A Speech on Scholarship

Scholar by Osman Hamdi Bey

A friend recently sent me the copy of a speech that a friend of his had delivered at a Cum Laude induction at Exeter, which reminded me that I too had given a similar speech at Porter-Gaud in the 2010s, so I thought I’d pass it along, for what it’s worth.

Congratulations, inductees for embodying excellence. 

However, as John Donne famously proclaimed:  No man is an island.  These honorees did not arise on the foam of the Aegean fully formed. 

First, we need to acknowledge your parents.

Who read you bedtime stories, salved your skinned knees, said no, then sent you to time out.  

We need to acknowledge your teachers.

Especially those in the so-called lower grades who are not present to hear this praise, the ones who taught you how to read, how to form letters and Arabic numerals, how to add and subtract. 

I suspect none of us has forgotten our first grade teacher’s name.  Not you ninth graders, not you, Dr. Mac.

Mine was Mrs. Wiggins.  Who would be about 125 by now I guess, but who will live on as long as there’s one surviving student who remembers her.

And, finally, we need to acknowledge all of the friends of the inductees.

Research has shown that as far as influence goes, peers of teenagers wield by far the most potent power in high school, much more than parents and teachers.  So, thank all of you for being good friends, for providing needed support, or offering good advice.

Also, keep in mind that if you are a senior and not on this stage this morning, it does not mean that you won’t be honored when you graduate from college.   

And, likewise, your being inducted into an honor society in high school doesn’t ensure that you’re going to be inducted into a collegiate honor society.

Life is a process – we’re not seeds, nor buds, but an ever evolving becoming.

Interestingly enough, though, high grades and scholarship are not synonymous.  The student who gruntingly masters information for grades lacks the scholar’s curiosity and never comes close to experiencing the scholar’s joy.  So when I urge you to become engaged in your studies, it’s not so you’ll receive accolades or a handsome salary, it’s so that your life will be more meaningful.

The following statement is going to sound absolutely absurd to many of you, but I fervently believe it:  Being a true scholar is much more profitable than being a CEO, movie star, or hall-of-fame athlete, because if you become a true scholar, i.e., a life long learner, you will escape the nets of boredom, and boredom, as far as I am concerned, is death-in-life.

Despite the caricature of the pallid, bespectacled outsider ill-at-ease in his own body, I dare say that true scholars enjoy charmed lives because they’ve mined the kryptonite that protects them from those empty temptations of the temporal – all of those singing sirens – those manufactured products that are a lot of fun but not all that enlightening – e.g., Modern Warfare 3, or as I have rechristened it, Modern Warfare 3 Homework 0.  

The metaphorical kryptonite that scholars possess is a love of learning.

They have, as Joseph Campbell put it, found their bliss, and are following it.

What thrills a scholar is delving deeply into the profound mysteries of being. 

The scholar marvels at the truncated evolutionary transformation that takes place in the womb.  

The scholar attempts to fathom the idiocies that resulted in WWI.  

The scholar is fascinated by the metamorphosis of Jamaican dance hall toasting into rap music and then hip hop and traces the underlying musical commonalities of all three sub-genres as she conjectures how popular music reflects 21st century American society.

In short, the scholar seeks to see the immense interconnectedness of things, to rip down Maya’s veil of illusion.  

True scholars have found the elixir that is the antidote to one of Adam’s curses – labor – because for a true scholar labor and love are the same, the quest to know more and understand better.

And although Adam’s other curse – that ferry ride across the River Styx – cannot be avoided – by studying what Yeats called “monuments un-aging intellect” – the cave paintings of Lascaux,  The Tragedy of Prince Hamlet, the  3rd Law of Thermodynamics,  Beethoven’s 9th Symphony,  Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal –  our deeper understanding can be liberating and offer comfort as we contemplate our own demise.

I’d like to end by reading two quatrains of a poem that conveys this theme much more powerfully than I could ever hope to do. 

It concerns Alexander the Great who supposedly wept when he thought there was nothing left of the world for him to conquer, and Sir Isaac Newton, who took a very different view of his accomplishments.

It’s called “Worlds”

By Richard Wilbur.

For Alexander there was no Far East,


Because he thought the Asian continent


India ended. Free Cathay at least

*

Did not contribute to his discontent.



