The time has come to see what has been gestating within my morning A.P. English class. A teacher doesn’t know her students until sequestered with their work; a lecture is just the conduit through which an educator feeds them a stimulus to inspire them to produce something of value, now, at term’s end.
A pale ale coolly perspiring in my hand, I prepare to evaluate my students’ work and by extension, myself. It’s the rare experience where someone else’s failure cannot be hermetically sealed off from one’s own competence. As delectable as it is to laugh at my student’s occasional gaffes, anything more than errant flaws, any great trend of incompetence, would make each successive chuckle a little less satisfying and more of an indictment of poor pedagogy.
In order to prevent bias, I assigned each student’s paper an individualized I.D. so that I could look upon each term paper sui generis. “But, Regina, can’t you tell your students apart by their individual writing styles, intellectual interests, deeply embedded individual concerns about social, sexual, and politics– Ha! No, I think I’ll spare myself any inane chatter about the presence of meaningful stylistic fingerprints in the academic writing of teenagers. A wildlife trapper attempting to distinguish possum tracks from bobcat tracks after weeks of torrential downpour has a less thankless task ahead of him. I’ve seen college term papers that even the famed typewriter monkeys that churn out Shakespeare’s work would have been embarrassed to claim. In whatever dimension they inhabit, they likely torment each other by joking that each other’s strings of angry typewriter poundings could be rattled off by teenagers in a matter of seconds. The very same monkeys forced to grade A.P. English papers would likely mutate into the ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil’ monkeys by way of PTSD.
I plunge ten fingers into the stack of papers, and shuffle the pile around a few times to add one more layer of protection. It’s a superfluous gesture that does little to prevent the one major problem that will inevitably affect my subsequent grades: Bitterness. Grade a long line of losers and even the inevitable ‘A’ in the pile becomes an A- due to frayed nerves. I imagine G.I.’s after a long firefight are far more likely to shoot at gently rustling leaves.
Paper A2X3Y3221X3 is the first to emerge from the scrum. Conceiving each I.D. individually was likely a waste of time, but the hallmark of a bad teacher, bad person, or myself really, is the attention to detail lavished upon trivial matters. I move my eyes from the preposterous, self-inflicted I.D. to the unreasonably ambitious title, “When a Lighthouse Is Not Just a Cigar: To The Lighthouse, Longing, Eroticism, Concupiscence, and Feminism”. Ugh. Freud’s cultural ubiquity already spoiled my favorite Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, before I had the chance to read it for the first time. Freud’s misinterpreted, oft-repeated comments about the eponymous Oedipus spoil the ultimate revelation, thus destroying the careful detective work, scene-building, and commentary about Fate. Apparently, this wasn’t enough, so Freud had to poison prurient humor, cigars, and term papers in an attempt to thoroughly ruin my life.
“In this paper, I shall attempt to…”. My face is a shifting tableau of emotions. Perhaps I should be grateful that his analysis is in one place, in “this paper”, rather than, say, half the paper published in an op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer released every other week, and the remainder conveyed by smoke signals. I’m vastly underestimating this student’s courtesy in localizing their work in one place. In an alternate reality, students write delocalized term papers spread out across a vast array of media, forcing teachers to embark on worldwide journeys to find scattered fragments of moronic writing located in Aztec temples, Incan burial grounds, and the ruins of Troy.
The attempt at humility in “I shall attempt” is a bad omen. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a student that begins by writing “I shall attempt” must be in want of anything worth saying.
“….to show that Mrs. Ramsay was not a mere housewife, but in reality, an extremely sexually frustrated woman, unable to satisfy her deep-seated longings for multiple partners, the supple body of Lily Briscoe, and unspeakable carnal depravity.” We’re off to a magnificent start. It’s never a good sign when a student isolates themes the elite of literary criticism have no hope of justifying. I feel strangely fortunate, as if I’m about to bear witness to what is either an epic miscalculation, or the birth of a groundbreaking literary critic.
“….Woolf's To the Lighthouse, with its strange assortment of blatantly sexual and asexual elements penile, vaginal, and neuter…" I stare down the barrel of my nearly spent red correction pen, quickly realizing my patient would need a transfusion of blood from several more Bic pens.
