Creative writing at Southern Oregon State had been easy—it was the 70’s, when teachers still had that laid-back 60’s posture of smoking pot on the long and winding road, never bothering to correct grammar and punctuation, lest they put a damper on a clever but unwieldy sacred stream of consciousness. Oklahoma State University was quite another tale. Professor Slaughter, head of the English Department, told me I had a bad case of semi-colonitis. With a not too subtle approach, he taught me how dangerous mixed-up homonyms could be—by virtue of his surname alone. A slotter carving wood seemed tame compared to ego massacres.
“If you want a position as a teaching assistant, you’ll have to take a basic course in what is known as the English language,” he said, without the slightest moon break of a smile. I’d have readily settled for some tiny section of a shriveled tangelo, but it wasn’t in the cards. Tough luck.
It was a muggy summer in Oklahoma, hot enough to make us install drainpipes in our tennis shoes and sell our sickly bodies on the street corner for a seven-inch house fan. Air-conditioning was reserved for the president of the university, not the practicing peons of academia. It was the very first methodology class this Composition Director had ever taught. We were his “guinea pigs” and the cage was a memorable one.
“You are in the trenches, class, and I am the admiral,” he said. Accuracy usually had everything to do with structure, but content problems were only minor scrapes on America’s backside. In clairvoyant anticipation of upcoming instructor evaluations, I penciled a Post-It Note and planted it on my forehead: “Search Roget’s for creative alternatives to boring and inexplicably dull.”
Complete with a crew cut rivaling some famous putting green, Professor Barnum was a retired Navy officer who may have held a pen at some point in his life, but his imagination couldn’t quite get it up in the usage corral. We fondly referred to the gentleman as “P.T. with his funny bone removed.” He had three fetishes: proper punctuation, dangling modifiers, and clichés. Apropos, perhaps, but just about as entertaining as serving Chaucer at a baseball game.
Barnum had what is commonly referred to as a “definitive presence.” He always wore his car keys, his house keys, and his office keys linked to a belt loop. The “rattle and ring,” as we dubbed the sound, was “an angel from above,” because it kept us in the semi-light stages of sleep for a fairly distended period of time. Just when he was about to ask for a summary of his latest utterance, his chest would heave like a breaking avalanche, and we got ready to deliver the rocks. Every lecture was a brand of childbirth: suck in a large space of air and let it go like the last fart in a Mexican restaurant at closing time. Politically correct didn’t matter much around this place, but a misused homonym got the verbal whipping post. Our foreheads had the cuts to show for it, so most of us wore bangs from start to finish line.
Professor Barnum was a nice guy beneath his icy exterior (besides, in that heat we’d have sold our mothers and our GE stock for a cube of that sacred stuff); however, his goal, as he put it, was to “run a tight ship” and teach us to teach the hard way. Learning wasn’t the challenge here —staying awake was. Like most concentrated summer courses, it lasted for four solid hours, five days a week. On day number one, he had twenty-five students; on day number two, he had reduced his torture range to about twelve; by the second week, we were down to six courageous victims who were determined to make a contribution to humanity by keeping him on our backs and off of theirs. Unfortunately, this made sleeping through class rather the same as watching Mission Impossible in Japanese. We didn’t dare take our eyes off his lips or we were sunk.
Our tests consisted of memorizing every possible place to put a comma. I knew commas belonged between elements of a list, but I had no idea you had to spread them on a bagel and use ’em to butter your popcorn. Religious fanatics had nothing on this guy. He even made us answer him orally with the proper punctuation.
“How many of you have any knowledge of traditional grammar?” he’d ask.
To which we’d reply: “I’ve read that ‘Shrunk’ or ‘Skunk’ guy on style, comma, Peter Elbow on putting up with the process, comma, and Diana Hacker’s, comma, A Writer’s Reference period.” With names like that for leaders, it’s no wonder we were wandering around a lifeless bird of inspiration. Verbally announcing a pause seemed about as decorous as dragging a screaming three-year-old down a wedding aisle, but we stuck to the plan in a sincere effort to shorten the distance between the sermon and the door.
