Minison's Failures

Minison’s Failures Edward Kelleher                                                                                                                                                                                 I Jim Jones understood “The Minisonian”, the alumni magazine of Minison University, existed to celebrate the achievements of the University and its graduates. His understanding of its purpose did not however beget his acceptance of it: he was exhausted by its constant triumphalism, its never-ending insistence that Minison was a great university despite a variety of evidence that it was not. As the class notes editor of the magazine he compiled and arranged the non-mercenary species of the drumbeating, and even actively solicited it in the header to each class notes section by asking graduates to get their “news” in for the next issue. Their reports bored him tremendously, composed as they were by a bunch of humorless lawyers, doctors, bankers, and accountants committed to a dry, chronological recitation of their post-Minison accomplishments. Jim found the pleasure of laughing at people who took themselves too seriously an easily exhaustible one, it being impossible to laugh at the same joke indefinitely. Clearly, he was in the wrong job. The kind of reports he longed for were precisely the ones he could not get. Those who had eschewed conventional lives were unlikely to give updates on how their alternative ones were progressing, a class notes section being an anathema to all true nonconformists. It is difficult to imagine Thoreau having kept his former Harvard classmates abreast of his life in this way, though the temptation to give a quarterly report of his nonconformity must have been immense, as he rarely lost an occasion to tell his contemporaries that he was different—and better—than they. Indeed, if some industrious scholar ever discovers that Thoreau did in fact file a report, his reputation as America’s greatest nonconformist would be irrevocably shattered, and he would have to yield his preeminence to his sometimes friend Emerson, assuming, of course, the sage of Concord deprived his classmates of updates on his own nonconformity, which, having taken a very public turn, was probably not difficult. Jim’s assignment, however, was not to enliven the class notes section but to enlarge it beyond its meager present dimensions, which were shrinking every issue, much to the consternation and confusion of Walter Knowles, the magazine’s editor. Its skimpiness was becoming an embarrassment to him, and a liability to the University. He had told Jim he must return the class notes section to what it was in the University’s heyday, which he identified as the period, many, many years ago when its graduates were a most garrulous, cocksure bunch. Apparently Mr. Knowles failed to consider that the class notes section might be thin precisely because the heydays of most of its graduates were over. They might lack, in other words, a reason to write. When Jim offered this reason for the silence of Minisonians, the editor reluctantly acknowledged the possibility but still demanded, rather inconsistently, that he make the class notes section thick again. If he could not get more successes to write, Mr. Knowles suggested he make the ones who did more voluble by getting them not merely to list their accomplishments, but to dwell on a few of them, a suggestion Jim cringed at. To let Jim know what he considered thick, just in case their view of it differed, he unearthed an ancient copy of “The Minisonian” and asked him to compare its class notes section to the current issue’s. The difference was indeed undeniable; today’s Minisonians were comparatively mute. It was Jim’s job to make them loud again, to get them to inundate the class notes section with their triumphs, which fell under four distinct categories:  births, marriages, promotions, and advanced degrees. The President demanded information on all of these fronts, not indeed because he was curious, but rather because he had an obligation to verify that what the Admission’s literature claimed was in fact true: namely that Minison’s graduates went on to live productive, bourgeois lives doing the things they had been assured their degrees would allow them to do. Never had a University had to speculate so much about the fates of its graduates. It was embarrassing not to know what had become of so many of them, and hearing nothing the President could only, like the parent of a missing child, fear the worst. In the meantime, he instructed Admissions to temper its rhetoric, and avoid painting too rosy a picture of life after Minison until more than a few dozen prosperous Minisonians checked in. Jim, as you have seen, shared the President’s doubts regarding the good fortune of Minison’s alumni. Might not the silent Minisonians, as he had suggested to Mr. Knowles, ignore alma mater because they have not done her proud? Jim’s suspicion that there were many Minisonians who fell into this category was substantiated by the evidence, for if there were a few Minisonians worthy of a profile in “The Minisonian”, there many more who were not. For instance, Minisonians who rose to the highest places invariably went to jail a few years after getting there: Minison’s biggest successes eventually became her biggest failures. Though “The Minisonian” never reported these tragic denouements, the press could usually be relied on to repair its oversight. The unimportant failures, however, received no publicity. Here, Jim sensed, was his opening, for there existed, to his knowledge, no publication dedicated to the documentation of their travails.    