[i]“…if you work hard and never give up, everything will always work out, … It’s not always true,”
-Dan Scanlon, director of Monsters University[/i]
This chapter’s music theme. Play while reading.
Chapter 1: The Mature Student and His Outdated Diploma
In the dark of the classroom, Don Carlton was neither surprised nor pleased to hear the students’ collective sighs of relief.
It had became glaringly clear that this Scott will be the first (likely among the worst) failure of the Exam. The kid’s abysmal performance gave them something to out-perform, to out-score. And failing or not, they just had to perform better than him to place themselves above gossip-worthy shame.
He shook his head. Don had outgrown such selfish student mentality and felt sympathy rather than relieved superiority for the kid. He recognized the sighs of relief because he had sat through exam presentations in the past and shamefully used to be guilty of that subtle deed. Still, it was awful to have a front-row view of the kid’s humiliation, having diligently selected the front-row seat for maximum attention to Derek.
It was pragmatic, but guilt-inducing to evaluate the kid’s performance (after all, he had yet to be Derek’s “victim”). The kid’s face was simply too benign to fire up the Scare stimulator. He could probably blare a load roar, but even that wouldn’t be adequate. It did not help that he was a small generic form of a two-armed, two-legged blob of harmless peach color with a non-threatening blue sweater and cap. If the kid was taller or more robust, he would have had the advantage of towering over the bedside and casting a shadow.
This Scott had to be Derek’s seventh “victim” (a term Derek jokingly called his examinees in a casual conversation).
That kid was now blaring out a feeble roar. His posture seemed like a parody of beginner Scarers. His movements were inhibited, stunted even, not out of caution and stealth, rather, paralyzed by anxiety.
His results were feeble, his breathing focused but unprojected. He was slow to answer oral questions, even if the answers were correct (it was said that you were graded on the speed of your answers). He stammered, a faltering Scaring presence.
Above them, Don could imagine Hardscrabble shaking her head, a shadowy presence up on the balcony, presiding over every student’s progress.
At his final demonstration, the kid took a deep breath. But his jump was ill-timed and his howl came out inhibited and wavering.
The dummy had its final scream, corresponding with a weak beam of energy on the scream meter.
Everyone went dead silent, as if to absorb the fulfillment of the kid’s failure, and the wispy panting of the kid became the only sound in the auditorium.
“Thank you, Mr. Squibbles.” But the disappointment was evident.
The kid sprung down from the stage, scurried up the stairs pass the onlookers, and burst through the exit, letting in a momentary glare of the sunlight, right when Don turned his head to receive the sun beams into his eyes, before he could make out the kid’s expression.
By the time Don turned his attention to Derek, Derek was shaking his head. It was unprofessional to comfort a failed student or even make your sympathies overtly known (something Knight lamented to Don once). From all the stories, he knew that Derek had witnessed and overseen the failures of others over and over.
The ungraceful, frantic exit of the kid attracted pointing in the crowd. They gestured toward the doors, as if the kid’s presence remained.
“If I fail, at least I’ll be better than that kid,” one whispered.
Derek picked up the student papers.
There was an uncharacteristically lengthly pause before the calling of the next name, the “Eight Victim.” Derek tended to be more immediate when calling.
It was stern but said with that subtle edge of affection.
“Don Carlton. You’re next.”
Don was not quite a favorite, a “teacher’s pet,” of Derek (that title belonged to his classmate Javier, according to gossips), but they had conversations that did not involve academic complaints. Sometimes they talked after class, when Derek was through with answering the younger students’ questions.
Wearing his best salesman grin, Don Carlton did not bother with his usual greeting to Derek as he stepped up to the Scare stimulator before the eyes of his fellow (younger) Scare classmates.
“I’m a five year old who’s shy of adult strangers,” Derek’s voice rang with the edge of gruff, impartial authority, withholding all favoritism for Don. This was a tricky question.
All the Fall semester Scare knowledge jogged through his head. “That would be the Lingering Stare followed by a Bellowing Roar.” Nailed it.
