Thursday, March 29, 2007

Zero at the Bone

Yesterday I referenced one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems* in the subject line of a post.

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him,--did you not,
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun,--
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.
Thinking of that poem always takes me back to my undergrad days, since I was first introduced to the "narrow fellow" poem in my Intro to Literature class my first semester as a full-fledged English major.** That was one of the few college classes where I ever felt like I was singled out as "the smart guy," or, less charitably, "that #$&# suck-up brown-nosing #@$(&@#$."

You see, in general I never felt comfortable speaking up in class because I usually felt like my thoughts on a work were pretty obvious, and I didn't want to speak up and have people rolling their eyes going "Well, duh!" Not that that ever happened, but when has paranoia ever bowed to logic? Anyway, in this class, I never worried about that for a few different reasons.

First of all, the professor was a highly intelligent woman, who often had trouble scaling her comments down to fit the lowest common denominator. In a class filled with people looking for an easy humanities credit, that's not exactly a good fit; at one point, as she handed back papers she remarked that a good portion of them were filled with grammatical errors that should have been corrected in grade school, and that to those offending papers she had attached a flier for the college's writing center so that the poor souls responsible could seek help -- fliers, I must add, that were a bright neon color, and thus easily picked out by anyone sitting near the recipients of what a friend referred to as the professor's version of a Scarlet Letter -- only instead of a scarlet A it was a neon I for "illiterate."*** Quite often her call for input would be greeted with a sea of silence, and I would feel duty-bound to speak up lest she think we had all been struck mute.

My confidence in speaking up was magnified by the fact that I had actually taken the professor before for an Honors section of Freshman Comp a couple of years earlier, and so felt pretty comfortable that I knew what she was looking for in terms of completing assignments and in-class comments from day one Probably the biggest overtly brown-nosing comment I ever made in class capitalized on this fact. We were discussing Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," and when she asked for thoughts on why the narrator didn't fire the shiftless Bartleby I spoke up with my thought that the narrator obviously enjoyed creating fantasies about the private lives of each of his employees, and that his fascination with doing so was even stronger with the quiet, bland Bartleby, who was practically a tabula rasa. My use of the phrase "tabula rasa" perked the professor right up, who congratulated me on my insight, asked "Does everyone know what that means?" and then headed towards the black board to write out the Latin phrase and explain that it meant "blank slate." I could feel the dagger stares at me from all over the room, but I couldn't help it because (a) it was honestly what I thought, Latin phrase and all, and (b) I knew that in my previous class the professor's favorite phrase had been "If you know the Latin root, all becomes clear." Wrath teh Berzerkr can back me up on that one.****

And finally, there was the makeup of the class. As stated before, it was mostly folks looking for an easy credit; it was also primarily Education majors and, well, let's just say that many's the time I have wept copious tears at the thought that those people would be responsible for shaping the minds of future generations. Case in point: while discussing the Dickinson poem, our professor asked what we thought the last stanza meant. After the usual bit of extended silence, I proffered that I had taken the "zero at the bone" line as a reference to feeling chilled to the bone; someone else then spoke up and said they thought it meant that encountering the snake made Dickinson feel as if she were nothing compared to it. And then, one of the future teachers put in her two cents: "I, like, thought it was because, y'know, snake don't have any, like, bones? So, y'know, zero bones?"

Seriously: copious tears.

Of course, Little Ms. No-Bones was one of the worst about giving me the stink-eye anytime I would say something moderately intelligent; her best friend was a close second. I remember one day after the professor had returned a paper to us, and then left the room for some reason; one of the Stink-eye Sisters glared across the circle of desks***** at me and spat out "I bet you got an A, huh?" A bit surprised by the venom in her tone, I matter-of-factly replied "Yeah." Her friend then asked me "How?" in such a tone that made it sound like getting an A from this particular professor was akin to a miracle.****** I responded that I knew what she wanted to hear, and that's what I wrote. Both of them recoiled as if I had uttered some sort of blasphemy, like catering to the professor was a horrendous sin. But I learned early on in my college career that there are professors who wanted you to make passionate, well-reasoned arguments about your personal opinions, and those who just wanted you to regurgitate what they had fed you; the trick was figuring out which was which and acting accordingly*******. And, to be honest, this professor was closer to the former than to the latter; you just had to know how to speak her language.

Unfortunately for many in that class, speaking her language required a polysyllabic vocabularly . . . not to mention a Latin root or two.

*For extra fun, try singing it to the tune of "Yellow Rose of Texas." Heck, try doing that to any of her poems; it almost always works
**I later revisited the poem in my Creative Writing class when I wrote a poem calling G'ovich "the narrow fellow in my house." Yup, doing writing assignments where I compared my roommate to a snake; good times, good times.
***Didn't think that sentence was ever going to end, did ya?
****A close second for her favorite phrase in that earlier class was "Okay, class that was a good discussion, but maybe next time we can actually focus on the essays?" which was said at the end of almost every class period. Wrath can back me up on that one too.
*****It was a college English class for underclassmen; of course the desks were in a circle
******To be fair, for many people, it was; I got the impression that I was one of the rare souls brave enough to take her for more than one class.
*******I know there are folks who balk at "playing the game" in college, but I always just saw it as part of the whole package and didn't sweat over it too much.