But Newton, who had grasped all space, was more


Serene. To him it seemed that he’d but played


With several shells and pebbles on the shore


Of that profundity he had not made.


I ask you, who would you rather be? 

Thank you, and again, congratulations.

Wesley’s Lost Land of Academics

Puttering around in the repository of my computer this morning, I opened a folder labeled “Academics” where I have stored materials I used in my English classes, some of which date back to the previous century. I opened a few quizzes, lecture presentations, essay assignments, etc. and thought to myself, what a waste to have these documents lying dormant, as it were.

When I taught, I often found professional educational materials lacking, so I created my own. One such production was a 15,000-word primer entitled How to Write a Research Paper: A Hermeneutic Tale.

Rather than dryly explaining the process of researching, writing, and documenting sources, I created a narrative featuring two students, Bennington Rhodes and Flip Burger, who take very different approaches in tackling their research projects, which at Porter-Gaud included choosing the primary source. 

The primer’s utility lay in its adaptability: I could update the ever-changing MLA protocols and save the school a ton of money in MLA handbooks, which become obsolescent in no time flat. 

The primer includes explanations on choosing the primary source, amassing a preliminary bibliography, creating both a topic and sentence outline, and citing sources. I actually ghost-wrote Bennington’s paper on Chronicle of a Death Foretold, attempting to parrot the thinking and prose of a sixteen-year-old.

Obviously, the primer, which I assembled in 2012, is itself obsolescent given the MLA’s ever-evolving (devolving?) citation procedures; however, the basic information stands the test of time in my unhumble opinion.

Reproducing the entire document would be cumbersome in a blog format, but I thought I’d include here the last four pages to offer an idea what the primer was like.

If any of you lit teachers out there would like a complete copy, contact me, and I’ll send a pdf version. By the way, it’s not copyrighted.

So here are the last four pages of the text (the document actually ends with an appendix explaining how to document various sources). I’m critiquing Bennington’s essay, which comes a few pages before.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Structure of the Paper

By following his outline, Bennington insured that his paper would be well unified.  He has, as curmudgeonly Dr. Crabapple puts it, “a multi-tiered thesis,” which simply means the thesis is broken into multiple parts that form the sections of his actual paper.  

Each section of the thesis – the detective genre aspect, the tragic conventions, etc. reemerge in the topic sentences of the paragraphs devoted to them. 

Again, here’s Bennington’s thesis:

In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Garcia Marquez parodies several different narrative traditions – particularly detective fiction, Greek tragedy, and commercial romance – all the while subverting those genres to underscore the immorality of Macondo’s culture of machismo.

When shifting from paragraph to paragraph, it’s important to create smooth transitions, to refer ever so briefly to an idea expressed in the previous paragraph in the topic sentence of the next paragraph.

For example, Bennington’s second paragraph, the one devoted to the detective genre, ends with this sentence: 

 “Perhaps Gabriel Marquez is suggesting that the answer to the question of ‘who done it’ is everyone.”

His next paragraph, you’ll remember, is devoted to how Garcia Marquez incorporates elements of Greek Tragedy into Chronicle.  Rather than immediately changing the subject from the detective genre to Greek tragedy, Bennington briefly refers to the detective genre as he begins the paragraph on Greek drama”:

“Garcia Marquez adds depth to the detective genre by superimposing upon it characteristics of Greek tragedy, and in doing so, he further underscores the dysfunctionality of machismo.”

Note how each of the emphasized words in the above quote plugs into the thesis.  Pretty nifty, Bennington!

Style 

A research paper, unlike an informal essay, should be formal in style, which means you should avoid using the second person pronoun “you” to refer to “everyone,” as your omniscient narrator just did, and you should also avoid contractions so that your style is somewhat elevated.  It’s a dinner at a snooty restaurant with your Great Aunt Gertrude, not a chilidog gobbled down with Flip at the pay counter at Bert’s on Folly. 

Note that this primer is informal. Your beloved omniscient narrator is writing as if he is talking to you.  If this were a formal essay, the above might be rendered like this:

A research paper, unlike an informal essay, should be formal in style, which means one should avoid using the second person pronoun “you” to refer to “everyone,” and one should avoid contractions so that one’s style is somewhat elevated.

