This was on a Thursday. Here’s what I remember for sure: I was in ENG 102 at the Cassville (CassVile; Assville; CassVegas), Missouri, satellite campus of Crowder Community College, and I was aware that the class was a joke.
Mrs. Temple was the ENG 102 instructor. She looked like the old mystical man version of Robert Plant, and what qualified her to teach a college-level English course was surely never imparted to any of us in Section 3. We did know that she was the owner of a summer camp of some persuasion, and that she seemed to have a hippie or hippie-adjacent background, but that she now espoused libertarian sentiment. My term paper on the necessity of universal healthcare in the US would be met with perfunctory attendance to grammar. The large group project in class, worth half our grades, was to draw a map of the Garden of Eden as described in Mark Twain’s Diaries of Adam and Eve. I do not know how to explain how this made my classmates and me feel. Condescended to is too simple, but pepper in some long-suffering to that and you might get the idea.
This is the nature of community college in the Missouri Ozarks. A conglomeration of ersatz instructors (the trick is they know the basic biographical info about Anne Sexton and you don’t, not yet; or they know the David McCoullough version of US history and you don’t) lecturing to a bunch of backwoods kids. We weren’t even a community college, but the satellite campus of a community college, the final of a number of satellite campuses orbiting in the ag towns around Neosho, where the main campus was. I was a bright kid, as everyone else there was. As was everyone else there, I was staked in some gravitational way to Cassville. In our number were newly-divorced homemakers in their 40s, recovering meth addicts, seats emptied by the state park opening for trout fishing. The rooms were clinical and mostly windowless; they were housed in sheet metal buildings that looked like small factories or auto shops. Perhaps designed that way for nostalgic purposes.
Now there we all were drawing maps on strange and large rolls of paper she must merely have been trying to get rid of. Brianna’s depiction of Adam, barrel-riding the waterfall, was a great crowd-pleaser. Her boyfriend—Chris? Tim?—was on unicorn duty. I can’t remember what part I half-assedly sketched (was this our potential? our value?), but maybe it was the tree; seems like I’d draw that. Mrs. Temple kicked back with some local community paper and teethed on an unlit tobacco pipe. April 15th is the beginning of real spring in the Ozarks, and I remember this day as sunny, with early, tangible warmth, when I finally got outside to the pickup-filled parking lot. Spring in the Ozarks is filled with yellow and blue light.
In the years since, I got out of Cassville, got a BA, got an MA, am now nearly finished with an MFA. Made unwise decisions with frequency, wise ones more occasionally. I get hung up on my age—I’m 33 now, older than the next oldest student in my program by three years. I owe the age gap to Cassville and what towns like it does to folks. Perhaps twice a year I have shaky anxiety dreams about winding up back there, working at Walmart.
But only a decade has passed, unimaginably. What can happen in a decade feels infinite. For this essay I went to the Crowder Cassville Facebook profile and tried to look up some folks I’d attended with. Most I was to find are still there, in Cassville, but seem to have better jobs at least, small and happy-looking families. Some of them are elsewhere; some of them are dead, their walls a sort of memorandum. I’ll never forget that time me and you...one post began; I’ll see you in heaven, man, read another. The town’s hard on folks.
Matthew Irving Stewart is a writer and teacher from the Missouri Ozarks. He's currently an MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University, where he serves as the fiction editor of Mid-American Review.
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