EP504: End of the World Community College

by Sandra McDonald
read by Joel Kenyon

author Sandra McDonald

author Sandra McDonald

about the author…

from the author’s website:

  • Writer, speaker, instructor
  • Lambda Literary Award for Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories
  • Booklist Editor’s Choice, ALA Over the Rainbow book, and Rainbow Award win for Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories
  • Silver Moonbeam Award for Mystery of the Tempest
  • Former commissioned officer, USN
Narrator Joel Kenyon

Joel Kenyon

about the narrator…

Joel Kenyon is a veteran podcaster, writer, musician and artist. He’s currently a member of the 4 man comedy show, The Undercover Unitards and he also has a weekly independant music show called The Sunshine Happy Kpants Hour. When he’s not recording, he writes a movie review blog, occasionally draws an online comic, paints pictures, writes stories and attempts to make music with friends. Joel is not a fan, however, of writing in the third person perspective, so writing this bio was painful for him.

End of the World Community College
by Sandra McDonald

The End of the World Community College (EWCC) strives to assist the residents of Port Clinton and surrounding areas with all of their educational needs, including farming, construction trades, radiation decontamination, emergency medicine, fine arts, and artisanal bread-making. Dean Hendershot’s parents once owned a bakery. He treasures the sourdough starter that has been passed down through his family for three generations. Students who complete their courses of study are automatically gifted with a delicious loaf of fresh bread. Unless, of course, your name is Abdul Howard.

Paper currency is useless, but the Registrar gladly accepts silver coins, diamond jewelry, gold teeth, and unexpired medicine. Fresh food, canned food, charged batteries, ammunition, livestock, and freeze-dried coffee are also welcomed with open arms. EWCC does not offer financial aid. Despite these desperate times, please do not attempt to rob the Registrar. He and his assistants carry pistols and mace at all times.

Your professors will gladly barter for additional lessons. Professor Shawl constantly needs cat food, Professor Ohara manages a yarn bank, and Professor Pfister collects pornographic material. In the old days Dean Hendershot would not have hired Pfister, but it is hard to find good math teachers and Pfister generously loans out his magazines upon request. Colonel Fisher, our ROTC director, trades exclusively for knives. The sharper the better. He does not read Professor Pfister’s porn.

Enrollment dates are ongoing. Please apply in person at the Registrar’s Office during regular business hours Monday through Friday. Refrain from appearing late at night at the Registrar’s house and pounding on his door in a drunken stupor, lamenting the loss of the old world and all its convenient ways. In his former life, the Registrar managed a hardware store in Sandusky, providing the very best bait, groceries, and ammunition to tourists on Lake Erie. He is an excellent shot.

Regular attendance is highly encouraged, but some obstacles are unavoidable. Rotting zombies often block the road near the Ottawa County Historical Museum. Aliens from Planet X lurk under the Port Clinton Bridge. You never know when a malfunctioning robot might show up in your front yard, demanding oil for its rusty red joints. Sustained ringing bells from our campus chapel indicate a solar flare forecast; please take cover. Expired sunscreen will not suffice. Do not just throw yourself on the ground with your arms over your head, June Li. In case of catastrophic snowfall, we expect to see you after you dig out or whenever spring arrives. If spring arrives.

Medical concerns are always paramount. We require students suffering from superflu or other communicable diseases to stay at home and not spread your filthy germs everywhere. The Registrar may be called to remove you permanently; he considers this a necessary if unpleasant part of the job. The old Marblehead Ferry site was long ago converted into a convenient mass grave.

College is a commitment and an opportunity that should not be taken lightly. In the old days, many students drifted in from high school with a lack of direction and atrocious study habits. They texted or surfed while their overworked professors strived to impart knowledge. They smoked illegal drugs and drank while underage. They focused on romantic hookups, frequent and brief and poorly thought out, with no consideration of sexually transmitted diseases or unanticipated pregnancies. Professor Shawl’s own daughter Allison trusted the wrong boys and look what happened to her. Professor Shawl only has cats now, and a quiet house near the water that rattles in the wind.

Of course, not all of our students were impulsive or immature teenagers making questionable decisions. Many of them came to our halls as adults who had spent several years away from formal education. Struggling in low-wage jobs or left adrift by divorce and single parenthood, they showed bitter awareness of how arbitrary fortune can be. They also possessed many practical real-world skills such as how to fix an engine, nurse a sick child, loot a pharmacy, or defend a home from armed robbers. Statistically, they survived in greater numbers than teenagers after Yellowstone blew and poisoned the atmosphere with a thousand cubic kilometers of ash. Speaking of statistics, how likely was it that just twelve hours later, those brown cliffs in the Canary Islands would sheer off and send that mega-tsunami roaring toward the U.S. coast? The 8.2 earthquake that split California into two states was almost anticlimactic by comparison.