Nevertheless, you should try to create a style that comes across has “heightened conversation” rather than dry analytical soullessness.  For example, the off-putting formality of the above could be softened to this:

A research paper, unlike an informal essay, should be formal in style, which means writers should avoid using the second person pronoun “you” to refer to “everyone,” and should avoid contractions so that the style of the essay is somewhat elevated.

One last note, during your research, you’ll discover some writers refer to themselves in the first person.  In other words, they throw around the pronoun “I” a lot.  You should avoid doing this yourself because you aren’t a tenured professor sporting a wool blazer with patches on the elbows.  In other words, you’re a sixteen-year-old who doesn’t bother to look up the words you don’t know in the dictionary.

A Critique of Bennington’s Paper

As Ms. Newspeak grades Bennington’s essay, she has four tasks to perform.  First, she needs to determine how well Bennington’s essay conforms to the dictates of the MLA/ Porter-Gaud process.  Then she needs to judge the essay’s content and style.  Finally, she needs to subtract any grammatical or mechanical errors Bennington has committed (up to twenty points).

Ms. Newspeak takes Bennington’s process grade 98 and his content grade 90 and divides it by 2, so he ends up with 94.  Then she subtracts his grammatical/ mechanical errors.  Because Bennington’s a senior and has more or less mastered the mechanics of writing (and also because his fussy conservative Charlestonian bow-tie wearing father proofread the paper), Bennington received no deductions for grammar or mechanics.  By the way, Bennington’s father caught a comma splice and a couple of other comma errors saving his son an overall 9-point deduction [5+ (2 x 2)] for you math people.

Nevertheless, Bennington’s essay is far from perfect.  Let’s spend just a couple of minutes critiquing it before we bring this primer to a happy close.

Bennington’s title is a bit much; however, it’s better than a bland title. It does grab the reader’s attention.

By far, the weakest paragraph in Bennington’s essay is his introduction. The sentences don’t come together fluidly.  He starts with Faulkner, then shifts to magic realism and then to different narrative techniques.  There’s little continuity here.  It would have been better to begin with a generalization about narrative techniques and to then narrow those generalizations using that one thread. 

Also, Bennington’s essay would have been better if he had chosen only one narrative approach instead of three and had gone into more detail about how Garcia Marquez parodied that technique.  If Bennington had spent more time on his research, he could have written a richer analysis on any one of the three techniques he discusses rather than touching upon each in a rather cursory fashion.  

Bennington’s organization makes essay is somewhat quilt-like.  There’s the detective square that’s sewn to the Greek tragedy square that’s sewn to the romance novel square.  In addition, his paragraph division is somewhat dubious.  For example, rather than including “omens and foreboding” in the paragraph on the classic unities of time and place, Bennington would have been better off creating a separate paragraph on omens and expanding that paragraph to flesh it out more.  However, he does “weave” the idea of machismo fairly well throughout the essay, so there’s at least a pattern or motif running through his quilt.  The very best essays, however, like valedictorian-in-waiting Connie Cerebrowski’s, interweave their arguments to create a seamless tapestry of quotation and analysis. Her essay on a Freudian reading of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers had AP professor Mr. Aridwitt, PhD flipping through “the book and [Thesaurus] of [his] brain” for superlative synonyms. 

Bennington is, however, a capable stylist, having dutifully done his Wordly Wise lessons with dictionary in hand and having read his assigned novels word for word.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, whichever be the case, a well-honed style can sometimes soften (at least) somewhat the heart of a English essay assessor, even one as gnarled and cynical as Dr. Crabapple.

Springtime    

As the research paper rapidly fades into a fond memory in Bennington’s consciousness, he looks forward to his last trimester of high school with a sense of anticipation and freedom.  In fact, he’s looking forward to his free period so he and Andrea can perch like a pair of parrots on a bench outside on this mild, sunny day and mimic routines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a movie that they’ve seen forty-seven times between them.  As he’s headed through the S&T Lobby, Bennington runs into a rather downcast Flip Burger bent like a hobo beneath the burden of his LL Bean bookbag.

