Sunday, December 24, 2006
Why I Got Bad Grades in College
When you go to college, you have to choose a major subject. If you want to be a writer, you might choose English, in which case you end up taking a bunch of literature courses, like The Romantic Poets, or Milton. They claim that to be a writer, you have to read other writers, so you’ll be influenced by their styles. Which is crap. I mean, does this sound anything like Milton?
My Shakespeare professor was this old bald guy, Doctor Wells. He assigned a paper on King Lear, but he also told us that if we wanted to write a Shakespearian sonnet instead, he would accept it. Which was his way of saying that he’d rather read a sonnet than a whole paper. Most professors don’t bother reading serious papers anyway. If I had written a twenty-page paper on King Lear, and in the middle of page 19 I’d written, "Shakespeare was an ass, and so are you, Baldy," he never would have seen it. Not that I’d blame him. If I were a teacher I wouldn’t read all that crap either. A teacher's slush pile is probably ten times worse than an editor's.
Anyway, I happened to have a crush on the woman who sat in front of me. I hadn’t ever said a word to her, but I wrote a sonnet about her:
When I come in at nine o’clock a.m.
And sit down in my Shakespeare class, I see,
The room is filled with women, and of them,
The loveliest sits right in front of me.
O terrible dilemma, what to do?
If only she would sit some other place,
Then I’d enjoy the class much more, it’s true,
For I could spend it gazing on her face.
But no, she sits right there, with me behind.
Her visage, by her hair, from me is walled.
The only consolation I can find,
Is, unlike Doctor Wells, she isn’t bald.
Professors have it easy, I would say:
They stand where all the women look their way.
Doctor Wells gave me an "A", and that was the beginning of the end of my college career. I asked myself why I'd bothered to read King Lear, when I could get an "A" by writing 14 lines. The answer to this question occurred to me a few months later, as I was taking the final exam, but at the time I felt I was on to something big: professors don’t want to be told stuff they already know; they want to be entertained.
For my Romeo and Juliet paper, I didn’t read a word of the play. I wrote another sonnet:
It used to be when I came in at nine,
And found so many women here to see,
The only one I wanted to be mine
Was sitting in the seat in front of me.
How could such foolish thoughts be in my head?
O tell me how I could have been so blind,
To want the one who sits just up ahead,
Without a thought about the one behind?
I thought that things were really bad before,
When I could only see my true love’s hair,
But now I hate the situation more,
‘Cause I can’t even tell this woman’s there.
Why must the women I’m in love with be
The only ones in class I cannot see?
Personally, I thought this sonnet was as good as the first one, but this time I got a "B." I also got a poem:
By this time you’ve convinced me you can write
Fine poetry, but listen, listen tight:
If I don’t see some prose from you real fast,
You haven’t got a chance in hell to pass.
Well, no professor, especially not one who probably hadn’t written two pages of prose himself since he got tenure, was going to tell me what kind of papers to write. For my third and final paper, I wrote a play in sonnet form:
Return of Shakespeare
(Dramatis Personae: Dr. Wells, Ghost of Shakespeare, Students, Attendants, Nymphs)
Enter Dr. Wells
WELLS. Now class I want thee all to please take note:
Othello was the best play Shakespeare wrote.
Enter Ghost of Shakespeare
GHOST. Othello?! Why if only I weren’t dead,
I’d tear you limb from limb for what thou’st said!
WELLS. Who darest interrupt me whilst I speak?
GHOST. ‘Tis Shakespeare! I’m attending class this week.
WELLS. But Shakespeare! Thou’st been dead this many years!
GHOST. Yet now’ve returned, and can’t believe mine ears!
Thee’d better shape thine teaching up real fast,
‘Cause if thou don’t, this class will be thy last.
WELLS. But William, I have loved thee all my life!
I love thou more than I love mine own wife!
GHOST. Once Caesar daredst call me mine first name;
Thou knowst what he got — thee shall get the same!
(Stabs Dr. Wells.)
WELLS. Et tu, Will!
That was only good for a "D+," but I wrote the thing in five minutes, and I forgot to use the correct rhyme scheme for a Shakespearian sonnet. I ended up with a "D" in the course, because I didn’t know enough about Shakespeare to pass the exam, but hell, if you can almost get a "C" in a Shakespeare course without reading the plays . . .
There was no stopping me now. I enrolled in Dr. Wells’s British Poetry course the following semester. Our first paper was supposed to be on Paradise Lost, which I’d read in high school, and once was enough. No way was I going to read it again, so instead I wrote the following epic of my own, and I didn’t care what grade I got. Even an "F" was better than having to read Milton. If you’ve ever read Milton, you know what I’m talking about.
Think back about a month, and you’ll recall
I took your course on Shakespeare in the fall.
I did not make an "A," I wish I had.
In fact, a "B" would not have been too bad.
But no, I did not even make a "C."
A "D" is what I made. A fucking "D"!!!
And now, I start to think I’ve lost my mind.
I have a problem that keeps getting worse.
It seems each time I talk out loud I find
That all my words are spoken in blank verse.
Your Shakespeare class has made me talk this way.
It’s been like this for three entire weeks.
No matter what it is I try to say,
I speak in blank verse every time I speak.
I asked my lawyer what I ought to do,
And he said, "Why not sue? It really pays!
Old Shakespeare’s dead, but guess who you can sue?
The guy who made you read the lousy plays!
I speak iambic penta-metric-ly.
You’ll dearly pay for doing this to me.
Weisenheimer Wells’s response to my Milton paper:
My conscience, sir, at times has troubled me,
But not, I must confess, for your earned "D."
And by the way, if you keep writing verse,
Your grade in this class may be even worse.
Doctor Wells gave me a pretty good grade on that poem. I figured he was trying to tell me something. I figured he was trying to tell me, in his own subtle way, to go ahead and write funny essays and poems for all my courses, so that other professors could experience the joy I’d brought into his tedious life.
It was my Browning paper the following semester that should have told me to cool it with the funny stuff. You’ll need some introductory information before I show you this one.
My roommate Rex and I happened to be in the same writing course one time, with this professor named Mitch Manische. After the semester we asked Mitch which writing course we should take next, and he recommended English 47, with Harmon Irons (some famous poet, though I’m sure you’ve never heard of him). Mitch told us that it was a special writing course, and that he was going to be sitting in on it himself.
I'd never taken a course with two teachers, even if only one of the teachers was really teaching, and I’d also never been in a course with only two students. That’s right, Rex and I were the only ones who registered for the course. Rex and I were the only ones stupid enough to register for the course.
You’d think they’d have enough sense to cancel a course that no one wanted to take, but no, his highness and mightiness Harmon Irons had spent at least half an hour preparing to teach the course, and he was damned well going to teach the course.
The worst part was, it wasn’t even a writing course, like Mitch had said it was. It was the same old standard boring literature course, where you read some boring book or poem by some boring person who died a few centuries ago, like Dryden, and then write a boring paper about it.
We were pissed. We had already taken all of the literature courses we needed to take, and we’d been tricked. We decided to rebel. I decided to rebel by not reading anything, and by writing papers totally irrelevant to the assignments. Rex decided to rebel by having an affair with Harmon Irons’s wife, (a much more interesting story, admittedly, but this isn’t a story about Rex).
Our first assignment was to read this ridiculously long and obscure poem called "Cleon," by Robert Browning, and to write a ridiculously long paper in which we covered these points:
1. Why did Browning decide to make "Cleon" an epistolary poem?
2. Was he right in doing so?
3. Discuss the quality of the epistle from an acoustic and graphic standpoint.
I read the first eight or ten lines of "Cleon," and that was all I could handle. This was my paper, good for the lowest grade I ever got:
In Harm’s Way
We had gathered once again, we three. There was Mitch, tall and gruff, once a writer, now playing out the string. There was Rex, virile and stylish, a veritable playboy. And of course I was there. We sat silently, staring straight ahead, apathetically awaiting an evening of weariness, anticipating the arrival of....Harm! Yes, Harm, that Greek intellectual poet-philosopher who pretended to teach this class.
Rex flipped up his Polaroid Cool-Ray clip-ons, and said, "Didn’t see you in class last time, Mitch.
Mitch refused to engage in direct eye contact with Rex. "I had a meeting to go to," he said.
Rex said, "You can only claim to have meetings and diseases so often. Face it: you spread it around the department that you were auditing this course, and now you’re stuck with it."
"I’m not stuck with it," Mitch claimed. "It’s interesting and I like it."
Rex and I were still laughing ten minutes later when the door flew open. "Quick, hide the dope!" Rex screamed. "It’s a bust!"
"Worse than that," I told him. "It’s Harm."
Harm entered in his usual flowing white toga and Roman sandals, an olive branch wreath draped solemnly about his neck. "Good evening, disciples," he bellowed, raising his arms to the heavens. "Tonight we discuss Browning."
"Fascinating," Rex yawned.
"'Cleon', my friends," Harm said. "'Cleon'! Should it be epistolary?"
Rex rolled his eyes and headed for the door, saying, "I should have dropped this course the minute I found out there weren’t any women taking it."
"Hold it!" Harm squawked. "Who’s going to tell me about 'Cleon'?"
Rex pulled open the door, and there, as if in divine response to Harm’s question, stood Dick and Jane, the talking jackasses, wearing striped pajamas. Harm’s eyes popped out of his head on springs and dangled in front of his chins.
Dick came in, extended his hoof to Harm, and sat in the easy chair next to Harm’s. Rex decided to stay.
"What seems to be the prob here?" Dick asked, lighting up a Salem.
"Aw, I can’t get anything out of these guys about why Browning made "Cleon" an epistolary poem," Harm told him.
"Oh, Jane would be the one to see about that," but I don’t think we’d better disturb her right now." Jane was sitting on Rex’s lap, nibbling his ear lobe. "Anyway, if Robert Browning made it epistolary, who are you to complain, Harm? I mean, compared to "Cleon," your poetry sounds like Mother Goose."
"Why, thank you," Harm said, genuinely flattered to have his poetry mentioned in the same breath with Goose’s. "And now, who wants to discuss the epistle from an acoustic and graphic standpoint?"
"I haven’t read it," I said.
"Guess I’ll have to field this one too," Dick said, crushing his cigarette butt against Harm’s toga sleeve. "Graphically, I think it’s a good epistle. But what do I know? I don’t even know what an epistle is, for Christ’s sake. Acoustically, the words flow right along, though there are a few touchy spots. For instance, it’s impossible to say the word ‘lisps’ in one syllable. Try it, Harm."
"Lisps," Harm said in two syllables. "Lisps, lisps."
"Hey, quiet everyone!" I said. "Mitch is talking in his sleep!"
"How did I get roped into taking this course?" Mitch said in his sleep. "And how do I get out without hurting Harm?"
We all started laughing, all except Harm, who just walked out of the room, muttering, "Lithpth, lithpth, lithpth."
That’s the kind of paper I wrote for most of my courses. I got away with it about half the time in the English department, but when I started doing it in Anthropology and History and Geography, my grade point average started plummeting. It was a miracle that I graduated, when you think about it.
As for Harmon Irons, he didn’t like my humor one bit. If there were a grade lower than "F-," he would have given it to me. Maybe he didn’t like being called "Harm." Or maybe he actually enjoys reading serious papers all the time. Could that be it?