my office I immediately flipped my iPad open to get CNN back on, glad that I paid my U-Verse bill. I told myself I was going to listen to events unfold as I graded design projects and drawings. I have some really nice line projects from my design classes to look over. There are some really sharp students in these classes. I’m lucky.

Wow, that adjunct chemistry professor is still on the phone.

Try as I might, my head just isn’t interested in these projects. I looked at my door a lot. I listened to the sounds coming from the hallways. I listened to the “expert” analysts being interviewed on TV. The adjunct professor in hiding was asked more questions occasionally.

Ten dead, 20+ wounded as of that moment. Both numbers would go down the following morning. Thursday afternoon, however, I set the projects aside. I was focused on students and the occasional professor on TV piling out of buildings with their hands in the air to demonstrate that they were unarmed. There were a lot of tears mixed in with confusion and fear. I just sat there staring at the iPad screen, the occasional guilty glance at my pile of ungraded projects. I worked hard to get to where I am now. I feel lucky to have been given the chance to be a college art professor. I’m “living the dream” as a one of my graduate school professors once put it. This is a great school and I like my coworkers. How many of those same thoughts were going through the minds of the professors in Oregon on Thursday morning? Before I could really consider this too heavily, a talking head reported that the shooter was also now dead. So much for being custodied I suppose.

The conversations about the right to carry guns on campus keep bubbling back up to the surface. Supporters of this are wrong. I’m absolutely convinced they’re wrong. They’re absolutely convinced I’m wrong, too, though. It sickens me that events like the one in Oregon keep happening; it does nothing but embolden those whose argument is that I should be packing heat while I teach. I like to wield a bamboo brush in class, not a .357. I’m not I’m not Dirty Harry or Paul Kersey. None of my coworkers are, either. There’s not one Hollywood action-film caliber vigilante among my colleagues from what I can tell. I just really hope they never have the opportunity to prove me right or wrong with regard to that assessment.

Dirty Harry, 1971 Action Thriller Film starring Clint Eastwood

By Monday I’ll be back on my game again. It will be high time to return to really important stuff like Line, Space, Shape, Color, Value, and Texture. I’ll take some of these projects back to class with me to grade while the students work on their Figure/Ground Reversal. I really dig that project. I’ll likely also have my laptop web browser open in the event of updates from Oregon or, heaven forbid, some new tragedy. There will be something newsworthy, right? I tell myself I’m just a news junkie, but is it something else? Am I paranoid? Have I become morbid? Or is this just how we go about living the dream in the 21st Century? I wish I had an answer. Maybe this last minute email I’ve just received will give some guidance. It directs me to an online “active shooter” professional development course. I imagine it’s mandatory. I also imagine it will not turn me into Steven Segal or Bruce Willis. I really have some great projects here…

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