     “Hey, Flip,” Bennington says, “Andrea and I are headed outside to catch some rays.  Wanna join us?”

      “Can’t, dude.”

      “Why not?”

      “Dude, I got study hall.”

      “A study hall?  Why?”

      “Dude, I failed English last term.  It’s, like, so unfair.”

      “I’ll say.”

      “Gotta split, dude.  I got old man Crabapple for study hall.  If I’m late, he’s liable to make me copy out sentences by Immanuel Kant or something.”

      “Okay, later.”

      “Later, dude.”

Perhaps, uncompassionately, Bennington has already forgotten poor Flip’s troubles as our hero pushes open the double doors and trots down the stairs to the balmy breezes and melodic birdsong of a glorious spring morning.

       Halleluiah! 

Botticelli: The Rites of Spring

Elegy for the Mixed Tape

Elegy for the Mixed Tape

I think it was John Woodmansee who made me my first mixed tape, an eclectic collection of avant garde rock, Third World exotica, and jazz. He curated with care, making sure transitions were smooth, the Venn diagram of intersecting genres shaded with similarities, whether in pop-lit theme or in sonic overlapping – the B-52’s “Love Shack” followed by Cannonball Adderley’s “Work Song,” for example. He labored over these productions, devoting hours into the effort of creating a gift both enjoyable and educational. 

Music as mutual friend.[1]

I, too, started making mixed tapes, mainly for students as rewards for significant achievements, like winning the year-end vocabulary bee or scoring the highest on our cumulative high school literature test. Occasionally, a former student runs across one of these relics and posts a photo on Facebook.

Amy Sexhauer’s award for being crowned Vocabulary Queen
Allison Zachery’s award tape

I also recall that ace student Larry Salley received one loaded with Stax classics, and he later played the tape over the stadium speakers before Porter-Gaud football games in his early days as the Cyclones’ announcer.

Jungle drums and tragic magic! 

1-2-3! 

“Land of 1,000 Dances!” 

“Slip Away!” 

“Think!” 

“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay!” 

“Mustang Sally!”

As I became better at producing mixed tapes and eventually mixed CDs, I did my best to match the music to the student’s personality. When I produced compilations for friends or acquaintances, I’d throw in tunes that probably hadn’t heard, cuts like Les McCann’s and Eddie Harris’s “Compared to What” from their Live at Montreux Jazz Festival 1969. It was actually a helluva lot of fun assembling these auditory collages – unlike, I would argue, creating and sharing a set list.  

What’s the difference, you ask? Physicality, that’s the difference. You can hold a mixed tape or CD in your hands. The folks at the Oxford American learned this the hard way. I subscribed to the OA last year to receive the CD included in their annual music edition, but when they replaced the CD this year with a playlist available through Spotify, I – and apparently many others – dropped the subscription. Guess what? Now the CD is back.

Furthermore, unlike on a playlist, time and space are finite on a cassette tape or compact disc. On cassettes, which needed to be flipped, I’d arrange the tracks as if they were appearing on an LP, the first songs on Side A and B rockers, the last cuts strong and long, like Warren Zevon’s “Desperados Under the Eaves.”  The limitation of space and time lends itself to compression, which enhances meaning, like in good poetry. You’re talking an hour’s drive instead of an open-ended series of songs. Most play lists lack form, resembling a radio broadcast rather than an artifact. They tend to be assembled rapidly – eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

My wife Caroline brought the topic Friday night at Harold’s Cabin as we lamented over Jamesons the sad state of incivility that characterizes post-Trumpian politics. Caroline cited the disappearance of the mixed tape as contributing to the on-going diminishment of cultural exchange. People long for the mixed tape, hence its image has become a meme, its miniature form dangling from charm bracelets and necklaces. I’ve seen it also on t-shirts. 

Perhaps, people gravitate towards images of mixed tapes because they represent a simpler, more three-dimensional, more concrete era before screens hypnotized and isolated us. Picking up my stepdaughter Brooks from Porter-Gaud in the afternoons, I see most students, heads bowed, staring down at their phones rather than bopping across the Green with a group of friends.

Streaming music isolates us; mixed tapes and CDs bring us together.

Les McCann and Eddie Harris: “Compared to What?”

