Unusable Sources

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

A research paper is due, so there is a line of students waiting outside my office door. I think of giving tickets, like a short order cook. They all want the special: fix my paper. I am tired. I want to tell them that if they had listened, say, for the last month, they would be done with the paper. I want to tell them I don’t care that their boyfriend’s car broke down, that the daycare closed, that they had the flu for two weeks. These things have been happening to me too, I say. This, my friends, is what you call life. Suck it up and get your paper done.

When Mona comes in, she is in tears. Mona is about my age, but she calls me Ms. Whetstone. She is tall and broad shouldered, but slim. She might have played volleyball in high school. Her hair is straightened and dyed red, leaning toward burgundy. “I can’t do this paper,” she says. “These kids can look up all this stuff on the computer, but I can’t. I bet they can’t use a phonebook, but give me a phone book and I can find anything.

“Here,” I say, “Let’s see what we can find. “ I type a few words into the library search window and five good sources pop up. “You’re just not using the right search terms,” I say.

“Ms. Whetstone, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done besides getting clean,” she says.

I can’t believe this. Mona has become a kind of hero to me. She used crack for sixteen years, while I finished high school, went to college, got married, had kids, and worked. She finally got clean while I was finishing grad school. Her paper is on the challenges felons face in finding employment.

Mona is the only addict I have ever met who seems truly “clean,” as in not in danger of going back to addiction. I have been close a lot of addicts. Of course my parents, but friends too, co-workers, students–last semester, one of my students slipped back to heroin. There is, of course, nothing you can do about someone else’s addiction. Sometimes, people will still “just drink beer or smoke a little pot.” Some people maintain this, but it scares me to death. It’s a long, fast slide down. The heroin student had been clean for eighteen months before she went back to using. Mona has been clean for at least five years. She needs me to help her write a complete sentence. I need her to reassure my faith in the possibility of recovery. I’m not sure she even knows this is the deal. In other words, she has to write the research paper. There is no way in hell I am going to allow her to quit, phonebook or no.

The word recovery, according to the dictionary, means a return to a normal condition. Something gained or restored in recovering, the act of obtaining usable substances from unusable sources. Mona goes home, and my fear is not that she will not finish her paper. I just don’t want anything to break her. “I’m going to work all weekend on it,” she says. I show her how to integrate sources, how to back up what she knows. “It’s just a paper,” I say. I forget sometimes that words terrify people. Different things terrify me.

Mona shows up the day the paper is due, just like a made for TV movie, paper in hand, on time. The paper is too thin and probably has too few sources. I don’t care. She is smiling. She tells a young, terribly anxious student not to worry about his oral presentation. She has not slipped away, irrevocably. Something has been gained or restored.




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