Archive for October, 2013
Just a little something I wrote recently:
“You think you had some bad professors?” Mark asked, taking a sip of his beer. “You weren’t even a freshman yet when old lady Mishler was running the English department. She taught Lit 101, and no one in that school squeaked by without making it past her.”
“Old lady Mishler?” Jared repeated. He removed his right foot from the picnic bench where he was sitting and swung it down to the grass. “I’ve heard about her, man.”
“Isn’t she the one who used to make her students memorize Hamlet’s soliloquy and then perform it in front of the entire class?” Andrew asked, glancing over as he filled his paper plate with heaps of potato salad.
“Yeah,” Jared said. “That’s what I heard, too.”
Mark smiled and shook his head. “You guys don’t know the half of it.”
He leaned forward in his fold up chair, carefully examining his audience. They were seated at opposite ends of the picnic table, Jared turned so that his back faced the table’s crudely painted surface, where the mound of Andrew’s potato salad stood untouched. He met their eyes with a knowing smile and began to speak, raising his right hand into an introductory gesture.
“So here I was freshman year, stuck in old lady Mishler’s Lit class, and I’ve got a buddy of mine a year ahead of me.
“’Watch out for that one,’ he tells me.
“I ask him why, and he just shakes his head. Won’t even say anything. So I get real nervous. I walk into class on the day of our first test not knowing what’s going to happen. Here’s Mishler at the front of the room, passing out all these blank sheets of paper. Stacks of them, like a hundred pages each on the desks of every person sitting in the front row. She plops them down and you can see the people staring, like, how many of these are we going to need?
“’Instructions are on the desks,’ Mishler tells us as she marches back across the room. ‘Budget your time, make sure you read all ten questions before responding, and write out full essay responses for each. I want to see at least one full page for every response. Front and back. You have two hours.’
“And we all look up at her like, ‘Did you just say we have to write twenty pages?’ And she looks back at us like she is dead serious. Here she is about three feet tall, wearing ugly pink sweater that looks older than us and these ridiculous old lady glasses, and when she glares like that her face gets so tight that you could swear she was going to murder the first person who had anything to say about it.
“So we just started going. Question A, I’ll never forget it, it asked about all the characters who die in Hamlet. We were supposed to name every single one and explain how their death was significant to the plot development. And I’m sweating out my eyeballs because I can’t even remember who died first. After Hamlet’s dad, I mean. And does that one even count?
“And here’s old lady Mishler swooping around the room, breathing down our necks. I’m just getting to the part about Ophelia, cause at least I remember that one, when she stops right next to me. And she looks at my paper, and I can swear that her frown gets even deeper, like I’m doing it all wrong.
“And then I don’t even care anymore. I’m writing for my life, scribbling away until the whole right side of my hand turns black from the pencil smudges and I can feel the essay paper curling from the sweat that’s coming off my fingers. I kill off all the rest of the characters in one paragraph and say some vague stuff about how Hamlet finally gets his revenge and it saves the kingdom or whatever. And then I look up at the clock and see that I’ve already wasted forty five minutes, so I write the essay for question B even faster.
“And by the time I get to question D and she calls time, I feel like my hand is going to fall off. I can’t even feel my fingers anymore, and they’re all scrunched and curled into like this witch’s claw.”
Mark paused to demonstrate, contorting his hand into a position to imitate stiff fingers. Most of the party guests had moved inside the house now. It was just the three of them in their own little island of empty picnic tables and a couple of women clearing away the food at the opposite end of the yard.
“But that’s nothing,” Mark continued, “because I look around the room and see that everyone just failed. There’s a whole group of guys just sitting there shell-shocked, like they don’t even know how to process it. There’s this one girl, probably never failed a test in her entire life, who’s just staring at the wall, blinking real hard like she’s about to cry. And this one friend of mine, I look over at his desk and see that he’s only got like three sentences written down because he just gave up and walked right out. I didn’t even notice he was gone until I saw that one paper just abandoned.”
Jared whistled slowly.
“Was that it?” Andrew asked.
“That wasn’t even the worst part of it,” Mark said. “Old lady Mishler tells us to turn in our papers and makes them into this big stack in the middle of her desk. And then we start gathering up our things and stretching out our hands, and she says, ‘Just a moment.’ Stern, like she’s disappointed in all of us already, and she hasn’t even read the papers yet.
“Dead silence.” Mark swept his hand flat through the air. “You never saw a classroom this focused, not even a twitch.
“’You didn’t follow my instructions,’ she says. ‘I told you to read all ten questions.’
“So we all look down at the questions, like, what did we miss? Well, there’s a lot of them and some are really long, so it goes all the way to the bottom of the paper. And here’s the thing.”
Mark paused, holding up a finger. “They only go to I.” He raises up his other fingers one by one: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I…
“That’s only nine,” Andrew realized.
Mark smiled. “‘Flip the paper over,’ she says. And there it is, right on the back: ‘Who is your favorite character from the stories we have read? Explain briefly.’”
He paused, gauging their reaction. Andrew and Jared stared back with puzzled looks. He held up a hand to indicated that he wasn’t done.
“’Questions A through I,’ he quotes, ‘are extra credit.’”