tirsdag, oktober 24, 2006

Fate; or, Making the Grade

Back when I taught English while working towards my MFA degree for Creative Writing—yes, that IS a legitimate degree—I lived two doors away from a department professor. One night we were sitting on her porch, which is to say I was drinking her beer, and she told me she sometimes started a semester by penciling in projected final grades for her students based upon their behavior throughout the first two or three classes.

She was rarely wrong.

In my stupor, I mentioned this to my roommate, who found it horrible. She considered it unfair and rude. I, however, found it immensely entertaining.

But my roommate seemed to be a teacher first, a literature student second, and a poet third. I was a writer first and a teacher second. You get what you pay for, folks. And when you pay me $950/month for nine months of work and expect me to live on that for a year, even when one is living in an economy as depressed as that state college town's, I’m going to direct most of my energies towards the writing and reading I’m there for.

I'm not losing sleep over rubric grading.

I’ve a self-involved theory that writers possess a shadow circulatory system through which cold cold water flows. If Inga ever lets me repeat it, I’ll post one day her tale of rejecting a student’s request to write about the movie Titantic. It’s further evidence.

So I played the grade projection game for one class. I wrote the projected grades on a separate sheet of paper. I did this after the third class, well before any real writing was handed in. This was a Composition class. And I was correct on 20 of 22 students. The other two scored lower than I thought they would.

Body language, eye contact and tone of voice tells you a great deal about a student’s readiness. Yes, we all grow during school, we cease to resemble ourselves, but that growth rarely occurs between weeks one and 15 of a semester. It usually occurs in a dynamic shift one or two weeks after the semester when one’s decisions are irreparable.

A Tale of Two Fs

One night outside a liquor store, I ran into a student to whom I’d given an F, even though he’d made it most of the way through the semester. His name was Ben. He often wore tie-dyes. He had red hair and a close-cut collegial beard. I thought he would one day make a fine anthropology or history student. I said to him, “Hey, sorry ‘bout the F, man. My hands were tied.”

“Dude,” he said. “I would have given me an F too.”

He shrugged. He was quite comfortable with his cigarette. We shook on it.

I bought a 22-ounce bottle of Samual Smith’s Nut Brown Ale. (The “double deuce!” as Costello would say.) I was going to an English grad party at Sean and Jenni’s house. There would be Mardi Gras beads. Someone would vomit. Someone’s feelings would be hurt. Many of us would show no remorse for any of it. On the way out of the store, the bag they’d put the bottle in tore and my beer exploded on the sidewalk. I went back in. The Greek man who owned the shop laughed, gave me another bottle free, and asked if I wanted one of them to carry the beer to my car. “I can handle it from here,” I said.

About that same time, I had a tense encounter with a student who made it all the way through the semester but who had neglected to write three of the four papers I required (though my university-written syllabus demanded six papers). The exchange was really tense only on his part because I was, as is my nature, cold about these things. “Nate, you just didn’t do the work,” I said.

I’ve the sort of face that when impassive seems so innocent you’d like to blow a softball-sized hole in it. It’s as if a puppy looks at you and utters adorably the words, “Oh, you’re fucked.”

He cursed. He shouted. He stormed out of my office—one of the only students who ever paid a visit for actual course business.

(I’ve wondered since whether he was the one who drew devil horns and a monstrous fu-manchu on the photo of me snapped at some grad party and hung on my office door…but that’s really the sort of tom foolery only another teacher would revel in. In the photo, my hair was very curly, a characteristic that it’s lost in the years since. We’d hung a caption on the photo reading “The young Gene Wilder.”)

Six months later I ran into Nate at the bar I frequented: the Cellar. He was playing shuffleboard with a group. He’d apparently traded in ratty t-shirts and ripped pants for button-ups and khakis. He’d shaved off the ratty chin-only goatee.

I nodded to him and raised a glass. He wandered over. He apologized for his behavior that day. “I deserved it,” he said of the F. I asked him how things were going. Well. He was on pace to graduate in four semesters. We shared a toast and that was that.

On he went.


I love this moment of Mulholland Drive too much not to conclude with it. It’s the fulcrum moment of the film, about midway through, but perhaps best viewed here if you have already seen the film. The effect is heavy, nonetheless. Rebekah del Rio’s unaccompanied vocals are devastating as she sings a Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” (“Llorando”). Just what is real in this world, friends? We are no longer the same.

Llorando (Mulholland Drive)

Jesus. When I saw this film in Minneapolis with Betsy and Chris and…Mips?…this scene just gutted me. I felt as the main characters feel, only I didn’t weep openly. And I'd left my blonde wig at home.
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