The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"In one century we went from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to offering remedial English in college"....  ....Joseph Sobran.

Commentary of the Day - November 16, 2007: I Was a Teen Aged Creep.  Guest commentary by Beverly C. Lucey.

Parents; you take a risk when you send your kids off to college, especially if your kids will be the first generation in your family to go.  You might not recognize the person who comes back home.  
For over four years you've lived with the thumping bass of music you can't understand or you've not been able to get past your kid's ear buds to get his attention unless you stomp and wave in front of him like a person fighting off killer bees or fire ants.  Your offspring continue the fine tradition of teens everywhere:  Be sure to annoy your parents with music.
You might have had dress code issues with your son or daughter during the same years.  It's another tradition:  Wear anything you can think of that will get a reaction. This led to the Great Underwear Rebellion of the early nineties when teenagers wore their bras and briefs outside, and their outerwear underneath.  Or eschewed outerwear, deciding underwear was outerwear.  Which they can do, because ...they are teenagers.  And they get to say.  You cannot imagine that college classes contain other people's kids wearing jammies and fuzzy slippers.  They do.  I'm teaching them freshman composition, and rue the fact that I'm just too old to wear flannel bottoms with helmets or beer brands or Hello Kitty printed on them.  
Something in an essay by Bret Anthony Johnston ( New York Times Magazine, September 30, 2007) got me thinking about being a freshman.  "Before me," he said, "no one in my family had ever graduated from high school, let alone college, and yet I understood I had no choice but to go."   My mother had graduated from high school, and took a post graduate year in cosmetology.  During the Depression there were no community colleges, and there weren't many jobs, so high schools added post graduation trade programs that the children of immigrants could attend for free.  My father had dropped out of high school to help out the family by working in leather factories north of Boston.  More than anything, my parents wanted me to get a college degree.  I did what my friends did.  Took the SAT, filled out applications, wrote essays for scholarships, and picked a major.  I was going to be a medical technologist.  It sounded good.  It sounded adult.  It sounded like a career.  Like Johnston, however, I took bowling for gym credit, dropped dull classes, and learned that if I asked questions, professors treated me as though I were a real student.  Unlike Johnston, however, I never came close to the honor society.  I came close to flunking out.  
Johnston says, "I'd recently switched my major to English, which had my parents worried about my job prospects."  By Thanksgiving I too had already changed my major to English.   In a Biology 101 class we were given soft, furry, hamsters to hold while the TA set up the experiment.  They were like little kittens.  But then he plucked all the hamsters out of our hands into a large poisonous jar, shook the rodents until they were dead, and asked us to come up and get one for our first dissection.  I'd run screaming and crying out of the biology lab.  I was no scientist.  "Are you going to be a teacher?" my mother said.  "No way," I responded.   I may have loved the campus, but the thought of being in a classroom for the rest of my life held no appeal.  Ha.  I was so smart then.  That's why I've been a teacher of some sort for forty years.
It's the student in his first year of college that I'm thinking about at the moment, though.
I have a theory--based only on my own experience, so you can see why I would never have made a good scientist.  The college freshman knows more than anyone else on the planet.  Especially if the freshman is not a commuter, like Johnston, but lives on campus, just far enough away to become obnoxious.
I became a smart-ass creep.
My father was known as Fastidious Frank.  I was not a creep when I learned the word.  I just loved tossing word bombs at the table.
My father spoke softly, never swore, and would change out of his 'working working clothes' at a leather tannery into his 'working clothes' which weren't full of dye but were shabby, come home and shower and change into his 'ordinary clothes,' which were casual but not shabby.
My father would not eat the bellies on the really good fried clams.  He was suspicious of some Chinese foods.  He did not want to hear about anything gross, ever.  Or see gross movies.  He looked cross if my mother laughed when a comedian burped.  My father had a weak stomach.
My father worked two jobs and had simple pleasures.  Napping, television, and sitting in the sun.  Keeping the hedge nicely trimmed. The Red Sox.
I went home for the weekend in late fall of my freshman year.  Of course, I felt it was my job to educate my father.  After all, I knew things, now.  Important things.
I was taking Psyche 101 and had learned about phallic symbols and castration dreams.
I was taking English 101 and had learned that hanged men ejaculate when they die.  That very word was used.  Right there in class.  By the professor, who was talking about Billy Budd and ...well, never mind the significance there.
I was taking Spanish I01 and flunking so we'll move along....
Biology 101.  Now we're talking.  We were just in the botany part, before the Hamster Happening, but I'd learned something very cool about plant life.
When I arrived home, with my Black Watch plaid zippered suitcase full of dirty laundry, my father was eating soup.  He was happy to see me. 
"Sit down. Come'ere.  Tell me all about it.  Are you having a nice time?  Is it good, at college?"
"Are you getting along with your roommate?"
"Are you studying hard?"
"What do you like most?"
At that point I realized the soup he was eating was cream of mushroom.   "Biology."
"Really?  I would have thought the football games.  Biology?  Like medical?"
"Sort of. It’s really interesting.  For example, we learned all about mushrooms on a field trip."
"A field trip.  That’s nice you are getting out."
"Anyway.  Mushrooms are really neat.  Did you know they are a fungus?"
"Stop it.  You don’t know what you are talking about."
"Oh, yeah, I do.  They are a fungus.  I can prove it if you want me to ...but just think about it.  I mean, we eat fungus.  And athlete's foot, like you have, is a fungus, and...."
"You shut your mouth."
"I’m not kidding, dad.  Your favorite soup there is made out of FUUNNNGGGGUSSSSSS."  Likely I was hissing. 
"Get out.  Leave me alone.  Get out of the house.  Go visit Arlene, or something."
"Now I can't eat."
Why was I being so mean?
It took years before dad would eat anything with mushrooms again.  Spaghetti sauce, pizza, chicken ala king, many types of Chinese food went on the no-no list.  Mushroom soup now made him gag.  And it was all my fault. I'm sure I acted all surprised at the blow up.  I'm sure I sputtered that I was only reporting facts, what's the big deal.  Maybe I even said, "The truth shall set you free."
Little smart-assed punk.
Johnston cut off the dreads his father hated when his dad died.  I was able to continue steam ironing my long hair straight down my back, "looking like what, an Indian?  A hippie?" my father would say.  "Maybe wear it shorter, for once."  
I knew better. I knew better for at least four more years. 
Now I know less, and that makes it easier for me to go back and finish the stacks of reflective essays my classes have written.  I'm done reflecting on my own.

2007 Beverly C. Lucey.
Beverly Carol Lucey is a freelance writer and a Visiting Professor of Writing at Westfield State College in Massachusetts.

The IP comments: Ah yes, college is a transforming experience for students, at least for some students.

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© 2007 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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