Friday, September 16, 2016

Back to School

I am reading Moby Dick. I have seen the movie, so I know how the story ends. Melville’s use of language and detail makes this a daunting challenge, and I usually fall asleep after several pages. But like Ahab, I am determined to finish something I started, no matter how painful or at what cost, and I’m determined to chase that white whale all the way to the bitter end.

I’ve been tempted to give up on other books. War and Peace is taking a break. Ulysses is on an extended vacation. But there have been some books that never made it past a cursory examination of the front and back covers.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one such book. It was the assigned reading in an entry level English Literature course I took during my second freshman year in college (I was on the six year plan.) From what I now understand, this was a fantastic first effort by Carson McCullers, who at age 23 penned her finest work, an “enduring masterpiece” that I never read.

I have no idea what this book is about, even having written an analysis of it during the fall of 1974. For when assigned to read the book and write a paper about it, I dutifully bought a copy and read only the back cover.

It was the night before the paper was due. I vaguely remember this being during my “No Doze” period in college. A chronic procrastinator, I would frequently find myself squeezed between the jaws of today and tomorrow, with time relentlessly ticking off the turns of a vice handle that resulted in lost sleep and high anxiety.

With nothing more to go on than several sentences written by reviewers of McCullers' story and knowledge of the very ambiguous title, I sat down to answer the prompted question: why is the heart a lonely hunter?

In several hours of caffeine-fueled desperation at age 20 (three years younger than McCullers mind you), I wrote and then typed a three-page paper, clearly staining the pages with brilliant bullshit. Or so I thought.

I turned in the paper the next day, disappointed with myself at having fallen so short of another straightforward and relatively easy assignment in my ongoing attempt to identify a major by way of 100-level introductory samplings – scholastically taste testing my way to a meal I could call a career.

And so I waited for my grade.

Three days later I sat in the back row of a small first floor classroom, near the door, slumped in my seat and bracing for impact.

The professor slowly handed back the papers, calling out names and softly commenting so as not to draw undue attention to the authors. When the stack of papers was nearly depleted, I sat empty-handed, and watched in horror as he placed the last paper on his desk. He glanced at me briefly, wordless and without emotion. I had been discovered.

I don’t remember the comments he made to the class in general.  I considered bolting out the door to avoid the coming humiliation. But it was too late in the semester to drop the class, and I needed the credit to remain a full time student.
Eventually, he glanced at his watch, made some concluding remarks and then looked my way and asked me to remain after class.

The other students looked at me in wonder. What does someone have to do in an English class to draw this level of attention? Gross plagiarism?

I found myself at the front of the room, standing face to face with the bespectacled little man. I forget his name. He had a little mustache and wore a sport coat. He had dark hair, parted on the left side of his head like a nine year old.

“I just wanted to talk to you privately about your paper.”

“Yeah, I was just…”

He wouldn’t let me speak.

“I have to say, I’ve read a lot of papers through the years” he continued, as if he had practiced this dressing down, holding the beloved book in one hand and my paper in the other for dramatic effect.

I swore to myself, I would never put off an assignment again. I would always read the assigned material. I would read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

“And I can say without qualification…” he went on

It was too late to run. I hung my head and looked at my shoes.

“This paper you wrote…”

I swallowed as he prepared to deliver an eviscerating blow.

“Is the finest one of my students has ever written.”

He smiled as I choked on my emotional release, half laughter and pure amazement.

“Great job” he concluded, handing me my paper.

You would think that walking on hot coals, and bargaining and atoning in the face of scholarly annihilation would be humbling to the extreme. Perhaps being twenty, with an incompletely developed judgment area in the brain insulates young males from such awareness. It’s what makes them good soldiers. Arrogant enough to think they’re immortal.

Without skipping a beat, I responded “Thanks, I’ll have to read it sometime.”

His face fell. I immediately felt horrible.

“I’m kidding,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”

I haven’t forgotten the promise I made myself that day. The next book I read will be The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I just wish I had the paper I wrote so I can better understand it.

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