"Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place."
-- Unknown

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Glutton for punishment

Weekly writing assignment from MamaKat: Write about a scary encounter with one of your old professors.

My freshman year, I walked into my Honors Composition 1 class with confidence. I had always excelled in my high school English classes and had no reason to expect that this would be any different. The professor came in and I thought, “Oh, he looks like a nice man. This will be fun.”

Then he opened his mouth.

Dr. Day came down hard on us from the very beginning. He said he knew, as honor students, we had coasted through school with much praise for our infinite “talents”. He assured us we’d get none of that in his class. He told us that up until that moment we had been ignorant underclassmen, but if we could admit that, work hard and prove ourselves, we might turn out to be worth something after all. He yelled at us. He told us his class was going to be hard and that we would not be babied. He made a lot of people really, really mad. I found it amusing.

We had numerous writing assignments throughout the semester, most with self-generated topics (meant to teach us to think for ourselves.) He rarely gave us any direction until after the papers were handed in. And here’s how the critique process worked: At the beginning of the semester, we picked a pen name and anonymously signed it to a sheet of paper that was placed into an envelope and sealed with hot wax. When we turned in our assignments, we used our pen names and ran enough copies for the whole class. Then, everyone would pass their papers out, face down, before Dr. Day came in the room. Once he came in, each paper was reviewed aloud by the class, each person making comments and criticizing various aspects of your work. Sometimes it was harsh, but looking back now, it really makes sense. No one knew who you were, so there was no bias in the critique. Nothing personal. And it really prepared me for the real world, where my work is criticized on a daily basis. You have to learn to take it constructively and grow from it.

So the semester continued, with the ever angry Dr. Day shouting at us while constantly insulting our intelligence. He pushed us to be unique — lecturing us on the uselessness of clich├ęs. He made a lot of enemies that semester. I found that many students weren’t strong enough to take such brutal tactics, and I was pleased that it wasn’t affecting me on that level. I saw people cry after class, and each time I became more determined to do my best.

Finals came, and as we expected, Dr. Day did things his own way. Instead of a written paper, we had a Viva, which he explained was the testing process at Oxford (his Alma Mater.) He had graded our pseudonym all semester and this was the moment of truth. He would finally know the real person behind the name. We were called one by one to the front of the class to answer his questions aloud. No paper, no time to think. For the first time all semester, I was genuinely afraid. And my question? “Miss O’Quin, your papers have been decent this semester, but I really don’t want to give you an A. Why should I?” Seriously?? I rambled on about taking constructive criticism and trying to grow, seeing the positive in things and staying true to myself. And then he said something completely unexpected. He asked me about the people of the Holocaust. “Do you think they were able to see the positive in life while they were locked in Auschwitz, Miss O’Quin? Do you? Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, you know?” I was floored. Surely he wasn’t comparing his class to a concentration camp? My jaw dropped. And then he laughed and told me we were done. I got my A.

For many students, that was their last experience with Dr. Day. Me? Glutton for punishment that I am, I took him for five more classes before I graduated. I realized that he had our best interest at heart. He wanted us to not merely survive, but to thrive under pressure. Why settle for what you are if you can push to be something better?


Diane said...

And that, my sweet, is one reason you are SO fabulous today! Yay for Dr. Day! And yay for you for not being a scaredy cat!

Lacey said...

That class sounds awesome! But only because of the pen names. I don't think I could do it otherwise, haha. I had a teacher in high school like that... the lady everyone hated and I secretly loved because she was the only one who seemed to actually care. Good teachers are hard to come by!

Contest Chris said...

Spectacular post!

Jenners said...

This was great! And hats off to you for recognizing a special and brilliant teacher when you got one! I would have killed for a teacher like that ... I love when they challenge you to be more than you think you can be. And I'm so impressed with you that you realized what a great opportunity you had. And I must ask: What is the story behind the pen name Ms O'Quin?

Mel said...

Go you!!! I love how so often in your posts I can see how you cut past the bs to get to what you're supposed to learn from a situation. That's pretty admirable!

Anonymous said...

Glad you hung in there with Dr.Day,
I had I good feeling about him from the start.


Jen L. said...

I now see that I went about my first day of class all wrong. ;) I should've scared the pants off of them.

junebug said...

Great Post! I love the pen name idea. That is always the scariest part of English classes for me. I would love the critique but not with everyone knowing it was me. Congrats on making it thru all his classes.

Jenners said...

I just wanted to let you know that I am going on vacation and I'm highlighting your blog as a "fun thing to do while I'm gone." I always like to know when someone links to my blog so I wanted to let you know! (I know you'll probably read it anyway --- that is what I love about you -- but I wanted to let you know.)

J Cosmo Newbery said...

Great! Everyone should have a Dr Day in their life. You wont ever sharpen a knife with custard.