“My analysis begins not with the book’s contents, but with something far more preliminary: The cover. Therein lay Woolf’s fantasy of sexual potency, ineffable desires, and a vast wetness that stretches for miles in each direction surrounding the lighthouse. The onlookers are unable to traverse the water to reach this zenith of lust, this heathen monument, this truly epoch-making priapism.” Odd. I’ve never seen anyone include a book’s cover art in a term paper. I can only wonder what this student would have done if the cover had been anything else, but I’m sure this young Harold Bloom would have worked his way around such a trivial matter. Genius isn’t beholden to mere facts like the lack of involvement of the author in the process of selecting a book’s cover, the fact that multiple editions can have drastically different covers, and the tiny peppercorn of an issue that the art that adorns the cover of this edition of the book was commissioned years after the death of the author. I have a newfound respect for Virginia Woolf, as only a truly transcendent artist could haunt a publisher in order to influence the selection of the cover for the mass paperback edition of Harcourt’s sixth edition of To The Lighthouse.
“But, we can no longer indulge ourselves with the image of the tantalizing phallus as a mere presence, but we must attempt, along with Woolf and Mrs. Ramsay, to actually mount the beachhead and make an assault upon our unfulfilled desires.” Good to know.
“Alas and Alack! One more machine gun nest pins us down in a vicious cross-fire before we can reach the lighthouse of Aphrodite: Eudora Welty. It’s her foreword that constitutes the metaphorical drawing back of the foreskin. Welty does not mince words and makes clear that the novel is erotic: ‘Personal discovery [emphasis added] is the direct route to To The Lighthouse.’ Welty’s writing is as evasive in her foreword as Woolf’s writing is in her novel. Welty subtly echoes the psychosexual drama of Mrs. Ramsay by channeling raw sexual energy into her commentary on To The Lighthouse. Welty continues: ‘No matter how often we begin it again, it seems to expand and expand [emphasis added] again ahead of us.’ Welty is in on the game, mimicking the sexual word play of the novel itself, and insinuates herself to only the most careful reader. Arousal is the thread that unites the foreword and the novel.” It’s a veritable festival of firsts, as I’ve never seen a term paper attempt to analyze a foreword to a novel, but I’m not the one that is in an intimate relationship with the muse of High Criticism. I should be humble, and allow this rare dispensation of knowledge to wash over me. I’ve wandered into the desert, and having ascended the pillar, I must manifest the right attitude in order to allow the Spirit to work through me to make my crooked places straight.
“…as the rest of the foreword is largely superfluous, a departure from the sexual into trivial matters like Lily Briscoe’s painting, the inner thoughts of the characters, and the inexorable passage of time and its ability to thwart our best laid plans, hopes, and dreams. Discussions about the nature of the language, in particular the stream of consciousness narration, are largely irrelevant, as they reflect, to the initiated reader, the unfocused language of persons paralyzed by sexual arousal.” Apparently, I am being “initiated” into some great gnostic wisdom.
“The novel actually begins on the twelfth page. The first eleven pages consist of family window dressing and irrelevant mental meanderings by the characters. This is with the notable exception of James’ desire to kill his father. James Ramsay’s part in the family dynamic is that of Oedipus, and the matter of his longing for his mother will necessarily be revealed at some point later in the novel.” Apparently, every instance of anyone uttering “wants to kill his father” requires a gospel choir answer “wants to sleep with his mother!” I’m no psychologist, but I was unaware that a boy of James’ age would be capable of manifesting an Oedipus complex. Patience Regina, it’s the student’s footprints in the sand I’m witnessing, and I am being carried by him throughout my ordeal.
“Mrs. Ramsay, radiantly beautiful for her age, betrays her secret longings when staring at the lighthouse: ‘Mrs. Ramsay could not help exclaiming, oh how beautiful…the hoary lighthouse distant, austere…’. Perhaps Woolf should have said ‘whorey’, but a writer of her considerable skill is above such low hanging fruit.” We have our first attempt at intentional humor! The author appreciates that even English teachers can get bored reading essays. I’m eight pages in, and I realize I have approximately sixty more to go. This assignment came with a twenty-page maximum, but no dam can tell the river it can’t overflow, and no poet can command the sun not to set. Granted, there are twenty pages of citations, a bibliography, an afterword, acknowledgments, and Appendix A – C following the essay.
