The last time I got a bad sunburn, I was finishing up my first year of grad school at the University of Kentucky. I’d just started dating this guy named Scott a month or so prior, but we were already maintaining the fiction of separate apartments. I was pretty well living with him. I was also a volunteer at the Kentucky Rolex Three Day Event. It’s a horse show with glorious flowers, and I was a volunteer on the flower committee. (Remember, this is Lexington, KY, horse capital of the world or something like that.) We went around the week before the show placing grown plants (still inside their planters) in strategic locations around the jumps on the cross-country course.
It was a fun activity for me, and also a connection to my home, because it was friends from back-home who had gotten me involved. We also got passes to attend the Rolex itself, and my back-home friends had VIP passes to a tent with free champagne. And the real kicker was the flowers used in the show were ALL GIVEN TO THE VOLUNTEERS at the end. Talk about wow. The organizer was a nurse named Sheila who really had her system together. She knew what went where and who could do it. She collected names and contact information for next year’s event, and she made everything come together in two very fast days.
The following weekend, I came to the actual Rolex with my friends, looking forward to the show’s end, when I could get flowers. Although I lived in an apartment, my Mom didn’t, and neither did Scott’s, and they are both horticultural goddesses. In the VIP booth, I didn’t really drink much champagne, but I had a couple of glasses over the course of the day. And I didn’t really pay attention to the bright April sunshine over my short sleeved shirt and ponytailed hair. I think one of my friends tried to warn me that I was getting sunburned, but I missed the message until way too late.
By the time I got to Scott’s apartment that night, he said, “Huh. Got a little sun today, didn’t you?”
By the next morning, I looked like somebody had boiled me. I went out and bought aloe lotion and slathered it on before school.
The Rolex was on Sunday, and I had an early class that next day. I was always running late for this particular class, and I often skipped it altogether. The teacher had been horrible, and then she’d abruptly quit midterm when her tenure was denied, so we were all pretty much guaranteed A’s. The Writing Program Director and Assistant Director had taken over the class, and I was at war with them. Well, with the Director anyway. The Assistant Director was pretty much an innocent bystander caught in the line of fire.
Here’s what happened. The semester before, I had started grad school. I wasn’t dating Scott yet, and I was enrolled in all the usual first semester graduate student courses. We had to take a cycle of two Intro to College Teaching courses that allowed us to be Teaching Assistants who actually maintained our own classrooms until we had earned the almighty eighteen graduate course hours typically required for such teaching assignments. During that first semester class, the prof, a Dr. Cynthia, was dreadful. She assigned some half dozen expensive texts which she then proceeded not to use. She gave strange esoteric instructions and had us completing outrageously unrelated projects.
The Bitch didn’t like it, and neither did the rest of my alter egos, even though the only one who had a formal identity at that point was Madame Syntax. So, I reported Dr. Cynthia to the Writing Program Director. I had a detailed list of her inappropriate assignments, which included things like writing summaries from the textbooks that we weren’t using. Summaries at the graduate level? Really?
The Writing Program director shut me down. Shut me down. He didn’t want to hear my alternate plans for completing the course without attending her classes. He had no intentions of finding a way for me to make the course relevant to my own work as a teacher or student. And he basically told me to suck it up and get over it.
This is not a good thing to tell me. Ever. I’m bipolar. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a thing. And that particular type of response has always been a trigger for me. At that point I was completely un-medicated, and The Bitch did a lot of my grad school work anyway, so she was always very close to the surface. I launched a telephone campaign, calling him every single day Dr. Cynthia’s class met, and it met three times a week, (a grad course!) with a new reason why the course was awful. He dug in his heels and kept acting like he had full confidence in her, essentially pulling back behind the lines and defending her just because she was a colleague and I a mere student. He routinely brushed me off on the assistant director who didn’t know how to handle me. I think I avoided expulsion and a lawsuit on two merits. First, I was right, and, as later became apparent, they knew it. Second, even when belligerent, I’m not a threatener. I’m an explainer, a fixer, and an idea-woman, but I don’t tend to threaten at all. So they just endured my thrice weekly harangues without ever giving me so much as a shred of support.
