Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Case of the Missing Motivation

Once upon a time for a college composition course, I was asked to write about my most embarrassing moment. Ironically, I recounted the story of failing first-quarter sophomore English several years earlier in high school. I received a sixty-nine when my school’s passing grade was seventy. I chronicled how we were summoned, in alphabetical order, to the teacher’s desk for a pre-report card look-see at our grades.

If memory serves, I referred to the high school teacher’s “fat finger” pointing at a “fat and ugly sixty-nine,” which was underlined in red in his ledger book. I wrote something to the effect that I experienced the “fires of humiliation” right then and there, which, I suppose in hindsight, passed for college-clever writing. I opted not to recount the background story of this “most embarrassing moment” of mine. That is, how forty percent of the grade was based on books from our summer reading list that I—at least partially—did not read. Explaining in this brief writing assignment that I read lots of books, just not the ones required for school, was way too involved. That summer, I finished everything from Peter Benchley’s The Deep to John Dean’s Blind Ambition, a memoir about his life and crimes in the Nixon White House. In fact, the fifteen- and sixteen-year-old me read a spate of Watergate protagonists’ books in the late 1970s, but often neglected to read the likes of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage during summer vacations. Strange, I know.

Back to the college years and my freshman-year English professor, who elected to read selected essays aloud and offer commentary along the way. Courtesy of the potentially awkward subject matter, he protected each student author's anonymity. Still, I internally groaned when he chose my “Tale of the Shamed Sophomore," squirming to and fro as he read what I had written to the class. Outwardly, though, I remained poker-faced and maintained my secret. “I don’t know how you failed English writing sentences like this,” the professor intoned at one point, which was a welcome pat on my head that briefly assuaged my anxiety. But then suddenly, and without fair warning, he stumbled upon a grammatical faux pas of some sort—an egregious comma splice, I think. “Never…never…Nicholas!” he said. Caught up in what was a textbook teaching moment—and a rather sinuous alliteration—the essayist’s identity was revealed. I was the only “Nicholas” around. There was even a classmate of mine from the old high school on the scene. “Who’d you have?” he asked, underscoring yet another embarrassing moment for me to someday write about.

Subsequently, each one of us in this English class met privately with our professor, a truly esteemed educator and the school’s poet laureate. He talked about our individual essays and offered us helpful hints on how to refine our written communication skills. He told me that I had some real talent in this craft, but that there was a missing link. "It's the motivation,” he said. Proving how on target he was, I actually didn’t give his words all that much thought at the time. This, after all, would explain a whole lot of things in my misspent youth, including not reading required schoolbooks in high school and making countless careless errors in college essays. Nowadays, when I recall this private meeting with such a learned professor, I cannot help but rue the many mentoring moments I chose not to take advantage of, or missed entirely because I couldn't see the forest for the trees. Today, more than a quarter of a century later, and of a vastly different mindset, I would not only listen intently to what this former professor of mine had to say, but hunger for more and more.

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