But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
From Introduction To Poetry by Billy Collins.
I love that particular slice from Billy Collins. The first day of Eng. Lit. Spring Semester 2008, the professor passed out the above poem, in its entirety. What surfaced as a result was Billy Collins' replacing my love affair with Sting, as well as learning there's more to stories than just entertainment.
You discuss, analyze and interpret. And above all else, I learned the true meaning of subjectivity; that what's one persons love is anothers poison. Not everyone likes the same thing, and if they do, it's not always for the same reason.
Yesterday wasn't any different. Spring Semester 2009. The class: Fiction to Film. Its outline: adaptation theory, literary terms, film terms, adaptation analysis, script writing. Same professor as last Spring Semester; different hair and beard style. I thought that maybe during Winter break he participated in Civil War re-enactments, I'm just not sure for which side.
But differing from last year, Professor Curt first issued a writing prompt. He asked each student to imagine their lives as a bio-pic, and list ten instances that would be included in said bio-pic.
After I had three listed, he told us to stop where we were, pick one and write it. And as always, stories to be shared with the masses.
It'd been a while since I wrote from prompt, and even longer since I read my writings to the masses. I'd be lying if I told you it was a "no sweat" moment. My pits went into overdrive; my knuckles turned white, and I think I experienced a slight stroke. Yet, I pushed along. This was a "Defy the inner critic" moment. Gut writing. Good old "stream of consciousness" while remembering what my hand writing looked like.
But I coughed up a page and a half in eight minutes. He timed it, task master that he is. And so began the oral portion of the show. One by one, students read, going around the room of conference tables set up like the Apaches were coming any minute.
Luckily, I staged myself at a corner end, near the door. Not that I was planning a fast escape. I just like sitting by the door, at the end. And nine times out of ten, I'm out of professorial peripheral vision.
He didn't ask anyone to go first. He's much more diplomatic. He waits for someone to volunteer. My arm never goes up first, thank God for that. Don't you hate having everyone see that dark circle under your pit?
The stories commenced. Some wrote from their gut and it was great. Some wrote proving purple prose is an art lost on the non-creative over-achiever. Some wrote with the point of proving how clever they mastered the thesaurus.
And then there were the gifted ones whose blood flowed dark ink, snapping my ears to their direction, misting my eyes. It renewed my love for pure, natural talent. The future of literature did not die with Updike. It transcends, and did so right there in the class room.
And then there was my story. I don't know where it fit in with the genius around me, but I gave myself credit for recalling that snippet from my past. It was real. I didn't fabricate. It wasn't sad or dark. I share it here as transcribed from my scrawl - semi-edited:
Fifth grade. The tender years today known as the tweens. Not yet a teen, yet still playing with Barbies when no one is looking.
I was enrolled in Catholic school from K to present - fifth grade. The previous grade JFK was assassinated; my teacher was an oddity - she wasn't a nun, and I loved her.
Each year it was the luck of the draw. You didn't know who you'd get stuck with for a teacher. All fifth grades prayed they'd get the cute little Sally Field nun - and not...
Sister Stephen King. The woman stood five feet tall - she'd call roll the first day and tell each kid that she'd taught your older brother and your mother.
And when the first snowfall came, she'd remind everyone not to throw snowballs, and then told of the time one of her students got into a snowball fight - took one in the eye, and came to class with it dangling down his cheek. "It dripped with blood," she said while running a finger down her own face.
Duly noted; thanks for the mental picture, sis.
I think I dodged snowflakes after hearing that one and slept with a light on for weeks - the nightmares - students stuffed in snowsuits - eyeballs dangling down their cheeks.
I often wondered why nuns weren't brought up on charges. Was it fair to exclude them just because they weren't priests?
The last line got a laugh. One student asked if I made the story up. "Hell no," I said. "Those nuns were Torquemada reincarnate." That didn't get a laugh. "Torque who?" I'm sure seared those post pubescent brain cells. "Torque who?"
So, yeah. I'm the oldest in the class, but no one can call me James Frey, simply because I don't write fictional memoirs, and another student already has that distinction, at least, in my secret joke box, he does. The kid read his story and I knew it was total bullshit only because of an impossible "fact" he wrote. Does the kid not know who I am? I'm savilicious! Yeah, that's right. Savvy by default. I could be most of the students' grandmother, and if any of them dares call me that, well, let's just hope they don't, that's all.
After all was said and done, what I took away from the first class was this: That youth is wasted on the young; that many have experienced too much darkness for such tender ages; and that through it all, I still see a hopeful future for all.
And I'm that much closer to my degree.
Stay tuned. Next up: My first day in "Stress Relief Through Exercise."