Not too long ago I was reorganizing the basement shelves and came across a box of memorabilia from my elementary and high school years. It’s not the first time I’ve looked through this stuff – I do this sort of reorganization every five years or so – and each time the pile gets thinned down a little. Other than thousands of photographs, which I’ve been pretty good at putting into albums in a bookcase, the memorabilia stuff can now fit into one small cardboard box.
Most of the few items I’ve retained over the years can easily be explained, like my boy scout badges and emblems, the souvenirs I traded for at the Jamboree in Colorado, or even my eighth grade report on Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, with its colorful illustrations of Ichabod’s flight through the night. But then there’s the one high school essay I’ve hung onto all these years – on Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Why did I keep that?
It was the beginning of my senior year at De La Salle. It was also Brother Cronan’s first teaching assignment. In his mid-twenties, fresh out of college he was my English instructor, and he was cool. Short and thin of frame, he had a handsome always-smiling friendly face, and a buzz cut. His accent reminded me of my cousins in Pittsburgh, but I think he came from further east. Brother Cronan seemed happy with his vocation and we laughed a lot while he taught. And I wanted to make a good first impression on this man I admired.
It was early September, and he handed out a reading list and asked us to pick a book for our first report – he’d give us more directions in a couple weeks. I picked The Red Badge of Courage and immediately began reading it – a little each night. Near the end of the third week of classes Brother Cronan gave us our instructions – we were to choose a major character and write a five hundred word essay on a situation or difficulty the character faced and how he or she dealt with it.
Friday night I had a football game and I played middle linebacker. I’m not sure why, because I was only 5’8” and 180 lbs and I wasn’t very good at pass defense. We beat Salesian – one of our two wins that year. Saturday morning I began writing the report. I did well in math, science and foreign languages – but writing was not my forte. Still, I was determined that this report would be great. Brother Cronan would see my character, Henry Fleming in a new and unique light. My tools, a dictionary and a thesaurus – I would use colorful words in ways I’d never used them before, and unique words that I’d only read in books, but had never used myself, and definitely big words (at least three syllables seemed like a good criteria.)
I wrote the first sentence. Then I wrote it again, adding adverbs and adjectives and prepositions. And I wrote it again and again – nouns turned into noun clauses, adverbs into adverbial clauses – the thesaurus my guarantee that I didn’t repeat a word when a previously unused synonym was available. That first sentence turned into a sixty word introductory paragraph. In that pre-computer age, it took me over two hours to write. But I had developed a process that would enable me to work much faster on the rest of the report.
By Sunday afternoon I had completed an approximately 550 word essay – in eleven sentences. For those of you in Rio Linda, that’s fifty-five words per sentence, as Rush Limbaugh would say. Then I wrote it again, on two clean sheets of paper, in my best cursive, and stapled the pages. As I read it one final time before I set it aside to do other homework, I just knew Brother Cronan would be moved by my masterpiece. I even imagined him reading it to the class and citing it as an example for others to emulate.
I handed my essay in Monday morning, along with everyone else in Room 40 – and I waited for that great moment. Near the end of the week Brother passed our essays back, with nary a comment. At the top of my paper was a B-. I was dumb-founded. There were no notes on the front side of either page.
Embarrassed, I turned the essay over on my desk. That’s when I saw the single sentence he had written on the back in red ink. “I would have given you an ‘A’ but you and I both know you didn’t write this yourself.” God bless Brother Cronan’s heart – I had been too clever for my own good – he had concluded that I had a college student help me. He didn’t know my only sibling was seven years my senior, had graduated from college two years earlier, had started a job as an electrical engineer and was currently on a small island in the Philippines, in his words, “dodging headhunters’ blow-darts.”
Should I plead my case to Brother Cronan? It wasn’t in my nature to do that. I’d just have to suck it up. So, when the class ended, with my head down, I moped out of the room and moved on to Chem lab.
So why did I keep that essay? Did I learn a valuable lesson from the experience? I’m not sure I did. Writing still doesn’t come easy for me – and I still put enormous amounts of time and effort into it – much more than anyone else I know. Has anyone else ever read that essay? Not really! And it’s probably a good idea they haven’t – because it reads like it was written by a seventeen year old boy who was trying to impress his teacher by using big words he didn’t really understand and long dangling sentences. But at that moment in my life, I was proud of the effort I had put into that essay, and I felt good about the end product. And I knew the truth, even if I was seriously misunderstood by someone I looked up to.