The Write Side: The Betrayees (Aug 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

A Short Story by Jack Welch
August, 1992

I am trying to write a story about how I was sabotaged by the Dean of the Graduate School. I was an undergraduate at a large state university, and he as one of the people who was supposed to prepare me to do well on the Rhodes Scholarship interview. He seemed the perfect person to do so because he was the most intelligent man on campus – perhaps in the entire state. He had been a Rhodes Scholar himself, and occasionally talked on the telephone with Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Great Britain. During our preparation sessions, he and another professor asked me questions that an undergraduate might know.

When I got to the actual interview in a suite in our state capital’s only skyscraper, my Dean turned out to be one of the interviewers. I anticipated that he would ask me the same kind of undergraduate questions, but no – he asked me specialized questions. I lost the scholarship and blamed my Dean for making me look stupid.

This story is not progressing well. It’s altogether too orderly but what happened was almost divinely balanced and orderly. (That’s what I get for writing from my own experience.) Nevertheless, while I was away doing graduate work, this Dean commandeered the public address system at a basketball game and began cursing the University’s president. The President soon found another Dean, but the ex-Dean, after undergoing therapy, remained on campus to teach. Soon after I returned to campus as an assistant professor, he used an RAF military pistol to shoot himself to death in his university office.

I remember that I had to struggle in order not to find some satisfaction in the ex-Dean’s decline. But, he was buried and mostly forgotten except by people like me whom he had injured.

A few years later, my moral qualms concerning this man surfaced again when his only child, a son, turned up in my freshman composition class. I recognized the name at once and wondered if I would be able to resist doing something vengeful. I didn’t want to sin against this person and yet … I admit that I was still rankled at his father’s betrayal of me. I coldly marked the grammatical errors on the essay, but didn’t trust myself to evaluate the content. When I returned the paper, he seemed disappointed.

During the course of the semester, the ex-Dean’s son improved but never rose to the brilliance which I had subconsciously anticipated. When the semester ended, I was relieved that I had not been unfair to the student. However, I knew that I had not offered him much in the way of constructive criticism, either. Had I sinned against him? I felt that I had at least shortchanged him.

Two semesters later the young man showed up, smiling, in my creative writing class. In this class I gave no grades until the end of the semester. My main method of helping students to improve was in a series of individual conferences throughout the semester. I confess that I put off the conference with Jim as long as I could, but finally the day came. His five-page story lay on the metal desk between us.

“Why are you writing about blacks in New York City?” I asked.

He fidgeted and turned in the chair, crossing his legs. “Well … I like the writings of James Baldwin.”

“I like the writings of Shakespeare, too, but ….”

“… but you don’t write about English kings,” Jim said, smiling.

“Didn’t you like the advice from R.V. Cassill to choose something from your own experience?”

“Oh, I liked it all right.”

“But you didn’t choose to do it.”

“I wasn’t able to do it.”

“Why not?”

Another long pause. “I don’t know.”

His answers were not matching my questions. So, I started down another path which I hoped would connect. “Let’s look for some personal conflict which might be turned into fiction,” I said, trying to appear casual.

“Have you ever had a serious illness? Any failed love affairs? That’s good enough for a novel.”

Jim smiled. “I guess not … not yet. I have a girlfriend.”

“Well, let’s turn to the girlfriend …”

Here Jim interrupted me. “No … not her. I know what you want, Professor Welch. I know. I just … I don’t know.”

“What do I want?” I asked.

“You want something that would make a great story; something that I know about so that I could put in all the right details that would make people believe it.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, I have that kind of story … except ….”

I said nothing. Should I, out of charity, change the subject?

“My father killed himself. He betrayed my mother and me.”

“There’s your story.”

“… but I’m finding it very hard to forgive him. So is my mother. She turned to alcohol … you know that already from our freshman class, but he left me … well, with all the responsibility.”

I said nothing for a few moments, noticing that tears had welled up in Jim’s eyes.

“That’s a powerful story, Jim. If you can endure the pain, you may do yourself a lot of good.”

Jim said nothing more during the conference and left without even saying goodbye. He submitted nothing more the remainder of the semester although he attended every class and commented generously on the works of the other students. For our last conference, he hadn’t given me a manuscript beforehand, but when he arrived at my office, he had a neat stack of pages which he laid before me on the gray metal desk.

“This is it,” he said.

The title of the story was “Betrayed.” “Looks like 20 pages or more ….”

He nodded his head. “I’ll wait while you read it.”

The story was prefaced with comments from the narrator who depicted his father’s high expectations for his son by describing a childhood of continual, unrelenting criticism. The father is as hard on himself as he is on everyone else, and before the story is over, he collapses in nervous exhaustion. Finally, the father, no longer able to endure his limitations, takes his own life. The story ends with another comment by the narrator who asserts that the father’s worst legacy was the bitterness which he had left behind in the family. “Strangely, there’s no word in English to describe us,” the narrator commented. “We’re the betrayees.”

“This is a powerful story,” I commented to Jim. “You seem to have dealt kindly with your father. I can see that he hurt you again and again.”

Jim nodded. “His achievement was great. I know I’ll never equal his. But he paid the price. He demanded too much of us all – even himself.”

“This is a tragic story,” I said, leaning back in my oak chair and relaxing. “It’s redeemed by your forgiveness.”

“I feel better about it. It’s like therapy.”

“Writing can sometimes be like that.”

After the writing class, I rarely saw Jim again. Once, however, at the University’s indoor swimming pool, he stopped by and told me that he had been accepted into medical school and that he was engaged to be married. “I’m happy for you, Jim. Having you in class was a blessing.”

Jim looked at me strangely, not comprehending, then dove into the chlorine-scented pool and swam smoothly away.

This story may leave the impression that I was somehow as healed as Jim, but that would be false; otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this story. My life was diminished by my failure during that scholarship interview, and I’ve long avoided talking about it. Still, I don’t suppose Jim’s life or mine or that of any other betrayee is ever totally healed. Nevertheless, understanding which comes through art is apparently a prelude to forgiveness.Wineskins Magazine

Jack Welch

 

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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