Short Fiction: How To Excel in College
Calvin woke up at 7, vomited, crawled back into bed, got up at 9:52, vomited again, and spent the next hour in bed cursing himself for being a cliche. Well, first cursing himself for drinking too much, again, and then cursing himself for being a cliche.
Kid with strict parents who gets to college and can’t handle a little freedom. Parties too hard and suffers as a result. Luckily for Calvin, classes hadn’t started yet, and he’d gone so hard so fast that the allure of getting blackout drunk was already fading after a full week of overindulgence.
Once he felt human enough to move (this was at 12:22 PM), he showered and ambled down to the cafeteria. Though he felt vaguely nauseated, he found the little paper trays of waffle fries sitting under the heatlamps irresistible. While eating the fries slowly and deliberately so as not to anger his stomach, he listened to the conversation at the next table.
A group of five students were talking about the cushy work study jobs they had. “I have to sit in the lounge and make sure nobody breaks the big screen TV,” one guy said. “I am literally getting paid to watch TV.”
“I’m sorting mail,” a girl said.
“What’s mail?” another girl asked, and the table laughed.
“Exactly,” the mail sorter said. “I’m gonna get paid to do homework.”
Calvin cursed himself again. He hadn’t done anything about getting a work-study job. He was going to miss out on all the good jobs if he didn’t get busy looking for a job today. Disregarding his stomach’s reservations, he got a cup of coffee and decided to go find a job.
As it turned out, he was too late to get any of the good jobs. At four thirty-five p.m., he found himself at the Bursar’s office, the first place he wasn’t laughed out of. A very kind receptionist took his name, gave him a schedule, and told him she’d see him the next day.
By the time Calvin got there the next day, he’d had his first two classes and had a knot in his stomach from being intimidated by the syllabi and by the prospect of working a non-retail, non-food-service job for the first time in his life. “What do you even do in a job like that?” he’d asked his roommate the previous night. “No shelves to stock, no fries to make…what the hell do you actually do?”
He learned the displeasing answer to this after meeting his immediate supervisor, whose name was Cash Pendleton. Cash Pendleton was a tall, broad-shouldered middle-aged white man whose hobbies clearly included weight lifting. When Maria, the receptionist, introduced Calvin, Cash Pendleton did not shake his hand or smile. He just said, “great,” and turned to his computer.
Calvin thought it was funny that a guy named Cash worked in the Bursar’s office, but he did not say this for fear Cash Pendleton would crush him like a bug.
Cash Pendleton turned to his computer, and Calvin, at the next desk, sat awkwardly awaiting instruction. He thought it might be a bad look to take his phone out, so he logged into the computer in front of him and checked his university email. He cleared his inbox in five minutes and then looked around. Cash Pendleton was typing, clicking, typing, and clicking, looking annoyed. Calvin glanced at the clock on the computer screen. 2:30 PM. He had two more hours in his shift.
“So,” Calvin said. “Uh, is there something you’d like me to do, or…”
Cash Pendleton rolled his eyes and sighed. “You know Excel?”
“I…I know what it is,” Calvin said.
“You’re no use to me if you don’t know Excel. Watch some YouTube videos or enroll in a free training course, or something. You’ll actually thank me for it later. Much better skill to have when you’re job hunting than whatever liberal arts bullshit they’re gonna teach you here.”
Just as Cash Pendleton’s size and manner had discouraged Calvin from remarking on how he’d chosen the right profession to fit his name, so did it discourage him from defending the liberal arts in general, and the study of history in particular, in this case.
He popped his earbuds in. He looked up “teach yourself Excel,” clicked on the first link he found, and started watching a video. And, over the next several weeks, he spent about half his time at work watching videos about Excel. (The rest of the time he spent wasting time in all the ways people in such jobs typically waste time: checking email, going on social media, and texting friends.)
