03 March 2010

Pouting, Scowling and Glowering, Then and Now

On Mondays and Wednesdays, I'm teaching two sections of the intro to literature in the class that every student in the college is required to take. I enjoy teaching that course because most of the students are majoring in something other than English. For me, that's stimulating because their perspectives are often much more interesting to hear than those of literary scholars. Then, of course, there are those students who sit and pout because they're forced to take the class. I have one such student in my first class. I can almost hear her thinking, "When will I ever need any of this stuff?"

Today she asked that question, more or less. I was explaining what made Shakespeare's "Let not to the marriage of true minds" a sonnet. Another student asked, "Does it have something to do with iambic pentameter?"

"What's iambic pentameter?," yet another student wondered.

I started to explain it, and I tried to relate the concept to beats in music or the ways we stress and accent our everyday speech. The pouting, glowering student raised her hand.

"I don't get it."

"All right. I'll try it again." And I did. And she still didn't understand, she said. So I tried explaining it another way--I can't remember what I said--when I noticed something odd: She seemed, under her scowl, somehow hurt and confused. Again, I asked whether my explanation made sense.

"Why did I get a C on my paper?," she wondered. Her rather belligerent tone turned into one of bewilderment. I promised to discuss it with her after class. When I did, I realized that she was panicking: She had never received such a low grade on an assignment. Later, I talked with a prof she had last semester, who confirmed that she was an "A" student.

I guess the reason why I'm thinking about her is, to use one of the most hackneyed cliches of all, I saw myself in her. I remember the frowns and scowls I used to wear because I was scared--though, I'm sure, about very different things from what my student was experiencing. But I remember how people used to try to get me to smile, and Elizabeth used to call me The Scowling Man, as if it were the name of a species or a work of Leonardo da Vinci's had he been reincarnated as Edvard Munch.

Funny I should mention that. In my later class, I was talking, in the context of one of our discussions about one of the poems, about an experience of mine. Out of the blue, Maria, who transferred into that class from another, asked, "Do you have any photos of yourself from that time?"

"Well, if I showed them to you, you'd want extra credit." The rest of the class laughed. But, for whatever reasons, that young woman really wants to see old photos of me.

I've neither looked at nor shown those photos in quite a while. I haven't had the urge to show them to anyone: I'm over shocking people and, frankly, myself. And now when I think of myself when I was living as Nick, I feel an odd combination of sympathy and distance. It seems that it's precisely the vividness of my memories of some of my past experiences that makes them as distant from me as the moon.

Plus, I don't want to look at my former glowering visage. I don't have that smoldering scowl or sexy pout that some models have. What I had then was a look of raw, deforming rage. When I showed those photos to people, their descriptions all included the word "anger" at least twice. So did that pouting, glowering student's former professor--and the office manager of my department, who encountered her just before I left for the day.

That office manager has also seen the photos.