Carl felt like he’d dropped into a sixties sitcom.
Fifteen minutes before the start of class, Carl sat alone, reciting a silent pep talk. He’d visited colleges many times during his career, often in his official capacity as CEO of a global company, twice to enroll daughters, and, when his schedule allowed, to visit them. Today he wasn’t there to endow a scholarship, or to deliver a commencement address, or to check up on his girls. Today, Carl was a student for the first time in more than forty years.
The walk across campus, on footpaths among trees turning fall colors, had been surreal, as if he’d fallen through a time warp and come out the other side a college freshman, suffering the same shock he’d known decades before, when he’d leapt from a sleepy country school to a state university, his major still undeclared, his life still unlived, his choices still unmade.
He’d glanced at passing students with the same young shyness of that backwoods boy, a moment of eye contact before looking down. Carl—unflappable, forward-leaning Carl—who’d inked billion-dollar deals, testified before Congress, sat with heads of state—now a peer with children younger than his own.
Carl noticed, of all things, their clothes: The students wore jeans; so did Carl—professionally cleaned and pressed designer jeans. They wore t-shirts—he wore a custom-made pullover. They wore running shoes—like his. Shoes, it seemed, were the only thing that both Carl and college students spent serious money on. But even his shoes made him conspicuous, like a poser trying and failing to blend.
Rule 1: Arrive early, stay late. That had been the secret of Carl’s success. Now, alone in the classroom, he wondered if he’d been too anxious to get started on his madcap academic adventure. He killed time paging through the textbook, Fundamentals of Photography. He studied a diagram of a digital SLR camera, like a film camera, mostly familiar to him, but with some features he didn’t recognize. He perused the syllabus, ART 2022 – Introduction to Photography—Instructor: Donna Pendleton. He’d already finished the reading for the first two weeks. Rule 2: Be prepared.
Carl looked up at the sound of the door opening. A woman wearing a backpack came in, loaded down with huge portfolios and well-worn equipment bags covered with zippers and pockets. Unsmiling, she stepped quickly to the podium. Her face, behind wire-rimmed glasses, was lined and careworn; her dark brown hair had threads of gray. She wore clothes like those of the students Carl had passed on the way to class—casual, often-washed. She went to work arranging her materials, taking scant notice of him.
Carl stared. The plump, middle-aged woman in front of the room, placing mounted photographs on easels, arranging camera equipment on the podium, was a familiar sight that time had made unfamiliar. Now a faded memory reasserted itself with the force of a right cross.
Carl looked again at the syllabus. Donna Pendleton. That wasn’t the girl he knew. She was Donna Swift, a name he’d thought of often, but had not spoken, for forty years.
The instructor continued her arrangements with determination until all seemed ready. A few more students had filtered in, spacing themselves around the room. She looked out at them for the first time since entering, scanning their faces, until she fixed her stare on Carl. The instructor pulled a folder from her backpack and opened it. She ran her finger down a list, stopping halfway. She froze in place, keeping her eyes down.
Donna Pendleton loathed the first day of class. Learning the names of lackadaisical students, lecturing to a half-awake room, hoping that one or two students would respond in a way that would make her life seem worthwhile—it was all too dismal to think about. The feeling was temporary, she knew—there were always students who responded, more than one or two, and always one or two who amazed her. By the end of the semester she’d be enthusiastic and engaged, reacquainted with her love of photography, as if her students had inspired her instead of the other way around. But after thirty years of teaching, the first day of class sucked.
She lugged bags of cameras and lenses, and oversized portfolios holding mounted enlargements of her favorite photos, most of them examples of photo techniques, one or two having been published, and others that she simply liked. She hurried down the hall, pausing to check the room number again, then continued. She burst in, expecting the room to be deserted, instead finding one student in the front row, paging through the text. She went straight to the podium and began positioning photos on easels normally used for flip charts—an urban landscape of a long-abandoned strip mall; children at play; a coyote in the wild. They were monochrome photos, sharply defined, almost three-dimensional in their depth. Each had a signature in the corner—Donna Swift.
Donna pulled cameras and accessories out of bags that had traveled tens of thousands of miles over decades, showing the wear of a hundred photo expeditions. She had new digital cameras and ancient film cameras. Donna preferred film, believing that a digital image could not duplicate the warmth and depth of a photographic emulsion, but she knew that professional photographers used digital cameras almost exclusively. It offended her sense of purity, her fealty to the photographic art, to replace the medium used by generations of photographers with a digital sensor. But it was a reality she’d accepted, reluctantly, years ago.
With everything in its place, Donna looked over the room, now filling up with her students. She locked eyes with the man in the front row, the one waiting when she arrived. Her throat tightened and her breath caught. She broke eye contact and looked at the roster, running her finger down the list. Carl Macon. She stared at the name, afraid to look up at the jowly, gray-haired man in the front row of her undergraduate photography classroom.
Hers was a look Carl had once known well, betraying a stubborn reluctance to confront a situation, a desire to wish away a confrontation, rather than to face it head-on. She kept her eyes down, but the look was unmistakable.
Carl stood up and walked behind the podium, to stand in front of the photograph of the urban landscape. It was haunting, beautifully composed, the light and shadows playing on the half-decayed signs and on the stained and graffitied walls, evoking a desperate, yet utterly human mood. It was the kind of photograph he wished he had taken, and hoped that he might take someday. It took his breath away.
“It’s remarkable, Donna. It’s—stunning.”
“Thank you,” Donna said, keeping her eyes on the roster. “Carl.”
The bell rang, signaling the start of class. Carl went to his seat. Donna looked up from the podium.
“Good morning, and welcome,” she began, reciting lines she’d memorized, and had delivered without variation every semester for thirty years. “I’m Donna Pendleton, and you’re in Art 2022, Fundamentals of Photography.” Her eyes darted toward Carl. She swallowed, almost audibly. “A photograph is a miracle. It stops time. It plucks an infinitesimal moment out of an infinite stream of moments. A photograph is a paradox. It isolates an instant from its context, but it preserves its time and place. There’s no formula to photography. That’s why photography is an art class and not a science class. That’s why I love it. That’s why I’m passionate about it.
“You can enjoy photography even if you’re not a great photographer, or even a good one. I want you all to be good photographers. You can be great, if you have a passion for it, but even if you have the passion, it’s no guarantee. That takes a lifetime of practice and dedication, and you might still fall short. But that’s the nature of passion. It compels you, regardless of your talent.”
Donna glanced at Carl. She deviated from her prepared remarks.
“It’s not a convenience you can put on a shelf and pull it down and dust it off a lifetime later.”
Charles O’Donnell writes thrillers with high-tech themes in international and futuristic settings. His works include the espionage thriller “The Girlfriend Experience,” the political thriller “Moment of Conception,” and the dystopian novel “Shredded.”
Charles recently retired from a career in engineering to write full-time, drawing on his experience leading teams in many countries to create compelling settings in faraway lands.
Charles lives with Helen, his wife and life partner in Westerville, Ohio.