During my last semester at college, I took a Narrative Journalism class taught by a Real Journalist. I heard that school officials considered it a real coup to get him to teach–and it was. He was a Pulitzer prize winner whose byline had appeared in the kind of publications that people read proudly in Starbucks, spread out on their coffee tables when company comes over, and cite in arguments they want to win. He was knowledgeable, intent on really teaching his students, and a damn good writer.
He scared the bejeezus out of me.
He looked like an older Mr. Clean or a younger Mr. Magoo, but he oozed toughness and had a zero-tolerance, no-nonsense attitude…when he was happy. On the first day of class, there were at least thirty students eagerly awaiting the prof’s arrival. When he did finally appear, he froze in the doorway and raised his eyebrows. “There’s a lot of you this semester!” We all looked around and sort of chuckled, because that’s what you do when a teacher makes an unfunny comment. He put his briefcase on the podium and his hands on his hips. “Well, no matter. I expect at least half of you will be gone by next class. Nothing personal, you just won’t make it because either you or your writing won’t hold up.” Interestingly enough, he was right. By the second class, our numbers had significantly dwindled.
He was really into calling on people out of the blue. I thought of it like guerilla teaching because he would psych the class out, pretend he was focused on the board or a book or another topic, then suddenly bark “You! Michael! Your lede! Now!” Some students, I think, got a big kick out of the criticism. “Snore! Boring! You have to make sure the reader gets beyond the first sentence! Your third sentence is decent–why did you hide it? You’ve got to use your brain a little more–think about it!”
I had a merciless love-hate relationship with this course. I recognized the value of the learning experience, but when it was time for class I would cling to the ceiling like a terrified cat and my roommate would have to approach cautiously and coax me down in a gentle voice. “It’ll be okay…You can do this…Pretty girl…Good girl…” It was a three-hour class (7-10 p.m.) and sometimes during our mid-class break I would see other students grabbing a late-evening snack or hanging around the quad and I’d dream about making a break for it. I had a big soul-searching experience though, and decided that my fight or flight instincts were heavily skewed and mightily screwed up. (Fight or flight? Which way is the door?) So, even though the class and the teacher made me cower and sweat (on the inside and outside, respectively), I stayed. I stuck it out.
My final assignment of the semester was a profile on the author Michelle Huneven–whose work is fabulously haunting, by the way. When I got one of my many drafts back the professor’s comments were inserted directly into the piece and written in all caps. It gave the impression that he was interrupting my paper to yell his thoughts.
Huneven is the author of three novels which GO ON A “WHICH” HUNT! KILL THE WHICH! IT DRAGS YOUR WRITING DOWN DOWN DOWN! have individually and collectively earned critical praise and success.
He definitely had some problems with my profile, but in between the critique, if you looked carefully, were little nuggets of praise. It’s not like he gushed or anything, but that was the point. He wasn’t a gusher; you earned his compliments or you didn’t. That’s why those nuggets–extra crispy, the way approval should be–meant the world to me.
Recently, I deleted these comments. It was an accident–a horrible, tragic accident. To make a long story short (and this has gotten to be a long story) I had a whole bunch of windows open on my computer screen and didn’t realize which one I was working in. Stupidly, I deleted his comments and when Word asked if I wanted to save all changes, I clicked yes.
At first I thought I could ask some techy person (gods, in my opinion) and they could magically find what I had foolishly lost. But what’s saved is saved. When I truly realized what I had done, I unraveled. I’ll admit, I even cried. I’d been storing those comments like nuts for the winter. I’d been treasuring them like a mystical golden ring. (“My precious!”) My mom happened to call during this little crisis and, after decoding the situation from my frustrated ranting, asked if I still had the article itself. Well, yes. I still had the profile I had written on Huneven, just not the critique by my professor. “But you have the article!” My mom said. As far as she was concerned, that was what was important.
I’ve tried to find comfort in the fact that my words weren’t lost. Shouldn’t I care more about my work than this response to it? Who cares if I can’t quote exactly what those comments said, as long as I remember how I felt reading them. That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is that I’m still mourning the loss of those comments. I think we all keep little reminders of success and struggle. It’s an ego thing. It’s a confidence thing. It’s a human thing.
Before you ask, my computer now automatically makes backups and saves originals, so hopefully that will counteract my technological foolishness. You know one of the most frustrating things about this experience? When I told people what happened, they would say things like “You didn’t back it up?” or “That’s why you should always have a copy elsewhere.” Let me tell you, as legitimate and natural as those reactions may be, they’re just not particularly helpful or comforting. I might have to teach an etiquette course so people know how to properly deal with computer document bereavement. For me, there was a lot of chocolate involved, which (WHICH!) I should probably devote a whole class to….