In Grad school, I registered for a class entitled “Alternative Literature.” As an English major, I thought anything with “literature” in the title would be safe.
My professor for this class rolled in behind me, draped in a hemp dress that made Jerry Garcia look like a lawyer. Professor W. stood 5-foot nothing and weighed 100lbs, five of it armpit hair. She hefted a worn macramé shoulder pack to her desk and retrieved a stack of photocopied syllabi filled with unfamiliar book titles. She rambled about the glory of “alternate ways of writing” and “stream of consciousness.” She read paragraphs from novels that sounded less like literature and more like someone had thrown a handful of Scrabble tiles across her desk.
At the end of the hour, I snatched a dog-eared copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald and bolted for the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, eager to find my bearings.
I assured myself this class couldn’t be as horrific as it seemed and opted not to drop out. I needed the credits and books were books. Books would never hurt me. If I had survived Chaucer, surely some drug-addled flower child with the vision to record his worst trip during his worst trip couldn’t drag me down a literary alley, never to be seen again.
I steeled myself and stopped at the school store to buy Professor W.’s list of “alternative classics.” I pulled paperbacks from the shelves; their pages stained with the frustrated tears of true literature lovers.
Curled in a quiet spot, I began reading our first assignment, a book that made James Joyce’s Ulysses seem like a well-organized grocery list.
How had I gone through all of undergrad completely unaware that typewriters could vomit?
In my world, books made sense. Words were separated by spaces. Sentences ENDED. Period, exclamation point, question mark, I don’t care, PICK ONE. Hell, even Faulkner ended a sentence once in a while. Professor W. had done everything but assign us books in the form of papier-mâché.
War began in the classroom. Professor W. read disjointed interior monologues aloud and raved about their deep truth. I offered that if everything someone wrote while delirious on heroin was the truth, then “Need Money” scrawled on cardboard with feces must be the greatest truth of all, and hey, how were we not assigned THAT?
She glowered at me. I sneered at her. She vowed to convert me. I told her she had my permission to shoot me if that happened. The poor woman didn’t realize I had the advantage of being young and knowing I was right about everything.
Our battles became so legendary that one of the professors I respected sat me down to talk on Prof. W’s behalf. He told me to wait it out and stop provoking the woman. Apparently, the other professors were tired of her tirades about me in the teacher’s lounge.
Finally, the semester ended.
Fresh out of Prof. W.’s literary LSD literary experiment, I made my way to her office to see the grades posted just outside her door. Next to the grade sheet hung a cartoon, stapled to the corkboard. It featured two dogs in conversation. One was Hemingway’s dog and the other, Faulkner’s. Like their owner’s writing styles, Hemingway’s dog spoke in short, choppy woofs, while Faulkner’s dog rambled endlessly.
“Arf and arf,” said Hemingway’s dog. “A clean woof.”
“Woofed woofingly (yet arf arfarearf) bowwowing…” rambled Faulkner’s dog.
English major humor! I loved it.
I took it.
I popped the staples out with my fingernails and slipped the cartoon into my notebook. I enacted my petty revenge against Professor W.’s literary chaos by stealing her cartoon. Conversely, Professor W had missed her chance for revenge. She’d given me an “A.”
It was a clear win for team ME and literature lovers everywhere.
Years later, yellowing cartoon still pinned my office wall, I had a mortifying epiphany.
Professor W. had not only owned a Hemingway cartoon, she’d pinned it to her wall. How had I not realized that I’d stolen the very thing that proved Professor W. also appreciated more classic literature? Her goal had not been to break me, Spanish Inquisition-style, until I confessed my love for the mad ramblings of smacked up bohemians. She had only wanted me to open my mind to other possibilities; to experience different approaches that may have influenced and enhanced the works of later generations, even if they were a bit extreme in their attempts to inspire.
Or, maybe she just did a lot of drugs. I don’t know.
Either way, at five-foot nothing, Professor W. had been the bigger woman by a mile.
For years, I’d kept the cartoon as a trophy. Now, I keep it as a reminder to be open to new things and not be a brat when my ideas are challenged. To remind me how petty I could be, and to inspire myself to never act like that again.
I am still not a fan of wildly alternative literature, but I like to think I’ve grown up a little. Or to explain it in terms Professor W. would understand:
Hm. Was that petty?
I might still have a little work to do. But I apologize for my behavior, Professor W., wherever you are… twenty years too late.
Essay first published in Underwire Magazine.
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