Whatever your age, gender, military status, or previous life experience, the Code of Conduct (see below) requires students to maintain proper decorum at all times. This ensures a respectful and healthy community. As Dean Hendershot reminds us, the good of the many outweighs the Constitution. Constitution Day will still be observed annually, however, and attendance is mandatory.

Course Offerings
Our catalog changes frequently, but we offer several popular classes on an ongoing basis.

Construction Trades: Colonel Fisher was a Seabee for twenty years. More than anyone in Northern Ohio, he knows his pipes, wires, beams, and hoses. After that EMP pulse knocked out the world grid we all learned to live without electricity, but that does not mean you should suffer undue hardship. He will teach you to make an indoor light out of soda bottles and bleach, or a refrigerator from wet sand and clay garden pots. Whether you are building a new home or rehabbing an abandoned one, you’ll be able to keep it weatherproof, sanitary, and safe from plague-spreading bats. Colonel Fisher also leads our campus safety patrols for students who desire escorts at night. We have never had dormitories, but the RV trailers in the former faculty parking lot provide safe, affordable housing for students unable to find lodging after fire burned down half of town.

Apocalyptic Fashion: Certainly clothing is in no shortage these days. You can stroll into any former “supercenter” and pluck from bountiful piles of rotting goods. Armed with a willingness to scrub out the mold, ash, and insect feces, you can buy back into a dream of mass consumerism that no longer exists. Or, with the assistance of manual sewing machines that Professor Ohara salvaged from Rose’s Antique Nook, you can learn to make your own coats, baby blankets, wedding dresses, and burial shrouds. Professor Ohara also teaches knitting, embroidery, lacemaking, and lingerie design. The end of the world does not have to mean the end of feeling good about your wardrobe.

Astronomy for Optimists: Professor Ohara also teaches astronomy. On clear nights, she and her students climb to the roof of the auditorium and peer through old telescopes at whatever constellations still penetrate the ash and haze. How foolish, we tell her. She risks breaking an ankle or cracking her skull for the sake of a starscape beyond our reach. What is left to see since that rogue comet shattered the moon? More comets, she says. Like emissaries of heaven, bringing light and wonder to the huddled masses.

We know that Professor Ohara sometimes invites to the roof those sad, green aliens living under the bridge. She doesn’t blame them for the disastrous invasion of Earth. Her husband died in an overseas war long ago, and she understands that soldiers frequently pay a dire price for the follies of their political leaders. From the roof the aliens can maybe see a faint glimmer of whatever star they call home. They will never be able to return.

Arithmetic: Before the apocalypse, our students usually needed remedial courses in algebra. Whatever they learned in high school, it certainly did not include polynomials. They could only perform long division with the assistance of smartphones, and were unable to calculate basic interest rates on their exorbitant student loans. Sometimes it was better not to know. The select few who advanced to statistics and calculus were mostly taught by computer programs that engaged them in exciting video games or cartoon simulations. Math teachers like Professor Pfister bemoaned such technological coddling, but the software was cost-effective for the administration. We in administration liked to give ourselves salary increases each year.

These days, math exercises begin with correctly measuring wooden planks to nail over your windows and doors. Nothing says “amateur” more than mismatched boards. We calculate the effective ratio of water purification tablets to rainwater and convert prescription medicine into milligrams based on a patient’s body weight. Abdul Howard was expelled for sharing the formula and calculations for fertilizer explosives, but until then he was one of our sharpest students.

What we cannot teach you is how to formulate hope. We have no ways to measure fortitude, resolution, compassion, or any of the other qualities necessary for the rebuilding of civilization. We cannot number the dead. We can only educate the survivors.

Self-Defense: Speaking of survival, each of our professors can teach you a thing or two about defending yourself against rabid dogs, drunk neighbors, marauding raiders, wild zoo animals, and shotgun weddings. Our faculty was once much larger. Only the toughest and most resourceful made it through the tenure process. Job applicants these days are required to disassemble and reassemble a pistol, pass a marksmanship test, display proficiency in jujutsu or other martial arts, and do well on the obstacle course in Colonel Fisher’s backyard. Our faculty leads by example.

Music: Professor Shawl grew up in a household of pianists, violinists, and ukulele players. She no longer plays any instrument herself, but she knows by heart an impressive amount of folk music. She can teach you how to hit the high note in the former national anthem or bang Copland’s Appalachian Spring on empty oil drums. The student band’s handbell rendition of I’ll Be Home for Christmas had many of us in tears last Yuletide. Huddled around the town bonfire, watching the last municipal tax records burn, we sipped more of Professor Pfister’s moonshine and watched a golden comet blaze overheard. Some of us fired holiday bullets at it. Colonel Fisher bemoaned the waste of good ammunition but Secret Santa brought him an ivory-handled machete that made him smile.

