Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Ruskie Origins

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

I never really took English classes, which might come as a shock to some of you.

I can only recall three specific English classes during that eight year period of high school in New York City and college in Atlanta. I only took once English class in college to fulfill a requirement. If you took classes with a lot of papers, then you got "composition credit" and did not have to take a shitload of English classes. Usually one of my poli sci or film studies classes required a lot of paper writing so those courses saved me from sitting through required English classes.

I'm glad that I didn't take any creative writing classes because it probably would have made me not want to be a writer. Then again, in college, I thought that I was on my way to law school or a job as a political consultant -- when I wasn't trying to construct a bong out of household items.

In high school, only one English class stood out. Our school was divided into trimesters. I skipped the final trimester of my senior year and went the internship route. Instead of sitting in stuffy class rooms on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I opted to be a runner on the floor of the NY Commodities Exchange. Yeah, I took the subway to the World Trade Center every day instead of going to class. The trading floor was inside one of the Twin Towers. That's where I learned the ways of the Bull and the Bear as a runner. I glimpsed at my future and acquired a bevy of life's lessons during my time there.

For the other two trimesters, we had electives and were required to take at least one English elective per trimester. During the first trimester, I signed up for a class only because the teacher was the most lenient grader in the English department. I believe the class was the 19th Century novel. I can't even remember what we read. That didn't really affect me as the second class.... Russian Literature.

I had become a fan of Gogol a few years earlier when I read one of his most famous pieces of work... The Overcoat. When I realized that he was one of the featured writers on the syllabus -- I quickly signed up. It ended up being the smallest class that my school offered. Not even ten classmates were interested. And the ones that were? Some of the brightest kids in school.

I'm just trying to picture the classroom, actually it was so small of a class that they made us use one of the conference rooms. So the teacher sat at the head of a long table and nine of us sat in swivel chairs around the table. Those kids went onto Ivy League schools. Every single one of them with the exception of me. I was more of an athlete in school and not known for my academic excellence due to my utter laziness to study. I preferred working on my three-point shot than spending time in physics lab. And home wasn't the most conducive place to study and I spent more time playing video games and watching taped movies than hitting the books.

So there I was, seventeen years old and sitting in a Russian Literature class with nine future Ivy League schmucks. Actually half of the class went on to Yale and the other four kids went to Harvard, Penn, and Princeton. One classmate boasted a perfect SAT score and early admissions to Yale. Yawn. Not that the number intimidated me. Most of my classmates were surprised at my boards with a near perfect score in math. In fact, I was nipping at their heels in the standardized testing department which bothered my teachers. They used to tell my parents that I lacked the drive and discipline to reach my full potential. They were correct. I just didn't give a shit.

But Russian Literature? I picked the class because that's what I wanted to learn about. I didn't get a chance to pick my classmates. My private school had stringent academic requirements to get in. So basically in the entire city of New York, the elite special forces of nerds, geeks, and other social misfits sat across from me in the conference room for English class.

We had to read a significant amount of books. During high school, I was a Cliff Notes and skimmer kind of guy. One of my friends used to steal Cliff Notes from Barnes & Nobles and then sell photo copied pages for $5. That scam was not going to work with that class. I used to read the newspapers during the morning commute and that changed as I had my faced buried into Puskin, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and of course Gogol. The Russian experience is peppered with conflict, tragedy, and genocide. Yet, I learned more about Russian history reading these books than anything I could learn in a series of history classes. The characters told the stories about the daily struggles of Russians, their complex political/financial systems, and the quest for answers to the bigger questions.

The reading assignments were the easy part. The toughest? class participation. Think if the most annoying person in school who raises their hand and blurts out answers to every question and cuts off other students and hogs the floor and loves to ramble on and on and on. OK, now picture a six or seven of these people engaging in hour-long discussions about the symbolism of blisters on the hand of one character. And there's me trying to get in a word or two so my teacher doesn't flunk me for shitty class participation.

Maybe I was wrong. That wasn't the worst part. Reading each others papers and critiquing them was bloody awful. If I knew that my writing would be under constant scrutiny, I probably would have skipped the class and taken Advanced Shakespeare with the rest of my friends where they get to act out their favorite scenes.

The quality of my copy was poor. I was the worst writer in the class and my classmates were not shy about red lining my assignments that I often turned in on loose leaf paper. Of course, all of them had home computers and printed out their papers. Me? I was writing most of them in the cafeteria in the early morning on the day that they were due. We also had difficult creative writing assignments as well where we had to use themes learned in the books we were examining. I got shelled on those.

The teacher did not grade the papers... we did. Yeah, we graded each other. And we didn't use numerical grading. We used letters... HH (high honors), H (honors), M (merit), S (satisfactory), U (unsatisfactory), F (failure)... and the equivalent failing grade? 75%. Yikes. Talk about tough. The teacher tallied up the average grade and usually made the decision to round up or round down based on the consensus.

Sometimes, the truth hurts. I had a room full of Ivy League dickheads telling me that my writing sucked and they were merciless about their (correct) assessment of my stories. Lots of U's, but never an F. Everyone else was pulling M's and H's. Instead of letting that get me down, it inspired me to write better and more importantly, take the necessary time to write something satisfactory. Heck, I was an athlete after all and I thrived on competition. Once I started pulling those S's, I focused in on the next level. I wanted to write something of merit. I diligently worked during the last weeks of the class.

I'm pretty sure for the final grade, I got an S for the class or a satisfactory grade. For my very last paper, which I had actually typed on my Commodore 64 and printed it up because I wrote several drafts, I was floored when I saw my grade. M-. Shit, it was the lowest rung of merit, but I completed the class on a high note after being torn to shreds all semester. Not that it really mattered. My original attraction to the class was to read some cool authors, but for the first time in four years at my high school, I harnessed the competitive nature in me and applied it to academics. The Jesuits were proud but a few of them shook their heads, "What took you so long?"

These days, I have it easy. Even my editors (including Karl the German Butcher) are not as harsh as those nine high school seniors. I never ever have to worry about that morbid fear that I used to have about being crucified in that conference room. I have a much tougher skin because of that experience but I left that class with a very important reminder -- that if I wanted to be a writer in the future, it takes a significant amount of time and dedication. More importantly, there was a vast difference between satisfactory writing and something that merits the highest achievements.

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