---(The names have been changed; this wasn't written to humiliate anyone. Except perhaps me).
During my first semester at the University I was enrolled in an Honors World Literature class. That is to say, I was attending a HWL class—-for which I was totally unprepared because I graduated from “Burvl High Skeull” (as it was pronounced there) while the rest of the class came from the best high schools in Little Rock, Fayetteville, etc.
And I did not know corn from beans about comparative literature, had never heard of George Bernard Shaw, and didn't know John Steinbeck from John Wayne. The teacher, being a Full Tenured Professor, could conduct his class any way he wanted and had decided, for reasons which satisfied him, to determine approximately 92% of an individual’s semester grade by having the student either (1) writing and orally presenting a "compare and contrast everything and give examples of each" essay on some aspect of one of the selected authors and his craft, or, in the alternative, (2) reciting from memory a passage of at least one full page from one of the works in the syllabus. The student could choose which of the two would be employed to carry out the death sentence.
As there was never a time in my entire high school career when I had written an essay on any subject which remotely resembled “Literature” I found myself somewhat "coming in through the back door" to the decision to Recite From Memory. Which was also something I'd never done before but at least with that choice I could grasp the scope of the work to be accomplished.
I have no memory of why I chose a dialog between the Devil and Don Juan from Shaw's "Man and Superman" to be the passage I would memorize, but I completely immersed myself in the project--stricken with terror each time because of the sure and certain knowledge that I would, at best, remember the first two sentences before freezing up, standing alone and isolated in an adversarial setting before a room full of jocks, frat rats, and Sorority Sallys who were unquestionably richer, smarter, better looking, smoother, (did I say richer?) and better than I was on every imaginable scale.
And I knew to a scientific certainty that I was going to be humiliated beyond my capabilities to imagine. And what increased the dread a whole order of magnitude was that I would be shown to be a fool, unpolished, and a callow country bumpkin while in the presence of Meredith McCoy.
Because Meredith McCoy was without question the most beautiful young woman I had ever seen in my life. She was every Ivory soap smell/girl next door/and natural blonde erotic fantasy rolled into one.
Every time I saw those impossibly blue eyes, time and rationality and reason would freeze-frame and the world around me would blur out of focus as in my sleepless dreams I contemplated with wonder the thought of running barefoot through her hair, tossing daisies high.
She would come into a room and in my mind every other woman suddenly felt slightly insecure and every man suddenly forgot what he was about to say.
And I would picture me standing in a classroom redolent with perspiration and wet winter wool and I knew with crystal clarity how she would laugh at me when I flubbed that first line. And then the second. And then, having become completely undone--with all conscious thought deserting me--how I would melt into a puddle of shame and humiliation.
Or worse yet. Worst of all. She wouldn't even notice. As I slaughtered the language and tone and meter of the author's masterpiece she would still look right through me, for to her I did not exist except as a temporary prop on the stage of her life.
But (caught in an avoidance/avoidance circular pattern) I could think of nothing to do but rehearse the dialog over and over. While doing laundry. While mowing the lawn of the two-bedroom-made-into-six, two-story house that I shared with five other guys. Allegedly, even in my sleep. (Or so I was told by those who slept in the next room.)
I made arrangements to be allowed into the classroom at nights and on weekends so I could practice the soliloquy in the exact spot in the room where, when the time arrived, my worthless carcass would be drawn and quartered by my gleefully confident and assured demigod class-mates. “Dear Lord”, I quietly beseeched, “I beg of you: At least let Meredith be one of those who look away in boredom. I know my total shame and humiliation is a foregone conclusion but if she is an active participant in the carnage my heart shall surely break”.
I knew it was for naught; that I was just going through the motions and that mine was a destiny writ in stone. “Some are born to greatness”, a cynical friend once told me, “while others have it thrust in them”. But there was no turning back. The die was cast: It was—and always had been—taken as a given that it was my purpose in life to provide levity and cheap pitiless humor to the those in the class—in all my classes—who lacked the decency to have any compassion for those inferiors who didn’t know their place and had the effrontery to attend college without the prerequisite breeding and social upbringing necessary to produce well-rounded young ladies and gentlemen.
So these pretenders had to have their presumptuousness brought to their attention at every opportunity. And skilled and experienced at providing this part of the educational process—the part not mentioned in the college catalog but present nevertheless—the wealthy jackals waited patiently for their turn.