Meanwhile, every spring Professor Shawl offers a class in making phonograph players out of recycled parts. Old vinyl records have proved surprisingly resilient to time. Come summer, the sweet scratch of music drifts from wedding parties, barn raisings, and very small family reunions. Sometimes you might see a malfunctioning robot alone in a barren field, clanking and swaying to Patsy Cline. You never see them in pairs. Mechanical people lead lonely lives.

Women’s Health and Midwifery: Students are often surprised to learn that Dean Hendershot teaches these classes himself. Even in these unusual days, we feel more comfortable with women as our guides to operating a vagina. Professor Shawl is extremely modest, however, and Professor Ohara is showing signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Some days she can barely remember her name or the name of the alien she is hiding in her basement. (Its name is Oooo4ooo. It’s handsome in its own tentacled sort of way.)

The most frequent medical complaint among female faculty and students is the common yeast infection. Dean Hendershot knows much about yeast. Not only the kind that ferments in his bread but also its cousin, Candida, which can so messily overrun a woman’s pelvis. If prompted correctly, he can lecture for hours on the resilience and history of organisms, including yeasts, molds, fungi, and mushrooms. For home treatment of Candida infections, he usually recommends application of vinegar, yogurt, or garlic. Female students, please do not allow Professor Pfister to show you how to insert the garlic.

Dean Hendershot also knows a great deal about babies. He and his wife Katherine have had three of them since our local nuclear power plant started leaking. He cradled each beautiful infant’s head as he or she debuted in the world and carefully tied off each pasty-white umbilical cord. Each child was swaddled and nurtured, their breaths counted as blessings until the blessings came no more.

Little John, the youngest, is still with us. He comes to school every day with his father, quiet and solemn in his stroller. You barely notice his hands. Any day now he will start speaking. The other infants are buried in Dean Hendershot’s yard, the tiny crosses visible from the kitchen window.

Dean Hendershot also teaches grave-digging. The secret, he says, is always go deeper than you think you need to. A proper depth keeps the wild animals from tearing things up, and dead things from climbing out of the dark, irradiated soil.

Code of Conduct
Students shall refrain from promoting, endorsing, or advocating for cannibalism. This means you, Avery Unger. Other students and faculty are discomfited by your graphic retelling of how you survived last winter, and no one believes your parents “accidentally” killed themselves with that emergency generator. You were a mean little kid to begin with and multiple disasters have not improved you at all.
Students shall refrain from publicly promoting religion. Certainly you can privately thank any deity you choose for your ongoing survival. Say grace in the school cafeteria if you wish, and a little pleading to the divine about your midterm grades would not hurt either. No one is going to make you take off the crosses around your neck, Angie Sawyer, but it is not kosher to bully Bob Gerstein about his yarmulke. Keep in mind that many of us harbor vehement feelings toward any Creator who either brought down so many disasters into this world or otherwise failed to stop them. We are surprised that locusts have not arrived yet, and we are waiting for forty days and night of rain.
Students shall not try to institute their own civics classes to promote the study of democratic ideals. We hope you are listening, Abdul Howard. The fact that your grandparents immigrated to the United States decades ago in search of democracy does not make you an expert. If you want a representative government of, by, and for the people, you are welcome to scoot on down to Columbus and see what’s left there. You think they didn’t have to make hard decisions, just like we did? You think they sit around every day contemplating portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson instead of fighting for scarce food and other necessities? Maybe you should hike your way down to our new national capital in Houston. If you can make it past the barricades without being shot, perhaps you will find a kindly old judge with nothing better to do than discuss constitutional law. Until then, there is no mayor here in Port Clinton, no city council, no open town meetings. There is only the college, and we are in charge.
Students shall dress appropriately: we do not permit thongs, flip-flops, strapless bras, low-hanging pants or other symptoms of a youth culture run amuck. Do not make us put a sweater on you again, June Li. Refrain from any garb that promotes hate speech. Bulletproof vests, weapons belts, and helmets are welcome but rarely necessary. That incident last spring during Career Day was an anomaly: usually our barbed wire fences do a better job keeping out starving golems.
EWCC does not allow any discrimination based on gender, orientation, or sexual proclivities. Surely Professor Shawl was once a man. She wears scarves around her throat every day and her hands are abnormally large. We think she is beautiful. Colonel Fisher lives with our town dentist, Dr. Slater, in a charming colonial they remodeled themselves. Dr. Slater is the only man for a hundred miles who can fill a cavity, extract a tooth, or fix your dentures. We don’t care what he and Colonel Fisher do together as long as we get our annual cleanings. The Registrar keeps a trunk in his bedroom filled with lacy red nightgowns. Students watching his window from below have seen him strap on a garter belt and silk stockings. Does this make him any less qualified to protect the assets of the college? Certainly not. As Professor Pfister often insists, creative exploration is a healthy part of the human sexual experience.

