In my last semester of college, on the first day of my poetry class, I watched curiously for my new poetry professor. He came through the door maneuvering on crutches; his legs were bent and his knees turned in as he made his way to his desk at the front of the room under the watchful eyes of a room full of students. Actually we were staring.
As he sat at his desk, suddenly his face flushed a deep red. It reminded me of a friend’s husband, whose face would suddenly turn beat red. My friend told me it was because he had ulcers. Rudely I thought, “A crippled professor with crutches and an ulcer: this is going to be another wasted writing class.” I was afraid that my professor’s disability would impede his teaching. I was wrong.
He began by telling us the class requirements: every week we would have a one-page-paper due on Friday. Each paper would be given a P for Pass or a NP for No Pass, AND there would be NO midterm, and NO final! I couldn’t believe my luck. As much as I figured this class was showing signs of being a waste, I didn’t want to pass by the easy workload and an easy grade! Besides, he seemed to have a natural teaching ability and he was interesting. Also, despite his disability, he had a command of the class that was impressive. Rarely was anyone late. Was it because they enjoyed the class as much as I was enjoying it?
During that first class we discussed some classical poetry then he assigned a line of poetry and told us to write a 1 page paper on that line explaining it. It was due on that Friday.
That Friday I turned in my poetry paper. The next week the Professor called our names and one by one he handed back our papers. When I received mine, I saw a large NP: No Pass. I asked in surprise, “What? What’s this!” Never had I gotten a low grade, much less a No Pass. I was a writer. It came easy to me.
With a casual wave of his hand, he responded, “Sit down, and you’ll see. I’ll read some of the ones that passed.” I took my paper, not embarrassed, not angry, just baffled. Wasn’t this going to be my easy grade this semester?
He’d kept back some papers he’d liked, and began to read. I listened intently as the professor read from a paper by an unnamed fellow student that took the one line of assigned poetry and like a scientist peered into it, peeled it apart as if through a microscope then dissected it, translated it, revealing layers of meaning, beauty, imagery and symbolism that I hadn’t noticed before. In comparison, my paper was typed in a hurry, jumping from idea to idea as if the more ideas I could squeeze into that one page paper, the more credible my writing would be.
By assigning one line of poetry each week, this professor was taking from us the requirements of quantity, and forcing us to focus on quality. Up until this point, writing had been a sort of game. When I felt like it, I would put effort and research and attention to my papers and get a good grade. Most of the time I just half-heartedly filled in words, first thoughts, random ideas, not really caring. Too many long papers had created bad habits. As an English Major, often I’d have 3 or 4 very long and labor intensive research papers due around the same time. I’d often bluffed my way through some papers, especially the very long ones. No time for too much thought, only time to fill in the required amount of pages. I’d become full of ideas but lacking in focus and depth.
That semester Poetry class turned out to be my favorite college class of all the classes I’d taken. The Professor turned out to be my favorite Professor. After the professor’s first reading, I felt I’d awakened. From that first No Pass, I considered it a challenge to find the meat of the poetry and to describe its meaning, purpose, and symbolism, to flesh out the imagery, point out the artistry, and discover the poet’s intent.
Every Friday after handing back our papers, the professor would select a few of the papers and read from them, showing the rest of the class how a well written paper with a deep interpretation of the assigned poetry sounded. After that first Friday, I would regularly hear bits of my paper read aloud to the class which confirmed to me that I had learned much.
He told us that this was his last semester of teaching, and that he was going to retire to live with his wife in a farm house in France. I hope he’s had many good years! I feel lucky, blessed actually, to have had him as a teacher.
Recently, I worked as a writing tutor at a community college for 5 years. Times have changed and our job was to teach the students how to write, edit, develop, organize and map their own papers, carry a thought and much much more. Also, my own children were taught to be good writers at their high school. These days, at least some places are actually teaching not just the mechanics of writing, but the process of writing, and of following and developing a great piece of writing. Good times.