“All good essays,” Barnum claimed, “have one introductory paragraph with an obvious thesis, three supporting paragraphs (one for each element of the thesis), and a one-paragraph conclusion.” There were, according to the Barnum Manual, absolutely no exceptions. I once asked him why one couldn’t stretch out a conclusion to two paragraphs. He shot me for heresy on the spot, and nobody would talk to me at happy hour because we had to stay after class for two and a half minutes while he explained himself. Like all curious scholars, I thought I had a right to ask, but patience was thinner than acetone, and I knew I’d get flogged by my classmates for running them through another double dose of Sominex.
Barnum’s penchant for correction was an admirable one, but even his spit had a gracious touch of red ink. That sticky pen went absolutely everywhere with the guy. One day, in the throes of a nasty tornado, while we were all huddled in the basement of Merrill Hall—crowded with tenured profs, copious cobwebs, and roaming mice that stole our bubble gum to assuage their nerves—we caught Barnum circling typos on a news brief on the dusty screen of a portable TV. The Noah’s flood of scarlet ink rendered bloody archives of the Custer massacre a teardrop on a clean, dry hanky; he mastered that “grand sweep” well enough to make a symphony conductor’s baton look like a limp dick on a slow night. When Barnum’s red pen ran out of ink on the first page of our assignments, he happily switched to green and effectively murdered every decent memory of what used to be a fairly pleasant holiday.
Now, I walked into that class thinking I was a pretty good writer, but I got a ‘D’ on my first paper, which by martial law, had to be on the topic of “How to Write a Well-organized Essay.” Subtlety and irony were vetoed faster than our national health plan, and adjectives were deleted like whores in the back bedroom of the White House, no matter how well behaved and innocent they claimed to be. My sleeping partner on the train said I was lucky; he got an ‘F’ for leaving out the hyphen in well-organized. An intentional sentence fragment was about as popular as an erection in the mahogany berth of a church pew on Easter Sunday, and anyone who came up with a creative suggestion was sent outside to take a “break” for his well-deserved punishment. Once we caught that drift, we made damned sure we quoted e.e. cummings verbatim, more than once, on every daily quiz.
Several times during the course, we were required to have a private conference with Barnum. His office was on the fourth floor of the English Department. The shape of the building was clearly a sign from God: one door, no windows, a cramped ceiling, and slick, slick floors—no doubt varnished by an architect who was duly sympathetic to our exit plans. His door was guarded by a Doberman named “Nixon.” This pup was well enough trained to pee in parentheses and crap in the shape of a semi-colon, which according to Professor Slaughter, was the last thing I needed in my creative arsenal of pauses, so I often wondered why I was expending all that energy climbing three double flights of stairs. The lack of windows, we concluded, had something to do with eliminating the option of suicide. Even on a good day, this class made last term’s Plath course taste like a Martha Stewart cookie hour. During our singular ten-minute break—in a noble effort to jumpstart sluggish craniums—we gave ourselves the gift of exercise. Putting gender aside, we all peed standing up and read the turtle chapter in The Grapes of Wrath. Aloud. Since the turtle did, in fact, cross the road, we still had hope. In the end, ingenuity did not defer to rules set in stone. One of the brighter students brought in an oven and hooked it up as an option for taking the final exam.
Author Janet Buck is a seven-time Pushcart Nominee & the author of four full-length collections of poetry. Buck's most recent work is featured in The Birmingham Arts Journal, Antiphon, Offcourse, PoetryBay, Poetrysuperhighway, Abramelin, The Writing Disorder, Misfit Magazine, Lavender Wolves, River Babble, The Danforth Review & other journals worldwide. Her latest print collection of verse, Dirty Laundry, is currently available at all fine bookstores. Buck’s debut novel, Samantha Stone: A Novel of Mystery, Memoir & Romance, was released courtesy of Vine Leaves Press in September, 2016. Janet lives & writes in Southern Oregon—just hours away from Crater Lake, one of the seven wonders of the world. For links, announcements, and interviews with Janet, visit her new website: www.janetibuck.com