Wouldn’t it be productive, to have the test done in a private room? In the actual Scaring field, no one was there to really supervise you. Or judge you.
Don re-straightened his spectacles and rubbed his tentacles arms on his blue shirt to minimize the stickiness of his suction pads of his tentacles arms, a trait of his Cephlopodian heritage.
Then he creaked open the simulator door, pulling his tentacle off the door knob as he shut the door.
Tricky question, but the performance required simple techniques: soft human-like breathing, subtle for atmosphere, downplaying the volume of his breath to not wake the child but to rouse its auditory-based subconscious suspicion.
He crouched down and creeped forward.
Pop. Pop, pop, pop…
His darn sucker pads, popping noise. That’s when he noticed he was sweaty.
… pop, pop, pop…
At the very least, it could contribute to noise atmosphere. But would it be appropriate for this kid? But he had to set his sights on the dummy. He can’t think too much now. Just let instinct take its course.
His soft breathing was controlled, giving him ample air in his lungs, even if he was wary that his suckers popped louder over his breath.
He made it to the bedside. Now to rise up, cast his shadow for a few seconds, and…
His back snapped.
Don’s uncalculated cry of anguish startled the dummy, which sprung up with its obligatory artificial scream, causing the meter to beam feebly.
Students whispered in their seats.
If only I was as young and sprightly as these youths are…
“Don-, Mr. Carlton, are you all right?” Concern rang in Professor Knight’s gruff voice.
Durn my old back.
“I’m fine, Dere-, um, Professor, sir!” Don reassured him.
Professor Knight shot a look toward the high balcony of the classroom where Dean Hardscrabble stood. Risking a glance at her, Don could discern the silhouetted nod of her head, and felt blessed that Hardscrabble would consent to a rare act of academic mercy.
But there was also shame. Was his case so severe that it inspired her pity?
With that, Prof. Knight ordered, “Mr. Carlton, please re-demonstrate the technique.”
He tried to brush off the noise of snickering in the dark crowd. Top row. A mellon-headed purple monster from a top row chuckled audibly as if he could not believe the display before him.
Then Don understood, if a Scarer couldn’t do this before a judging crowd, then a Scarcer couldn’t do it in an isolated environment.
Focus, old Donny.
Plagued by his creaking back, Don exited the child’s bedroom, reentered, crept near the bed (with his suckers still popping with extraneous noise), rose over the dummy, and belted out another roar at the dummy, which jolted up with a scream and fired up a longer, therefore improved beam from the meter.
Don could barely process what happened afterwards. His Exam proceeded as Prof. Knight shot up three, no maybe four, maybe five, dang, lost count, questions. He could not remember the oncoming questions or his answers. He could not remember his proceeding roars, howls, crackles against the dummy, but he remembered every dose of pain tearing through his shoulder with every demonstration.
And in the intervals between his lackluster performance, he tried to ignore the stifled fits of snickering in the auditorium.
That evening, Professor Knight slapped the results outside his office.
Don J. Carlton – Oral Questions: Passed—Scare Energy Average: “46/100”—Demonstration: Failed
His back still throbbing, Don sustained the grin on his face, as a salesman did, moving from customer to customer after unsuccessful sale to the next potential client. He slipped through the crowd of rowdy Scare students, gathered around to see their Exam results.
He spied Professor Knight crossing through the crowd from the corner of his eye. Despite their casual relationship, Don didn’t want to make eye contact. But he did, feeling some pang of politeness.
To his relief, Derek gave him a friendly nod to acknowledge how grateful he was to have one nice student, who spoke to the faculty staff like old friends and equals, unlike the youngsters who vented about deadlines and intensive work. Then Derek vanished into his office, as if Don was an afterthought.
Whistling a tune to alleviate disappointment, Don stepped outside the School of Scaring, the sun pouring its warmth on him. He had to rest again, so he settled himself on the stone steps of the School, and scooted aside to give space for students skipping down the steps, boasting of a new semester to look forward to.