And a strange thing happened. After sitting through a few hours of how-to videos just to appear to be doing something work-related, he began to actually get interested in it. Because, as he was learning in his history classes, the way you present information has the power to shape how people understand it. And so the person who creates the charts, who decides which columns get hidden and which make it into the pivot table, becomes incredibly powerful.
By no means did Calvin begin to harbor any ambitions of working full-time in an office like the bursar’s office, or of any accounting department at all, but he did begin to understand the appeal of being the Emperor of Excel, or at least the Prince of Pivot Tables.
He needed data, though. So he went onto his bank website and downloaded a .csv file of all his transactions, then created categories and a nice chart to demonstrate what he spent money on. This was ultimately unsatisfying because he didn’t have that many transactions and he didn’t really need to use Excel to know that his biggest expenses apart from his education were snacks and video games.
So when he went home for a weekend in October, he asked his mother if he might have access to her financials so as to practice his Excel skills. Access was granted, and this was a more satisfying task with more categories and some surprising insights, namely that his mother’s work lunches were a close to three hundred dollar per month expense. “I don’t even buy anything that good!” she exclaimed. “I’m packing my lunch from now on!”
And so, though he was not called upon to do any actual work, he began to enjoy his job somewhat, as he felt he was getting paid (albeit not very much) to learn a useful skill, which he recognized as a good deal.
He also felt virtuous tracking every cent in and out of his bank account with the help of Microsoft’s greatest creation.
Ultimately, though, Calvin grew tired of working with the relatively small data sets that were available to him. So he gathered his courage and approached Cash Pendleton. “Um, I’m learning a lot about Excel, and I’m just wondering if I can get a big data set to practice with.”
Cash Pendleton looked at him with an arched eyebrow, clearly skeptical. Then he smiled, pulled out a flash drive, and inserted it into a USB port in his computer. Several dozen keystrokes and three minutes later, he handed the flash drive to Calvin. “That’s this week’s check run. Have fun.”
The University had over eight thousand regular employees and another three thousand work study employees, and if Cash Pendleton had intended this to intimidate Calvin, he had sorely miscalculated. Within a week Calvin had a colossal Excel Workbook with salaries broken out by occupation. And by years of service. And by department. This was how he discovered that far more of his tuition was going to administration than to things he would actually notice, namely instruction and maintenance.
He shared this information with the people who lived on the same hall in his dorm. They were less impressed with his discovery than with the level of nerdiness he displayed; they consequently called him “Pivot,” short for “Pivot Table,” the Excel feature whose virtues he enthusiastically touted at every opportunity.
Bored with his data set, Calvin set out to find his own paycheck on the check run. He pulled up his banking app, found the deposit amount, and ran a query in Excel.
And he found nothing.
So he watched another video on the VLOOKUP command and checked again. And again. He sliced and diced the anonymized data several ways and could not find his check. So he logged into the payroll portal for the first time since entering his direct deposit information in the first week of school and, after several clicks, saw the problem. One dollar and fifty cents of his latest paycheck—and, indeed, as he looked at all his paystubs, every paycheck—had been deposited into an account that was not his own. He took screenshots and stored them in several locations, and the next time he went to work in the bursar’s office, he marched straight up to Cash Pendleton and said, “I found something in the data that I think you might find interesting.”
Cash Pendleton looked intrigued as Calvin detailed how he had, up to this point, lost seven dollars and fifty cents from his paychecks.
“Seven dollars and fifty cents,” Cash Pendleton said. “That’s almost enough for someone to buy a large latte!” He laughed at his own joke.
“The point isn’t the amount,” Calvin said. “It’s that my money was being deposited in someone else’s bank account!”
Cash Pendleton stopped smiling, with some difficulty. “Okay, okay, I’ll look into it,” he said.
Calvin was puzzled. His image of people who worked with numbers was that they were punctilious, that any irregularity would bother them like a rock in their shoe until they found it and got rid of it.
But such, clearly, was not the case with Cash Pendleton. For over the next few weeks, Calvin talked to all of his friends and acquaintances with work-study jobs and urged them to log into the portal and check for the presence of a mysterious bank account. To a one, they found the account, siphoning a dollar fifty from every biweekly check.
