From the diary: “February 23, 1982
“I feel like talking to someone, but everyone’s gone to bed so I think I’ll talk to myself. I slaved over an essay for American Lit. I worked hours on that damn thing for Mrs Lennox. I handed it in proudly. I was positive I would get at least a “B” if not a “B+” and who knows – if I was lucky I could’ve gotten an “A-“. It was that good. When I handed that paper in I handed Mrs Lennox a carefully guarded piece of myself. I had poured at least three hours of my soul into that essay. I didn’t happen to like it too much. I couldn’t care less about John and Elizabeth Proctor [of The Crucible]. I hate analyzing and dissecting stories. It ruins my enjoyment of the story. Sometimes I enjoy a good discussion of a story. What am I leading up to? Well, when I … handed in [the first version of] that essay I hadn’t spent many hours thinking about what I was writing. I wasn’t the least bit excited about what I was writing. When I got my paper back I wasn’t too surprised to see a “C+” on my paper. But I was determined to raise that grade. I took all of Mrs Lennox’s comments and incorporated them and I improved on the characters’ sketches and spent hours trying to think of how they related to each other. Maybe it didn’t show how much time I put in it – but I had.
“When she attacked my paper with her infamous red pen she gouged me and wrote in my blood. I have been feeling depressed ever since 2nd period. I wanted to cry as I sat there and looked at my second “C+”. She had written “B-“, but had crossed it out and put in the “C+”.
“What’s so tragic about a crummy “C+”? What’s so damn tragic about that? Why should I feel so down? Why do I feel sick and useless? The whole world is whirling about me and I’m just bumping around with nothing to hold onto.
“I’m going to Berkeley and the Model U.N. conference in two days. With Mrs Lennox.
“I feel so nothing … I know limbo just opened up and swallowed me and now I’m wallowing in it and it is nothing. My throat’s dry.”
I resisted taking literature classes in college because in my experience you’d be asked to read a decent book then forced to batter out of it any pleasure in it you’d thought you’d gotten. There’s a Billy Collins poem that captures this pedagogy.
During my years at university nearly everyone I talked to assumed I was an English major. I suppose that was natural enough considering how focused I was on poetry or how much I would read. But if there’s anybody to blame for my fear and loathing of the essay it’d have to be my high school English teachers. I gradually came to recognize Mrs Lennox was a nice person, especially once I was no longer her student. And, curiously perhaps, I did just fine in all the literature classes I took at SRJC or Cal, including the Brazilian lit class that was taught in Portuguese. I will even allow that I enjoyed these classes and found at times that my appreciation of literature was deepened rather than destroyed.