Then, that familiar peach glob-like monster in a M.U. sweater trotted down the steps, when his foot slipped at the edge, and he would have tumbled down if weren’t for Don, who disregarded his aching back and snatched the kid’s back-collar. By jerking the neck-collar, the kid’s cap flew off and tumbled down the steps, revealing a tuff of brown hair next to an angled white horn (the matching pair was missing).
“Thanks,” the kid mumbled as Don pried his tentacles off the kid’s collar. The kid had five docile eyes and a doltish face. He must be the sort of shrinking violet who tucked himself in the back and corners of the classrooms, not to commit mischief, but to hide from the eyes and vulnerability to the Professor’s questions. The kid wobbled, his lips quivering, muttered another thanks, and then turned away.
“You ok, sonny?”
With his head facing the gravel, the kid descended down the steps toward his fallen hat like a pebble sinking in a pond. “Just a hiccup.” More like the choke of a sob.
At the bottom of the steps, a female monster in a flowery-dress, similar in appearance to the kid, but the size larger and golden curls draping her forehead with two horns protruding from her head, ran toward the steps and scooped up the kid’s hat. He could smell the pungency of her flowery perfume.
“Sweeettie! Let’s celeeeebrate!” She bellowed as she stuck the hat back on the kid’s head and swept him into a suffocating embrace.
“Moooom,” His voice, muffled against her clasp, broke out. She released him, astonished by his outburst. “I didn’t make it. Stop it.” So it was not the fall that hurt the student.
The kid’s grief provoked a tighter squeeze from his mother. “Oh dear. Oh dear. I’m so sorry, sweetie.” With the kid’s head buried on the side of his mother, they strolled off together. It was rare to see young college folks blessed with parental warmth.
He thought of his Ma, settled in downtown Montropolis, unaware that her son had redeclared (and failed) the Scaring Major. Ma. What would she say if she knew?
The thought fired a jolt of pain on his shoulder blades. Throwing his hand to his shoulder, he decided to walk off the pain. So he staggered pass Scare students, chatting about the upcoming winter break.
He took refuge in the university café for a bite. He heard the cajoling of young mons, including frats boys in their fiery gold jackets, gathered around small tables with chairs they snatched from vacant tables, sharing gossip and conspiring future victories in upcoming competitions.
After making his purchase, he set down a plate with a little tart and a cup of hot chocolate and seated himself in front of the window. Though he normally enjoyed the pleasure of a sweet tart, it felt like shards against his throat.
Now the youth and the frat boys were conspiring about future victories in the upcoming Scare Games. Don typically enjoyed some safe, old-fashioned eavesdropping on student gossip, but he was in no mood for Scaring-related topics.
He turned his glance to the window.
His eye caught a blue poster on the glass.
“Propose Your Own Fraternity/Sorority”
Adjusting his glasses, he examined the smaller text below the bold text: “visit Office of Greek Life and see Claire Wheeler or Brock Pearson for procedures.”
Interesting. In his college, well, earlier college days, he had a curiosity about frat culture. What did they do? What warranted their special treatment and status? How much good were they capable of doing? At the time, he had already hung around his own circle of friends and found that he had little interest in the idea. Say, speaking of old friends…
While buried in his Scare studies last week, Don had received a barrage of phone messages from old co-workers, wishing him happy birthday, a day of secondary importance to the Scare Finales (how lovely, they remembered!). Don stared down at his tart, his overdue birthday treat for the five decades and two years he lived. With the holidays ahead of him, he had time to get in touch with old pals. He had meant to chat with them, but resisted, knowing that he would get caught up in hours of nostalgic talk that should be saved for studying. He had been calling his Ma more often than he did with his friends.
He bit into the tart, gulped down his drink to wash the crumbs down, and picked up the remaining tart with a napkin.
On his way to the library, he passed by two familiar figures sitting at the curb of a campus road. It was the fallen Scare student again, licking half-melted chocolate ice cream cone with his mother next to him. He knew he wasn’t mistaken because of that familiar odor of perfume emitting from the mom.