The campaign continued into the Spring semester, when I had to take another Dr. Cynthia class to complete my how-to-teach-college cycle. Then, it turned out that everybody knew what a terrible prof this person was. Because her tenure committee rejected her pretty much out of hand about three weeks into the Spring semester. As part of my rebellion, I had refused to buy that term’s expensive reading material, even though she did actually assign us to read one of them. When she turned out to have quit without giving notice, I cheered and taunted.
Of course, we all found out the hard way, so that the school couldn’t even put a whitewash on it. Not long after her tenure bid failed, we went to class one day to find no prof. We waited. Waited much longer than the traditional ten minute grace period. A classmate went up to the Writing Program Office to see what was going on. Nobody could find Dr. Cynthia. She wasn’t at the school. She wasn’t answering her phone. It was a few days before they figured out she had quit. It took a few days more to assign a new prof, none other than the Writing Program Director with whom I was feuding. He promptly assigned six more expensive texts, even though the bookstore wouldn’t take back Dr. Cynthia’s overpriced sextet. It didn’t affect me. I hadn’t bought hers, and I didn’t buy his.
We all knew by this point that we were guaranteed A’s for the class, and some people immediately stopped attending altogether. Not me. I wanted that Director to see me as often as possible to know that I had told him so. I wanted him to think about the fact that he had been presented with and rejected the opportunity to fix the situation before it had gotten like this. He argued that nobody could have known things were that bad. I pointed out that I had been telling him they were that bad for literally months, and that he had been blowing me off because he was unwilling to investigate.
In the middle of all this, I started dating Scott. He listened to my war stories with amazing patience, and only told me a couple of times he was surprised I hadn’t been expelled. There was one day when he visited my apartment after I had just finished throwing all my textbooks at my car’s windshield from my balcony on the justification that I wouldn’t have to go to the class if I broke it. (It remained stubbornly intact, in spite of my use of some heavy tomes). He just picked the books up and brought them up to me on the balcony. Another time, he came in the apartment door just in time to avoid being hit by the corded phone I was in the process of ripping out of the wall and throwing at the sofa. (I was smart enough not to damage the apartment walls. I knew I wanted my security deposit back someday.)
SO. The weekend of the Rolex, when I got the horrible sunburn, I woke up the next morning at Scott’s apartment, ran out and snagged myself some aloe gel, applied it liberally, then got ready for class. My face and arms were lobster red, covered with a layer of aloe slime, and I looked like something out of a horror film. Overnight, the weather had gone from sunny and warm to chilly and pouring rain. I was going to have to walk across campus to the class, and I wouldn’t let Scott loan me an umbrella. He did convince me to wear a hat and his trench coat. My hair was considerably longer then, roughly down to the middle of my back, so I tucked it all up under the Rolex cap I’d bought myself the day before, and put the trench coat on over my backpack, to keep it dry.
I looked like some bizarre hunchback as I ran across campus, arriving to this class, as usual, late. Now, the Writing Program Director had done an amazing job of ignoring my badgering up until this point. He tried to make use of the veiled insults I would lob at him for the whole hour, turning some of them into helpful course questions even. He did his utmost not to give me the satisfaction of a reaction. But on this day, when I walked in the door, which was in the front of the classroom, and past him as he wrote on the whiteboard, he just stopped. He didn’t say anything, but he turned and looked at me, with my raw, greasy, face and soaking hunchback trench coat, watched me pull of the hat and shake down my hair, then forced himself to return to the whiteboard. It was the most wonderful moment. It made the sunburn and bad weather worthwhile, because it meant that I had won. I had horrified him so sufficiently that he couldn’t blow me off anymore. He would never admit it, but he had finally heard me.
In Dance Macabre, Stephen King says that horror tales have several common tactics, and that the most simple to achieve is the gross-out. I had hit this Director with a hard gross-out, and it worked where argument, tears, and even logical reasoning had failed. When he looked at me, I knew he got it. But later, he sicced the assistant director on me to ask why I even bothered to come to class.
I said, “Because I want him to know what it’s like to dread coming to your course three times a week, with no idea what is going to happen that day.”
She didn’t have an answer for that.
I think that sunburn was the real birth of the Jester Queen. I had certainly antagonized bad teachers before. Sometime I’ll tell you about my experiences in Jr. High gym. And I already dressed up like the Gypsy Pirate Jester Queen at Halloween. But I think that day with the red face and the hunchback backpack was her first real outing. It was still a few years before I caught her formal name and started using it, but she really came into her own then, on the day I finally won my crusade.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.