By Heshie Mortensen
The character, “Forest Gump,” portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie of the same name, expressed how his mother described a box of chocolate candy: “You never know what you’re gonna’ get.” My “first day impressions” of class, English 174, Contemporary Nonfiction Journalism, on Monday, Aug. 27 was somewhat analogous to this description. For me, the class ran the gamut from almost total panic, to complete discomfort, to feeling resoundingly uncomfortable, to a sense of the emotion of pleasure from class participation, to a sense of acceptance. I decried its coming to a conclusion. It did, abruptly.
That day I had planned to depart from home for school by not later than 1 p.m. for a 2 p.m. class. I live less than 20 minutes from school, during a slow, soft and serene drive on open uncrowded roads. For reasons still uncertain to me I did not depart home until 1:15 p.m. Though behind schedule, I refused to rush, first because speeding gains nothing, unless you are in a sanctioned race. Secondly, it can activate fears, even threats of injury or needless law enforcement intervention. Being a semi-retired adrenaline junkie, I was not overly concerned with time because I knew exactly where the “Islip Arts Building” was located on campus, hence, initially, time then did not seem critical. However, I was concerned about arriving at the first class on time.
Upon arriving in semi-crowded “Room 204” a young person, presumably a fellow student, looked at me, inquisitively.
“Are you the professor?”
“Hardly,” I replied, as I selected a seat and began to unload my prize-filled school bag. Looking at my watch, it was about 8 to 10 minutes before class start time. The stress of time began to assert its pressures when another student sitting nearby looked full-faced directly into my eyes.
“Are you a math major?”
“No, why do you ask? Do I look like one?”
“I am a math major. I don’t recall seeing you around the hallways in this building before. This is an advanced calculus class. Is that where you want to be right now?”
“Isn’t this the Islip Arts Building?” His response sent me into sheer panic.
“No. This is the Riverhead Building.”
Did I not look like a math major student? How did he know I was out of place? Did my forehead contain a flashing neon sign? Under the pressure of stress one does tend to have outlandish thoughts flashing through the mind. I quickly exited the “wrong” building. I was parked at the rear of the building, on a one-way road. I practically had to pass a campus security building in order to get anywhere else on campus. A man in a dark blue uniform was already standing outside as I approached his tiny, white, shack-sized structure, set off the road’s edge, under a few heavily foliaged, droopy limbed trees. As he went through what sounded like a canned spiel for directions to “Islip Arts,” my mind suddenly cleared sufficiently enough to allow me to recall the shortest route to my destination. Without waiting for him to finish his presentation I sped off.
The gods had to be with me, momentarily, for as I pulled into the parking lot alongside the destined building the only available vacant designated parking stall was the one closest to the door I planned to use to enter the building. Then the gods, forthwith, vacated the scene. My class was on the second floor. The elevator I had to use to get there was at the extreme far end of the building. As a result of sports injuries
when young, stair climbing was not a viable option. Upon exiting the elevator, the room I sought, number 204, was still halfway down the hallway that I had just fully traversed exactly one floor below. This effectively doubled the time needed to navigate both hallways in order to promptly arrive at my assigned classroom.
Glancing down at my watch, as I entered a room almost full of female students, my panic began to subside. It was only 1:58 p.m. Discomfort, however, apparently was extremely visible on my face. At least it was in my mind. To me everyone else in the room seemed relaxed. I felt extremely tense from so much rushing. There was an empty seat in the front row, where I prefer to sit since time and genetics has caused problems with my sight, as well as induced a measurable degree of hearing loss. A new sense of dismay began to overcome me. It was one of feeling somewhat uncomfortable due to the male/female ratio in the room. There were only about three or four male students along with about 14 to 16 female students seated in the room that I observed during a quick glance around the room. Was my male chauvinism coming to the fore? Had I made a mistake about my newly chosen career? Was it one to be dominated by femininity? My chagrin at the ratio imbalance, likewise, quickly dissipated when I sat in the selected seat. The desk I chose was about two to three times smaller than my corpulence required. Upon plopping down and getting wedged into the tight desk space, it was almost impossible to maneuver into a more comfortable position. At about that exact instant the course professor announced class was about to start, but first he would use the last two minutes before doing so to visit the proximate facilities. My arrival, although now tightly fitted, was only barely timely. As the class awaited the return of the professor my mind wandered to, and wondered about, his attire. Wouldn’t he be uncomfortable in the summer warmth, wearing a tee shirt under a long sleeved cotton shirt? I certainly would have been.