The kid mumbled something too low to be heard.
“It’s ok,” she responded, her inflection like a soothing tune, “take your time, Scottie. There are opportunities other than Scaring.”
“But mom, that was my one dream.” He faintly lapped up his cone. “So now what?”
Swallowing the last of his tart, Don Carlton asked himself that same question.
It’s not too late, they were probably telling themselves.
The library computer lab was filled with students improvising the contents of term papers, probably due an hour away. The dark circles under their eyes marked the stress of finals week as their eyes scurried over their research articles and studies as their hands or tentacles flipped through pages.
Of all the students who pulled off their “all-nighters,” Don considered himself the worse procrastinator. Over 30 years late working for a lost dream. It wasn’t too late, Don had told himself. It wasn’t too late. That was what all these young students told themselves as they engrossed themselves in their distractions instead of their assignments and studies. And as long as they staggered through with a passing grade, the only consequence to them was the stress of the rush, not the academic consequences. They were telling themselves they could still come out with As, or Bs, or a barely passing C as a consolation prize. Don could only wish the best for them all, hoping that they would learn not to underestimate the consequences of any sort of stress. But having been familiar with the mentality around him, there remained the likely chance that they will learn the hard way that there was heavier stress in trying to prevent, or avoid, stress.
At least Don no longer had to worry about classes that demanded physical exertion like Scaring. He could at least sit back, relax, and explore the computers.
Ah, the mysterious and terrifying world of computers just might outdo the thrill of opening the doors of the human dimension.
At least this process would save him a trip to the academic advisor office, which probably had a long line of students awaiting info about their classes.
He clicked onto the Internet browser, a pixel fuzz of an icon on the screen, onto something new, something bursting with data and wonders in its pixel world, with the unknown behind each click. According to his Computer Basics instructor, this something called the Internet was a rising innovation, and the University sought to apply this innovation for the greater academic good of its students, starting in the library computer lab.
Hovering his mitt-like hand over the keys, his thumb twitched toward ‘D,’ only to accidentally press ‘D’ and ‘F’ simultaneously. Thank gosh for Backspace.
Darn mitt hands. If only he was blessed with many fingers.
After some clicking, Don finally opened a link on M. U. net and tapped on the correct keys to log onto his college profile.
Minor: Computer Science
So within a few hours after the exam, the Program had already revoked his status as a Scaring major. The University truly was experimenting quickly with this Internet.
Click. Remove minor. Click. Scroll down all the choice of majors. Computer Science. Select. Click. Thank you for selecting major. The Academic Office will review your selection.
Click. That repetitive sound marked his certain future, 2 or 3 years after he would march out of M.U., for the second time in his life, straight toward another job, with programming and software to look forward to.
Don’s bus always passed by a familiar sight, a large company building with the steely words “Oozmanian Industry.” Through the hundred of windows, he could see the shape of the young employees, in their offices, with phones latched onto their ears, musing about sales and purchases to clients.
Don recalled how one-by-one, old co-workers, pals like Pete, Andrew, Dan, and more were laid off. So Don had faced his job loss with neither surprise nor grief. It had taken Don two days to clean out his office for the next salesmonster, hired for youthful and fresh talent. No hard feelings, just the way of the world, inviting progress from the old. After studying his employment options, Don had resolved not to go back to sales, at least, not full-time. And so the door closed on his life of three decades, and it was time to find another door. And he had thought that he could discover this metaphorical new door back at his alma mater, Monsters University.
As the Don’s former workplace faded from view, he shook off these thoughts so not to miss his stop.
Finally, the bus reached Dark Avenue.
On the doorstep of apartment 1200, he discovered a small parcel.
Don collected it and entered his room, a snug spacing of four rooms- bathroom, kitchen, living room of three chairs and a sofa, bedroom.
He entered his bedroom, set his parcel on the desk, and started flipping through second-hand Scaring textbooks and smoothed the creases of page corners to make them more desirable and buyable to Scare students.
Don adjusted the crooked frame above his desk that exhibited his diploma, 30 years old document with fancy bold words.
