June 17th, 2004

the globe

Tricky phrases

I walked into the nearly filled classroom and took one of the two available seats. The woman next to me, she could have been Betty White’s stunt double, handed me a piece of paper with a list of hastily scribbled names on it.

“Okay, we’re going to learn each other’s name before the teacher gets here!” she said, proud and addled. “Just put down something that identifies you. How about we call you ‘pin stripe shirt?’”

I looked down and was, indeed, wearing a striped shirt although a variation on the classic Brooks Brothers broadcloth, not pin stripe, but I smiled, and wrote my name and said, “How about ‘shaved head’ because I may change my shirt next week?” I looked around and everyone wore the same weary look that I had on the inside about this game.

“That’s a splendid idea!” She grabbed the piece of paper from me and wrote shaved head by my name. In a few moments, a little after class was supposed to start, a man walked in and assumed the chair of a girl who had excused herself to the rest room.

“I believe that’s taken,” I said.

He looked at me and said, with the smallest amount of sarcasm, “I believe I’m the teacher.”

“Oh, then, by all means,” I said, playing to the back row. I was riding on the energy of taking this workshop, and I’ve been anticipating it for some time. I studied the teacher’s face; it was as if a slide of James Woods had been overlaid with a shot of the banjo player in Deliverance.

The workshop immediately compelled me – the whole class became engaged in a round table, animated discussion regarding the meaning of a “personal essay” and the rules behind it. It was spirited, and I found my playmates to be smart and introspective. I also discovered this was not going to be the easy slide of the last workshop; this one actually had work, and a lot of it. There is also going to be critical analysis, something sorely missing in my previous experience. I was so caught up in my own enthusiasm, my legs bouncing in rhythm, that I volunteered to be one of the first three to hand in an essay next week for critique. Then I stayed up until three in the morning with my teeth gritted together, disturbing Bob’s sleep pattern, and trying to figure out how I was going to churn out ten to twelve pages for the prying eyes of my comrades.

As a final exercise, he wanted us to write something in class, right then, no waiting. He said he would give us a phrase and we needed to write non-stop for twelve minutes. When he said the phrase, my heart sunk, my head spun, my knees got weak, and I switched on the auto-pilot. I knew what I had to do, I understood how to finish that phrase, and I was terrified to read it aloud, if asked.

I filled up two pages -- pens down. He asked for volunteers and my eyes wandered in a distance, far from the volunteer pose, weighing whether or not to raise my hand. If I did, I wasn’t sure I could make finish reading it. A thin man with a whisk broom above his lip nodded then cleared his throat, and read. It was a melancholy tale, beautifully rendered, of how he caught his wife cheating. The next person to step up was a large, gray-haired hippie woman who got three sentences in and then broke down in tears, “I can’t,” she sputtered, “it’s too personal.” I still held my silent ground.

We shifted in our chairs and looked down. This was our first class, and already we had a man confess a tragic moment, and a woman break down and weep. And what was the phrase the teacher gave us as a launch point for this exercise?

"I never saw it coming…"