I dutifully skim the remainder, looking carefully for…something. It’s only when I’m within the first few pages of the second pass I realize what is missing: Any mention of the word or concept of feminism explicitly or implicitly. It’s textbook false advertising to place the word “feminism” in an essay and then fail to mention it at all in the essay. How could he miss that? Is the concept of feminism like Allah? Wherever two of the faithful are gathered, Allah is present as a third. Wherever three of the faithful are gathered, Allah is present as a fourth, and so on? Is the mere presence of a woman writer and sexuality sufficient to invoke the subject of feminism? I’m dubious, but I’ll simply place this “dissertation” back in the pile pending my own soul-searching about Virginia Woolf, feminist criticism, and a career change.
Once again, it is time to dive back into the pile, and pull out…“This Paper brought to you by the Duck Commander Independence Bowl”. It’s ridiculous to name a college bowl game the “Duck Commander Independence Bowl”, since sponsorship by a company that makes duck calls is irrelevant to football. However, it is an acceptable tribute to the absurd to disguise a term paper’s author by suggesting his essay is being sponsored by said bowl game, which is in turn being sponsored by said duck call manufacturer. My system isn’t perfect, but I prioritize entertainment value over all else. I would like the previous statement translated into Latin and placed upon my family coat of arms along with the image of a woman throwing up her arms in resignation.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a pedestrian choice for an A.P. English term paper, and I wonder if this is actually from a student in my other classes, those forced to take English against their will, rather than the depraved cretins in A.P. English. Students motivated by a litany of pretextual reasons that cover up the true shoddy reason for enrolling, which is some variation of “Instant sophistication! That’s for me!”
Adventures or…Shall We Say…Misadventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Critical Journey. I lean back in my chair, furrow my brow, and strain with every ounce of energy to remember whether or not I’ve ever seen someone acting coy in the title of an academic paper. I feel like a young American co-ed in Paris, sitting down in a café with my lover, Juan Pablo Salvatore, bred of Spanish and Italian noble stock. His eyes are the purest shade of blue, untainted by even the faintest presence of green. He’s well trained in the erotic arts by wisdom inherited from generations of his Salvatore patriarchs. I ask him “Shall I see you again soon, Juan Pablo?” Juan Pablo looks through me, and seems to command time to halt. He deigns to look at me, the luckiest girl in Paris, smiles, and says to my hungry ears “You shall see me bellissima…shall we say…soon.”
I’m ashamed to say that this paper’s title has succeeded in seducing me into plumbing further into the depths of this “critical journey.” I flip the cover, move past the page with the epigraph, and begin reading the first page.
“An American Classic, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a beloved, but critically misunderstood piece of literature that seems to defy adequate analysis by even the most seasoned scholars of early American literature and…”. Wait…something is wrong on a Cosmic Scale. I mean beyond the obvious. What am I missing? The first page of the essay is fairly moronic, but I don’t see why…no…no…it can’t be. I feel like I’m performing breast cancer self-screening too carelessly, only to retrace the path across my chest and feel my finger ascend a few millimeters too high over a certain spot. I shudder, return to the cover page, and proceed to slowly, unwillingly turn to the second page. I missed the lump. I could only stare in horror.
“I speak to those who know; to those who don’t my mind’s a blank.
I never say a word.”
An epigraph! In a high school paper! Brownnoser. I mentally rifle through the list of the most irritating students in my class, but unfortunately, A.P. English has a tendency to attract epigraphers like beetles to dung, so I’m stymied in my attempt to isolate the offender. I’m not remotely certain what this epigraph has to do with the paper, thus placing me in a compromising situation. How do I properly penalize this? I’m fastidious enough to design effective rubrics for judging student papers, but how do I criticize such an inscrutable epigraph? I’m likely dealing with the worst kind of A.P. English bottom feeder: the student that believes he is above criticism.
The origin of the quote is from the Oresteia, Aeschylus’ tragic cycle about the house of Atreus. The line was spoken by a guard at the beginning of the first play in the cycle, Agamemnon. Aeschylus’ point was that if one didn’t know the tragic history of the house of Atreus, the events that followed would make no sense. The smug little bastard; he’s not only deploying this quote defensively, he’s actually suggesting I may be incapable of understanding his paper. I can already see myself sitting with him during office hours, hearing him deliver carefully constructed sophistry designed to insulate him from my criticism. Why can’t he just write a bad paper like those held captive by English in the non-A.P. classes? Why do I have the feeling I’ll be sitting in front of a television twenty years from now watching him resign from the Senate?
I toss the paper to the ground in disgust. I’m in no mood to read a paper by someone that doesn’t have the slightest interest in actually playing the game properly. I refuse to become the hunted.
