May 19, 1980
She said she didn’t want to go down in history as the professor that failed William Faulkner.
And I felt no guilt.
Too much had happened during the months that led up to these last weeks of school for me to feel guilty about it.
Worried, yes, guilt no.
In my life, I’ve felt guilt only a handful of things, and generally not the stuff most people might expect.
I feel guilty about not getting the kiss from the girl in the front seat of my uncle’s car that day long ago when my uncle and his girlfriend fled that back seat incase we might need to use it.
I feel guilty about not telling calling someone that evening when Danny asked me in the Verona White Castle if he could sleep in my room, and I let him, and I woke up to find him dead – a drug overdose, I suspected, but didn’t call anyone about.
I feel guilty about telling my (now) ex-wife off when she called to ask if I was all right after our breakup (and guilty about not taking up her best friend’s offer to comfort me the night she left).
But I don’t feel guilty over coming into class on testing day, and telling my professor that I can’t take the test because I spent most of the semester doing other things such as rescuing suicidal groupies when the rock and roll star they wanted to be with went off with someone else.
Maybe I was just bored with the material – the hundreds of pages of stuff that my professor had required us to read, and I had not read, a typical behavior I learned in high school where I read what I wanted instead of a what was assigned, stealing books from the book store in Meyer Brothers Department store when I could not afford to buy them (and I don’t feel guilty about that either) only to find myself so far behind that I signed myself out of school and went wandering (how the hell I ever got my GED or passed the test to get into college, I’ll never know.)
The professor read my journal, of course, my misspelled scrawl in which I accounted nearly every night’s journey into the underworld, described past, present and expected future, and in which she made comments about passages and view points, but no judgment, even though she was one of two well-recognized feminists on campus who had stood up for women’s rights, put their asses on the line to make sure the women in school didn’t go through what she went through – only to have me and some other schmuck dare to take a class to which women had only attended previously. And I hadn’t read all that I was supposed to.
What was I doing instead?
Wandering the night, I supposes, listening to the whispers in bed, being lazy, trying to figure out how to write better, trying to make my girlfriend happy, trying not to get sucked up into the rock and roll world and shit out into the toilet bowl at the end.
More than guilt, I felt a loss of respect when I walked up to her with my little blue essay book in hand and told her I couldn’t write what she wanted me to write because I hadn’t read what she wanted me to read.
I couldn’t read her look; she was the softest and hardest person I ever met, full of compassion yet at the same time determination – a woman who hadn’t just defied male society’s rules, but also taken on Christianity with books that reinterpreted The Bible, to become a target of the Bible belt for blasphemy.
She nodded, “Write an essay,” she told me, and so I went back to my seat in a room filled with women and wrote what I thought, and then handed it in with the others as if I had done work I had not done.
Perhaps I could make it up with her, I thought. Perhaps I could do an extra research paper in order to keep from failing, maybe even get something like a C for the course.
I had done the rest of the work; I had even made it through the mid-turn, despite having stayed up all night with one girl who claimed she had taken too many pills after the guitarist had taken off with her best friend instead of her. (I force her to drink a lot of water and puke it out in a model room bathroom when she refused to let me call 911.)
I worried the whole time, knowing that the class would hold a small party when she gave back those little books with the mark for the test and for the semester. And I worried at the chilly look she seemed to have when I came into the classroom amid the chatter of excited women who had found some measure of empowerment, who had followed this woman through a process none had expected, enlightenment and more. This was a woman versed in revolution and tradition, whose PhD thesis was considered required reading for anyone even thinking about studying Milton’s Paradise Lost.
I didn’t even feel guilty when I brought three bottles of wine to the class instead of food the way all the others – even my sole male friend – had.
Then one by one, the professor distributed the papers, depositing each on the desk in front of us. I opened mine to find her scrawl at the top: “An excellent essay. But it wasn’t the material I asked for.”
But she had marked it “B,” and “B” for the course.
Later, I went up to her and in a soft voice she said, “I don’t want to be like that professor who is known for failing William Faulkner,” she said – then suggested I take some advanced writing classes the next semester.
“I can’t,” I said. “I haven’t taken the required courses to qualify.”
“You can if I give you a waiver,” she said. “Come to my office tomorrow.”