Bonehead EnglishWhen I got hired on at our local Catholic university, I was beside myself. "At last," I thought to myself, "A job." Four years of graduate school was finally paying off.
I wasn't too concerned with the prevailing devotional spirit of the school. I would have said Pater Nostradamus or whatever they called it if they were going to let me in the door. Hell, I even would have gone to Confession, even confessed the lesser of my sins if it would have helped me hang onto my job. Butter wouldn't melt in my mouth.
I was given the title of "Adjunct Professor," an impressive title with little to go along with it. My office was half a hallway. My desk was old, wooden, and bruised from many years of being tormented by adjunct professors tormenting their students.
One of the classes they gave me to teach was Beginning Journalism. The second was English 101, which, I found out later, was commonly known as "Bonehead English." I was told that my students had "some problems" --- that is, they had flunked the basic English comprehension test given to all incoming students.
One of my jobs was to give them assignments that wouldn't bore them (or me) to death.
Since I was an inveterate journal-keeper myself, I immediately hit upon the idea of diaries. During our four months together, I told them, they were to keep journals. They were not to bother about grammar or spelling or punctuation: that wasn't their (or my) job.
"Just write about what's going on in your life. Write it all: memories, dreams, reflections, plans, problems, loves, hates. It's your baby," I said. "I'm only interested in your word count."
"Take the journal with you everywhere," I told them. "In the school cafeteria, in your dorm, on the bus, in the park --- even other classes if you don't get caught."
I explained that once a month we'd have a word count; they would estimate the number of words they had written, would announce the result to the whole class. "Some would think it was a competition," I explained. "I'd rather think it was a chance to show your affection for words."
I said I would take a look at their journals from time to time, but emphasized that whatever they wrote was between them and the page. "I'm not there to comment on your life; I'm there to teach you English. What you write down is confidential."
I let them know that their other work was important but these journals were the core of the class, and that those who had the highest number of words would do best and that their diaries would count for at least half of their final grade.
Let me tell you what was weird about these journals. First off, I found that they turned out to be practically free of grammatical or spelling mistakes. Compared to the two or three formal papers I had them do ("Hamlet," Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations), they wrote with a minimum of errors and a maximum of what the professionals call "communications skills."
Second, most of them produced prodigiously. Most put out 3,000 to 5,000 words a week. By the end of the semester, some of them had come up with over 100,000 words --- equal to The Great Gatsby, in quantity if not in quality.
But wait. This was Bonehead English, right? Yet with a couple of exceptions their stories were fun, or funny, or sad --- and in a couple of cases, downright gripping.
Now, so many years after the fact, I can still remember three of the best. One lovely young girl (she swept into class like a breathless, red-cheeked princess) was carrying on a torrid affair with a young gentleman, in a secret apartment a mile from campus. They had a good times together --- and a good time hiding it all from their parents, and from the school. (It was, after all a Catholic school, trying and failing to act in loco parentis.)
They also gave me a kick because I was allowed to read their pillow talk (he called her "Heffalump," she called him "Pooh-bear"). I learned about their fights and their making up --- he made fun of her mum, who was short and fat; she didn't like his moustache. Most of all, the diary, written flowingly and well, let me see two young people filled with what we in those days thought of as an innocent passion.
The second surprise journal came from the hands of the captain of the school football team. The clichés didn't work here. He was a serious young man, worried about his life, and the world, and his future. His ended up being near the top in number of words --- I think he did almost 140,000.
And his family! His father --- he was a famous magnate in town --- was a rich and brutal drunkard, a swiving scoundrel. When he wasn't making money, he regularly swatted his wife and (until he came of age) his one son.
Parent's Weekend was a disaster. Not the writing; the event. Mother and son were desperate to keep the old bastard from ruining their time together, but he managed to fall out of his chair at dinner and damn near kill them driving back to the school.
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And finally, there was Antonio, from Mexico. He wrote perfect English but his writing was a pain. He wrote in a script so small I had to practically crawl in the notebook with a bright light to get through it.
After struggling with it for a couple of sessions, I wrote a note in his book complaining about his handwriting. This created an interesting dialogue. He wrote a testy response under what I had written. He said his teachers were always bitching about his writing, and he wasn't about to change at this late stage. I responded to his response, told him that change was possible even after age twenty.
He might not have suspected that my complaint about his writing was selfish, for I wanted to read everything he had to say. His dreams were wonderfully weird and his life was a hoot. Each weekend he would tank up and go find a hooker downtown or head over to Mexicali to get laid. His exploits were sordid and funny and equal to some of the best of Richard Burton or, at least, Joyce's "Nighttown."
He also gave wry critiques of my class. In those days I had given up coffee, was drinking a fetid dark liquid yogurt for breakfast. I would swill this stuff regularly, in front of all. He knew to rack up points even as I was teaching. He wrote that the vision of me and my concoction at 8 a.m. made him quite ill. I think the word he used was "barfy."
Antonio ultimately won the big prize. We added everything up in the last class. He topped the list at 165,000 words. All crammed into one tiny journal.
I loved the whole moil. I also came to love my students. Most of them wrote without shame. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be reading their secrets while pretending to teach English. With my ecstasy of discovery on how to get laggard students to write sensibly and well, I was prepared to ask to teach more classes in English 101. I figured that one day the Journal Sweepstakes that I had invented would make me famous --- would change forever the way writing was taught at American universities.
Unfortunately, my journalism class sank my big prize forever. The class met each Wednesday at noon, and each week I would order up thirty copies of a local or national newspaper for us to study.
We'd look at style of writing, layout, depth of reporting, feature vs. news stories, and, in general, the "feel" of the newspaper. We did The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, and ... woe! ... The National Enquirer.
"Look how it's laid out," I told them, referring to the latter. "The language --- nothing but the most simple, the best of sixth grade prose. No index, so you have to page through the whole thing. The placement of the pictures, the tone, the feeling. It does what it sets out to do: to titillate, to excite, to appeal to simple folk with simple stories. Perfect for the checkout stand."
They loved that class. "Now they're learning real journalism," I thought. But when they came to put out the annual April's Fool's Day satire issue --- which I neglected to vet beforehand --- I found that they had taken my words to heart.
They put a picture of Author (not Arthur) Hughes, the president of the school, on the first page. His visage was neatly cropped to show him consorting with a lovely, toothy, busty cheerleader. The head nun, Sister Sally Furey, a good and straightforward lady (the two times I had met her I had gotten somewhat fond of her): they decided to award her a prominent "National Enquirer"-inspired hobby. They set her a-dancing. On a bar. At Pacer's Club. The local strip joint. Down on the Midway.
I read that one and kissed my fame --- and my ass --- goodbye.
§ § §
I handed the notebooks back at our final meeting. Antonio got his, as did our Football Captain. But the Princess never showed up, and I never saw her again. I have held onto her notebook all these years. It turned up a few days ago when I was cleaning out my closet.
I read a bit about Heffalump and Pooh, thought about them some. Are they still together? Does she still complain about his beard and he about her mother? Did they go on to have a passel of Kangas and Tiggers and Roos?
Too, I wondered if she would ever come back to reclaim that part of her love and her joy that she gave so generously, to him, and to me, so long ago?