Jim had always wanted the class notes section to have color. What could be more colorful, more irreverent than turning it over to Minison’s failures, fuckups, and ne’er-do-wells so that they might tell their stories? These would be even better than the nonconformists’ because they would not merely violate the standards of the class notes section; they would go much further by subverting them altogether. Jim thought it a beautiful vision, and, like a practical visionary, he fantasized about its realization just in case it did not come to pass. He, Jim Jones, would make the class notes section hospitable to those Minosonians who were horrible advertisements for their alma mater by seeking reports—ideally extensive ones—from the drunks, unemployed, underemployed, insider traders, rapists, murderers (there had been a few) and the homeless (he knew of one) who had sat under the great oaks in the quad reading Plato and contemplating exploits undoubtedly different from the ones they had in fact accomplished. While he would probably have to forgo the reports of incarcerated Minisonians, he was confident he could reach those who had failed conventionally. In any case, Minison’s criminals already had had their publicity. It was the law abiding failures who had gone so long without any press. The ingenious part of his plan was that he should only be an accomplice to it; the graduates themselves would provide all the gritty detail. He would simply make communicative a group every University prays has the decency to stay mum. There certainly was no precedent for what he was attempting. Some of his correspondents, to be sure, occasionally adopted a self-deprecating tone, but self-deprecation is not even an approximation of self-abasement. Self-deprecation, moreover, is the privilege of the successful, and his projected class notes section was to have nothing to do with those horrible people. If he was to be subversive, he saw no point in going half way by allowing snippets of orthodoxy amidst what he hoped would be a deluge of heterodoxy.  His editor, of course, could not be apprised of his plan, nor could any official of the university, for he was trying to awake—I cannot repeat it too many times—a giant it trusted would continue to sleep. Jim had no choice but to count on the cooperation and sympathy of the graduates who did not report. Their receptivity to his idea was everything. They were not all failures, of course, and many, no doubt, would resent the implication that they were. Humility, however, was a virtue Minison made a point of not inculcating, and so while individually graduates who did not already possess it might have picked it up accidentally, it was unlikely that all graduates were subsequently so improved. Thus his assumption that something else held their tongues was hardly a rash one. And yet not all of the failures who held their peace were embarrassments. Minison would probably do well in recognizing a few of its bad apples, on the supposition that a bleak present cannot last forever, and that it would be good to have relationships with them when their prosperity returned. I do not mean to suggest that Minison was ever lax in keeping up relations during any of its graduates’ fallow periods. Their money was regularly asked for in boilerplate letters that asked them to recall what Minison had done for them. While it was not Jim’s intent to mobilize disgruntled Minisonians, he would not object if this was one of the outcomes of his project, being tired of the self-satisfied ones who, in their reports, pledged their newborns to Minison’s future classes, not waiting for their say in the matter. It was unlikely, however, that those who responded to his appeal would blame Minison for their plights, for if Minison did not teach humility, it did at least instill a sense of personal responsibility. Yet graduates who reported their failures in “The Minisonian” would be, by definition, implicating Minison in them, just as graduates who wrote of their successes were graciously allowing it to bask in their halo. There was no escaping the fact that the class notes section Jim envisioned must be interpreted as an open attack on the university. But if it was an open attack, would it not also be a contained one, at least initially, as the only subscribers to “The Minisonian” were Minisonians? This thought comforted Jim until he realized that he wanted the world to take cognizance of his salvo, should it ever come off. Jim himself was content to continue in obscurity, but he thought his idea of giving failures their own platform deserved a wider application in society. Confessional literature, of course, was nothing new. Jim’s genius was to recognize how informative and amusing it might be for readers of “The Minisonian” to find it hiding under its covers. He would achieve thickness, but by his method, not Walter Knowles’. No, by god, he would not, as Mr. Knowles had proposed, make the successes verbose; he would silence them altogether, ceding the resulting blank space to Minison’s failures. (He expected the President would upon publication immediately order a reversion of the space to its rightful owners, Minison’s successes, but this did not bother him. His class notes section, if it was to be remembered, must stand on its own, coming thus to represent the briefest of respites from reports of advanced degrees and promotions). He had to, assuming he could get them, assemble and then publish reports which no editor of any respectable alumni magazine would ever publish. Given the awkwardness of his position, to say nothing of its oddity, he had considered writing the reports himself, distributing the afflictions of man amongst Minison’s alumni with a generous hand. He feared, however, succumbing to the temptation of making absolute Jobs out of Minison’s successes. Moreover, he wanted the class notes section to be an authentic document of failure, uncontaminated by any of his inventions. There really was no circuitous way for Jim to get what he wanted. Thus he took the direct one, and plainly asked for it by composing a letter to those Minisonians who never sent in their reports to him. Here is a full copy of that letter, which, I need not add, Minison’s published successes never received. Jim used the official letterhead of the university so as to make it seem his little project had its blessing. He had decided, finally, that some duplicity was permissible, otherwise his project might appear to be his private whim, which, of course, it was. The letter: “Dear Mr. Smith, As the class notes editor for “The Minisonian”, I see who sends in their reports to the magazine and who does not. You know best why you do not write, and I hardly expect that you will take up your pen at the urging of someone you have never met. I would have left you undisturbed except that my editor has told me that I must increase the number of graduates who send in their updates, and I am at a loss as to how to do this without getting long standing abstainers such as yourself to report. You would be doing me, you see, a great favor. Perhaps things have not been going well for you, and you are, quite naturally, hesitant to inform your classmates of this. There is no group—do not ask me why—we want to impress as much as our former classmates, and when we do not feel in a position to do so we stand aloof from them. But we cannot always reintroduce ourselves as conquerors, can we? It is sometimes good to admit, is it not, that we are the conquered? What if I told you that we are planning a class notes section in which graduates can be honest about their failures, their disappointments, their tribulations in this short life of ours? If these are what keep you from reporting—and please understand that I am not at all implying that they do—do not let them stop you any longer, for the next class notes section will be dedicated to them, or rather to you, assuming, once again, disappointment has been one of the themes of your life. Minison has finally admitted what all great universities ought to: namely that there are forces larges than it, and that they sometimes conspire against its best efforts. I’m speaking, of course, of our dreadful economy, which I pray will put aside a few more places for Minisonians graduating this year than it saw to last.  