Wednesday, March 14, 2012

J vs. English, Episode I

"I hated it more than anything," J explained at dinner, as if I were wholly responsible for every English assignment ever created in the history of mankind.

"I worked so hard on it," he continued. "In fact, I spent hours on it. I could have told my teacher every single thing that ever happened in Call of the Wild. I could have analyzed the themes or the characters or the plot. Instead, I stayed up until 1 am cutting out a dogsled and bodies of people at the finish line, and the teacher gave me a B.”

Despite the twenty-some years that have passed since that fateful diorama, his wound still festers, raw with infection and pain.

“You know I’ve never assigned a diorama,” I said, fighting back a smile. “I think it’s a pretty dumb assignment unless you actually have a written component that's worth far more than a box filled with cutouts and glitter.”

“All I remember is the diorama. I don't even remember what the book was about,” he said, eyes bent down at the table. I let him sit with his thoughts, but then, he suddenly sat up.

“You know what was worse than the diorama?”

His eyes focused squarely on mine, and his voice increased in volume. Before I could guess, he answered his own question.

“This illuminated manuscript thing we had to do where the first letter was really big and fancy and it was supposed to have these pictures on it. That was horrible. It was not art class. I just didn't get it.”

He continued to mock the process, a process when weaned from his recollection, seemed utterly absurd and comical. He doesn’t recall the stories or the themes. Instead, when he thinks about his early experience with English class, this unbelievably bright man sinks to the realm of self-deprecation, berating his inability to cut and color and paste properly. Suggesting--albeit indirectly--that those skills culminate as deciding success markers in the course for which I have spent the greater part of my life both studying and teaching.

Once I shake my head twenty or thirty times, the conversation invariably shifts focus, and I dish out equivalent waves of blame for my experience with frog dissections and the entire discipline of calculus.

He doesn't even fight it. We usually just burst out laughing, forgetting our wounds until the next time we revisit and reconstruct missteps along the path of our glory days.

Today, as I cleaned off a desk filled with dust, papers and books, I managed to come across a folder, thick with special paper. Curious, I opened it, and staring back at me was the sample assignment I created two summers ago when I returned from my writing class in Italy.

“Illuminated Manuscript” it said in bold letters at the top of the assignment page. Beneath the explanation of a contemporized take on something very old, I found two cardboard pages filled with words and images that belonged to me.

My eyes traced the letters and analyzed the pictures. Fond memories returned, and suddenly I saw myself sprawled out on the kitchen floor with scrapbook paper, magazines, scissors and stacks of my own poetry. Attempting to collect my identity on the pages before me, I worked.

For hours.

And I loved every minute. I loved what I could make, what I could express, what I could capture in the space that greeted me. As I held that illuminated manuscript in my hands, I reacquainted myself with the girl who made those pages; she seemed very much alive.

How could J have hated making something so meaningful? How could he see this as horrible?

Then a different scene flashed before my eyes: a stack of medical books, JAMA articles, and a pile of running gear.

Hours and hours of work. Difficult, tedious work. Meaningful work.

Work I would have absolutely despised.

With the situation fully illuminated, I decided to torture him with my assignment. After all, he had a pretty simple day trying to save lives. I figured it was about time to give him some rigor.

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