The best way to make your way through a four-year university system is to take every single Summer Session course you can. You speed through the work. The instructors are much more malleable and welcoming. You are able to learn at a much quicker pace over a three-week session instead of a 15-week semester. However, there was one summer class I took at a local Midwestern, land-grant university that I will never forget because it was so awful and because I was so clearly, but unwittingly, branded by the instructor, as a Student Who Could Do No Right. That instructor was wrong, but he was the unrighteous one wielding a grading curve like a cudgel.
I was taking a course that summer about American Folklore and if you’re young and dumb and heliocentric and as prosaic as I was then — trying to figure out what was Folklore and what was not — was a difficult task that confounded the entire class, and not just me.
Folklore, for the record, is a history of cultural memes, morality myths, and societal traditions that are handed down by direct example and storytelling.
The Folklore course was taught by a departmental superstar who hated teaching, but loved the limelight. He claimed to be an old radical, but he came across much more conservative than his greasy overalls argued.
I had no idea what Folklore was or what it meant and the course was circularly taught with everything relating to each other while nothing stood out for clear identification. I was accustomed to understanding things and getting good grades, but in that class, I was foundering, and my grades were reflecting that incomprehensible terror.
As luck would have it, years ago, my mother had taken the same course with the same instructor at the same university. Nothing had changed. The syllabus was the same. The teaching was identical. My mother loved the instructor and every project she submitted received the top grade in the class.
I asked to see my mother’s homework and notes for the course. She had saved every detail of that class as a memento and I was shocked to find her notes were not much different than mine.
I was pleased to discover her ideas of Folklore were not that much stranger than mine — yet I was being punished for actually understanding the intention of the course. I was even more confused and angry looking at her graded work and comparing it with mine — because the arguments were comparable.
It was becoming clear to me that the instructor had it out for me for some reason, and I was starting to realize there was nothing I could do about it because he had all the power and I was completely helpless in prying open his mind to find a way to a better grade.
My mother reassured me the instructor wasn’t out to get me and that he probably didn’t even remember my name. She vowed to help me do some research on the next project because she knew American Folklore and, with her tutoring, I was apt to do much better.
I accepted her offer and tried my best in this test of my punisher. My mother and I were both pleased with the work I did and when I handed in my paper — only to receive back the lowest grade in the class — my mother was more shocked than I. I had come to expect that result; my mother couldn’t quite believe her eyes.
She told me the grade wasn’t fair and that it didn’t make sense to her as a professional elementary school teacher for 20 years — but, she admitted along with me, that there wasn’t much to be done about it. “You’ve upset him, somehow,” she said, “he doesn’t like you and he’s taking it out on you with low grades.”
I had no idea what I had done to him because, as I told her, “All I do is sit there and take notes,” and, I added, “even if I upset him personally, he shouldn’t punish me for that by lowering my grade.”
“Talk to him after class,” she suggested.
I agreed that confronting my punisher was my only shot at salvaging a non-failing grade.
Taking to a departmental superstar is a difficult task. He didn’t want to speak to me after class. I followed him up the stairs to his office trying to get advice on how to do better in class. He wasn’t interested in offering any suggestions, but he did stop and stare at me for a moment with a cocked, glassy, blue eye and whispered, “It’s too late. It’s always been too late.”
“What does that mean?” Tears welled in my eyes and I began to cry in frustration.
Instead answering me, he shrugged past me and trundled down the stairwell to his truck. I watched, dumbfounded and confused, as the expansive mass of his ass in too-tight overalls disappeared down the darkening steps.
As I wiped my eyes, his phrase, “It’s always been too late,” repeatedly rang in my ears as my mind tried to decipher, and then connect, the pieces of a puzzling course.
Then I began to think outside the class, and started to see a grander — but more mendacious — scenario playing out before me. I started finding clues and relationships that had nothing to do with American Folklore at all, and it all starting congealing in front of me like the final scene in The Usual Suspects or the conclusion of a really bad episode of CSI.
The reason for my low grade in the course stood out like a limp penis that never was — I believed I was being punished for a perceived slight against the superstar’s son that happened a couple of years past — a slight that was entirely fabricated and invented by the son for personal or political reasons I still do not yet comprehend; and while I cannot say with certainty I was being rooted out by the father to avenge the slighted son, it is the only explanation that makes sense in the pure light of the facts of that day, and that’s no folktale.
What a rough course, David. It’s too bad that good education had to take a backseat to a vendetta like that.
Yes, it was a nightmare, Gordon — with no way out. I should’ve just dropped the class, but it wasn’t economically feasible. The grade I received in that class haunted my GPA for a long time.
Interesting. My first thought and I don’t mean it to be sexist, is that a female would never have taken that class given the history behind the lecturer and student. My own girls have experienced from both sides that parents may appear to forgive wrongs done to their children but they will never forget and if given the opportunity will exact revenge.
This happened a long time ago. An instructor could never get away with that sort of behavior today. There are too many ways to get caught and reprimanded — even if you are a local superstar. In the Midwest, at that time, children were considered chattel — animals, really — and so we were treated just like the hoofed beings we were.