Student, teach thyself

Rarely does life give us a perfect match, but it happened with me and Paul Smith’s College. And it happened by sheer coincidence

A week before second semester 1973, without giving notice, three English teachers walked out. Two days later, having been told of the walkout, I walked into Dr. Buxton’s office, hat in one hand, resume in the other.

As I said, it was a perfect match: PSC was desperate for an English teacher (or at least someone pretending he was one), and I was desperate for a teaching job. I got hired.

I’ve no doubt if Charlie Manson had cleaned up, cobbled some fake credentials, and walked into PSC the day before me, they’d have hired him. But that’s not relevant. What is relevant is I got hired to teach English, but had a degree in American History. So when Dr. Buxton rehired me that spring, he told me if I wanted to keep the job I had to get an M.A. in English.

I figured it was doable. While I’d majored in history, I’d minored in English and had done well in all my classes. Beyond that, I’d been an obsessive reader since childhood, and on my own had read more than most lit majors.

I checked out the English M.A. program at Potsdam State and they had both summer and night classes so I could take courses throughout the year. I immediately took two summer courses.

Matters of course

I got a B in one course and an A in the other, but the grades themselves don’t tell the whole story.

In the B class, we had to write a research paper in order to get an A. The teacher never prepared for class, spent most of his time finding a Christ symbol in every sentence, and the rest of the time telling us he was a communist and Irish nationalist. Given his dedication to teaching, I figured his commitment to communism was the poster of Karl Marx on his office wall. His being an Irish nationalist probably meant he wore tweed jackets, wrote $10 checks to NORAID and, when hammered on Guinness, yelled “Up the IRA!” There was no way I was going to bust my hump writing a paper for that jamoke, especially a paper he wouldn’t read anyway.

The other class was taught by the English Department Head. Not only did I get an A, but he read some of my stuff to the class as examples of good writing.

So I’d taken the courses and had done as well as could be expected, but that had nothing to do with getting accepted into the M.A. program.

Anyone could take two grad-level classes no sweat. But to be accepted as a matriculated M.A. student, I had to meet three requirements.

One was to have good grades as an undergrad, which I did.

Another was to have letters of recommendation from former profs, which was no problem. For all my irreverence, I was a serious student and a dogged worker.

The last was to get an acceptable grade on the Graduate Record Exam in English. A perfect score on the GRE was 800; the Department Head told me the minimum for acceptance was 500.

Five hundred out of 800? At first glance, it looked like a walk in the park. I mean, just going by the numbers alone, it works out to be a D or D+. But of course, the numbers themselves wouldn’t tell my story — not by a long shot.

Close, but no cigar

I already told you I wasn’t an English major, but beyond that, after college I was in the Navy. So I’d be taking the GREs five years after being a full-time student. Thus any specific knowledge I’d had about Things English were now as far in my past as Boy Scout camp.

There was a huge study guide for the GRE, but that was no use, either. I was a first-year teacher, with a full load of writing classes — five sections, two different preps, with 120 students. My life — and for all practical purposes, my whole life — was taken up with being in class, studying for class or correcting papers. If I had any free time, and I didn’t have a lot, I spent it sleeping … and sleeping fitfully, at that. If you think I’m exaggerating, ask any full-time composition teacher what their first years were like. If they tell you they had all kinds of free time, smooth-running classes and no anxieties, they’re lying out both sides of their mouth.

I took the GRE and scored a lofty 475. It was under the acceptable minimum but very close to it, or so I told myself. I sent it and my application and letters of recommendation to Old Siwash. A week later, I did something that was against my nature but felt had to be done — I went to Potsdam to argue my case to the Department Head. I knew the odds were against me but figured if I was there, in person, I was less likely to be rejected than if he only dealt with the paper “me.”

Chairman of

the Bored

After we exchanged pleasantries, I got down to the issue at hand.

“OK,” I said, “so what’re the chances of me getting accepted?’

He shook his head.

“Not so good, I’m afraid,” he said.

“Why, specifically?” I asked.

“Your GRE score,” he said. “You’re under the 500 minimum.”

That was no surprise, and I was ready with my counter-argument.

“I know,” I said. “But it’s not terribly under, is it?”

“Well, I — “ he started to say but I cut him off.

“How about my grades?” I said. “I got a B from Himself, himself, and an A from you. If you gave me an A, either I’m a superior student, or your grading is meaningless.”

“Yes, you’re a solid student, but –“

Again I cut him off.

“And I never was an English major,” I said. “So theoretically I’m out of my league, but still holding my own with the rest of the grad students.”

“True,” he said. “But five hundred is the stated minimum.”

Now, here’s the thing. The department head was a decent guy. Unlike a lot of ivory tower types, he wasn’t a preening narcissist or God’s own gift. Beyond that, he was one of those rare individuals who was incapable of lying. I knew that about him and pressed my advantage.

“So tell me something,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“What’s the lowest score a student you’ve accepted got?”

He flinched and drew a breath.

“Um … 450,” he said.

Neither of us said anything for a bit.

Finally, I spoke.

“So you’re saying you’ll accept a crappy English major,” I said, “but you won’t accept some self-taught guy with actual skills?”

He gave me a sheepish look and raised his hands in a “guilty-as-charged” gesture.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll take that into consideration, and I’ll present your case to the Graduate Committee. But I can’t promise you anything.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, it’s the committee.”

“What about them?”

“They’re a pretty stodgy, by-the-book bunch.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And I heard their chairman is the worst of the lot.”

He burst out laughing.

I’d done my homework, picking the brains of my other teacher friends at Potsdam. The decision to accept a student was ultimately the chairman’s … and he was the chairman.

When he stopped laughing he told me he’d do what he could and would be in touch in a little while.

A few weeks later a letter from SUNY Potsdam arrived. In it was my letter of acceptance into the English literature M.A. program.

A bunch of years ago I ran across a quote by a man named Piotr Rudnicki that stuck with me. It is: “There are two types of students: The self-taught and the hopeless.”

That quote describes perfectly my entry into the Potsdam State M.A. program.

It also describes about everything else I ever learned — before or since.

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