Professor Dick Head (his friends called him Richard) taught a literature class in my undergraduate college. He was a really smart guy. He had the air of New England about him, though I think he was from Illinois. He wore a tweed coat and vest, dark ties, horn rimmed glasses, a goatee and self-righteousness. He dripped with the longing to teach at Harvard, and not some little corn-crop college in Iowa.
He expected a lot out of us; and you wanted to rise to his challenges. He had us read Don Quixote, and taught us his own technique of taking on the giant book: read three chapters then, to treat yourself, pour a tumbler of scotch and read one more. It was good advice. We loved his class; but, afterwards, we’d talk about that certain edge he had about him, a superiority that, well, you could just feel.
Now, I want to tell you that I am the complete victim of this story. But I should look at my role in what happened, I suppose. I smelled the elitism on him and, as my mother would say, the pícaro rose in me, the little Salvadoran devil that likes to make trouble for folks just for kicks, especially for snotty rascals like dear Richard. But I didn’t say anything, not until he mentioned the greatness of Cervantes’ literary work, and how, though Spanish had made its way into the Americas, the aesthetic brilliance of Spain did not.
Ooh, that did it. What about Neruda? García Márquez? Gabriela Mistral? So I waited in the bushes. But, no opportunity came around to somehow get him back. Then came the day he said–oh yum yum it’s still delicious in memory!–“Let us consider that, as Shakespeare is the epitome of great English literature, Cervantes is the epitome of great Spanish literature.”
Only, he didn’t say epitome, with the final “e” spoken, but something like epitom, which rhymed with “home.” Epitoom.
I turned to my buddy Paul. He was confused too.” Epitoom?” I said, “Did he mean, epitome?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
We went back and forth about it—should we say anything? Actually, I pushed the notion, “I don’t think he wants to go through life saying that word wrong, I mean, he’s a professor.” I tried to look concerned for his vocation, but really, inside, I was sporting a shit-eating grin. Paul wasn’t about to say a word. So I did. I raised my hand and said, “Excuse me, Dr. Head, did you mean epitome?”
He stared stone-faced at me. For quite a while. Every students’ sphincter in the room puckered up, you could hear the asses sucking at their wooden seats.
“Well, yes. I suppose you’re right.”
It wasn’t downhill after that; I fell off his cliff. Couldn’t get any more than a C+ out of the man, and I worked hard, I promise you! But, I wasn’t the sharpest English major on campus, had the hardest time writing analytical essays; I always wanted to throw in a few metaphors to spice up the analysis. My friends were kicking A’s with Dick. It bothered me; I wondered, “Is he upset with me? What’d I do?”
I knew something was wrong the morning I passed out from a flu fever in his classroom. I dropped from the chair, hit my head on the seat, and slid onto the floor. Dr. Head was right at my side, ready to help me: I can still see him, through the white globs of the fever, leaning over me, slapping the shit out of my left cheek, over and again, saying, “Marcos, you all right? Wake up.” Oh I was awake all right, he slapped hard enough to knock spit out of my mouth.
Here’s the thing: I was an asshole student. And he was an insecure professor. I knew, the day he and I sat alone in the classroom, waiting for the other students to come in, that something was gnawing at him. I had a copy of Carolyn Forche’s poetry The Country Between Us, which had just been published. She’d written a series of poems about El Salvador. Dr. Head had gone to school with her. That just thrilled me—he knew the author! He said, “I don’t see why that woman is so successful.” He went on a bit, got lost in his own bitterness, and revealed his deep jealousy of her. No; he coveted her success. He ran that woman into the ground. Had he tried his hand at poetry? Had he been rejected too many times? For a moment, I felt some empathy for him; because I feared what he had experienced: I wanted to be a writer; would I ever make it?
But the empathy couldn’t last; because, deeply insecure professors? They can be brutal. A professor wields power; we in the vocation must remind ourselves of this. My last semester there, I wrote a long paper on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I loved the poem and remember doing something strange—I started the research a whole week before I needed to turn it in. I thought it was the best academic paper I had ever written.
His note laid out exactly what he thought of me. Not only did the paper disappoint him, but he had a really, really hard time with the fact that I had been accepted into a Masters program in another university. I was not, he wrote on the last page, graduate school material, and my presence in one would only weaken the program itself, one that made the mistake of allowing me into their ranks. At one point, he wrote something about the limitations of my background.
The thing was, he was partly right—I sucked at writing academic papers. And that’s all graduate school was going to be. I went; I struggled; eventually, I did learn how to write a decent essay. I also learned what I didn’t want to do: write analytical essays.
Professor Dick Head did something that no professor should ever do: demean a student, even one who’s a prick. It hurt like hell. I plowed on. But sometimes the violence that professors do to their students knocks a few out of the running. And it is violence, because power is involved. He had power; he should have recognized that; and he should have wielded it more justly.
Even though his note kicked me in the gut, I had enough of my mother in me to get pissed off with the notion that Success is the Greatest Revenge. Some have said that I should send him a stack of my books. But, he might take it wrong; and besides, I can’t find his address.