So Calvin eventually worked up the courage to confront Cash Pendleton. He brought a folder full of documentation and a flash drive to match. “I’m wondering why these unauthorized withdrawals are still happening,” Calvin said. “And, I mean, since you don’t seem to be able to stop it, I’m wondering if I should go to the bursar or what.”
Cash Pendleton looked away from his computer monitor. Calvin couldn’t read his expression. “Let’s take a walk,” Cash Pendleton said.
It was a blustery November afternoon with gray skies and a light but very cold rain falling. It was not a nice day for a walk. But Calvin walked next to Cash Pendleton, getting wet because Cash Pendleton’s umbrella was not big enough for two, and also sharing an umbrella with Cash Pendleton would have felt weird.
“I’m impressed,” Cash Pendleton said. “You really have learned a lot since you started. But I’m going to teach you another lesson right now.” Given that they were in the middle of campus, Calvin did not fear that Cash Pendleton was going to administer a physical beating, but that is what Cash Pendleton’s tone conveyed.
“What happens if you go to the bursar with this information? Well, I’ll tell you. She’ll find out who’s responsible. And that person, whoever they may be, will, in turn, present some of the information they’ve amassed since they started working at the University. NCAA recruiting violations funneled through the bursar’s office, sure, that’s the biggy because football and basketball bring a ton of money in, but also hush money paid to harassment and assault victims of star professors and star athletes. Man, would that be a can of worms. This place is rotten to the core. Funded by thieves and slavers too, but nobody really cares about that. But they do care about sports. And, to a much lesser degree, sexual impropriety. You see what I’m saying here? She’ll have to weigh your seven dollars and fifty cents against the reputation and financial stability of the university. Well, it’s not going to be a tough decision, now is it?”
Calvin, stunned, did not respond.
“But then she’ll have to deal with you. Because you know too much. So what’s the best way to do that? Discredit you. So your accusations can be dismissed as the words of a bad actor. A thug, if you will. You see where I’m going with this? You’ve been downloading information you shouldn’t have access to for the last two weeks. A lot of personal information. About female students only. Huge FERPA violation, but also? Looks creepy as hell.”
“But I haven’t done that!”
“Mmmm, that’s not what the computer records say. So the lesson for today is this: only chumps try to do the right thing in a corrupt environment. Don’t stand there trying to blow the whistle; find a way to cut yourself in on the action. Like the person who initiated those dollar fifty withdrawals. It’s the only smart play.”
“But you—sorry, ‘this person’ isn’t stealing from the University. They’re stealing from students. And not even the rich ones! The ones who have to work to afford this joint!”
“Well, yeah, because those are the ones this person has the opportunity to steal from. And, in the end, it’s practically a victimless crime. Tell the truth—did you notice seven-fifty was missing from your bank account before you went digging?”
“See, there you have it. It’s a minor inconvenience at best. And you’d better get used to it. Because that buck fifty is coming out of your next check. And the one after that and the one after that.”
“So this person, the thief, is pocketing an extra eight thousand bucks a month. So like an extra 72 thousand dollars every school year. When will it be enough? When will..this person have stolen enough money from students that they’ll be satisfied?”
“Enough? What the hell does that even mean? You know you live in the United States of America, right?” Cash Pendleton laughed. “Enough. No such thing, my friend! So, there’s your lesson. Oh, and here’s another one. You’re fired. I won’t mention your creepy data mining, but you’re done. Yet another lesson—keep your mouth shut. Because if you don’t, there are always consequences. You’re welcome!”
Calvin stood in the middle of the quad, light rain falling on his head, people with raincoats and umbrellas scurrying around him, and Cash Pendleton walking back to the bursar’s office, whistling.
