Exercises for the Average Student
by Sam Allingham
Your job in this exercise is to tell me about yourself. Imagine I know nothing, and that I am not alone; imagine you are invisible, even to your closest friends, to the motion of stoplights, to your pets. This exercise provides a chance to stitch yourself a history; without it, you might wander for many years, alone and uncreated, asking strangers to provide you a name.
In this exercise we will practice the skills you have learned in the course so far, and learn ways in which your new knowledge can be applied throughout your life. We will cover material you are familiar with, as well as material that is new to you, in the hopes that your vision will be in some small way transfigured. We will lead you into a small garden and cover you with a blanket of light.
Your methods in completing this exercise will vary, but may include account classification, letters of credit, and the laying on of hands. Whatever method you choose, your final goal should be to convert the pumping of your heart into a narrative which can be sung in any context: before friends, inside a cramped cell, above the swelling mass of this crowded classroom, so careless, so eager for destruction.
In this exercise you will formulate a position relative to an argument. The topic of the argument will be of your choosing, but you must place your position in relation to other positions, as if you were building a wheel in a dark room, spoke by spoke. Your position should concern itself with topics lively and restless, to which no answer exists. You will stand within a forest of texts, in the position you hold in greatest contempt, holding a set of mirrors. You will measure success by your ability to live in several places at once. You will be the scarecrow cutout, leaning against a cedar tree, and also a skittish bird.
This exercise was created to help with the completion of future exercises. It is meant to increase tone control, breath control, and control of the libido. This exercise was created to provide a life-like model onto which students can pin their own desires and walk away. This exercise was created because I care about my students; I want them to clothe themselves with paper, because I have no house to speak of, and cannot shelter them from wind and rain. I only want them to recognize the shifting bones of the buildings in which they spend their days. I only want them to know that an essay is like a wall, and crumbles under close examination. I only want them to know that an essay, unlike life, is never finished.
The stated goal of this exercise is to evaluate the performance of your group members, in order to improve the group’s overall functionality; make sure your feedback is as clear as possible, so that you are not misunderstood. The real goal of this exercise is to gain authority over your own weaknesses as they appear in the mouths of others. Catch them quick, before they take on form.
As you make your way through this worksheet, beware of traps laid to catch your emotions: figures wearing the masks of children; snakes dying to speak to you; riddles which are written with blood. There is a certain risk involved in education. Do not assume that every instructor of arcane arts is a wizard. Do not assume that all wizards have your interests at heart.
Do not concern yourself too much with the lives of others. The primary goal of this exercise is your own happiness.
After completing this exercise, you should be able to accomplish more than you previously thought possible; you should be able to identify the parts of the mammalian eye, move and organize spatial data effectively and safely, and construct a flying device meeting several constraints. You should be able to re-enter your own mind after a period of rearrangement: to shut the door on your sadness and rejoin the world of words. Your delts, pecs, and abs should be stronger; your ability to conjugate should improve. You should be closer to your friends, happier in their presence, as if you are at long last living in the same weather.
After completing the exercise you should grow seven stories tall and tower over your teacher; they should bend under the pressure of your hand – provided you have completed the exercise correctly.
This exercise is about the questions which comprise the world. It demands that we thread ourselves through the eye of the needle, and turn the verbs of lions into human speech. I can hear you asking me the same questions, over and over, until I have trouble falling asleep, though I was the one who asked you to describe them: what role does value play in the relation between shapes? Is art a function of formal constraints, and is the train still in the station when the general arrives? Did the centuries go by in order, or is there a way to recognize universal substance which has not yet been invented and demonized? Could a stranger hear me, imprisoned among the angelic orders? Where do they go when they die: the mommas and the papas, the children from Taiwan, the hamster named Jim?
The questions are your inheritance. This exercise will you help relinquish them in a responsible manner, so that the fewest possible people are harmed.
Everything must go through the eye of the needle. Everything must go.
This exercise will provide a critical analysis of your life objectives, in order to help you evaluate your own performance – thus, in the full flowering of its success, this exercise will render itself irrelevant. It will take your place in the river of indecision, sighing forever in the grey-headed land, far from praxis, which we sometimes call the world of hungry ghosts.
This exercise is not meant as a substitute for life. The situations presented within it may be more or less realistic than your actual experiences. You may find yourself, sometime in the future, pausing in the middle of a pedestrian bridge that crosses an eight-lane highway, and you may remember this exercise, but this exercise should not be used as a determining factor in the decision that confronts you, high above the knitted waves of traffic.
This exercise is not responsible for your actions. It only wants you to be fair to yourself, in its own image: cool, committed, reasonably kind.
This exercise is here to remind you that life is composed primarily of information, passing like light through a window.
As you complete this exercise, pay attention to the prompt; imagine that I wrote it out of love, for your eyes only. Imagining this exercise as a love letter may help you, or it may not. All that matters is that I am with you in some small way as you read; I sleep in the spaces between letters, I speak as if dreaming. Consider me writing, consider me reading what you will eventually write. Consider me a spirit, guiding your hand. Consider me.
The takeaway from this exercise is failure. What is learned is never what was intended. The takeaway from this exercise is that true belief is not knowledge, that knowledge is not experience, that scholarship is the enemy of romance. I wrote my supervisor when designing this course: the takeaway from the last exercise is to better understand our bodies and minds, and yet he never responded. Did I say too much? Do I give too much of myself away, in tiny pieces, to people who barely know my name?
In the end, everything is taken away: the names, the burbling voices, the smell of winter on your downy coats. You will take yourself away, once this exercise is completed, but remember: for a while we lived in this room, together, here in University A______. Remember that I imagined you reading these words, and how I was refracted, broken into scattered lines. Remember I was writing to reach you, from the land in which I am forced to dwell, in the only language I know: riddled with holes, speckled with fading light.
Sam Allingham‘s short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines, including One Story, Epoch, American Short Fiction, StoryQuarterly, Five Points, Conjunctions and n+1, and has received a Special Mention for the Pushcart Prize. His story collection The Great American Songbook will be published by A Strange Object in 2016. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia, and teaches at Temple University.