I knew it was inevitable. I had no illusions about how it was going to go. Because I had never spoken in public before or acted in a play, or even made an oral presentation in school. But I went over my dialog again and again, getting each hand gesture memorized. I had decided that I would begin my monologue in a somewhat unusual way—with my back to the audience. In the book, the soliloquy was one in which the Devil was sympathetically portrayed as a creature who was misunderstood by those who didn’t appreciate the fact that he was only playing out the part that had been given him—a feeling I could relate to—and that it was actually Man (or mankind) who had such a fascination with death and the myriad ways of causing it.
I decided, then, that I would begin the Devil’s lines to the other character in the scene as if he were speaking to someone while absently looking out the windows. There were large ceiling-high windows in the classroom and by this method I could get at least a portion of the dialog out before having to turn and look at the audience, from whence would come my downfall.
The professor had made the decision that two students would be called upon each class, whether they expounded on a thesis or merely (merely!) recited a passage from memory. Since it was a large class and we were studying only a small number of works, unless most of the students chose to take the “dissect an aspect” route there was at least theoretically the possibility that more than one student would choose the same part of the same novel to memorize and I was determined not to compound an already overwhelming dilemma by selecting a passage, only to find out—possibly only a day or so before my allotted time—when someone else recited the same speech that I had chosen. So I requested an early time slot and my wish was granted. That is, my request for an early time slot was granted; my wish that I would be struck by lightning, hit by a runaway train; or cut down by the ricochet trajectory of a bank robber’s bullet were all denied without possibility of appeal.
So the day of my public execution came even quicker than I had thought possible. I had done everything I could think of. I had memorized the words and gestures. And when to pause in my oration. When to whisper and when to shout.
But when the bell rang at the beginning of the class I felt like my body had been transformed into one giant sweat gland. Working overtime. One by one all sensory systems shut down like the dimming of the house lights. Somehow I made it to the front of the room and briefly explained what I had chosen as the speech to memorize.
It happened that this particular passage was longer than the requisite one page, but memorizing the lines was—take my word for it—so very much the least of my concerns that I gave it no thought. I simply hoped that the memory of what was about to happen would, with the passage of a sufficient number of generations, eventually be forgotten and the shame and humiliation of my performance would not be something that would scar my children and grandchildren for decades to come.
Turning my back to the class I stood and stared out the window, as if reflecting on the foolishness of Mankind to blame the Devil for Man’s obsession with death and war.
“Have you ever seen a man die?” I began with an authoritative, distinct voice—something I could do when I shut out the class members from my mind and focused on the branch outside the window.
“I have. He was a London bricklayer’s laborer with a wife and three children. He had twelve pounds in savings and when he died his wife spent it all on the funeral and reported the next day with her children to the poorhouse.” I was under way.
At some time I turned and faced the audience. But—-utilizing a trick a friend who had been in one or two school plays taught me-—I faced the class without letting my eyes make contact with theirs. Instead, I looked at the top button on a dress or the fabric on a shirt. And somehow-—at times by running on autopilot from all the rehearsals-—the words and gestures flowed easily and naturally and suddenly I wasn’t a student reciting memorized lines. I WAS the character, delivering Shaw’s eloquence with fire and passion. And I had become so caught up in the scene that without thinking I looked Meredith right in the face.
And was stunned almost to the point of breaking stride. Because she was mesmerized and leaning forward in her desk with rapt attention and tears were streaming down her cheeks and in that moment I had a great epiphany: I had flung off the cloak of who I was in reality and the persona I was playing had reached out and gently but without hesitation touched her. And in that too, too brief blink of time she willingly allowed herself to be moved.
I finished the piece and an amazing thing happened: There was complete silence for two or three of the longest seconds in my life and then the entire class—including the professor—gave me a standing ovation.
There are some scenes that stay with you even after the synapses in your memory cells cease firing as regularly and dependably as they used to. But I suspect that this is one that I’ll still have with vivid, shining clarity when nearly all the rest of them have faded away. Something just tells me I’ll get to keep this one.
(I know you’re wondering: What happened? Did you and Meredith become sweethearts and lovers and get married and have beautiful, wonderful children who cared for you in your old age? I see you’ve been microwaving with the door open again; no, that would have been fantasy and we live—at lease I do—in a world of reality. What happened was that the class ended and we all went on to our next class. But, in 2007, thinking that Meredith—who would have been 50-something by then—just might, possibly, enjoy reading it while sipping iced tea on the veranda of a south Arkansas estate home, I gave a postage-paid envelope containing the tome to the U of A department that keeps track of all graduates, and was promised that they’d send it to her. I sincerely hope that it brought a flush to her cheeks and the hint of a smile at the remembrance of that day in the spring of 1968. Eyes slightly watery with sentimentality wouldn’t hurt, either.)