The Enlightenment of Petty Thievery

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.

Amy Vansant
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9 Responses

  1. Nicole

    “How had I gone through all of undergrad completely unaware that typewriters could vomit?” HILARIOUS!

    It really bothers me when profs (of any field) act like their subject is the greatest thing on the planet. Yes, be enthusiastic, but don’t act like everyone is SUPPOSED to love it. I know that my students aren’t going to love everything I assign. My job isn’t to make them love it (though it’s a bonus when it happens). My job is to make them think critically and analytically. But it’s nice to see that you did get something out of it.


  2. SarcasticNinja

    Who is to say that LSD and heroin do NOT provide the greatest truths of all? Although copious alcohol seems to be the more respectable truth-reflecting vehicle of literary types in my acquaintance.


  3. Lance

    This maybe your best post because it not only reveals your roots but also tell brutal effin honesty about writing.

    I had a college professor reject a novella I’d written. I was 20-years-old. I learned more in that rejection than I did two weeks later when I won an associated press award for being a news reporter.

    great post


    • Amy Vansant

      Why thank you sir. I saw something on television the other day about some kid whose teacher told him he sucked (I think at singing) and he was awesome. Don’t believe everything you’re told!


  4. Vesta Vayne


    I once took a social theory seminar, and on the first day of class, the professor walked in and said she had decided we would focus on torture. Halfway through the quarter, we were having nightmares as a result of the books and films she assigned. She even made everyone attend a meeting for survivors of the Killing Fields. It was so bad that two of my fellow students took to hitting up happy hour before class to get through it, and one evening they must have had one too many margaritas, because they told her the class was so depressing that they had to be drunk in order to attend. The professor asked the class if it was true, and we all nodded. She turned on her heel and stormed out of the room, cancelled the last two sessions, and gave everyone an A.


  5. Jessica Holt

    Ohhh the irony, I also love classic literature and sometimes alternative even though I agree it can get pretty damn weird. I also battled with teachers in college, now I realize I should’ve done more listening less arguing, that whole grown up thing is deep yo



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