Near the end of my fourth semester of college I fled the English department, the most recent bubbling of my intellectual fantasies, which was only a year on the heels of a similar flight from the Biology department, an embarrassing fling with pre-med. Both aspirations, if you can stomach to call them that and I laughingly cannot, were approached with all the seriousness that a jelly-faced eight-year-old considers his Halloween costume.
Quite serious, indeed.
Abandoning the sciences wasn’t very painful, because I could quickly reinvent myself as a scholar of the humanities. This was a momentary lapse in self-awareness. I didn’t truly desire to be a physician. I was just playing doctor – trying on the costume as it were. Pure childishness. I wasn't the type. Plus, the English department was clear on the other side of campus so I could make a distinct geographical break as well. Out of sight, out of existence. Never mind my disinterest in poetry or literary criticism. I enjoyed reading, and that was enough.
That’s what they did over there in that cozy little building, right? Lounge on enormous armchairs, their feet up on equally plush ottomans, sipping fine coffees and savoring whatever bit of prose fancied them that day. Right? Why did I waste a year in biology when I could have been wrapped in a quilt, puffing some aromatic flake, and looking down the bridge of my nose through the desperate Scottish countryside?
Despite my raging naïveté, I did okay for the initial semester. American literature was welcoming, and the professor, a disheveled man who spent half his time teaching who knows what in the law school, lumbered into our lecture hall each day with an armful of books and several nests of ungraded term papers. A compelling lecturer who winked and grinned at us when a short story was particularly bawdy, as if to say “See here? These are the stories your parents knew about but never told you.”
A similarly pleasant experience was found in a hybrid literature and film analysis course, which I think was an elective if I recall correctly, but taught by an exuberant professor who made you feel like the smartest person in the room if you had an insight that surprised her. She’d respond with, “I’d never thought about it like that. Very interesting! Let’s unpack that.” If she was feigning kindness, she was a superb actor.
I’d made the right choice. English. Sure, I was wrong about the armchairs and the canon of works somewhat, but the shoe sure did seem to fit. A lot better than pre-med anyway.
That is… until the fourth semester... when Shakespeare burst from his grave to dump unintelligible nonsense all over my academic promise.
The instructor, a highly intelligent pillar of the department, had grown bored with the Bard’s greatest hits and decided to organize the class around some of his lesser known, infrequently performed plays. Sort of like doing a course on John Ford, but instead of watching The Searchers and How the West Was Won, you saddle up for Donovan’s Reef and Cheyenne Autumn.
My experience with Shakespeare up to that point had been limited to the requisite reading of Romeo and Juliet in high school. Couple that with my ignorance of and disinterest in poetry, and I was in for an ego bruising. The kicker was that this course assumed you had foreknowledge of iambic pentameter, couplets, archaic English pronunciations, line endings, caesura, and the list goes on. I did not. I had read Romeo and Juliet once and watched the Zeffirelli film once.
The coup de grâce came after receiving a C on a paper comparing and contrasting Twelfth Night’s Feste with As You Like It’s Touchstone. I knew the paper was less than admirable, but we were given free rein to choose the subject matter and with zero parameters, I was lost at sea. Nevertheless, C grade in hand, I was resolved to better myself and marched into my instructor’s office seeking advice on how to improve my methods regarding these terrifying little assignments. The response I received was (I’m sure unintentionally but inarguably) devastating.
“I mean… Have you even read As You Like It?”
It was so dismissive. So condescending. She had already consciously filed me away with countless other disappointments, either too dense or too lazy to bother with, as if she had reached across the great divide and stamped “Beyond Help” on my forehead.
Not a month went by before I walked into the Journalism department to see if I could hack it as a newspaper man and still graduate on time.
The truly awful thing was I took her response to heart. My findings were so poor, my observations so obtuse that she questioned whether I’d even cracked the spine of the play.
“Have you even read As You Like It?”
Those words played in my head for years. Shakespeare was for a higher stratum. You run along, and throw your Frisbee.
I hoped beyond hope that she thought I was just one of the lazy ones. I couldn’t bear being thought stupid.
It would take nearly a decade, a Master of Fine Arts in acting with several wonderful teachers who insisted that Shakespeare was meant to be spoken and heard, not read off the page like Dostoevsky. The rhythm had to be grasped viscerally not cerebrally, something my voice teacher likened to riding a horse. And once the meter got into my fibrous tissue, meaning suddenly flooded my consciousness. I would double over laughing at Falstaff’s drunken vulgarities and weep whole heart at his banishment. I was rapt by Jacques’ existential crisis. Dragged into Hamlet’s madness. Welled with unexpected joy at Viola and Sebastian’s reunion. All of it was now a feast in front of me.
I stood on stage and begged Orlando to steer clear of the Duke. I’ve rushed into a castle and broken the news to Northumberland that his son had been killed by the playboy son of his enemy. I’ve donned the laurels of a prince and eviscerated the English for insulting the French court with tennis balls. I’ve rallied my countrymen with “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” I’ve feigned madness and rescued my blinded and banished father.
I’ve even taught the stuff.
The experience of fleeing from Shakespeare, full of loathing and embarrassment, only to embrace him a decade later got me thinking of all the creative injuries artists sustain over their lives and careers, injuries inflicted by seemingly small events, like a flippant comment from a professor, that cause us to believe fallacies about our essential selves.
I wonder if we need to be more careful with inquiring minds, if we looked at our knowledge and experience as great gifts to share instead of status to lord and withhold. I wonder what creative disabilities we could help prevent if we chose not to predict eventual outcomes by initial failures. What could be saved?
For me, it would have been about ten years of self-deception.
And maybe a degree in English.