[1] Mixed tapes are a great early courtship gift that allows the would-be beloved a peek into the aesthetic inclinations of the CD bearing courtier. Does it feature Rashaan Roland Kirk or Garth Brooks? These things matter.

Cutting School, Gerald Tires/David Lynch Edition

Because I suffered from rheumatic fever when I was five or so, and that malady is a nasty by-product of streptococcus, my mother overreacted whenever I had a scratchy throat. Whenever I wanted to get out of going to elementary school, all I had to do is feign a sore throat, and – presto! ­– there I was propped up on pillows reading The Tower Treasure or The Swiss Family Robinson. On those days I didn’t have to trudge single file to the cafeteria for a glop of canned spaghetti and mayonnaise deluged coleslaw. I’d be slurping a bowl of canned chicken noodle soup instead.

In high school whenever you missed school, the office called home to guard against truancy; however, both of my parents worked, there would be no one home to answer the phone, so I never got caught cutting school. Whenever I legitimately missed because of some ailment, my mother’s excuse always read: “Please excuse Rusty for yesterday’s absence as he was sick,” a rather awkward sentence to my ear, but a handy one, because the forged note I’d construct matched all the others, so no suspicions were raised. Anyway, I didn’t cut all that often, a couple times to go surfing at Folly and once to King Street in December with Becky Baldwin, Becky Moore, Gordon Wilson, and maybe Juli Simmons.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I detested high school, so my ending up spending most life teaching at one is, as they say, somewhat ironic. However, as far as my teaching career goes, my attendance was stellar. I doubt if I missed more than twenty days in thirty-four years (not counting the last week of my wife Judy Birdsong’s life). Even though we got two personal days a year, I only took two in all, one to attend the third game of the 1991 World Series and another to see the Stones in 1996. The horrible truth of the matter is that missing school for a teacher isn’t worth it; it’s its own punishment.[1]

Given Porter-Gaud School’s rotating schedule, one year – it was 2010, in fact –  my classes on Wednesdays ended at 10:30, but we were required to stay on campus for extra help, etc. I didn’t mind because I could get lots of grading done. 

And, of course, if something came up, the administration would allow you to leave, if you informed them of your destination. That’s what happened on Wednesday 8 September 2010 when I had a flat tire. Although I usually patronized Hays Tires, I decided to go to Gerald’s Tires for the sake of frugality.

Based on their television ads, I had never liked Gerald’s. Back in the day when they went by Gerald’s Recaps, one of their ads featured an elderly black woman who said, “And they is very courtesy.”  In 2010, the commercials teemed with strangely gleeful hourly employees who looked as if they might have stepped out of a Soviet propaganda film celebrating the dignity of labor.  “Wheeeeee,” one says in a Mayberry drawl as he rolls a tire, “We’re having fun now.”  The ads closed with a white church steeple pointing heavenward in a sky of pure blue. “It’s a great day at Gerald’s, especially on Sundays.”

With my last class over at 10:30 and nothing facing me but a department chair meeting at 3:15, I thought I’d hit Gerald’s about 1:00, grade a few journals, and return to school. When I arrived at the screeching Clemson orange of the building, there was nowhere to park. All of spaces pictured above were filled with vehicles having their tires tended to. The unshaded bench out front bore three sweating patrons. Not a good sign in that heat. On the street running perpendicular to the building, a battered line of automobiles stretched towards the horizon.   

I parked illegally and entered the building. Inside, every folding chair held a patron, and a line of four patiently stood waiting their turn, an interview with the one representative who, though polite, looked as if his lean frame owed more to methamphetamines than to a rigorous workout regimen.  Hoisted in the corner on a wooden platform, an early model television blared the cynical spin of a [redundancy alert] vacuous Fox newsblonde. 

[sigh]

When I made it to the counter, the fellow (poorly peroxided black-rooted straw spilling from his baseball cap) informed me that it would be an hour-and-a-half.  With nowhere to sit, I decided to hit the pavement.  I told him I was parked illegally.  “Park in the parking lot in the back,” he said.  “Just ignore the Not for Gerald’s signs.”  I did as I was told and brought back the key.

