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The Seminar

by Gary William Crawford

I never learned anything in the seminar except how cruel humans can be. I felt trapped in a university that became, for me, a nightmare world, a fantastic and hellish place. Over time, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable there: more of a distance between them and me.

The great they began to take on a mysterious quality that I could not understand. And I became more and more frightened until my fear turned to terror. My vocabulary began to take on the quality of a paranoid’s: there was a vague sense of disquiet in my perceptions of everyone and everything around me, and the pronouns I chose hinted at a greater evil force that permeated all things.

I tried to focus on my studies, but in the third week of the seminar, things took a turn for the worse. This day of the seminar took place on Halloween. I remember that the building housing the English department was decorated for the occasion. And that night some of the graduate students were having a costume party at one of their homes. I never really associated much with them, and they were content with me as an outsider. I had not been invited.

But when I entered the seminar classroom, the professor, an elderly man who was a Faulkner scholar, was in the room alone.

“I must be early,” I said.

He looked at me, taking off his glasses and studying me quietly.

Then he said, “Better late than never.”

I didn’t know what he meant, but I was afraid to question him. His behavior — odd, taciturn — had become typical of the faculty. One felt that one could not question anything. The entire university seemed to be made up of closed minds.

I sat at the seminar table and said nothing. I was only wondering where everyone had gone. Then after a few minutes, the four other members of the seminar came in. Everyone was very quiet.

The professor, the old Faulkner scholar named Stinson, opened the book before him. We were to discuss Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, but he looked at everyone who looked back at him in stony silence, and he said, “There has been a change in plans.”

Then he began a long talk on a novel I’d never heard of. It wasn’t Faulkner, and I can’t remember now what he said. What was most frightening is that the other students didn’t question him. They seemed to accept him and his discussion at face value.

Then the strangest thing happened. He closed the book and picked up what was beneath it. It was a mirror about the size of a full sheet of paper. He held it up, and here’s the scariest part. It didn’t reflect the room or the other students or me. I saw what appeared to be a gaseous light permeating the room. The other students simply accepted this as normal. I was too frightened to say anything. Then the bell rang. It was not the end of an hour, but Stinson put the mirror down and everyone rose from the table and filed solemnly out of the room.

I was the last one to leave, and as I walked down the hall toward the staircase, Stinson turned back, and smiling, said, “Now you know.”

It took me some time before I knew what he meant. One dared not question Stinson, and as the weeks passed, I sensed in myself a certain apathy. What I feared in myself was that I didn’t want to change. I walked the labyrinthine corridors of the place with a dead, unemotional expression on my face. Everyone else looked at me with the same empty look. This was beginning to be what they said was normal. I began to welcome their unfeeling cruelty. Soon, I knew, I would be like them. I knew what they knew, and it would be all I would ever know.

Copyright © 2009 by Gary William Crawford

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