It is exhausting, is it not, to always feel obliged to show one’s best side? I’m exhausted, let me tell you, of reading about all of your classmates’, and I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for never having added to this pile of correspondence, which, however enlightening, was always redundant. Think of this, then, as an invitation to give your classmates—and yes, your humble correspondent—a glimpse of your worst side. You have already, in my mind, distinguished yourself through your silence. Now you have an opportunity to break it in the most beautiful way possible: by being honest about your setbacks, though again, I do not mean to imply that you have ever had any. Sincerely, Jim Jones Class Notes Editor p.s. If you have good news to report, please do not hesitate to send it either. Be assured it will be used for a future issue, when the class notes section will have returned to celebrating the achievements of its graduates after having taken what we hope will be an honest look at its failures.                                                                                 II Jim read the letter many times before sending it out. Surely, it was one of the oddest, most ridiculous, most absurd, most importunate letters ever written, and he was depending on all of these facts to see him through. Its recipients would undoubtedly find it baffling, but once their bafflement subsided—and that inevitably would take time—would they not reread it and see how very human an appeal it was, free from all the cant and self-congratulation that characterized most of the letters that bore Minison’s seal? He was inviting Minison’s wayward sons and daughters to come to the confessional—and a strange, bizarre confessional it was—to make a declaration that they had, in one way or another, failed. His gambit worked. In less than a week, he had his “authentic document” of failure. Not only was it thick; it was positively bulging with details of the many things that could go wrong in a man’s life. His correspondents wrote of their diseases, demotions, terminations, divorces, and other malaises. Jim, however, thought them hesitant, believing them to be more woebegone than they let on. Still, he had, for all of their reticence, affirmative statements that they had been divorced, demoted, and fired, not indeed that he had ever had any doubts regarding Minisonians’ susceptibility to the democratic, prosaic forms of suffering. They had shown him, in fact, no more than the obverse of the coin of success. They needed, however, to do no more to endear themselves to him. What man is not sympathetic who reintroduces himself to his classmates as one divested of all the accoutrements of civilization?   He had not, as you might recall, told those who regularly reported their successes that they could take an issue off. Consequently, he was in possession of a thin catalogue of success and a much thicker one of failure, making, he thought, for a most interesting juxtaposition. He questioned, for a time, his decision to exclude the successes; the idea of interspersing them between the legions of failures had its own fascination for him, but he had already promised the failures that this class notes section would be theirs. And so it was.                                                                                                 III  “What is this? What is this?” The editor of “The Minisonian”, Walter Knowles, was waving the new issue in Jim’s face. “You asked me to make the class notes section thick again. As you can see, it’s thick.” “Yes, but thick with stories of success. You’ve embarrassed the University. You’ve embarrassed me. The President demands an explanation, as does the Board. What should I tell them?” Jim was sitting at his desk, a copy of “The Minsonian” open before him. He was proud of what he had done, or rather of what he had gotten others to do, even if they had not divulged as much as he had desired. He had anticipated this confrontation, but he never thought he would be so bemused when it finally came. What, in god’s name, was so offensive about Sally Rogers reporting her divorce or Matt Crossen his termination? These facts were as innocuous as the ones they had displaced. His editor, of course, must try to make him feel that he had done something wrong by giving them publicity, and he was happy to allow him to do his duty.  “Blame me, first of all. It was my idea, and I want to take full credit for it. You’ll want some years from now, when you finally realize what I did. I’ve done something that has never, to my knowledge, been done before, at least not in an alumni magazine. It’s not often you can get people to impugn themselves, eh? Still, they didn’t come off so bad, did they? In fact, the University might want to consider how to embrace all of these alumni who have come out of the woodwork.” “Embrace! Disown, you mean.” “I don’t think the University can, in its present condition, afford to discount any initiative graduates of this University respond to. Now that they have been activated, we must do something with them.” “What, in god’s name, can we do with them?” “Nothing at the moment, of course. They do seem a rather impotent, ineffectual bunch, don’t they? They’re certainly not in a position to make a contribution, monetary or otherwise. But I’m sure some of them, at least, will turn their lives around. The jobless ones will find jobs, the sick ones cures, the divorced ones spouses. They will be reunited with all the things that they are temporarily severed from. They will make themselves presentable.” “You are being sarcastic.” “Not at all. After seeing what a fine figure they cut in print, how could they not want to hasten their reunion with success? Some, no doubt, will remain as backward as they’ve informed us they are. Every university has its embarrassments. I’m just the first who took the trouble to find them. Still, it disappoints me tremendously that they aren’t much, much more embarrassing.”