I decided to hoof in the heat the quarter mile to Steinmark’s to pick up a couple of dress shirts.  This trek took me past a thrift shop, a bar, two consignment shops, a hair salon with a hand painted window, a couple of shuffling vagrants, a bank.  Once I hit the acres of the heat-radiating parking lot, I passed a giant pet store that boasted “Unleashed Dogs Always Welcome Inside.”

I wouldn’t have been surprised to look up and see David Lynch shouting through a megaphone in one of those airborne director’s chairs.

scene from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet

Ah, Steinmark’s AC hit me like a champagne-soaked towel.  The contrast between the clientele of my twin shopping experiences was akin to stepping from the boxcars of Steinbeck into the glitzy interiors of Danielle Steele. Here among the racks of brand name (albeit discounted) clothes grazed carefully coiffed matrons and Izod-sporting businessmen.  Although the store wasn’t busy, I did have to stand in line, but unfortunately not long enough; only forty minutes had elapsed by the time I returned to the Bright Orange Building.  

Now, I found myself in Sartre-Full-Nausea mode.[2]  Should I do what I wanted to do (slide into an obscure booth in Gene’s Haufbrau and knock down a couple while I graded journals) or what society/my superego wanted me to do (sit on an uncomfortable folding chair and listen to Fox News’ distortions among the blather of ill-informed fellow citizens?)  Should I suffer Nausea by exhibiting bad faith and cave to society’s petty morality or be true to myself and risk the unlikely occurrence of the Headmaster or Board member discovering me in a seedy tavern during work hours?

Bravo Id! Superego be damned! The chances of the headmaster or a board member slumming it at Gene’s Haufbrau on a Wednesday afternoon were on par with Donald Trump getting a likeness of Noam Chomsky tattooed on his chest.

When I returned to Gerald’s, things had thinned out a bit.  I took a seat next to a rotund woman in her late sixties/early seventies who had poorly dyed thin red hair and clutched her bag as if it held a dozen super Powerball winning lottery tickets. Another woman, a bit younger but with age-inappropriate Bonnie Raitt locks falling in Pentecostal splendor beneath her shoulders, sat down across from us.  

The Fox anchors were all a-twitter because Hillary Clinton had announced our huge deficits made us weaker, as if that were hypercritical, as if she and Obama had single-handedly produced the sea of red they had inherited, as if Fox News hadn’t been screaming for the war with Iraq and the draconian tax cuts that had created the deficit in the first place.  As luck would have it, the anchors broke away to cover Obama in Ohio delivering a speech on the economy.  

“I don’t see where he’s done anything but increase our debt,” the rotund redhead said to the woman across from us.

As I held my tongue, dutifully circling misplaced modifiers and ticking active verbs, the redhead suddenly said, “I lost my youngest one last week.”

“Your youngest what?” the other said.

“My youngest child. My baby.”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” the other said, but looking more curious than sad. “What happened?”

“She called me up and said she had an earache, and in an hour, she was gone.”

“Oh, my goodness.  I’m so sorry.  How old was she?”

“Thirty-eight.”

“Do they know what it was?”

“The results from the autopsy ain’t come back yet.”

A smiling mechanic opened the door.  “Mrs. So-and-So, your car’s ready.”

The woman with the long hair stood up and leaned over to the red-headed one.

“What you say your name was?”

“Ferguson.”

“I’ll say a prayer for you tonight.”

(Yep, make sure to get the name right, I thought.  God’s got a lot on his plate nowadays).

I looked over my shoulder to see my car parked out front. After ten more minutes, it was still there, so I went out to discover that my tire had been repaired.  Going back in, I informed the cadaverous young man behind the counter.

“I’ll go get the paperwork,” he said.

In a few minutes, another smiling mechanic came in dangling my keys.  “Mr. Moore, here you go.  Have a nice day.”

“But I haven’t paid,” I said.

“It’s nothing,” he said, “Only a tire repair.  Have a nice day.”

So, I drove back to school, hit the Department Chair meeting and have not the slightest inkling of what transpired there, don’t recall at all. 

It’s the weirdness you remember, not the mundane, the days you cut, not the days you attend.


[1] “Nausea” is what Sartre termed that way too common situation when you forego whatever you really want to do. 


[1] Dig that: three its in a row – pure poetry.