A phone call brought it all back
My oldest boy phoned yesterday. He’s in the military now, protecting the world from nefarious elements scattered across the globe while ensconced inside his cozy Las Vegas office. He also just finished a couple of lit degrees. I would never have never guessed.
I spent most of his high school days between either him and his mom, or between him and his school principal. One time I was called to the school because he raised his hand in Mr. McCracken’s class.: “I was just wondering,” he asked the teacher, “if your last name is really McCracken. Like in butt crack?”
Neither the school nor Mr. McCracken thought this was funny. Apparently, the class did, and they fell out laughing. So, I met with the principal and the teacher and to talk about the improprieties of my progeny. I remember nothing of the meeting except that Mr. McCracken was so red-faced that he couldn’t speak. And really? What do you expect: you’re a high school teacher named McCracken.
There was another teacher who kids loved to get riled up, and my boy stood in line for the opportunity. If you got this teacher mad enough, early enough, the class was over. He would rant and steam for forty minutes about kids these days and how when he was young, there were rules, and kids did what they were told. I don’t know when he grew up, but I remember being at the same school back when American Was Great and getting caught handing out commie pamphlets between bouts of throwing up Southern Comfort after chemistry.
I thought that American was pretty great.
A new author in the family
So, the young pup phoned yesterday.
“Dad. You’ll never guess what happened.”
“Your wife is pregnant?”
We both laughed, but, truth be told, Mittons are proven breeders.
“You know my final paper that we talked about? For my lit degree?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But, last we talked, I you hadn’t decided on a topic”
“Oh. I ended up writing about kids and literature, but hey, the prof who graded it? He wants to publish it in a lit journal. Can you believe it?”
“Wow. Very nice.”
“Yeah. He wants to team up, and he’ll help me with formatting and how to present the material, but I’ll be the main author.”
“That’s very sweet. Way to go.”
“When I first got it back, it was covered with red marks, and I thought, oh man, I botched this one, but they were all about how great the paper was.”
“Awesome, man. I’m super proud. Did I ever tell you about my first college paper? All covered in red marks?”
“What? No. What was that one?”
My first college writing experience
And so ensues the tale.
I was a freshman at Western Washington University, that bastion of higher education in Bellingham, Wa. I assumed – for no discernible reason – that academics were a given. Write the paper, take the test, get an A, and party on. We did a lot of that.
So, I sat in English 101, and on the first day of class the prof sent ‘round a drawing that looked like he tore it out of his kid’s coloring book. It was of some farm animals, cows, pigs, and horses, and they were smiling and happy, like there was nowhere else they would rather be than here on the farm getting fattened up for Thanksgiving dinner.
“Our next class is on Monday,” the prof said. “Let’s do this: take this picture and write a story about it, or an essay, or anything you want. Make it about two pages long. I just want to get an idea of where we are with writing. Okay?”
Sometime over the weekend, between girls and parties and football and who knows what, I spit out an essay I was happy with. It was about how animals accept death as a fact of their life cycle and humans should, too. There’s nothing to fear and nothing to plan for. When you’re done, you’re done. I slapped the final carriage return and patted myself on the back. It was smart, philosophical, a little theological, and I probably threw in a few impressive words.
I turned it in Monday, and he handed it back on Wednesday, a day that lives in Mitton Infamy.
He was visibly pained when he handed me my paper. I wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t often, I guessed, that he got such erudite work from a freshman. Big and bold red words emblazoned the first page, as if from the finger of the Almighty. I read the words though, and a foggy confusion draped over me like Washington rain. I remember the words exactly: “The oddest and most poorly written paper I’ve ever read by a college student.”
My head spun, and I checked the name. Yup. It was me. Did he read it? Could he have read it? How did he miss the insight? How could he overlook my unassailable argument? Was he really this much of a dolt? I was stupefied.
Thinking about it, and telling my boy, we both laughed about high school and how we thought we were pulling one over on our teacher when, in fact, we were missing things we would need later. I don’t blame the teachers – they’re just trying to make a living doing something good.
Bad high school essays
Also from my boy’s high school days is this story that kind of follows the thread.
“Really?” I said to him. “You got a D on this? In science? C’mon. Your Dad is a WRITER and a SCIENTIST. Surely, I could have helped you?”
“Dad!” he got more excited the deeper I drilled. “This is like the first time he’s ever read our papers. Really. I just usually write the first and last line and fill in the rest with words. I always get a B.”
“Am I really that dopey to you? You expect me to believe that?”
“I can prove it,” he said, rummaging through a mess of papers. He found what he was looking for and pointed to a line. “See? Read this.”
“I slept with your wife last Saturday when we were both drunk at your house.”
It was right there, penned in blue, smack in the middle of the paper, bookcased by a couple of nonsense sentences about real science. With a bright red ‘B’ circled on the front.
“I do it all this time,” he said. He never reads them, so we all put stupid stuff in the middle. He’s never said anything to anyone.”
I wanted to be mad and tell him but, like on a 1970s sitcom, my vision went wavy and my memory of Mrs. Rose wafted before my eyes.
I was back in high school now, my high school, with longer hair and platform shoes. I had just got a C on a paper from Mrs. Rose. She was my favorite and let me slide on almost any stunt. I don’t know why – substances now legal in Washington but illegal then may have come into play – but I wrote all my papers in her class backward. I could write backward or forward and chuckled when I thought of her putting my paper up to a mirror to read it. I always got a B, and that was good enough for me.
Except for this time. It was the same thing that happened to my boy in high school: the teacher decided to actually read this one.
I marched up to her with my C paper in hand and asked her to explain. It was her fault, you know.
“Uh-huh,” she exhaled as I made my case. “But, it really is a C paper. It’s not that good. Probably should have been and C- or a D+.”
“But, I mean, I always get a B. I’m a B student.” I was reaching.
“Oh, I’m getting it now,” she said, laughing. “Do you think I read those backward things you turn in? Honey. I have better things to do than read that stuff, so I just give you the grade I think you should get.”
“Well, then why don’t I get a B on this one?”
“Because I read it.” She leaned toward me, reading my face to see if I got it. “It’s not that good. Is all your work like this? I think I’ll give you Cs from now on.”
I might have been dopey, but I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t want her to redo all my grades, so I started writing in semi-readable frontward English, and my boy quit writing about his teacher’s wife.
Back to my first college essay
Because you are wondering about that first college paper I wrote, I didn’t finish the class. I could have, I should have buckled down and worked long hours to improve my writing, but that sounded like work, so I just dropped the class.
Later, having to take this class to graduate, I wrote a paper called The Theme of Angst in the Writing of TS Eliot. Whereas the other essay was the first paper of the term, this was the last, but the prof still had things to say. He wanted to see me after class in his office.
We sat down and he opened with the exact opposite of the first year prof’s assessment.
“Dennis,” he said, “this is the best lit analysis I’ve tread by an undergrad.”
He looked at me hard, and I nodded, expecting a ‘but’. “What are you doing next year? I’m pretty sure I could get you into any of a dozen MFA programs.”
I was confused again.
Shaking my head and waving my hands, I told him that I already had a college lines up. And that I was going to study molecular biology.
“Huh?” he said. “Molecular biology? You write like this and do science too?”
I was unsure of what to say. “Well, I do science…”
And that was it. I did science for most of my adult career, and wrote, too. Mostly long and angst filled governmental reports about our work. TS Eliot might not have approved.
So, I have written academic papers, and maybe my boy will, too. And, to this day, I am obsessed with getting words on paper. Maybe he will be, too. As the cliche says, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.
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