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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Nontraditional Students, cont'd

The Narcoleptic Newspaperman
I can’t recall his name. Something like Bob. I’d guess he was about 50, and nearing 400 pounds. He was a knowledgeable sort when conscious, but he would literally fall asleep moments after arrival, and stay that way for quite some time. He often wore one of those classic reporter hats, as I think he had been some kind of reporter. I probably wouldn’t remember him at all, but for the insane class context: a small graduate seminar in a cramped room, maybe ten students sitting around a long table, taught by Debora Greger. On the street, Debora would pass for harmless if not insubstantial, but in a class setting, she could be deadly. Her cutting remarks happened mostly on paper, but even in workshop she could stab you in the neck with a look or an icy phrase. “I can’t believe you wasted my time with that,” was frequently her subtext. She wasn’t 100% venom, but she kept her fangs primed. Yet Bob seemed immune. Debora never gave him any grief that I know.
    The course itself could have been part of Bob’s problem. Debora was never a livewire as a teacher, and the subject was Literary Letters (correspondence written by poets, playwrights, etc). It turned out pretty okay, but I had the active ingredient of William Bowers nearby. Bowers tended toward being the opposite of Debora as a presence. It was no small task staving off his smirks and mirth-vibes, for which Debora was a perfect background: two parts librarian, one part dominatrix, one part storybook witch… sitting right next to, as Bowers put it, “a huge, liquid man” on the verge of snoring. Then we would all write fake letters to dead people, hand them to a woman who apparently couldn’t stand us, and discuss. Bob woke up semi-regularly, adding surprisingly relevant comments from the outskirts of Slumberland. 

Nirmal T.
Now back in Missouri, around 2006, I was teaching Poetry Writing 1. My wife knew this Asian hipster guy, from the library or computer lab? Nirmal was in his mid-to-late twenties. His parents were originally from India, I think, but more recently from Bahrain. He was a business student, but I guess he needed an elective, and ended up in my class after getting my permission to add.
    Heather had already warned me of Nirmal’s bad study habits. The semester previous, he would ask her to help him edit papers, then try to get her to do much of the writing while he goofed around. He might work on moonwalking or another dance move. He was obsessed with Michael Jackson, becoming even more so after Jacko died. He believed Jacko was killed by the government or some other powerful people. He also wanted to go shopping a lot. Heather went to some downtown stores with him once, to help him pick out hipster clothes. He was so into dressing up, going out, and discussing Michael Jackson, that Heather decided Nirmal was probably gay, but since he would soon return to the middle east, had to remain in the closet. Or maybe he was just half half mad with American brain worms.
    Nirmal had good conversational English, but little of the English language depth one might need for great writing. But as I told him, that can be faked/edited out in Poetry 1. Most semesters I had one person who didn’t get what syllables were; that semester, it was Nirmal. Still, after some false starts, he wrote one really interesting poem—right before dropping the course.

Brian B.
Brian was only around 30, but he had a son around 4 or 5 at the time. His dad-ness came through in some of his work, which accentuated his non-traditional nature. But he was an English/journalism guy, and had no troubles with any of the coursework. In fact, he nailed most of the assignments with clairvoyant ease, which may only go to show that we were on the same wavelength regarding humor or literary agenda. He was even emotionally stable, socially levelheaded, and blessed with the constitution of someone capable of attending class without moaning about it. He didn’t freak out even once, and turned in a superior stack of final poems. It comes as no surprise that Brian just won a couple of Missouri Press Awards. He may have even had my back in a moral-support way, when it came to enduring Charles, the vaguely passive-aggressive dude in the same room. It’s also possible that Charles was just much less funny than he believed himself to be, which, when accentuated by questionable physiognomy, produced the effect of passive aggression. In any case, Brian was a soothing antidote for Charles.

Ben J. and John M., Army dudes
Ex-military guys always carry a certain gravitas, especially in creative writing classes. Not only are they a few years older, but workshops are traditionally inhabited by mostly wussies who suckle at the teat of expressing life experience, and the grimmer the better. Having been in the shit can really lend credibility. It helps if a soldier can write a decent sentence. The two guys that come to mind were actually pretty good writers. Ben lent a beer-and-Metallica edge to a poetry class, while John showed up in the one fiction workshop I taught, providing a mixed vibe of survivalist/deer hunter/prison guard. I seemed to recall him writing a first-person shooter account of a guy watching his ex through a rifle scope. I think they were both pretty upright guys, although I suspected burgeoning Republicanism.

