There is this need i have to explain myself when i write something. i don’t know why, but i’m pretty sure it all goes back to my second semester freshman English class at Vanderbilt in 1963.
Our “professor” was a graduate student. Fortunately for both of us, i don’t remember her name. She was not very pretty, which should have no bearing on her competence. That did not disturb me. She appeared very academic until i noticed she wore pads to catch sweat (i guess) under her armpits. Sadly, she still emitted a bearable but unpleasant aroma around her desk.
Again, that did not bother me or affect my estimate of her as a professor in any way. But the two of us encountered a problem between the two of us. Being she was the professor, the problem was mine. But i didn’t recognize the problem as mine. Come to think of it, i still don’t.
Our textbook was one of the best. Later, i bought a copy in order to refer to it when i needed some guidance on poetry. The textbook is Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. It can make your head spin with poetry, criticism, guidance, and knowledge, although granted it didn’t take a lot to make my head spin back in those days.
My professor believed in that book. i think she memorized it. So about three weeks into the course, we had a quiz. The quiz paper had a poem at the beginning. My challenge was to find the symbolism in the poem and justify my answer. Fortunately again — for i might reread it now and find out the professor was correct — i do not remember the name of the poem.
Ahh, the problem. The problem was i really liked the poem the way it was. i loved the lilt of the verse, the rhyme pattern, the pleasure of the thought i experienced while i read. i was taken in or aback by the beauty of the poem. i saw no need to try and interpret what the poet had written or believe he or she had some other meaning deeply hidden in the words. Those words, i thought, stood just fine all by themselves, just the way they were. Also, i wasn’t really all that into symbolism since i had been out drinking and never read the applicable assignments where Cleanth and Robert Penn explained such things.
The real problem came when i had the temerity to suggest such a dastardly idea there was no need for symbolism in such a beautiful poem. My beautifully written answer the professor apparently found abhorrent.
i flunked the test.
i also did such brazen things as have a contest with my fraternity brothers (no pledge hazing involved; this idea came from my pledge buddies, myself included). We went to our various classes that early spring day to see who could sit through an hour class — labs were excluded because there might have been an opportunity to spit into some lab sink or worse — without spitting out our wad of tobacco. i made it through the class without spitting. After all, i had become somewhat of a tobacco chewing virtuoso while playing baseball or softball almost every day of every spring and summer in high school. However, i’m sure it was not very attractive, and although i don’t remember the professor asking me any questions, i’m sure either a: i refused to answer, or b: if i did answer it was a very ugly scene — i honestly do not remember; after all this was fifty-three years ago. Regardless, the ensuing ugliness of my retching on the campus lawn immediately afterwards negated my success at making it through the class without spitting tobacco.
Somehow, i miraculously got a “C” in the course, one of the very few as damn near every grade i got was a “D,” that despicable ignominious category like limbo, meaning i didn’t fail but i was a pretty worthless student in that class.
i have always regretted not getting a degree at Vanderbilt although i am completely convinced the knowledge i attained pursuing my English BA at Middle Tennessee was equal if not superior to what i would have achieved at Vandy. You see, i had heeded the wise caution of my mother and the officers at the Vanderbilt NROTC unit and changed my major from English in the Arts and Science college and declared for a civil engineering degree about a month before matriculation. Bad move.
i have sought to remedy that lack of degree thing several times. When i was required to go to shore duty, i requested NROTC duty at Vanderbilt or Texas A&M, thinking i could get a master’s in my off hours. With a marriage headed south, i opted for A&M with the reasoning my soon to be ex, whose father was an Aggie, would be close to home if things didn’t work out. They worked out all right and it was a good choice. She got her degree from A&M and stayed in Texas. So my plan for a Vandy degree was thwarted again.
Then after i completed my active duty of some twenty-two years, i began research on getting accepted to Vanderbilt for a master’s degree in English, which hopefully would allow me to teach at a junior college. After all, back then (and now for those of us who retired (sic) from the Navy, the pension required some more income come from somewhere. But alas, Vanderbilt had done away with an English/Literature masters and the graduate program only offered doctorates, an intense time consuming discipline, which i, now well north of sixty, was not ready to attempt. Thwart again.
But there was one last gasp of an attempt. While looking for that master’s opportunity, i discovered an elite Vandy program for a Master’s of Fine Arts in literature, either prose or poetry. i was all in. i worked diligently in assembling the required writing samples, the endorsements, the mass of forms required. For extra effort, i went back home and wandered into the office of the MFA program administrator in what we called “Old Science” building.
She did not appear happy to see me. Apparently, they frowned on extra effort and personal interaction. i left her office with my Vandy degree in the hands of fate.
Fate told me to eat it.
Vandy accepted younger applicants with more academic achievements i’m sure. After all, my academic achievements really didn’t amount to squat.
And after reflecting on my ill advised journey into the administrator’s office, i realized while in her office, i smelled a strange but familiar odor from long ago near where we sat. No. It couldn’t be. She was way too young. But i had not checked for arm pit pads.
You see, the above, in my ubiquitous green italic font, was to be a short lead in to a post i’m working on. Then it took on a life of its own and has nothing to do with “Climbing My Mountain.”