Enjoy an excerpt from Maximus Hank’s “Sunshine, Darkness, Blue Skies, and Others” featured in our new anthology ON TIME.
This is what I want you to know.
The queen of darkness emailed me when she woke up in the psych ward.
“I failed again,” she said.
Is this about Ronnie?
“Of course. Ain’t no sunshine when he’s gone.”
Darkness had tried to read her essay in class. She broke down on page two. The part where she learned his song. The part where she played it on his guitar. Ronnie, her best friend, first kiss, first love. Shot walking home in the dark. Bled out on black asphalt. Was this real? Was it fiction? Sometimes, your radar goes up. Sometimes, it doesn’t.
And what could we do? Darkness stood up there crying at the lectern, small and frail. Like she was about to fall into herself and explode into a new cosmos.
She was so done with the old cosmos.
What could I do?
A big someone stood up in the back of the room. “Hey, you guys want to see my art?”
“Yeah,” somebody said.
“Is that okay, Mr. Hank?” The big someone looked at me and waited.
“You sure you want to? You guys down for that?” I looked around the classroom, but I waited for Darkness.
“I’d like to see it,” Darkness said, her face still wet. Like raindrops on top of fresh oil paint. “What’s your name?”
“Um…Sunshine. Because I want to be your new sunshine. Your sunshine 2.0. I’m an app. Can I?”
“Okay. Thank you, Sunshine.” Darkness returned to her chair.
Sunshine beamed and pulled papers out of her backpack. “Okay, so this is some of my artwork. It’s shitty, but it’s me. Because that’s who I am. You know that by now.”
She walked up front and took over the room with her art and its backstories.
I knew what she was doing.
It takes real foolishness to let first year college students take over a class. To let anyone open mic their essay, their thoughts. It’s a risk.
But something good happens in that chaos. Life is shitty, you know? Shit’s fucked up. That good thing that happens is that everybody starts breathing. Like we’ve all been not breathing for so damn long.
Darkness didn’t miss another day of class. And on the last day of the semester, Darkness was still alive. I gave her a good luck charm I had bought at a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. It had brought me good luck. It had kept me alive.
I saw Darkness once more after that. She walked by my classroom the next semester. Came inside and spoke with us. She wasn’t the same as before. Some of the darkness had lifted. There were some bright spots. Like some sunshine starting up in there.
Who knew that Sunshine would be the next to email me from the psych ward?
Like, is suicide a virus that you can catch, like cutting, like drinking, like vaping? Any old motherfucker will tell you that kids these days are weak.
They’re not weak, motherfucker.
Why don’t you try living with the pressure you put on them? How long before you’re spending your last crinkly dollar on weed, just to escape this shit for a few hours? How long before you carve draglines on your forearms? It’s primitive acupuncture. It’s a primitive time.
You can tell me they’re weak when you’ve read ten years of essays about what it’s like being kids these days. What it’s like being your child. Your grandchild. What it’s like working for you.
Want some math? Ten years, six sections a year, about twenty students per section, two papers and ten short essays per student. Math it up. That’s 1,200 students writing 2,400 papers and 12,000 short essays.
Until you know what I know, you can piss right off.
I want you to know that.
Sunshine had a diagnosis. Bipolar. I could see it in the classroom. Bright days. Dark days.
“I quit going to all my classes,” she said one bright dark day when she waited for me outside the door. “Except yours. Do you want to have dinner? I know this pho restaurant.”
Sunshine had a way of stopping me like that.
We agreed to meet in the library. I figured I could talk her down. Lunch nearby. Or better, coffee on campus.
She didn’t show at the library.
I didn’t expect her to.
Is that a thing with bipolar? I don’t know. I don’t know much about it.
Sometimes, I feel like I didn’t know much about anything.
Sometimes, I know it.
What I do know is this. These people are big. You look at them, and you say, Sure, Hank, they’re big. It’s the milk. It’s the diet. It’s the calories. Yay us, we raised them well.
You don’t know the half of it, motherfucker. You didn’t raise them well. You raised them poorly. You raised them in your own image, and you’re a low motherfucker. What you don’t see, because you can’t see, because you’re a blind motherfucker, is that the spirits of these people are big.
These people are giants.
When the spirits of these people stand up in the classroom, the classroom shines with their light.
Here is what I learned my first semester. These people know how to write. They know how to read. They don’t know how to stand up. They’ve been crouching low their whole lives. They’ve been taught not to create. Not to invent. Not to fail. Not to be weird. They’ve been taught to remain a fourth grader, sitting in their fourth-grade desk, quiet and still.
All I had to do was to teach them how to stand up. To be big. To unclench their jaws, their hands, their feet, their stomachs. To just stand up. To try things and to fail, and to watch themselves live through it. To feel how their peers in the classroom shared their failure, lifted them back up.
They had to live that. Moments like that. They had to see it.
The first student who stood up in my classroom was Bethany. She sat in the back. Asked dumb questions we had just covered. I had written her off. Methany. Her first essay was terrible. I had to tell her that she could pass my class on work ethic alone, but I had to see the work. She struggled with the second essay. I thought it would be the end point for Bethany. But then, this happened.
“Mr. Hank, I have this really, really, really weird idea. I know it’s wrong.” And she opened a dictionary on mythology. “I’m writing my essay on how to interpret this video. I know this is wrong, but I can’t get it out of my head. I think the strange lady in the video is Osiris. The Egyptian goddess.”
She looked up from the book. There was so much fear in her eyes. Crouched in that fourth-grade desk.
“Wow,” I said. “Okay, what’s your evidence?”
But that was my formality. I knew what her evidence would be, and when she explained it, stammering, all I could feel was the hot lightning tracing down my spine. “Now formalize it. Explain how the evidence in the video supports your idea, and also find things that work against your idea, and use those things that are fighting against you to make your idea better.”
Her eyes widened in shock. “That’s all?”
“That’s all,” I said. “It’s a brilliant idea. All you have to do is explain it to me. Patiently and simply, like I’m dumb. Because I am dumb.”
She laughed. “That’s easy. I can do that.”
“I know you can,” I said, and Bethany went off and wrote one of the finest small essays I had ever read, from first sentence to last. The energy within it lit me up so much I had to get up and walk around.
“Fuck, yes,” I said to myself, again and again. “Oh, fuck yes.”
The next week in the classroom students began to swivel in their seats to listen to Bethany’s ideas.
“Can I rewrite my first essay?” she asked one day.
“Of course,” I said.
“Holy shit,” I said, when I read it. The fire she found within her. It was a contagious fire. It made me want to come back one more semester. Try to get this teaching gig right just one more time.
I was in awe of Bethany. Still am. Bethany taught me what students needed. Not shame, not ridicule, not mocking, not anger, not upset. That shit don’t work.
Just love. Just patience. Just listen. That shit works.
I saw Bethany a few years after that. She was big. Not her body. Same old skinny Bethany. But her spirit. It was big. It towered over me. I don’t even know what she said.
Maximus Hank is an instructor at a large midwestern university. And he is old. Old old old old old. That is what the students say. Not all the students. Some students say he is not old. If that is the case, then it is the time with the students that has shielded him from oldness. In a past life, Hank was in the technical arts, or the technical sciences, or in the real world, or in an illusory world, but Hank does not like to talk about his past life. Not anymore. Not after this. Hank is so done with the old world.