One week later, Cash Pendleton arrived at campus. He slapped his ID against the reader that opened the gate in Lot B. Nothing happened. He did it again. Still nothing. He then tried lots C, D, and E. No luck. He wound up parking on the street seven blocks from campus. He walked in late to the Maxwell Administration Building and sat down to log in at his computer, only to find his login credentials didn’t work.
He called the IT team. After ten minutes on hold and profuse apologies from the idiotic student on the phone who had no idea how this happened, he was so sorry for the inconvenience, he got his login information working again.
He got down to work, but then he was getting incessant pings from Microsoft Teams for calls that, when he picked up, had no one on the other end. Again he called IT. Again he dealt with an idiot who took way too long to fix a problem. In this case it was a half hour.
He worked for forty-five minutes, then went across the quad to the coffee shop for his daily skim latte. Somehow it took the idiot student barista ten minutes to make it, and, on taking a sip, Cash Pendleton found she had used whole milk and put a pump of hazelnut syrup in it. She apologized profusely and offered to remake it, but he’d already been late this morning and couldn’t afford to be absent from his desk for a half hour. His image as a conscientious worker was essential.
Lunch at the cafeteria brought more student stupidity. God, it was a wonder these idiots got into college at all. He asked the girl at the stir-fry station to put chicken in his, but she used disgusting tofu instead, and light oil apparently meant “only a half cup” in her mind. His CougarCash card wouldn’t work at the register, so he had to pay cash. So after a very annoying morning, he was facing an afternoon in which he had to prepare for this week’s check run and somehow work in a conversation with dining services (they assured him his CougarCash account was fully funded—apparently a hold had been put on it in error) and then a walk over to public safety who were in charge of parking, because they never answered their phones or emails. They too told him a block had been placed on his ID card in error and apologized for the mistake.
He returned to his desk. Another call to IT when his jobs wouldn’t release from the print queue. Sorry, they said, just a mistake on our part, we’ll get right on it. And another hour elapsed before he could print.
At four o’clock, some kids from dining services appeared with trays full of cookies and cut up fruit. “Where’s the catering order going?” they asked. “Conference room, or?”
“I didn’t order any goddamn catering!” Cash Pendleton barked.
Unfortunately Melanie, the bursar, was passing by at this moment, and once the students had been dismissed with their trays, Cash Pendleton was subjected to a lecture on professionalism and the necessity of not swearing at students.
“Those students fund your position,” the bursar said, and Cash Pendleton did not reply that at least part of his position was funded by the generous donations of a certain billionaire pedophile. He bit his tongue and endured the humiliation of being lectured by a woman and returned to his desk.
Finally, Cash Pendleton’s day from hell ended. He logged out of his computer and walked the seven blocks to his car, which was sitting on four flat tires. He yelled a string of especially colorful expletives, and, after calming down, called his platinum card’s roadside assistance number. “Somebody will be out within the hour,” the woman on the phone told him. “But, you know, rush hour traffic, so give ‘em 90 minutes just to be safe.”
Cash Pendleton hung up the phone and pounded his fist on the roof of his Lexus. Then he looked up and saw, across the street, that Black kid who’d learned enough Excel to figure out about the seven fifty. Which he could have figured out immediately by just logging into the payroll portal. Kelvin. And the Black kid was laughing. Cash Pendleton wanted nothing more than to run over and smash his fist into the kid’s uppity face.
“Looks like you’ve suffered a minor inconvenience,” the Black kid said. Cash Pendleton said nothing. “In fact, I heard you suffered a number of minor inconveniences today.” The kid smiled broadly, and Cash Pendleton got it. The kid. The goddamn kid. Every person who had screwed up and screwed him over today was a goddamn work study student. And somehow this kid was behind it all.
“I have,” he said. “And I’ve gotta give it to you. You’ve made your point. I’ll stop the deductions from your account. Enough is enough.”
“Enough?” the kid said. “What the hell does that even mean? You know you’re in the United States of America, right? Enough,” he said, turning away and shaking his head.
Cash Pendleton stood next to his disabled car and the Black kid walked away, whistling.
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