As a freshman in college I “placed” into a junior level class called “A Survey of World Literature.” Because I had done well in English in high school – AP classes, A grades, loved to read, wrote stories and poems – I thought myself quite ready to compete with college students two years my elder. It was an English class; I spoke that language, right? It would be a breeze.
“World Literature” was taught by an older male professor who was, in my not-so-humble-opinion, a “misogynist”. It seemed to me then, and now, that it was odd for a person who so disliked women to be teaching at an all women’s college but there it was. He spoke in a biting, abrasive tone and did not tolerate fools gladly. I bonded with the only other freshman in the class (still a friend today) and as I recall, we sat in the back row, looking down intently at our notebooks, hoping to avoid the professor’s eye so he would not call on us. (This was a skill I later practiced to perfection in law school. But I digress.)
We started off the year with Plato, then Homer and then Dante. Pretty quickly I realized I was in way over my head.
After we wrote our first essays, the professor asked each of us to meet with him during his office hours.
You have to picture me as I was then. Very Susie Student Council, straight as an arrow (marijuana, what’s that?) but with a hint of a rebellious streak, not fond of following authority but knew it was better to do so. Preppy shirts, cable-knit sweaters, knee socks. I looked like the naïve freshman I was.
After I sat down in the professor’s office, he asked me:
“Miss Wolf, where you were born?”
Good, I knew the answer to this one!
“Bridgeport, Connecticut,” I replied.
“Is that so?” he said, as his voice dipped acidly, “I find that hard to believe because your essay reads like it was written by someone who just got off the boat from Bulgaria.”
Although I probably wasn’t so sure back then where Bulgaria was, I knew that was not a compliment.
And let’s just say that soon after that office meeting it became evident that I was not going to be an English major.
Skipping over the boring parts of the story here, jump ahead to law school (a couldn’t-think-of-anything-else-to-do choice but one which made my Dad, who has a passion for the law, happy) and then to thirty plus years of law firm life.
During my lawyering years I still had the itch to write, never mind what my college professor thought of my English language abilities. So I wrote the occasional free-lance article, reflecting, with humor, on where I was at that stage of my life. An essay on parenting (moms do more, that hasn’t changed), a piece on law student hiring (I was the hiring partner who specialized in catching typos on resumes), a commentary on some of the absurd aspects of the college admission process (lamenting that I didn’t make my daughter learn to play the cello or pursue fencing in the 4th grade to give her an added edge).
What I am doing now – non-fiction, essays, memoir, blogging – has come about courtesy of my two open heart surgeries leading to an unplanned early retirement. Here I am at midlife (or a little beyond to be actuarially honest) and I’m lucky enough to return to my earlier love of the written word. Not everyone thinks that writing should count as a day “job”, though.
My 91-year-old Dad (still trekking happily to his law firm every day) asked me recently what writers get paid. When I told him that sometimes in the online world writers don’t get paid, or get paid very little, he harrumphed. Why again was I doing this instead of lawyering? Good question. My mortgage company probably shares his concern.
And the lawyer husband of a friend of mind wants to know if I find writing as intellectually challenging as the law. I try to explain that I feel I must write, that it was tamped down way inside me all of those years I was chained at my desk writing legalese. He doesn’t get it.
But I do. And it pleases me when my son and daughter tell me they are proud of what I am trying to do “late in life.” One of them asked me the other day why I didn’t become a writer after college.
It never occurred to me to become a writer, I told my kids. I didn’t have a role model or mentor to show me different career paths. Following in the legal footsteps of my Dad was a safe, practical, choice.
The remainder of my freshman year class in “World Literature” passed v-e-r-y slowly. By December we were into Shakespeare. We were reading “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The professor asked us to select one passage in the play that reflected humor and to analyze why it did so. That didn’t seem so hard, I thought. I chose a passage that seemed funny to me, duly wrote the essay, submitted it and went into the dreaded office hour with the professor.
“Miss Wolf”, (I called myself “Ms.” but I wasn’t about to tell him that.) he intoned:
“How did you manage to find the only passage in this play that reflects absolutely no humor at all? That takes a certain skill. Your essay misses the point entirely.”
I limped through the rest of the year, scraping by (in my mind anything less than an “A” in English was a failure) with a grade of B minus. I stayed away from literature classes for the next three years of college. I missed out on so many learning opportunities all because I let one professor shake my confidence.
So here’s the Life Lesson:
If you are now a College student (or a Parent of one offering advice) – consider NOT doing as I did. Follow your passion. Listen to your heart and your gut. Don’t be blown off course by one professor, one bad grade, a job you don’t get or an internship that doesn’t work out. Everyone thinks they are career experts in the business of telling young adults what they should or shouldn’t do. But only you know your own dreams – take the less traveled path is such a cliché but if only I had…
I still think of Professor Misogyny. By now he has likely passed on to the great beyond and if there is any justice, he is spending his afterlife on a puffy cloud surrounded by young female students who misplace their commas and don’t understand Shakespeare.