Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Second Looking

The revulsion I felt at a particular moment in college comes to mind, from time to time. Revved up over an English class assignment to write a paper on The Second Coming, by W. B. Yeats, I stayed up all night crafting it, and thought I had hit a home run.

The professor, an awkward, gangly sort of fellow in his late-20s, gave me a “C” on it. A few days before he had given me a "B" on a pop quiz on a short story that I hadn't even read; all I knew was the title and who wrote it.

Well, I just had to ask him to explain to me what was wrong with the paper I had written on The Second Coming. In a private conference he told me my analysis of the poem didn't jibe with the accepted school of thought on what Yeats was saying. While admitting my writing and analytical technique were fine, he nervously explained that I was simply wrong in my conclusions, no matter how well-stated my case might have been.


That pissed me off, so I told him I thought that ambiguity could imply multiple meanings, and it deliberately invited alternative interpretations. Rather than defend as his rather narrow minded stance the man suddenly grabbed his face and broke into tears.

The sobbing professor went into a monologue on the shambles his life had fallen into. His personal life! Worst of all, he said, his deferral had just been denied by Selective Service, so he would soon be drafted.

He was wearing a pitiful brown suit. His thinning beige hair was oiled flat against his scalp. My anger over the bad grade turned into disgust from his out-of-control behavior. As I remember it, I walked out of his office to keep from telling him what I thought.

Now, 40 years later, I feel sorry as hell for the poor schlemiel. And, I can't understand why I had so little sympathy for him then. Instead, all I had to offer was the impatience of youth.

Over the years since, when I've read The Second Coming or seen a reference to it, that day's oddball occurrence flashes by. It did today.

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