More Back Story
My personal amazement is not about what I wrote into that poem, but that I wrote a poem at all. I had spent some of my time writing poems about my experience with my father’s death. I’d been gone for two weeks and was now looking forward to rejoining my life as a wife, mother, and a non-traditional college student. This was my first day back to school and I was worried about what I might have missed during those two weeks I had been gone.
My first class was the creative writing course I mentioned earlier. I walked into the room and was greeted by the beautiful young man who sat in front of me. He handed me a lovely pale coral rose and said, “I’m sorry about your Dad, and there are no appropriate words anyone can say, I know because I’ve been there. So, I got this for you instead.” Whew! Then he hugged me. Whew, again.
We were to have a guest speaker that morning. Another professor from the English department who was going to read us some of his poetry. Our Instructor came into the room, nodded at me and others, and proceeded to speak,
“When you lose someone important to you because of death, someone you love, you will probably want to write poetry about it. That is good therapy. But, it is never meant to be read aloud, or foisted upon others. It is sentimental tripe and should be seen only as such. I have been teaching this class for many years, and there are always deaths. I can’t tell you how many times I have been forced to read that kind of gibberish, and it has never been a good or enlightening experience.”
He went on and on. I sat frozen in place. Shocked. This was being aimed directly at my person, my grief experience. The room was deathly quiet. I looked over at the visiting professor and his face was tangled into an expression of confusion and surprise as well. All I could do was sit there, my hands fisted on the top of my desk. I wanted to run but knew I was totally incapable of moving. The man continued,
“So, please, if you experience a death during your semester in my classroom, even if it’s no more than that of your cat or dog, don’t submit that drivel for my eyes. It will not be accepted as poetry.” He continued.
No one moved. Except the beautiful young man who sat in front of me. He turned slowly around, looked deep into my eyes, put his large hand over my fisted fingers, and said very clearly, “I am so sorry. Some people are assholes. This too shall pass.” I was too numb to do much more than nod at him and mumble, “Thank you.”
Eventually, our instructor ran down after about ten minutes. He finally introduced our guest poet and that prof got up and read some of his poems. The room remained terribly quiet and still. I didn’t hear much of anything, my head was pounding to the tune of my heartbeat. Finally we were released and I got up and moved slowly toward the door. Many of my classmates moved to touch my arm, to say softly, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I simply kept moving.
Something went numb inside of me that day. The rest of that semester in that classroom was hell, but I seemed removed from all of it. My silence seemed to infuriate the instructor and he never missed a chance to hold me up for ridicule from that day forward. But, I continued to write anyway. And surprisingly my poetry and grasp of the subject expanded.
The comments on my work went from “nice poem,” to “good,” to “excellent work, Elizabeth.” The day the man took one of my poems and walked up and down the aisles while telling the classroom that this was the most schizophrenic piece to ever cross his desk, while carefully displaying the skull and crossbones he had drawn next to certain lines, and the plus marks near others, I again sat still and remember only what happened afterward.
Another young man sat across from me on my left. When class was dismissed that day, he made sure he was walking next to me as we left the room. He was a clear favorite in that classroom and for obvious reasons. As we walked down the hall, he carefully explained something to me. He told me that some people simply can’t believe that Art can not be accomplished without pain and that he had watched this particular instructor create that pain for those who had any kind of ability. He left me with a wonderfully gentle smile as he said, “You obviously have that ability in spades, Elizabeth, don’t fall prey to this idiot’s manipulations.”
Good sound advice. Wish I would have remembered it during my end of the semester encounter with that particular instructor. No matter the level of harassment in his classroom, I learned, and my poetry was becoming strong and purposeful. I knew it and could look back on all the instructor’s comments and see the vast improvement. What a shock it was when I got my final grade: a B-.
I went to his sanctum, and told him I had a few questions. He nodded and let me speak. “I think I worked harder than anyone else in this class.” He said, “Yes, that’s true.”
“I think I improved more than anyone else, as well.” He nodded and agreed that also was true.
I had my folder with me that held every poem, and his comments on them, held it up and said, “your comments go from “nice” to “excellent.” Again he nodded and said, “Yes, I’m aware of that.”
“So, could you explain to me why I got a B- for the semester?”
He smiled indulgently and launched himself into something he obviously had wanted to say for a very long time. “Elizabeth, Creative Writing is different from any other course you can take on a college campus. Other classes are graded by the actual level of knowledge that you can display on tests and quizzes. Here, the grade is solely dependent on my opinion of what has occurred because there are no tests, no quizzes, there are only the poems written and submitted and the discussions within the classroom. In a way, I get to play God here, get to decide which individuals will likely turn this course into a path aimed at a life of writing.”
I nodded and he continued, “I don’t hand out A’s very easily. Yes, you have improved and done some excellent work in my classroom, but I must look at the whole picture. There are some young men in that classroom who will eventually make writing a career. They need my endorsement to do that. While, on the other hand, you are a middle-aged woman still raising children. You may occasionally write a good poem, but you have other obligations and will never do poetry as more than a hobby. You will write poems, like other women knit socks and maybe one or two of them might even be a good poem.”
In my head I heard, “This is not about my ability or what I have done. This is only about your opinion.” So, I thanked him and got up to leave, but as I turned to the door, he couldn’t resist one last snide remark, “Ahh, Elizabeth, did I poke a hole in your perfect 4.0?”
I laughed as I turned back to him, “Sorry, it’s only a 3.9 and someone I respect far more than you, beat you to it, Honey child. I’m glad she did.”
I left his office knowing I had made a commitment. I would never allow myself to be in a small space with that man ever again. I also stopped writing poetry that day.
(to be continued…)