The Blockhead
The one time I taught an evening class at MSU, there were a few 30+ women enrolled. Two of them were just fine, if not commendable. But one was the second part of a duo I called “The Genius & the Blockhead.” Boy, were they a pain. I guess they were roommates, and after a few weeks, they began tag-teaming my class—one would come so the other wouldn’t have to. This became especially insulting the time I saw them both in the hall before class, but then The Genius, wearing a giant Cat-in-the-Hat hat, skipped class. When I tried to tell them they were missing too many meetings to avoid some kind of penalty, The Genius (apparently well versed in the technicalities of attendance) informed me that I had to have DATED documentation of each absence to make it stick. I had only been making little tally marks beside someone’s name in the roster, not creating a signed & dated log. Lesson learned.

The Blockhead was older than the Genius, but seemed to worship her. When I gave the Genius’s first poem a B+, they both waited after class, until everyone else left, and informed me that I must have miscalculated, because The Genius was, after all, a published writer already. They didn’t say where she was published, but their tone implied that I really wasn’t qualified to judge such a brilliant young superstar.* I kind of wish I would have said, “Tough shit, titty baby. Why don’t you quit grade grubbing, go back to your weird domicile and commence with the creepy co-dependency in private?” Instead, I said they should just look at it like my only way to apply pressure for final portfolio revisions, as revision is an important part of the writing process. They kept hanging around. They just couldn’t get on board with my inappropriately harsh grade. I think The Genius was one breath away from saying that THE POEM IN QUESTION had been published somewhere already, which would have been awesome, because submitting recycled work violates the Academic Honor Code. That’s a “multiple submission.” Anyway, I had to put up with their buttered horseshit all semester. Neither of them was much good, but at least The Blockhead was lesser in a way that I could deduct for. The Genius, on the other hand, was technically proficient—just brimming over with bogus assertions, clichés, archaic noodling, painful thesaurus language, etc. “Lost in purloined sadness accrued…” began one of her leaden lumps of meteoric language. Reading her poems became almost pure misery for me. To spare myself further encounters, I became passive aggressive. I gave the Blockhead the ‘B’s she barely deserved; I gave The Genius ‘A’s, but loaded her poems with divisive comments that could have come from William Logan or Debora Greger. “Chicken Soup for the Vampire’s Soul” is the only thing I can remember writing in one of my various critiques. At least The Blockhead had the decency to sign her own name to her work; The Genius already had a nom de plume. Mercifully, I have forgotten it.

*Genius/Blockhead bonus round: I knew I was in for it when, from the first week’s warm-up assignment, I picked a few student haikus (anonymously) to write on the board and discuss. One happened to be from The Genius, and included the phrase “the white snow.” Circling the adjective “white,” I advised that poems, especially very short poems with only 17 syllables, should really conserve words. Since “white” is something we normally assume snow to be, I said one could probably find a better modifier—a more surprising word that would transform or add metaphorical dimension to the idea of snow. For the next couple of minutes, the Blockhead (knowing that was her friend’s poem) led a charge to defend the word “white” as THE PERFECT word choice. No, there could be no better word, ever. Groan. 

Paul J.
Paul was a cool old Santa Claus guy, probably 60, physically sturdy and with a solid presence. He was a veteran of English classes, so he had all his shit together and tended to slam-dunk the assignments. Plus, he was a go-to guy for workshop critiques—not a workshop hog at all, but always prepared to give a good, honest response. He listened to critiques of his own work with good grace rather than defensiveness, and accepted some little gag prize for an off-the-cuff workshop award with humor, saying his grandson would like it. At the end of the semester, he told me it was the best writing class he’d ever had. That obviously rang sweet to me, but credit goes to that unfathomable mystery of “workshop chemistry,” over which Paul had almost as much control as I had. Paul had lucked into and helped build one of the best groups I ever ran—several strong writers, no insurmountable egos or super-sensitive basket-cases, good humor as well as smarts and good attendance, plus some interesting, good-natured personalities. I knew, because the other group I had that same semester was brought to a crashing halt when a super-sensitive basket-case had a crying meltdown and almost came to blows with another student. Had he been sitting next to Paul instead, perhaps his loony rat’s nest of a brain could have been detangled.

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