But, it’s far too late for that. The epigraph seems unconnected to the paper other than as a countermeasure against critical scrutiny. But is it unconnected? I'm trapped: Extreme genius and extreme stupidity can sometimes resemble each other, and the consequences of choosing incorrectly will be dire for me. Dare I challenge him? How do I triage the potential damage to my reputation? If I challenge him and I miss something, particularly something obvious, I receive a colossal humbling at the hands of someone who can barely write.
I’m a small player in a Cosmic Drama, but I’m forced to play this deadly game for the sake of the waning credibility of the Tribe of Teachers. Nowadays, people tend to think of most teachers pejoratively as babysitters, and judge their qualifications by a criterion similar to the way babysitters are selected. In the case of babysitters, simply hire someone that is slightly older than the babysat; a large age gap is gratuitous. In the case of teachers, simply hire someone that knows more than the students do. State budget offices are chintzy enough that if allowed they would allow a bright, cost-efficient tenth grader to teach the incoming ninth graders, and then turn around and let the bright, cost-efficient kid teach tenth graders once he matriculated to the eleventh grade. If I’m wrong, teachers will be emptying out their desks in droves all across the nation, doomed to be replaced by the smarmy punks that challenged them. I can see my tormentor now, leaning against the door of my classroom, puerile quip ready. Defeated, I slowly walk out with my head hung low. He fires his bullet: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach are replaced by the children they can’t teach.”
I need to know who this is. My integrity is far less important than my continued employment. Who could this be? HIM! This must be the English horn player. This act of rebellion has his fingerprints all over it. It's enough of a stigma to carry a musical instrument case into a classroom; it's as if a teenager's repugnant personality transmogrified into a tumor representing their low social status. The outlines of trumpet and clarinet cases are obvious to all, but the contours of an English horn case are even foreign to other bandsmen. This idiot’s purpose is clear: he thinks that he is too good for the sole social circle willing to accept him. This was the type of student who signed up for A.P. English. Suddenly, I realize my 1st period A.P. English class had six English horn players defiling my classroom with their cases.
I’m in no mood to deal with this right now. I need to get my mind back to a place of productivity. I know why I teach. The Stoic Roman philosopher Aggrippinus, when faced with the choice of a public humiliation at the hands of Emperor Nero, or death, chose death. He longed to be the purple stripe in the robe of the populace, not merely one of many white threads that would have meekly submitted to death to prolong their existence. A well-written paper is a purple stripe, and it compensates for the soiled strands of the white robe. Where are you, purple stripe? I put the epigrapher’s defiance back into the pile. I reach for...Paper A. A paper titled…“American Term Paper”. What?!
“American Term Paper”. I glance across the first page, and confirm my worst fears: A full blown metacommentary is staring me in the face.
“Americans are so culturally provincial that we discount the existence of other provinces, i.e. foreign cultures. Our country seems to suffer from a pernicious arrogance that has led to the American mind insulating itself against the merit of International culture, music, and politics. The term ‘American’ seems to provide the halo of instant credibility to many works of art and industry. It seems that if an artist, politician, or even the man in the street wants to give their work gravitas they can simply place ‘American’ in front of it. ‘American X’ isn't a statement of limitation, it's a statement that denotes cosmic ambition, in a world where America is the cosmos. In this paper, I shall attempt a critique of the genesis, usage, persistence, and problems associated with the “American X” format, specifically as utilized in American Pastoral by Philip Roth, the American Pie movies, American Wedding, America Beauty, American Bandstand, American Airlines, American Idol, American Express, ‘The American Dream’, and finally ‘American Term Paper’.”
At the very least, a parody has been averted: parodying the work of high school students seems gratuitous, what with their work already constituting self-parody. In fact, I’d ordinarily love to read a paper like this, if it weren’t for the fact that I’d specifically requested students to choose a book, play, or a collection of short stories and then criticize it. All I needed to know was the title of the work, and I would approve it assuming it wasn’t too facile. I put my trust in my students, and so far they’ve nailed me to the cross for it. Whoever this is, everything she said to me was a pretext. Maybe it was the student that selected The Iliad. If so, The Iliad ended up serving as the Trojan Horse for the delivery of “American Term Paper”. Wait. I did see that she selected American Pastoral by Philip Roth, so let’s just give that a gander—and it’s pointless. It’s only a page long, and on top of that she’s not looking at the content of the book, but focusing on the way the title was constructed.
