One of my favorite professors in college was a tough man to please. I admired him, wanted to be like him and quivered just a bit every time he handed back essays. I had a routine on those days. While everyone else turned to the back page immediately to see their grade, I never did. When I got my paper I never looked at it right away. I just slipped it in my folder and quietly headed to lunch when class was over.
Sometimes as I was walking down the staircase after class, another student would ask, “So, what’d you get on your essay for Brightman?” And I would say, “Don’t know yet.” I said this with just the right calculated air of nonchalance to drive my friends crazy. I’d go to the cafeteria for lunch, sit down with my tray and casually take out my essay. Still, I didn’t look at the grade first. I started on page one, munching on those college cafeteria french fries that are equally bad wherever you go, and soaking in Dr. Brightman’s comments one at a time.
He wrote with a green pen. They tell teachers to do that because red ink supposedly traumatizes students. Green is soothing, so they say. At any rate, I savored every time he wrote “good” next to something I had said well. I pondered each question he scribbled in the margin. I cringed that time I wrote an entire paper on John Bunyan and kept calling him Paul Bunyan. I can still picture Brightman ribbing me in the margin, asking if I had forgotten Babe the Blue Ox.
Not until I had digested the comments on every page would I look at the grade. That also drove my friends up the wall. As it turns out, I had pretty delicate friends.
Sometimes Brightman’s suggestions could sting. Once I wrote an essay about David Copperfield. Not the magician. That would have been cool. But this was about the Charles Dickens novel. I was analyzing one of the major comic characters in the story, and in my introduction, I tried something clever. I tried to imitate the way the bombastic Mr. Micawber spoke, using lots of big words to parody Micawber’s speech patterns. I was especially proud of the phrase “exuberant circumlocutionary discourses.” Pretty pleased with my Dickens impression, I thought about little else for weeks while I waited anxiously for that nice green “good” in the margin.
Perhaps I should have taken up some hobbies in college.
Anyhow, when Brightman handed back the paper, there was no praise next to my alleged tour de force — only a cryptic comment about adjectives. I asked him about it later. “If you’re going to parody Dickens,” he said, “You need to write as well as Dickens.” Ow. I was crushed. He didn’t even say it holding a green pen. I had to nurse my ego for a few days, wrapping it in an old blanket and letting it watch Mr. Rogers re-runs. Mr. Rogers liked us just the way we were. He probably would have loved our Dickens bit.
But then something happened. I realized that Brightman was giving me fantastic advice, something I might have glossed over if it hadn’t stung a little. He was telling me to approach writing with seriousness and awe. Just having a clever idea wasn’t good enough. The execution had to be good — done with art, with craft and with attention to detail. Brightman wanted me to have a healthy dose of fear when I tried a new experiment in writing. That dose of fear is why good writers are never satisfied with slapdash work. They know how important writing is and how much can go wrong in the hands of those who approach it too casually. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” as Alexander Pope would say.
To this day I am grateful to Dr. Brightman and others like him who took the time to mentor me as a writer. I was encouraged by their generous compliments and respected their honest criticisms. Whatever writing skills I may have, I owe to people who were willing to risk my disappointment and tell me the truth. I trusted them because I knew they would be fair and also show me what I had done well.
Internet comment culture is slowly training us to snipe at strangers and to say the meanest possible things. Read the string of posts beneath any YouTube video or online article, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. They tear down, but they also mean nothing. Only in the context of a trusting relationship — balanced between generous praise and straightforward critique — can the opinions of others help us grow. As the semester winds down, let’s all keep that in mind. So thanks, Dr. B. Your class truly was, to quote Dickens, “the best of times.”