Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The American Professor

 

I had an English professor who tried to bring Milton to Millennials and the Aeneid to athletes. Standing at the front, grimacing, looking at the back wall, perpetually parting his hair, he worshipped the text.

 

He was conductor of a hopeless symphony, sifting comments from business majors who hadn’t read. Usually, so enraptured by his own interpretations, he’d forget students altogether, orating selfishly, brilliantly. Every class took its pound of flesh, so ravaged was he after discussing Dante. He, the ultimate hype man for dead literary giants.

 

I’d do the reading just to follow Dr. Howard’s monologues on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I became second-in-command, and he’d revert to calling on me exclusively when he transcended the classroom, when he couldn’t endure shitty comments. In me, he found a kindred cynic, a quixotic mind. This was my perspective, at least. I’d leave Berger Hall, the sunlight revealing my stupor, the bleached courtyard my spatial disorientation—my literary drunkenness, and stumble back to my dorm.

 

Early in the semester, he announced his play, how he hadn’t written in years, and how it was scary. His own expectations, he said, were crippling. The drama department had been rehearsing it, would debut it later in the semester. We’d get extra credit for going. He made eye contact with me, where he usually only stared above our heads, envisioning his epic heroes as he talked.

 

I sensed a painful inversion, seeing him walk from class, head down in the rain, satchel under arm, against the grain of steel-toed, John-Deere students. Tenured at a Christian school in rural Missouri, he was a bloom among the salt of the earth. No one gave him any mind. His profession, his existence, superfluous, producing no crops, nothing useful. The inversion: his mind, subject to matters in another plane, subordinated to the pragmatic.

 

Late for class one day, I came in through the window. Dr. Howard loved it—made several obscure references, and for a moment, I joined his mythical heroes. I asked him after class how he felt about American Lit, which is what I read in high school.

 

He was, he said, under the curse of the Great American Novel, like all Americans. Reading the best Americans served only as a reminder that he was not among them. But his play— eyes shifting to the back wall—was purely American, a tale of our humble region.

 

While the play ran, he was forgetful in class, some days admitting he was blatantly unprepared. To hell with dead poets! He was consumed, a man in full, alive, producing.

 

I went on the third night. The same actors who did every school play, butchering even acclaimed plays, performed. Ironic: country actors who couldn’t play country characters. I couldn’t get past them to even form opinions of the writing. I left at intermission, defeated.

 

Later, he asked who went, and no one raised a hand, including me. I could see in his face the confirmation of something he had long known.

 

 

 

 

 

Turner Blake is an active duty aviator in the United States Army. He graduated from College of the Ozarks in 2016 with a degree in English Literature, working as a writing tutor during his undergraduate years. Since then, he’s been stationed out of Alabama, Korea, and, presently, Arizona. He’s engaged to an Arizona native.