Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Soil, explained.

As promised, here's the story on the poem, Soil, by Lord Sirra Tocks, mentioned in the previous post.

August of 1987 was an important year for me. Still only sixteen years old, I had just begun my freshman year in college at Virginia Tech. I was at school a week earlier than most of the VT students, since I was a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. This meant that my first year in college would be the equivalent of attending a military school, complete with curfews, uniforms, five a.m. formations and P.T., mandatory study halls, and verbal hazing from upperclassmen. I was thirteen hundred miles from home for the first time ever, and it was time to grow up--fast.

As part of any normal freshman curriculum, I was enrolled in an English 101 course. English was never one of my favorite subjects. That is not to say that I didn't like writing, or grammar, or that I didn't like reading, or that I didn't like poetry. I really do enjoy all of those things. What I didn't like was the subject of English in the classroom. The subject is always treated, in my opinion, in a boring and pointless way that emphasizes memorization and providing the "proper" answers to an analysis of a piece of poetry or prose. This kind of "non-Socratic" study of English removes all the pleasure from the actual reading and writing.

For example, The Grapes of Wrath is a wonderful book. Great Expectations is a wonderful book. The poetry of Whitman and Poe are fantastic. One can savor the language in these works like a fine wine, letting the words slip across the tongue and roll gently off the lips.

But the obsessive deconstruction and analysis of these works often comes at the expense of just enjoying them. Why must we analyze the motivations and symbolism where perhaps the author intended none? I honestly believed that, to some great extent, the English teachers often made it up as they went along. And if you didn't agree with their answers, you were wrong. And you got a "C" in English. Which I did. Lots.

So, back to freshman English at Virginia Tech, I had been given an assignment to write an exposition on a poem. The assignment stated that the poem could be any poem of my choosing. This was the first time ever I had the freedom to write about something--anything--I wanted. Now, I had lots of favorite poems by this time. Most of them centered around Poe. There was the obvious Raven or the less obvious The City in the Sea. But instead, I chose Soil, by Lord Sirra Tocks. This was a poem I had seen in high school, thought I understood, and decided to write about it.

My essay described the poem in great detail, dissecting each stanza separately, providing references to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World for the enigmatic 'soma' reference. The poem, as I described it, was about depression, suicide and release from living obligations.

I thought I knew this one pretty well. Nailed it. I turned in my essay, and waited with great anticipation for the "A+" that I'd be receiving.

Several days later, I got back my graded essay. "C-". Written on the top of the paper in red were the words, "You missed the point." What the heck?! How can that be? Impossible!

Why impossible? Here was my secret. Read "Lord Sirra Tocks" backwards.

I never revealed to my teacher that the original author of the poem was, in fact, me. Yes, me. I wrote the poem in high school. At the time, I actually got a pretty good grade for it. (It tells you a lot about the standard of education in Mississippi schools, because the poem is really not that good. In fact, I think it's pretty awful today, but that is hardly the point of this story.)

The point is that I wrote the poem, so I should be able to explain it. Who better could explain it? Apparently, my teacher could.

As I did whenever I got a bad grade, I scheduled an appointment with the teacher to see why I got the "C-". Sitting down with her in her office, I told her, "I just don't understand why I got the 'C-'. I really thought I understood this poem pretty well."

"Scott," she said to me, "you wrote a good essay. It was well written and well thought out."

Great. I thought, then why the freaking "C-"?

"The problem is that you completely missed the point of the poem," she said. She continued to explain to me how the poem wasn't about something as dreadful as suicide, but rather about a Christian rebirth, a "born again experience." The "soil" in the poem was Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ?! I could barely contain myself. I was cracking up inside. This poem was nothing like that. This poem was written in the midst of teen sexual anxiety--hormones run rampant over persistent rejection by the opposite sex. In short, it was, "I'm striking out with the ladies, so I will kill myself. Then I will be happy." (Things are so dramatic when you're a teen. I never even came close to really wanting to do this, but I expressed it in the poem nevertheless as an emotional outlet.)

One thing was for sure, this poem was definitely not about Christianity! I was as far removed from evangelical Christianity as I could be. I was Catholic for crying out loud! We don't read the Bible! (It's read to us at Mass!) And we certainly don't evangelize!

Sitting in my professor's office, I'm filled with the confirmation that, yes, indeed, all English teachers make it up as they go along. Yes, they grade you on what they think the poem should be about. And, yes, it's all very pointless.

I had a choice: Do I reveal all this to her, possibly risking expulsion? Even though she said any poem of our choosing, I didn't want to argue this point with her. Or, do I keep this little morsel of knowledge to myself and savor it for the rest of my days? I chose the latter, and this must have been a turning point in my maturity. This was me, rejecting instant gratification, and taking the high road.

I politely thanked her for her time, took the "C-" graciously, and as I walked down the sidewalk back to my dorm, I beamed from ear to ear with confidence and awareness, and at having been proved right.

It was the only "C-" I'd ever been proud of.

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