Don Joel Carlton
Bachelors of Business
The frame was grimed with dust that snaked its way onto the glass casing of the document, dulling the cream-white parchment.
Now to tidy up the rest of his desk.
Don rummaged through his old paperwork on his desk, sorting them into files. Among the scraps, he dug up a copy, or perhaps a draft, of his application to Monsters University. He squeezed it in his hand, about to crumble it when a certain, amusing detail caught his eye.
Major: “Computer Scie-”
…it stopped mid-writing, slashed out by the swish of his pen, which then wrote the following, un-slashed, words “Scaring.”
Don crumbled the application, which conveniently stuck to a sucker, scraping his palm on the recycle bin’s ledge so the paper could fall in.
As he resumed his cleaning, Don picked up the last piece of paper, creased and worn, with faded pencil writing.
…he looked after my every dreams. It is up to me now to carry on his legacy by holding on to the spirit he passed down to me…
He found the one-year old draft of a eulogy for the late William Carlton, composed by his surviving only son, who was now filing the eulogy tenderly to minimalize creases.
Then he glanced at a photo on the wall of his father, who bore an appearance like his son’s, but green with brown spots and a woolen sweater.
He found himself staring down at the parcel.
[i]From Ma’ Carlton
Happy Birthday, sonny.
It contained a black-and-white photo in a cherrywood frame. Pa, staring straight into the camera, was seated on the grass. A young Don, on all fours, facing away from the camera as if he wanted to escape off-frame. But Pa’s firm hand and sucker pads on his shoulder prevented him from crawling away.
It was Ma’s favorite picture. He remembered that his Pa had called out, “Anne! Donnie got distracted by a field mouse and didn’t hold still, take a’nother!”
But Ma had protested, “No, no, no, I love this one.”
They had another photo shoot at Pa’s insistence, then Pa took a look at the one with Don crawling away and said, “Yer right, I like this one the best.”
Don placed the picture face-down. He knew Ma only meant to cheer him up, but he didn’t want to think of Pa.
Don heaved himself onto his bed and reached for the phone. He carefully dialed the numbers so not to stick his suckers to the buttons. First call was to Andrew, probably too busy because he did not pick up, so Don left a message (“hope to catch an ole’ chat with ya!”). Then Pete, greeted old pal Don with a pleasant twenty second conversation that consisted of howdy, sorry Don, about to enter my fourth job interview of the week, good wishes and good bye.
Only ole’ Dan made time for a real conversation. “Don! It’s great to hear from you again. How’s school?”
“Swell! How’s work?”
“Work? I’ve found work! They were hiring over in Fright Town. It’s enough to get by and bring home the bread. So how are them computers?”
“Oh, they’re dandy, Dan.” Actually, the computers were complicated. “Ima gonna actually take Computer Science as full-time now. One semester in the Scaring Program and they dropped me off.”
“Say, yer takin’, I mean, yer took Scaring?”
Don suddenly realized this was the first time he ever told a friend about his Scaring pursuits.
“Oh yeah!” He threw in a chuckle to show that he was aware how odd that idea was. “Forgot to tell ya’ about mai crazy idea. Joined the Scare Program. Didn’t work out for me. Had to make myself more relevant to the job market and conquer these computers head-on.”
“Sorry to hear that, Don.”
Don felt as hopeless and shameful as that kid on the curb. “Listen Dan, I hate to ask this sort of advice. I know you don’t got all the answers… but… yer got any suggestions what I could do besides schoolwork?”
“Hmmmm.” Dan sounded forlorn. “You could take up a hobby. Like writing or sketching?”
Hobbies. Don used to have time for these. “Weeeell, does skimming over Scare textbooks count as one?”
A chuckle. “Well, let me let you on a secret. Yer a bachelor, free to do whatever to yer heart’s content. Yer don’t got a wife to judge yer mid-life crisis. You could save up for a car and bankrupt yerself. Take up skateboarding and injure yourself and squander yer insurance. Or pottery class. At yer own risk.”