Am I unreasonable? My worst fear is that this could be an excellent paper, but one as far away from the prompt as the North Pole is from the South Pole. At best, this paper is equivocally excellent, hitting all the right notes as a piece of cultural commentary, but failing to be any kind of a term paper. That is technically an “F”, and technically correct is the best type of correct. However, I don’t expect this obnoxious English horn player (probably) to go down without a fight. So, let’s add this student to the growing line of students determined to defy my authority, right behind the Epigrapher. I can even see them commiserating with each other outside the hall of my office, flanked by their wealthy parents, waiting to lecture me on the contours of my incompetence.
Epigrapher: “What are you here for?”
Metacommentator: “My paper was excellent for the wrong reasons! You?”
Epigrapher: “Ms. Bancroft couldn’t even understand what made my paper excellent.”
Wealthy Parents (in unison): “Fire Regina Bancroft!”
No, I’m putting this one away too; I’m going to have an aneurism if this is a brilliant paper.
Back to the pile. Ten digits dancing deep within a stack of dead trees, there must be some liberation, some hope; a safe space for my sanity.
“The Autobiography of Frederick Douglas: A Rebuttal”. I hesitantly flip to where the next page should be, but the tiny, rectangular hole where the staple should be tells me I’m missing what comes next. I search frantically for the remainder of the essay, but to no avail. I must have left it back at my desk at school. A terrible fear surges through my body. What on earth is this paper about? Do young white supremacists take A.P. English? I’m never in a mood to read someone’s kampf. I’ll be waiting on pins and needles until I get the chance to see what horror lurks within. I assume Well-Read White Supremacist will eventually be lining up behind the Epigrapher and the Metacommentator to complain about being misunderstood as well.
Next paper! God give me a purple stripe! My hands are searching clumsily, hitting more fingers than papers, and I only halt my search for the next paper when my thumb slides over the cold steel that is the tell-tale sign of a staple. I feel a perverse pleasure from the warmth of my thumb draining into the steel, exorcising it of the chill. I gradually observe the temperature differential between thumb and staple vanish. My thumb and the staple are now one entity. I suppose I can show my gratitude for this unexpected tactile pleasure by seeing what paper is attached to this staple.
Paper Cabbage Patch: “The Tortured Genius leitmotif in Sixth Avenue Sunday Sartorial Splendor”. Few things warm the soul of an English teacher like a student taking upon himself the challenge of analyzing an obscure book. This is how boys become men, how girls become women, and if they could read, how foals become horses. I’m well read, and even I haven’t read Sixth Avenue Sunday Sartorial Splendor. I required the students to submit their books anonymously, by writing the name of their book on a sign-up sheet I hung up at the back of the classroom. This was the only book on the list I wasn’t familiar with, but this wasn’t a concern, since I enjoy getting recommendations from students. As I age, more and more people exit my life by way of death, marriage, and moving trucks. If a student can introduce an unfamiliar book to me, it’s like they’re introducing me to a new friend, a newly lit candle in this otherwise gaping maw of darkness we call existence.
It’ll take too long to receive by mail, so I’ll just purchase this book electronically. Off to Google I go to locate this tome…and…and… nothing! My spelling of the veritable hiss of letters produced by all the “S’s” is correct. Google just churned the collective chatter of the bookish all over the Internet and it admits defeat. I suppose I could check Bing, but if the older brother is stumped, you don’t turn to the drooling infant brother. I head to specific shopping portals to see if I can do better—nothing. I check the obscure sites I sometimes frequent and—nothing. A bland mixture of “…not found”, “are you sure you don’t mean…”, and “you might be interested in…” signals a dead end.
My mind starts buzzing from a third ale and the classroom rebellion. An odd cocktail of alcohol, fear, anger, and frustration can make one giddy, so I start to giggle uncontrollably. “Epigrapher, Metacommentator, and Well-Read White Supremacist,” I mutter aloud. My classroom is filled with Dick Tracy villains. I shake my head, and get up to stretch to get the blood flowing through my extremities again. I recommit myself to the task at hand.
Where on earth did this book come from? A book the student apparently had no trouble locating and writing an entire term paper upon. My neutral expression quickly turned into a smile, which then transformed into laughter. Shaking my head did nothing. Giddiness isn’t defeated so easily.
