Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Confessions of a Literary Hoaxer, or Thar She Blows!

By Lisa G.

I'm not saying I'm proud of this. I'm just being honest.

I'm a cheat. A fraud. A literary deceiver...

It started with a book. A very BIG book. To be specific, THIS book:

Moby Dick was required reading for a course in American literature I took as an undergrad. The professor who chose it was Sister Jeanne, one of the faculty at Rosary College in River Forest, IL. Sister Jeanne was a particularly shrunken, tiny little thing. I don't remember her even coming up to my shoulder, and at 5' 6" I'm not particularly tall. She was like a little gnome.

An angry, angry little gnome.

It always sounds suspicious when a person claims "I got a bad grade in that class because the teacher hated me." Yeah, okay. When my daughter uses that one it irritates the living hell out of me, because I know what things like that mean. They mean "I didn't do the work, my grade sucked, and I need a scapegoat." That's about as irritating as anything gets, seeing your child fail to take responsibility for something, bailing out, and apparently not learning from the screw up.

But that wasn't so in my particular case. I know this professor hated me, in ways only an angry little gnome can hate.

I was a very serious student, and I mean from the beginning of time. No one had to hound me to do my homework. No one ever helped me with it, actually. I was as solitary in my pursuit of education as I was in everything else. I was self-driven. I had my eyes on the prize, and that prize was a college education. No one in my family had ever graduated from college before I did. I had some cousins who graduated, but no one in my immediate family had, and neither had my parents, grandparents or anyone in my direct lineage. So when I was accepted to college it was a pretty big deal.

I grew up in downstate Illinois ("downstate" meaning everything south of Chicago) in a rural farming community. I grew up in town, but "in town" is a relative term in a place that small. In town there would be in the middle of nowhere most anyplace else. I left home the stereotypical wide-eyed Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm, minus the goofy straw hat, the braids and the suitcase held together with a rope. I came to the Chicago area at age 18, and everything looked huge to me. It looked huge, crowded and just a little bit scary. But I was ecstatic to be there. Ecstatic to have accomplished my dream of getting into college. And to study literature, my first and truest love, put me on cloud nine.

In my first semester of school I met a guy in the library. I was in there studying, and he was doing... Hell, I still don't know what he was doing, but he was there and he wasn't bad to look at. This guy was a lot older than I was. He'd not only gotten his B.A., but he also had his M.B.A. Though I generally have the social skills of a cloistered monk, for some reason I talked to him. Call it fate. Call it karma. Call it a really, really bad choice.

From there it progressed to dating, and from dating to the crushing devastation of breaking up. It was a first break up for me, and it was a nasty one, about as acrimonius as such things get. And he deserved every bit of that.

I hope he's still picking the eggs off his car, too.

A couple semesters later, I found out what I thought was just an interesting, weird fact. One of my professors had been a really close friend of this guy's family for ages. She was a periodic guest at their dinner table, a gargoyle-like decoration they, for whatever reason, liked having around. And now she was my American literature professor. To her this guy I'd broken up with was like a son, and I was the harpie who'd ditched him. Never mind what he did, and why I broke things off. I had the scarlet letter "H" sewn on my chest, as far as she was concerned.

She and I had a track record of not getting along. I'd previously taken a course on women writers with this woman, and her spite actually led me to dislike Jane Austen, something not too many people could achieve. So when I was forced to take another course with her I already had that bad taste in my mouth. I dreaded it, but I knew there was nothing to be done. I was stuck with her.

When I took that earlier course on women writers I didn't realize her connection with HIS family. But the next time around I did. Because she herself mentioned it. She mentioned it when she called me to her office, after having nailed me to the wall grading an essay test I'd taken for this course. I knew the grade was unfair, and complained to my advisor. My advisor, in turn, told me I had to take it up with the professor, the angry little spitfire who thought I'd broken her surrogate son's heart. If he'd actually had one.

In the course of that meeting, she told me she'd been a good friend of my former boyfriend's family. I heard how much she liked them, how she still went to dinner there, and, in a barely-veiled way, what a strumpet I was. I was agog, but nothing she said was actually incriminating to her directly. Nothing would hold up in a formal complaint, but I knew how she felt, and that she was using that power to directly taint my grade in her class. I left frustrated, knowing I had no redress.

Enter Moby Dick, the aforementioned really long, really classic book. A book so long and so dry, every time I sat down to read it I did my best impression of a narcoleptic. I could not keep my eyes open for more than a few pages, despite trying over and over. The problem was, I needed to read it so I could write a paper on it. For Sister Jeanne's American literature class. To top it off, I was already at a disadvantage, because by then I knew Sister Jeanne would gladly have stabbed me in the heart with her crucifix, had there been any way she could get away with that. Not what you'd call an ideal relationship, complicated by the fact I could not get through this book. It was the first book I'd ever had that problem with, the first I found unreadable. But I had no choice but to write that paper.

Long story short, I did write the paper. But I never read the book. I read a lot of background material, a lot of criticism, and I dug out commentary on the plot, the characters and the symbolism. Weirdly, I could read those dry, academic tomes, but I couldn't read the actual novel. I probably worked as hard as I would have if I'd only been able to read the primary text, and I put a lot into that paper. I turned in the paper with trepidation, and not a little guilt. I don't like when things defeat me, especially when we're talking books. And Moby Dick did, for all practical purposes, kick my ass. Despite knowing I'd defied the little troll, it didn't feel all that great.

So, how did I do with the paper? Sister Jeanne, remarkably enough, gave me a "B." A "B," which stands for... Oh, never mind. Best not to speak ill of the sadistic. Even though I had technically cheated on that paper, because I hadn't read Moby Dick, I'd apparently managed to fake it well enough that even she, in good conscience, couldn't give me the grade she'd have loved to. In a weird way I felt vindicated At least until I faced her again, for the last time, for my senior seminar. But that's another story.

The last I heard Sister Jeanne had retired, to that place old nuns go to fade away. I don't know which side of the pale she's on now. I haven't kept track. But wherever she is, I'd like her to know...

"Nannie, nannie, booo booo!"

Oh, and Sister? I still haven't read the book. But you know what? I will. When I'm darn good and ready.

*Originally published at Bluestalking Reader.

No comments: