Monday, June 8, 2009

"The Whore, The Whore..."



I was recently going through some boxes stashed away in my parents’ attic and I came across some old papers I wrote in high school. Why I saved anything I wrote in high school I do not know. But it got me thinking of one of my more embarrassing (and unfortunately not uncommon) academic moments from high school. I will now share this embarrassment for your enjoyment.

It was my junior year I think, Mrs. Weiss’ Honors English Lit class (I know – back then they let anyone with a pulse into the honors program). We were reading Joseph Conrad’s epic novella “Heart of Darkness”, a book widely regarded as a significant work of English literature and part of the Western canon. Wait, let me back up a step and provide some background information for context. Academically speaking I was a miserably lazy fuck in high school. I was too busy chasing girls who wanted nothing to do with me, playing sports I wasn’t suited for, and killing as many brain cells as possible to trouble myself with school work. So the last thing I wanted to do was spend my time reading any of the lengthy books that were assigned to me. (Memo to all of my patient and extremely understanding teachers from high school – after I grew up and gained an appreciation for literature I went back and read all of the classics I neglected to read while in high school – and you were right, they were all great) Honestly, if not for Cliff’s Notes there’s no possible way I would have passed any of my literature courses.

Now back to the story. About a month after we were assigned “Heart of Darkness” I cruised out to the nearest B Dalton Bookstore (Borders didn’t even exist back then – I know, crazy huh) to buy the Cliff’s Notes. What was the rush? I didn’t really need to know what happened in the book until we were tested at the end of the assignment anyway. Small problem – the first bookstore I visited was all out of “Heart of Darkness” Cliff’s Notes (apparently I wasn’t the only miserably lazy fuck in town). Big problem – so was every other bookstore in the greater San Diego area - panic time. Keep in mind this is 1991 we’re talking about, well before Al Gore invented the internet and made it possible to simply google “Heart of Darkness” and get all of the information I needed (and then some) at wire speed. Test day soon arrived and I can tell you first hand that the phrase “ignorance is bliss” does not apply to academics. The multiple choice quiz came first and was a hurdle easily overcome – I cheated off the dude next to me (hey don’t judge me, you don’t know me, you didn’t have to go through high school being me, you can’t possibly understand the issues and challenges I faced every single day – you buying this shit?).

Next came the essay portion of the exam. Houston, we have a problem. Our assignment (gulp) was to write a two page analysis on the dying words of the book’s enigmatic central figure, Kurtz. I had to act quickly – without hesitating I immediately whispered to the guy next to me, “Dude, what were his last words?” He reluctantly responded in an irritated tone, “the horror, horror,” then turned away and vigorously began to write his own essay. Okay, take a deep breath - I got this, I told myself. From the bits and pieces I’d gathered in class (in between naps) “Heart of Darkness” was a fairly deep and symbolic book. Therefore all I needed to do was speak philosophically and use a few metaphors, and she might actually buy it. I began…

"The Whore, The Whore..." I wrote at the top of the first page.

Yeah I know – I’m a complete ass hat – you don’t have to remind me. I actually thought the dying words of Kurtz were “the whore, the whore” instead of what he actually said: “the horror, horror”. Maybe it was the tremendous amount of hormones surging through my pathetically underdeveloped body, or perhaps it was the hushed tone of my annoyed neighbor which led me astray. Whatever the case may have been I proceeded to write two pages analyzing what Kurtz meant when he uttered “the whore, the whore...” just before dying. And mind you I hadn’t read one single page of “Heart of Darkness” going into this test.

I should have started the essay by explaining that “Heart of Darkness” is a metaphor for a journey into one’s inner self, about how it’s an exploration of identity, and how it’s focused on the outside world’s impact on one’s inner ideals and morals. Instead I wrote some bullshit about it being about a metaphor for how life and how life’s full of disappointments.

I then should have explained how Kurtz is not so much a fully realized individual but a series of images constructed by others for their own use. I should have pointed out how in his essential emptiness, Kurtz becomes a cipher upon which other things can be projected, although this emptiness should not be interpreted as benign, just as Kurtz’s eloquence and charisma should not be allowed to overshadow his malice and aptitude for evil. Instead I wrote some bullshit about how Kurtz is a symbol for all men and for how flawed and vulnerable men are as a species.

When analyzing Kurtz’s final words before death I should have explained how they were a holistic reflection on the events of his troubled life, about how they provided a chilling exclamation point to the inevitable fall of an evil genius. Or I could have gone in the direction that Kurtz was referring to the horrors that lie within one’s self, the horrors one cannot escape. Then I could have summed it all up with a poignant statement about how darkness is all around us and within us, and that even the most incorruptible and faithful of individuals is not immune to its lure. Instead I wrote some bullshit about how Kurtz must have found out that the woman he loved had betrayed him, which led to his downward spiral, and that even in death he could not forgive the cheating bitch.

I must admit that after I turned in my essay and walked out of the classroom I felt pretty good about myself and was thinking, nailed it. Then at lunch I asked one of my classmates what they had written about in their essay. They explained how they had written a psychological dissertation on the horrors (yes – the horrors) of Kurtz’s existence in the jungle and how they had negatively affected his mental well-being. It was a sobering moment of clarity and reality. Kurtz’s final words weren’t “the whore, the whore” but were instead “the horror, horror”. Of course they were. What the hell was I thinking? I literally had to avoid making eye contact with Mrs. Weiss for the entire next week. Each day in class I expected her to confront me about my fraudulent, nonsensical excuse for an essay. But surprisingly she did not. The day we received the graded tests finally arrived and I was certain the jig was up. I figured she had probably waited to confront me so she could announce my gaffe to the entire class and make an example out of me. I braced myself as she made her way down the alphabet. My name was finally called and I took the long walk to the front of the classroom. Here it comes, I thought to myself, blood pressure rising. To my pleasant surprise she handed me the test without saying a word. I gingerly walked back to my desk, sat down, and slowly began to turn through the pages of the exam. On the multiple choice section I had scored an 80% (B-). Not great but also not too bad given the circumstances. I quickly flipped to the essay portion of the exam and braced myself again. I fully expected a note from Mrs. Weiss instructing me to see her after class. But to my complete shock and utter surprise I found a grade of B at the end of my essay with the following comments: “Interesting, well written analysis. Very original take on Kurtz and his final words.” What the fuck? How was this even possible, I asked myself? After much thought and introspection I concluded that a) Mrs. Weiss flat out didn’t read any of my essay at all, graded it based upon my past performance only (which is something I think teachers do often), and simply inserted a generic comment at the end, or b) Mrs. Weiss smoked a huge doobie before reading my essay and in her impaired state actually thought I was trying to be original or clever. Either way thanks a bunch Mrs. Weiss – I really dodged a bullet on that one.

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