Wednesday, September 07, 2005

What I Learned in College; And I Did Learn Something

College students are back on campus, and I've been talking with young relatives about their boring classes and unpleasant professors. So now I'm dwelling on happy memories of the objectionable profs I was forced to spend time with many years ago.

Two people are standouts from the miserable first semester of my miserable freshman year. One taught English, the other history. Conincidentally, those were my two best subjects.

The English professor taught some kind of introductory writing course. He was a pompous, arrogant male. He was very fond of himself. I remember thinking, is this what happens to the smart boys I was so attracted to in high school? They turn into this? However, this guy had us buy The New York Sunday Times each week, which is how I came to know The New York Times Book Review. Over the next ten or fifteen years or so I would learn more about writing from reading The New York Times Book Review than I ever learned in any writing course I ever took.

I didn't know that was going to happen, though, while I was that professor's student. I definitely didn't feel I was learning anything from him, and I came to despise him. He wasn't fond of me, either. I don't know. Maybe it was something I said. In all honesty, I tended to be kind of mouthy and know-it-allish back then.

Well, one day this professor praised my writing in class and said that if I worked hard, I would accomplish something with it. I felt, whether justified or not, that in some way I had forced him to make that admission. Right there on the spot I learned that by being good at something, you could sort of...vindicate yourself. Doing well was a kind of revenge.

That philosophy stuck with me. More than twenty years later, it would become part of my second book, A Year with Butch and Spike.

Now the history professor from freshman year had a lot of...odd...physical and verbal mannerisms. In addition, he liked to wear very thin, white dress shirts with nothing under them--a look that to this day creeps me out. If this guy taught us anything about world history, I sure couldn't figure out what it was. I did well in his class, but didn't know how I was doing it. Either he was brilliant, and I was lost, or we really weren't doing much of anything, and I was lost.

One day this professor told us about his license plate. Yeah, professors tend to ramble. But, believe it or not, this one wasn't. He told us he had a vanity plate with the word "Bodo" on it. Bodo was the name of a peasant who lived in St. Germaine de Pres (somewhere around Paris) in the middle ages. His existence has been documented, and you can read about it the way I had to. The professor drove a car with the name "Bodo" on it to remind his students that history is not just about the high and the mighty; it's mainly about people who are just the opposite.

And ever since the knowledge that history is about just plain folks has became my guiding thought in studying it or just reading it. That thought was a big, big factor when I was writing The Hero of Ticonderoga.

If I didn't believe that blogs should be short, I'd tell you about my Canadian lit and expository writing classes. Didn't learn much in either of those, but they've had a big impact on my life.

So, you see, boys and girls, that even the worst professors have something to offer in their own weird, twisted ways. It will just take you half a lifetime to figure out what it is.

I'm still waiting to see what I'm going to get from that political science class I took junior year.

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