Universal Mentors Association

Tales of an adjunct, part 3: this place makes me ill


This posting is the third and final installment in a slightly fictitious tale about being an adjunct professor in the early 1990s.

My mind obsessively future thinks as I fight off nausea and try to finish the lecture. Can you imagine throwing up on your students while teaching a class? What does that conversation with the department chair look like afterward? Would I get fired? I reason, maybe not; there wouldn’t be anyone to teach the class. Perhaps I’d be asked to offer an apology for the offense and for sparking the retching and regurgitation of others?

I imagine the news (greatly exaggerated) spreading throughout campus (as it does). Racing thoughts include but aren’t limited to:

  • Administrators worrying obsessively about biohazards and a possible campus flu outbreak
  • The CDC swooping in with required actions and notifications
  • Hastily copied official notices taped to entrances of buildings
  • News crews descending on campus to interview eyewitnesses
  • Admissions staff wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth as they compulsively check inquiry and application numbers
  • Calls from worried parents (whose kids never answer their phones) flooding the student affairs office
  • The business office, inundated with requests for refunds, looking for legal cover

It would be a mess.

Clicking through the slides, I end the lecture by comparing two proto-Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and child—one by Duccio and one by Cimabue. It previews what happens next in Western art and the dawn of a new era —the Renaissance. Then, it hits me. Jesus. Am I pregnant? Is that why I threw up?

After class, I rush back to my office, throw down the carousels on the desk and grab my purse and keys. I only have an hour before my next class. Can I make it to CVS and back in time? I decide yes, but only if I hurry.

I bark at the pharmacist in the store, “Where are the pregnancy tests?” The stunned older man points down the aisle behind me. I spin around, dash toward the racks, grab two boxes and sprint to the cashier. Out the door and into the vehicle, I restrain my urge to speed the car back to campus. A ticket is the last thing I need.

I run from the parking lot, through the building, and into the slide library. I’m back in my office in 20 minutes. Thankfully Liz was already gone for the day; I didn’t have time for chitchat. I slam the bathroom door shut, nervously rip open one of the packages, yank down my pants, squat and release onto the small white plastic stick. I accidentally pee all over my hand. Gross. I set the stick down on a piece of brown paper towel and place it on the edge of the sink while I clean myself up.

My eyes dart back and forth between the pee stick and the instruction sheet. How long does this take? What sign means pregnant? Then, a dark-pink plus sign appears on the stick’s window. “Do another test. Make sure,” I say to myself as if I was reading the directions on a shampoo bottle: “Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat.” So, I repeat—open the package, down pants, squat and release on the stick. Damn it. I peed on my hand again. I wait. I’m trying to focus on breathing and watching the time. Then, here it goes … turning … turning … a dark-pink plus sign. Pregnant.

I’m not sure how I got through the next lecture. It is a bit of a blur. American art history. Did I talk about Monticello (people need to talk about Jefferson and Sally Hemings in these texts)? Or maybe it was the Huguenot silversmiths? (I wish I could talk about women silversmiths like Hester Bateman. But she’s British. Perhaps I will in the women’s art history class.) Claw-footed furniture? Good grief. I don’t remember. Eighteenth-century painting? Benjamin West and male-centric self-important history painting? Maybe I mentioned the Peale family and Anna Claypool Peale getting the shaft, historically speaking? Gilbert Stuart and that stupid unfinished George Washington portrait? The only thing occupying my mind was “I’m pregnant.”

When I got home at 9 p.m., John was reading on the couch. I burst in and blurted out, “You’re going to be a father.” He just looked at me like it wasn’t noteworthy. My heart sank. He didn’t seem to be happy. There was an air of emotional darkness I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I tried to make up for his lack of enthusiasm with my own. “Isn’t this great! After only one month of trying, we did it! And the baby will come during summer break. Perfect timing.” He said little. At one point, he mumbled something about being unable to afford a baby and saying I should get a real job.

Thus commenced an academic year of puking my guts out. Seriously. Five to seven times a day. Morning, noon and night. Retching. Hurling everything I ate. Nothing worked to fend it off. Not peppermints. Not saltines. Nothing. I lost 15 pounds in the first trimester. At one point, I had to tell my classes that if I ran out of the auditorium suddenly, not to worry. I was pregnant and had horrible morning sickness—rather, all-day sickness. If I didn’t return in 10 minutes, they could leave class.

By the spring semester, the mere smell of coffee had me gagging and dry heaving. If I was at home and upstairs, I could even smell it if it was being made in the kitchen. Whenever John had a cup of coffee, I would scream downstairs, “Is that coffee I smell?” Then I would hear him pouring it out and running the faucet. Next, he would say, “I’m going to the office. Could you please clean the kitchen before you go?” In between the dry heaves, I manage to shout, “OK” while thinking, “Fuck you. Can’t you hear me dying up here? Why don’t you clean the kitchen?”

One snowy night John wanted food from Taco Bell. I said, “I can’t go in. I’ll be on my knees throwing up before we get out of there.” We compromise and go through the drive-through. He opens the window to exchange money for the bag of tacos and burritos. The smell drifts into the car. Oh my god. Oh my god. The wave of nausea crashes down on me like the Poseidon Adventure tsunami, and I put my hand to my mouth. I’m going to be sick. Before he can pull away, I open the car door, lean out with my head down toward the snow. I leave a steaming pile of vomit and slowly close the car door. I feel so weak, so frustrated.

Tears in my eyes, I choke out, “You can’t have that food in the car. I won’t make it home. Do you want to have to clean out the car?” John replies, “What am I supposed to do? I’m hungry.” I snap, “I don’t know. Hold the bag outside the window.” “But it is like 20 degrees and snowing,” he argues. I explain, “You have two choices.” Holding the bag out of the window, he randomly offers, “I guess we could have gone to McDonald’s. Did I tell you I saw Muhammad Ali there? You know he lives in Berrien Springs.” My body starts to convulse, “Stop the car. I’m getting sick again.”

Being sick and exhausted is how I spent the entire academic year. One day near the end of the spring semester, I stood in the hallway outside the slide library and talked to one of the other adjunct professors whose office was nearby. He was complaining about his workload and pay. I asked empathetically, “How many classes are you teaching this semester?” He sharply responded, “Three. I taught four last semester. And for a pittance—$32,000 for the year!” Wait. What? I was furious. Why was I being paid per class?

After the conversation, I cried in my office for a while. Then, I pulled myself together. I marched to the department chair’s office and protested disparate pay for the same work. He responded without sarcasm or irony, “Well, he has a family to support.” Yep. He said that to a six-month pregnant woman standing right before him with a big baby belly to prove it. My jaw dropped. And then, without missing a beat, he offered, “Perhaps you could model for my class and earn extra cash. It would be great for students to have a pregnant nude to draw from.” I looked at him blankly and walked out of his office.

Back in my office, I lay on the couch, cried tears of anger and decided I needed to send out more résumés. I wondered, “When will this type of discrimination end? Why does he think it’s OK? It’s not OK.”


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