With a certain amount of pride, I can say I am the only tenured English instructor at Prospect College who does not have an office in the Humanities Division. I share an office with Coach Tom Reinhart, a former Olympic wrestling champion and PE and health instructor, in the PE Building. He was on the hiring committee when I got my full-time teaching job at Prospect thirteen years ago. I didn’t know Tom or anyone else at the college. I had no inside help. I walked into the interview “cold,” an unknown from the streets, as it were.
Tom said when I strutted into the interview room in my black suit, a stout 230 pounds at six feet flat, I looked less like an English professor and more like a wrestler, a mixed martial arts fighter, or an NFL linebacker. My aggressive posture and flinty countenance had a pugilistic air that he had found refreshing, as he does not have much tolerance for persnickety pencil-neck academic types. One of the things he found appealing about my presence was a large dark stain on my red tie, which suggested a certain manly laxity regarding my professional attire. Later I explained to him that it was hot sauce from the Taco Bell lunch I had nervously eaten before my interview. So when Reinhart saw this muscular man with a stain on his tie, he made his mind up right there that I would get the job and he used his influence with the committee to make sure that that was the case.
Not that my interviewing skills didn’t help. Reinhart said I was confident, if a bit cocky, and I used my deadpan humor to make the committee laugh as I gave my sample 10-minute lecture on paragraph unity and cohesiveness, using a PowerPoint example that centered on my eccentric uncle, Polo LeBlanc, a professional artist who suffers from acute hypochondria, which compels him to watch his living room television from his backyard with a pair of binoculars in order to avoid getting testicular cancer.
So when I got hired—which, let’s face it, is a huge deal, getting a tenure-track position in a major Los Angeles job market—Reinhart called me and offered me the spare desk in his PE office. “I need you,” he said, “so they don’t stick some ugly battleaxe in here with me.”
One of the first things I did when I moved into Reinhart’s office was make sure I fit in with the room’s athletic, masculine theme. His office is cluttered with wrestling trophies, newspaper clippings of his wrestling glory years, sumo wrestling posters, photographs of his two daughters (all-state volleyball champions) and his burly son (all-state football and wrestling champion), and other souvenirs of athletic achievement. There is even an alabaster statue of two naked wrestlers entwined in battle, one taking a firm grasp of his opponent’s scrotum, which I find a bit unsettling. Personally, I would not keep such a statue in my office, but it was not my place to say so.
In addition to all the wrestling paraphernalia, the office always smells like sweaty gym shoes. There is equipment for Reinhart’s PE classes lying around, bags of volleyballs, medicine balls, dumbbells, golf bags, health supplement and gym equipment catalogs, and my favorite items, the hand-crushing grip exercisers, which I’ve been addicted to using all these years as I love being able to shake a man’s hand—any man no matter how large—and startle him with my hand-crushing strength.
To make sure I fit in with the masculine décor, I put on the wall above my desk a large framed glossy photograph of me a week before I entered and took second place in the 1981 Mr. Teenage San Francisco contest. My father took the photograph of me in his backyard in San Jose, California. I’m wearing nothing but red gym shorts. At nineteen years of age, I’m a lean and mean 185 pounds, probably with about 3% body fat. I am what you would call “ripped.” In the photograph I am not really posing much at all in what you might call a “three-quarter semi-relaxed” shot with me twisting my bare, oil-slathered tanned torso toward the camera. My arms are slightly flexed by my hips, as if I were holding a spear with both hands. I have a head full of long dark curly hair, pronounced fully-formed cheek bones, almond-shaped eyes. There is a lush cluster of bougainvillea in the background. The total effect is very tropical, suggesting Maui or Tahiti. In fact, people who see the photograph frequently ask me if I am Hawaiian or Tahitian or Polynesian when in fact I am neither. But this is besides the point. The issue is that I am proud of the photograph. It says to my students, or to anyone else for that matter, that while I am a college English professor immersed in the world of the intellect, I am not an effete egghead, but a man who delves in the pursuit of physical culture at its very finest. The photograph also says that while I may be “old” and thus irrelevant at forty-eight, the stunning image of my youth is proof of the fact that I was once a gamer, a player, a man who once mattered.
The photograph is important in that it underscores that we are dealing with a different kind of English professor here. It’s important that college students have a diversity of English instructors who defy the stereotypes they may have of them. Students can behold the photo of that nineteen-year-old bodybuilder and realize that you don’t have to be a chicken-neck geek to pursue the study of composition and literature. The photograph must be especially helpful in maintaining the self-esteem of the male students who feel ashamed, perhaps even emasculated, that they’re being required to take a freshman composition class.
Many would condemn me for putting up such a photograph. What kind of woefully insecure man has to spread his peacock feathers in his office like that? What a pathetically vain thing to do. But the photograph affords me a mystique that I otherwise would not enjoy. And it’s not just the photograph that creates this mystique. It’s my office in the PE building, my proximity to the football coach, Ram Stockwell, and all the football players that Stockwell has put in my classes has over years. I am now shrouded in mystery. You see, many students are under the impression that I’m not an English instructor, per se, but an assistant football coach teaching English under the auspices of the English Department or that I am a substitute teacher for an English instructor who abruptly fell ill and that the college could not find anyone on such short notice so they capitulated to hiring me, an employee from the PE department, to fill in. I get students all the time asking me why I, a football coach, is teaching English, and I always come up with some sarcastic response or other such as, “I’m teaching this class because of judge-appointed community service for drunk driving.”