They laughed. That was what Don needed.
“I got no interest in big risky stuff,” Dan continued. “I got my wife. My kids. And my writing. Yer want to find something to do? Sample yer opportunities. Sample hobbies.”
Wise words. Good ole’ Dan. It was pretty obvious advice, but it was soothing to hear someone give it to you.
Then the phone produced the noise of chattering children, prompting Don to inquire, “now how’s your missus and the tykes?”
“Wonderful! We just attended the seventh grade graduation of my Pammy!” Through the phone speaker, something slammed and crashed, likely noise from the mischievous antics of children. “No Fanny, daddy has the phone now, you have to wait to talk to your friend. Put that down Vanny! And stop pulling your Vanny’s hair, Sammy! Yes Mammy dear, I’ll wash the dishes tonight. Janny, watch out for that, don’t touch tha- Oh, sorry Don, gotta go. Keep in touch and good wishes to you.” And Dan hung up.
Don let the phone slip off his suction pad and swing like a pendulum toward the floor. Staring at the ceiling, he absorbed the emptiness of his apartment.
Pragmatically, he realized that he should probably finish unpacking his Oozmanian Industry boxes of dusty desk supplies, but his arms, even his suckers, felt too dull to make contact with any objects, even small desk supplies.
He wanted to lie down and not think. But old habits died hard. He could not repress the ideas wandering his head.
Out of a desire to share a conversation with someone, Don fancied the idea of asking Derek Knight if he would have a beer with him as buddies. After all, even the austere Prof. Knight was no exception to the professors Don liked to engage in casual conversations with (“How’s yer day? How’s yer family?”), that is, if he wasn’t occupied with younger students begging for due date extensions. But Don reminded himself of the unspoken boundaries between teachers and students. As a middle-aged adult, he did relate well to them, but the teachers, especially Knight, were often too occupied with the student’s academic matters to develop close friendships with them. The professors were just nice acquaintances that offered an occasional chat.
And there was his future to consider at M.U. What else could he do on campus while he tried to engross himself in computers? Shouldn’t he experience something new? There ought to be plenty of campus activities. He was at least fond of attending college sports events, especially with its free admission for students, but now he yearned to be part of something, anything significant. He resolved to no longer be the bystander of the great college experience.
Yes, he’ll find a hobby. And he’ll call Dan about it once he found that hobby. And maybe Ma, if he thought she’ll approve.
Football. He liked watching it. Why not try it? It was once his fantasy to be part of his high school team. Even auditioned a few times to no avail. But now, it was a silly thought to humor himself. He was too old and hadn’t the build.
Debate team. Something his Pa once encouraged him to join. Don enjoyed speech, but he just couldn’t see himself ready for worldly issues. He could remember the Debate team’s advertisement at the stands. Happiness? Theoretical? Depression? A construct? Even the subject of elitism? Can elitism be justified? There he go again, humoring himself.
Drama. A more realistic pursuit compared to the other options. He had noted that audition posters often called for authentic actors age 40-60 to little success. He had viewed productions (student discount, non-costly source of entertainment) of the Theater department and wondered why young folks tended to portray older characters with their young voices and false beards and wigs attempting to replicate adult’s voice. He had some flexibility in improv and scripted performance (they were crucial skills in sales). Yes, he probably had a shot at getting a role. But he had to be realistic. Computer Science probably would not permit the time flexibility for this commitment.
Like a last-minute job opportunity, Don considered that Frat/Sorority Poster in the café.
Despite his scarcity of knowledge about Greek Life, he could not shake off curiosity. With years of computers ahead of him, it could give him something else to do. Tomorrow, he will venture out into a neighborhood into his part-time job of door-to-door selling, and after that, he will visit the Greek Life Office.
He’ll risk odd glances from campus folks. But it was better than normal.
It wasn’t too late to sample opportunity.
This is a revision of a previous MU fanfic.
Original version found here: fanfiction.net/s/9552580/1/More-Than-OK
PLEASE REVIEW. CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM ESPECIALLY!