It didn't take long for Mr. College Chemistry (with a Friday afternoon lab that interfered with my social life in a big way) and Mr. College Calculus to steer me away from pre-med as a major. Or any post-college plans that required a decent grade point average, since mine was already pretty much blown.
I flirted with majoring in journalism, thinking I would move to New York City and work as an editor for a glamorous magazine, eventually publishing my own novel(s) and becoming rich and famous. Or at least rich. Hard to get past that trailer park kid mentality.
I eventually landed in the English Department and figured getting a college degree for reading books was right up my alley. I didn't get as far as figuring out what I was going to DO with an English degree. I said there were two things I would NEVER do: #1 - I would never be a teacher; and #2 - I would never go to graduate school.
One reason I changed my major to English was that I enjoyed having classes with Mack, a friend from high school. He was a scream, and he thought I was hilarious. I could always count on him to laugh at even my corniest, lamest, silliest, most pathetic stories.
I changed my major during summer quarter. Don't ask me why I went to school every. single. summer. I still don't know why I didn't let myself take any time off. The only significant time off I ever took was a winter quarter (duh) toward the end of my college career, during a particularly painful break-up with a guy who was NOT WORTHY OF ME. But I digress.
Mack and I had a wonderful routine that summer. We had morning classes, and I worked my part-time job in the afternoon. We would meet at the library around 5:30 or 6:00 and snag one of the private study rooms on the sixth floor. We would spread our books out, write papers, study, but mostly laugh. We got reprimanded more than once by librarians and other students for making too much noise. When the library closed at midnight, we would sometimes stop at a neighborhood swimming pool (I think Mack was a member, but it wouldn't have mattered to us) for a late-night swim.
Mack was NOT a romantic interest, by the way. Just a pal. I don't think he was interested in girls at all, though I have never had confirmation of that, so I won't many any sweeping statements about his sexual orientation. It couldn't matter less to me anyway. He was my friend.
Anyway, I became an English major, and one of the first courses I took that summer focused on Shakespeare. In my senior year of high school, I was on hospital/homebound with a case of mononucleosis while my class was reading Macbeth. When I returned to school, I had finished the play and loved it, and the rest of the class was still stuck on Lady Macbeth calling her husband a wuss and then freaking out because King Duncan looked like her father sleeping, and she couldn't kill him herself either. My (very limited) experience with Shakespeare had been positive, so I figured an entire course in Shakespeare would be a piece of cake.
Let me say here that in high school, our teachers attempted to scare the bejeezus out of us by telling us that when we got to freshman English at UGA, the professors would count off 40 POINTS for a single comma splice in an essay. We were terrified. We might have been LESS terrified if anyone had ever stopped to explain just WHAT THE HECK A COMMA SPLICE WAS.
I avoided freshman English at UGA by a couple of measures, one rather extreme but not planned that way. I exempted the first course by taking a placement test, and then I moved to Texas for a semester, where I took the equivalent of the second course.
Therefore, when I changed my major to English, I had had very little exposure to the terrorists who stalked the corridors of Park Hall. And the dire warnings of high school were a distant memory. I had returned to my natural state of I-know-everything-and-I'm-just-going-through-the-motions-to-get-a-degree.
Then I met George Martin. He was our professor for that first Shakespeare course, and I can still see him today. (I Googled him in preparation for this blog post, and I discovered his obituary. He died this past January in Spartanburg, which is where Hubby was born, and I don't know if that's ironic or if I'm just nuts.) He wore khaki slacks every single day that summer, with a white long-sleeved cotton shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He walked with a slouch, and he marched up and down the old-fashioned rows of desks in our UN-AIR-CONDITIONED classroom in Park Hall, smoking and bellowing. Bellowing words AND smoke. I always sat in the front row (I had been PUT there so many times throughout my school years it became natural), and I was glad when he was behind me. Then he couldn't make eye contact and glare at me.
Martin didn't believe in handing papers back in class. When he was ready to return essays to students, they had to go by his office during office hours and sit next to his desk while he went over all their written shortcomings.
By the time I had to go through this ordeal the first time, he was one essay behind schedule, and he had TWO papers to return. Trembling, I sat down in the wooden chair next to his desk and waited for his glowing remarks about my pithy, insightful writing. I looked down at the papers in my hand.
"Um.....these aren't mine," I said.
"Oh. What's your name?" Great. This was SUMMER, for Pete's sake, when we had about 20 students in class. And he had no idea who I was.
I told him my name, and this stern, hateful mask dropped down over his face. Then he said the words I have never forgotten.
"Oh." Long pause. "You can't write."
You know how you remember insignificant details about significant moments in your life? Like how I remember what I was wearing the day my brother died? Where I was when the space shuttle Challenger exploded? How we all found out about the 9/11 terrorist attacks?
I remember I was wearing a new blouse, peach-colored cotton eyelet with elastic at the neck and shoulders. I do NOT remember the grades he gave my papers, nor do I remember any of the rest of that conversation. I DO remember that I began to cry right there in his office, and when I stopped in the restroom upon escaping from his office, my neck and chest were covered in red welts.
I wish I remembered what he found so offensive in my writing. I wish I had communicated with him when he moved on to another university to tell him that his words had stuck with me all the way through my doctoral program. I have always harbored hateful feelings toward that man. When I read his obituary tonight, I finally let some of those feelings go.
Every now and then I still have doubts. I sometimes criticize my writing too harshly because I remember what Martin said. And sometimes I just don't let anyone else read what I write.
Mostly, though, as I reach the end of my teaching career, I wonder which students I may have affected in such a negative fashion. What things did I say, carelessly or even jokingly, that hurt a student's feelings and he or she has never forgotten?
I hope I never, ever said to a student, "You can't write."