I’ve been thinking about papers – school papers (as opposed to newspapers or rolling papers) – one especially that I wrote for high school English in my senior year. I broke every rule about how to produce the paper (someday I’ll tell the story how, but not now) and I still received an A+ on it. It was about film editing and how it was one of the defining elements of what makes a movie a movie.
For reasons that so far escape me, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I may have actually said in that paper, wondering if I still believed any of it.
Too bad the paper was never returned to me. I’d had a chance to look it over. Mr. senior year English teacher, Mr. Hurley, allowed me to see the grade he placed on it, but needed it back for whatever arcane recording purposes Chicago Public Schools teachers needed to hold on to senior papers. I saw the grade, glanced over its contents and a few penciled-in comments, and back it went into Mr. Hurley’s folder.
On the last day of classes, my last day of high school, I sought out Mr. Hurley in his classroom. In the corridors, students were emptying their lockers as if they were those German military functionaries you always saw in the World War II movies, where the Allies are advancing and the Axis minions are throwing all their maps and files into big fires. I probably didn’t see any bonfires in the hallways of John F. Kennedy High School, but it looked like the word was out that everything – EVERYTHING! – must be destroyed. The trash cans were filled to the max, so the hallways effectively became the trash cans. The other significant difference was that the students were in a much better mood about dumping textbooks into garbage bins than the gray-uniformed officers seemed to be about torching their precious documents (the moral to this side-tale appears to be that any organization which lives by bureaucracy dies by bureaucracy).
When confronted, Mr. Hurley claimed my paper was in his office and would be “difficult to locate at this moment.” I’m not sure if he was speaking of the paper or his office. Either way, he looked like a man with a briefcase filled with embezzled funds and a phony passport in the pocket of his sportcoat. Or perhaps he was afraid the First Division had already secured that part of the building. Whatever was really on his mind, he looked surprised that I would want the paper returned, but insisted he would get it back to me “somehow.”
That was in 1973.
Since then, I have seen neither the paper nor Mr. Hurley.
Mr. Hurley was never someone you’d characterize as a teacher dedicated to his subject. I don’t recall many literary discussions in his class, nor did he ever endeavor to instill in his students a love for the written word. I do recall we spent a lot of time going over selected cantos from Paradise Lost, but I also recall we were considering them more like a legal document than a work of poetry.
English as a subject for Mr. Hurley was one of those “skills” you pick up to advance your opportunities for advancement in the faceless offices of industry and commerce. Your District Supervisor might note that you can hammer out a letter more grammatically than your fellow underlings, or make a better presentation at a sales conference, and thereby you’ll earn enough to purchase a better grade of white shirt to go along with your double-knit suit and Christmas tie.
To Mr. Hurley, from what I experienced, the inherent value of literature as literature was no value at all. He was a notably uninspiring English teacher, though he may have been a good chess player (I believe he also sponsored the school’s chess team).
My adolescent thoughts on film editing are no great loss to the world, I suppose. I just wonder, as I enter (or extend my occupancy of) my dotage, what those thought were. I may have been smart, by accident. Or I may have been stupid in a seemingly smart way. In those days, I was a passionate lover of the cinema. Today, I find myself rather estranged from the medium, with notable exceptions. I find myself ranting over the shortage of great films and great filmmaking – until I encounter a great film, and my love of the form is reborn.
I am curious, though, if the paper might help me figure out if I loved cinema because it was a great storytelling medium, or if I discovered my love of storytelling from my love of movies. The difference may be slight, but it’s the slight distinctions that mean the most.
There are two other of my papers that are apparently lost to the ages, both of them dating from my grad school years at Northwestern University. The professors for whom I wrote them are now deceased.
In one of them, I came up with my most incisive thoughts on the novelist Muriel Spark and her great novel, Loitering With Intent. The paper effectively saved my grade. I was expecting a B at best from Professor Elizabeth Dipple and somehow managed to pull an A- on the strength of that paper. The thoughts came to me, though, in the midst of some 3 a.m. inspiration (and a haze of caffeine and nicotine) and for the most part now escape me. I would like to read over my “brilliant” analysis of Ms. Spark’s novel, in case I ever need to be that brilliant again. But I doubt I ever will (see the paper or ever be that brilliant, take your pick).
The other paper took on Heart of Darkness – a topic my professor specifically warned the class against because, to paraphrase, “I have read everything that has been said or ever can be said about that book, and nothing you can write will strike me as new or interesting.”
Yet I persisted, approaching the novel as a critique of reality, eventually connecting it up to the works of – believe it or not – Philip K. Dick. It all had to do with A.) the frame story, and B.) Marlow’s hatred of lies, leading to the lie Marlow tells in the end. Oh, it also had references to the “fascination of the abomination,” the description of one being “captured by the incredible that is the very essence of dreams,” and Marlow’s regarding his choice of nightmares. I linked all these to Borges, Philip K. Dick and Gene Wolfe.
How I got away with it, I’ll never know.
While I was working on a final examination in class, the professor, Alfred Appel, looked over the final papers that were turned in at the beginning of class, including mine. At a point halfway through the examination, I heard the professor loudly whisper, “Son of a bitch!” I looked up and could see he was reading one of the papers. Either from immodest egotism, or unhealthy self-contempt, I could not help but suspect he had gotten to my paper.
But I did receive an A for the course, whether on the strength of that paper or not, I’ll never know.
I kind of wish I could know, but I can’t.
So I’ll just have to come up with something better.
Happy New Year to all!