An unusual thing happened in the friary in which I live. There was a waiting line at the coffee machine and as we are wont to do when together, our house naturally moves into storytelling. One of the brothers is working on his doctorate and is in the midst of writing the chapters of his dissertation. So there is often inquiry of him on how the process is going. Not surprisingly, as we waited for the coffee machine to finish its start-up, there began storytelling about writing. Others in the house have doctorates and have taught at the university and graduate school level and so have lots of stories about preparing their own dissertations as well as serving as a reader on other’s submissions. Now if you are having a hard time imagining how such a narrative could be engaging, funny and a cliff-hanger… well, it depends on who is telling the story… or, you had to be there. I will leave them to start their own blog. But here is a tale of when and where my writing career started and almost ended.
I was a freshman (plebe) at the United States Naval Academy and like all freshmen everywhere, I was taking an introductory English course. Having always been a fan of the short story, I signed up for a class concerning short stories of American literature. The pattern of the M-W-F class was on Monday the class received an assignment of a famous American short story, e.g. works of Edgar Allen Poe. The 3 or 4 page paper on the work was turned in on Friday and promptly graded over the weekend.
The following Monday, the professor would read aloud one of the essays that he thought was among the best of submitted works. The professor was from Tennessee, studied at Vanderbilt and had a voice of great gravitas with a sub-tone of high society. The effect was very professorial. During the reading he would point out aspects and elements of the writing (a turn of an elegant phrase) or keen insight about the narrative. At the end, with a modicum of flourish, the professor would announce the grade (always an “A”) and the name of the midshipmen as he returned the paper. He then distributed the rest of the papers after class. My papers were always in the C/C+ range with an occasional foray into B- territory. Apparently the professor did not understand the latent and as-yet unobserved talent possessed within. But then I always suspected he intuited that I was a Florida Gator fan which always drubbed Vanderbilt in football. But then I cannot imagine him Dudley Field, home of the Vanderbilt Commodores, wildly cheering the inevitable defeat of his alma mater. But then again the name of the stadium matched my overall impression of the man, but perhaps my animus was getting the better of me.
The weeks dragged on. Others were rewarded by the near-Shakespearean reading of their essays, but not I. By then I was firmly in the B- territory, but it was a lost cause for this mathematics major.
In week 11 of a 13-week course, the Monday recitation was prefaced by (as best memory serves), “This week’s selection was a most insightful and well considered essay… all the more unusual since the student generally submits pedestrian and below average work..” I remember thinking, “Ouch” no one will remember the essay, everyone will be waiting to see who the author is. Yes, it was me. The short story was The Red Pony by John Steinbeck.
As he announced my name and handed back the paper, the eyes of the entire class were upon me – all registering a mixture of pity and “thank be to heaven it wasn’t me.” Of course no respectable sailor would utter that last phrase; it was more of the “poor bastard” genre of reaction. On the way out to the next class there were words of condolences expressed as good-natured taunting – which is as close as first year midshipmen were going to come – but it was well received.
Such were the struggles of a pre-blog writer.