I meander down the back alley of my imagination to find an origin story for this non-existent book: There he was, Joe Everystudent. He’s walking along a hip, youth-oriented, fashion-forward, politically-conscious row of stores off of Broad Street, where most of our town’s thrift stores, record stores, and eclectic shopping experiences congregate like birds of odd feathers. He stops dead in his tracks, when he notices a store that he swears he’s never seen before. Joe gently pokes his head into the shop, and casually enters “Books”, a store redolent with the aroma of exotic spices like cardamom, turmeric, and saffron. I slowly realize the scent of exotic spices makes little sense in a bookstore, and that “Books” is an utterly ludicrous title to begin with, but this is my day dream. Besides, I let “Joe Everystudent” slip by my defenses without a peep. I have become the metacommentator of my own day dreams. The curator of fantasies. A voyager upon the highways of the evanescent strands of my imagination. I’m interrupting my own day dream, which is in turn interrupting my work. I might as well finish. The day dream, that is.
So, Joe Everystudent meets the bearded Asian proprietor that runs “Books”. Joe Everystudent is stunned by the magnificence of a foot long beard. Joe’s never seen a woman like this. The hirsute heresy of a woman wielding this magnificent beard felt like the harbinger of an Enlightened Age to come, whose first green shoots Joe was witnessing bloom on this little corner of Broad Street. Joe’s eye catches a silver glimmer from the periphery of his vision. Suddenly, the owner of “Books” says “Time to leave!” Joe protests like an Arthurian Knight that caught a glimpse of the Holy Grail; he knows he’s seen something special. The worthy are capable of noticing the relics of Saints, Swamis, and Mystics, and Joe’s worthy heart would not be fooled. The owner of “Books” could see the nobility in the eyes of young Joe. The proprietor gently laid her hands upon the silver book. As it was gradually withdrawn from the shelf, the cover revealed a thick volume coated in silver filigree. Joe proceeded to open the text, and search, search, search, search….”
I’ve been searching for nearly an hour on every corner of the Internet, and I’m no closer to finding this book. What in the name of the saints canonized and those yet to be canonized is happening in my parcel of reality? Perhaps there is some sort of clue in the paper…oh no… (Sigh).
The reason I don’t have Sixth Avenue Sunday Sartorial Splendor is because literally only one person in the world has it: The person who wrote it. I only needed to read a bit further into his paper to see the proof:
“Sixth Avenue Sunday Sartorial Splendor, the debut novel by the author of Paper Cabbage Patch….”
I’ve only kicked a chair across the room twice in my life. I’ve just sent the second chair sprawling to the other side of my sunlit reading room, so I’ve self-fulfilled that prophecy. Now, I need to somehow make sense of the attitude of a student that didn’t have the courtesy of letting his teacher read his “debut novel” so that he could make sense of the term paper derived from it.
I feel lightheaded. I attempt to latch onto something sturdy, but it is too late. My legs give out, I fall backwards, and I can actually see my blonde hair trailing skywards from the periphery of my vision as gravity does its dirty work. I lie on my back, sprawled, one shoe off my right foot, the cool sweat sublimating off my toes care of the air generated by the ceiling fan. The room is spinning, and there is no proprietor of a bookstore, “Books” or otherwise, to save me from the creeping Kafkaesque.
I’m still clutching the paper in my hand despite the fall, and my anger sublimates into curiosity. What on earth is this book about? I should applaud a student willing to undertake the difficult task of writing fiction, so I should at least give it a chance. So, I flip to a random page.
“…the author shows wisdom beyond his years in illustrating the frustration inherent in the long distance relationship between the main character, Harper Sharperly and his on again, off again girlfriend, Anna Chang, the President of the United States of America. The author, demonstrating an assuredness that makes the reader forget that they are reading a debut written by a precocious high school student, dispenses with any writerly affect and constructs terse but effective prose. The language surrounding Harper’s grand revelation is reminiscent of early period Hemingway:
President Chang: “You always said that your love is as predictable as the arrival of spring.’
Harper Sharperly: ‘It is.’
President Chang: ‘What is wrong?’
Harper Sharperly: ‘Spring will arrive on schedule. I won’t be there to greet it.’
President Chang: ‘Why?’
Harper Sharperly: ‘Cancer.’
President Chang: ‘Sad.’