Bookstore: Our campus bookstore carries EWCC mugs, T-shirts, and key chains, along with a limited number of textbooks salvaged from libraries and houses and the Book Barn before it flooded. Otherwise we expect students to furnish their own supplies: pipe and solder for plumbing workshop; seeds and dung for fieldwork; flour and yeast for bread-making; scalpels, bone saws and strong stomachs for the required lab on flesh-eating bacteria. You will need paper of any kind for your cursive-writing classes. Sometimes we teach calligraphy. It’s a dying art, but what isn’t?

Refunds: Tuition is nonrefundable. The learning you acquire within our hallowed halls will last you a lifetime. Even you, Abdul. When Dean Hendershot found you, you were a muddy teenager starving in a ditch. He gave you a bed in his attic and food from his table and tried to channel that anger inside you into something productive or useful. You repaid him by fomenting discontent and rebellion. You wanted elections. You demanded a voice. What you failed to get, you decided to take. He had no choice but to send you away. Isn’t exile a finer fate than a midnight walk with the Registrar from which only one of you would return?

Campus Alert: Astronomy students would like to inform the community that based on their latest observations, Jupiter has recently shifted its orbit. According to Oooo4ooo, the most likely cause is a traveling black hole skirting the Kuiper Belt and pulling the outer planets toward infinity like a pizza pie stretched too thin by overeager hands. This would also explain the number of comets hurtling overhead these days.

We hesitate to bring it up, as the death of our world is not necessarily imminent. The supermassive collapsed star may zoom by quickly, with only fractional effect on the inner solar system. Or it might hurl itself toward Earth so quickly that we will barely feel our own deaths as the planet rips apart beneath us. Who can say? Rest assured that there is nothing anyone can do against a black hole. You cannot shoot it, blow it up, set it on fire, fill it with cement, or board up your windows against it. Still, it always pays to be prepared. Hug your children tight tonight. Make love to a person or robot or alien, if it will make you happy.

Final note: Dean Hendershot appreciates your concern about the rumored death of his sourdough starter. Just before this brochure went to press, he trudged home from a hard day’s work to find the lamps unlit, the nanny distracted by her boyfriend, and his wife Katherine still huddled in the bed she rarely leaves these days. Young John had managed to free himself from his playpen, climb up onto the kitchen counter, and break open the large glass jar that Dean Hendershot’s grandmother kept in her own kitchen for so many decades. The pale and watery starter was everywhere–the sink, the floor, the walls, Little John’s hair. It was dirty and sad, utterly unsalvageable.

But Dean Hendershot didn’t despair. Any dean of a post-apocalyptic community college must be resourceful and strong. He fired the nanny, cleaned up the kitchen, and fed Little John his supper before tucking him in bed with his mother. Then he walked on over to the Registrar’s house. He was surprised to find Professor Shawl there, her cheeks flushed and neck scarf loose, but did not worry much about it. More important to him was the small plastic bag that the Registrar had stored in his pantry since summertime. Dean Hendershot thanked him profusely and cradled the treasure all the way home.

Alone in his clean kitchen, he added flour and water to the dried starter in a new glass jar. He wrapped the jar in a battery-powered heating pad and carefully carried it upstairs to where Katherine and Little John lay sleeping in the darkness. He kissed them both. Katherine’s sad eyes fluttered open.

“It’s all right,” he told her. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”

All night long he sat in a rocking chair, the jar warm and secure in his lap. Through the window he could see the white perimeter lights of the campus and hear the occasional shots as security guards warned off zombies. A comet burned a bright arc across the sky. Dean Hendershot thought about the doula class he would teach in the morning, and how to nurture life despite the grueling odds against survival. He was glad to be a teacher. He felt strangely lucky. He wished he could feed the whole world with fresh and sour bread.

Comments (3)

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  1. Alien Teacher says:

    Forget the end of the world. I teach at a community college, and this is pretty much my life *right now.* This story is my new personal anthem. Thank you Sandra, Joel, and Escape Pod.

  2. A non-community college teacher says:

    This is one of the wittiest, most charming SF stories I have ever heard.

  3. Ed says:

    Early on the story states that there isn’t any electricity then later on there are lots of things listed that need electricity.