Harper Sharperly, mathematician laureate to two Presidents, will join the unfortunate pantheon of other American failures like Willie Loman who typify the true American experience for the rank-and-file middle class striver. Did Harper Sharperly ever truly love Anna Chang, or did the allure of dating the single most important American citizen, the President of the United States of America, transform him into a creature of unrepentant power lust? Some scholars have suggested that the word ‘America’ is sufficient to trigger a culturally pre-loaded response: the lust for cosmic ambition.”
“Sad?” You can't have a character just say how they feel in a work of fiction! That makes me feel furious! Also, what respectable scholar believes that the word “America” triggers power lust? I’ve been ignoring the bibliographies up to this point, but I need to find the culprit that is poisoning my students so I can blacklist him and the tenured sophist that presided over his thesis defense. I scan for the tell-tale “12” that serves as the code for the bibliographic reference, and with a diabolical smile prepare to etch into my brain the person who has my early vote for one of the worst scholars of the young century.
9. Sanderson, Milton. “Hemingway and the Gathering Shadow: The Impact of Mental Illness on the Career of Ernest Hemingway.” American Journal of Literature. 12.1 (2001): 23-26.
10. Bernstein, Etta. “Hemingway, Faulkner, and the Lost Generation: The End of the Beginning of an Era.” Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism. 23.2.3 (1998): 2-18.
11. Smith, Jasper and David McClellan. “Hemingway and the Fragile Masculine.” International Journal of English Studies. 10.22.2 (2012).
12. Last Name Withheld, First Name Withheld. “American Term Paper.” (2016): 18-21.
What! The metacommentator! My students are citing each other? I wish they were plagiarizing each other’s content like normal teenagers, which is at the very least a mark of prudence, but considering another student’s non-peer reviewed, unpublished high school term paper as a credible academic source? When did I even faintly suggest that this was okay? Can’t they be two-bit frauds with some scant measure of predictability? What on earth do I do if this is a widespread problem? Perhaps I should just dip each paper into a can of red paint to save myself the hours of justifiable red pen punishment I so badly want to inflict. I don’t care if they line up outside my office to whine about it. They don’t deserve a scarlet letter; they deserve an entire scarlet alphabet!
SEND THEM ALL! Every parent, student, administrator, metacommentator, epigrapher, and well-read white supremacist that wants me thrown out of my job! I’ll hole up in my office and put on a last stand so epic that the Spartans at Thermopylae will look like a bunch of petulant children unwilling to leave the playground after the first recess bell.
Breathe. Breathe. Calm down. Calm…down. One…Two…Three…Four… (Sigh). Calm down, Regina, this isn’t unsalvageable, just keep looking for the purple stripe, the one student that listened—Wait!—I’m the tenured sophist! I’ve etched my own name into my grey matter in the academic hall of shame. “American Term Paper” has cost me my own self-respect. I may not be presiding over his thesis defense, but whether I like it or not the still anonymous author of “American Term Paper” is my intellectual progeny. If I die now, he’s my legacy.
How on earth could I not smell this skunk carcass rotting underneath the floor of my classroom all semester? Why do they even care to cite each other? Credibility? Is this what high schoolers do now to look cool? When I was in school, the boys used to pin bottle caps to their belts to indicate how many girls they’d slept with. The girls had their own system, albeit far more clandestine. Is this the new high school social currency? Do the girls stand blushing in the hallways in admiration of the young Adonis leaning next to his locker, the most-cited student in high school?
One more paper! There must be a purple stripe in the dirty robe, a Kohinoor-studded diadem buried amongst the costume jewelry. One solid, well-written paper I can be proud of. I dispense with formality, and dig frantically through the pile like a raccoon digging through garbage. I stop for no rhyme or reason other than I was able to suppress my fear long enough to pick a paper out of the pile.
After the parade of war crimes I’ve been subjected to, I’ve become allergic to turning pages. In fact, I actually flinch after turning the first page. “Iphigeneia and the Evolution of the Tragic Hero.” I slowly start to read, checking carefully for epigraphs, the word “American”, and racial readings of Euripides. I celebrate my good fortune as the paper not only seems solid, but begins to pick up momentum. I turn the pages faster and faster, taking in some of the best argumentation I’ve seen in a paper in at least a few years. Is this my salvation? We’re just a few pages from the end, and her writing is excellent. Oh no! She’s preparing to argue with Aristotle. This isn’t fatal. We’re one page from the end. Can she stick the landing?
“…Aristotle in his On Poetics takes issue with the fact that Iphigeneia is portrayed inconsistently. Aristotle’s otherwise sage tome sags a bit as he places overemphasis on consistency as a hallmark for the construction of a tragic character. Consistency, in his view, is the fourth measure of a well-constructed tragic character. However, his previous rule contradicts him….”
Deep breaths. It all comes down to this.
“His third rule requires that characters be lifelike. The only commentary scholars provide us for this rule is that lifelike doesn’t mean good in the sense of moral alignment. Here, we may need to depart slightly from his On Poetics…”
Oh no! Oh no! Here it comes. I can’t help but panic pre-emptively.
“…because the text of On Poetics is badly damaged in many places, and partially incomplete in others due to the state of the copies we have from the European manuscript tradition91. We are left alone to make sense of the term ‘lifelike’. Aristotle’s fundamental error was forgetting that to be fully human implies a lack of consistency in human character, and that this was the very key to making characters lifelike….”
Yes…yes…go…go…the finish line approaches ….
“…Euripides stands above his contemporaries Aeschylus and Sophocles in some scholar’s eyes because he appreciated that ordinary people were incapable of extraordinary feats. Iphigeneia, as a suppliant, throws herself at her father Agamemnon’s feet, crying and begging to be spared being sacrificed to Artemis. Aristotle forgets that she is only a young girl. She stares death and the loss of all hopes that a person may harbor such as marriage, children, and a peaceful old age. However, her heroism arises not from a heroic consistency, but her heroic transformation. She comes to terms with her sacrifice, and sees herself as the mechanism for delivering victory to Greece. The archetypal ‘heroes’ like Menelaus, Agamemnon, and Achilles have all failed, and this poor young girl is the only hope for the Greek expedition. An expedition, one might add, that is based solely upon the retrieval of Helen, who willingly left her husband Menelaus to be with Paris. The Trojan War is not a patriotic war, but ultimately a personal quarrel inflicted upon Iphigenia. It is common for humans to face death due to the mistakes of others, and by dying nobly for an unjust cause, she cements herself as a truly great hero. Euripides seems to agree, as just before the knife is plunged into her body, Artemis spirits her away. Even death has no dominion over a truly great tragic hero.”
I’m in tears. The purple stripe is found, and some measure of sanity has been restored. I do a pirouette, and in the process I drop the purple stripe back into the pile of white robes. I laugh heartily, and bend over to grab the paper, which is open to a random page in the bibliography.
34. Lattimore, Richard. “Aristotle and proto-Aesthetics.” Journal of Greece Studies. 1.3 (2005): 6-12.
35. Hadas, Moses. “Euripides and His Age.” International Greco-Roman Journal. 20.12 (1986): 17-24.
36. Last Name Withheld, First Name Withheld. “American Term Paper.” (2016): 2-5.
37. Brayerly, Annette. “Recent Manuscript Discoveries from the Athenian Golden Age.” (2014): 88-97.
Now there is a list of scholars I can get behind. Richard Lattimore, Moses Hadas, and…and…AND…NOT YOU TOO! My purple stripe! My precious purple stripe! I must BURN my house down! I…I have to get out of here, NOW! I throw the paper to the floor, open the closest door, and take off barefoot down the street, running as hard as my feet are able….
Six weeks later….
Principal Shepard arrived at his office early in the morning on the first day following the end of the school year. His sentimental heart yearned to hear the din of students in the hall, but he knew he’d have to be patient until the football players came back for their off-season workouts months from now. The teachers’ steps through the halls would be his only soundtrack now until—until he was interrupted by the glimmer of a staple attached to a few sheets of paper placed in the center of his glass desk.
He furrowed his brow, sat down into his chair, and proceeded to analyze this unexpected arrival on his desk. The office was dead silent.
“American Resignation,” Principal Shepard mouthed gently though his vocal chords didn’t vibrate enough to produce a sound. He turned the page, and was greeted by a quote neatly centered on the page.
“I speak to those who know; to those who don’t my mind’s a blank.
I never say a word.”
Principal Shepard had been a history teacher in his teaching life, so ancient learnings and lectures began to thaw in his mind. He tried to work inductively to solve the mystery of why a quote was attached to a piece of official business.
“An epigraph?! In a resignation?” Principal Shepard said loudly enough for the echo of his words to reverberate down the hall. It was 9:16 on Monday morning.