As the class progressed and mundane facts regarding the course syllabus were covered, it gave me some moments to adapt and adjust to my equipment situation, to pull in my stomach equalizing pressure around my girth. While the class proceeded, Dr. William Burns, associate professor of English, began to request audience participation from which responses he wrote materials on the blackboard. It was during this exchange, when one of my suggestions, “contemporaneous,” was placed on the board, that I began to feel my brow relax, my back and shoulders to straighten to a more erect position and my waist diminish. The discomforting pressure of my stomach against the inner edge of the desk was gone. My physical comfort improved as time passed.
As class became more involved, Burns became more animated, his voice rising in volume, his word flow increasing in rapidity and almost exploding in tonality. My brain seemed to tune into his rapid-fire speech pattern. It was reminiscent of how my daughter spoke when she became anxious or excited. I began to feel a sense of acceptance. I had become part and parcel of that which surrounded me. I was one with the group, at least in my mind. Had I become too comfortable? Too bad! The Professor now announced that our class would end early today. But not before he orally doled out the “homework” required for our next class. He gave a written assignment that could only bring tears of joy to my soul. I had run the entire circuit. I was down from my raised state of panic. I was gradually achieving euphoria. My adrenaline pump had ceased gushing. The need for its juices had waned. Class now over I slowly, calmly and quietly returned to the solitude of my car, anxious to get home to engage my most recent challenge.
During the second class session conditions were greatly improved. I recalled where I was going and how to get there. Students were paired-off for group work. I felt fortunate in being matched with a young male student, Chris. A third male student, Gardy, joined our group. Gardy had missed the first class, therefore, had not prepared a homework draft for our perusal. Chris gave the impression of being mildly shy, withdrawn and introverted, and yet affable, warm and attentive. After he read his homework draft, I was sincerely impressed with the product and his presentation. His literary piece dealt with the time prior and leading up to his arrival in class, nothing beyond that point. His draft was brief, yet it was sharp, terse and vividly clear in its design. His reading aloud drew an exceptionally sharp picture in my mind, one with almost digital-like clarity of the time frame leading up to class commencement.
“Your draft is mostly a factual build-up prior to entering class,” I told Chris. Why didn’t you present material about classroom activities and participations,” I asked him.
“I was beginning to have serious doubts about finishing the class.”
“Why is that?”
“I had to take an English elective course for my program. I didn’t feel that I was a good writer. I was afraid I had chosen the wrong course.”
“But what you presented just now sounded very well written to me. It was clear and concise.”
“I was seriously thinking about dropping the course. I thought the workload would be too heavy, but thank you.”
“You’re very welcome. What made you decide to continue with the class?”
“I spoke with some friends about it. They said that if I felt weak in English, wouldn’t I be better off if I took some English courses to strengthen my writing?”
“Do you think your draft would be stronger if you described some of what you were feeling, or thinking about during your first class impressions on Monday?”
“Yes. I think it would help to improve the writing. I think I’ll do just that,” he replied, as he proceeded to write a note at the top of his homework page.
My early “first day impressions” had given me feelings of impending doom. These senses later changed to satisfaction with my course selection. Knowing my writing style needed a high degree of polish, now I am beginning to feel English 174 may be an excellent way of achieving such a lofty goal. I am beginning to look forward to future class sessions that, hopefully, will help provide a new sheen to my current some-what drab writing skills. I guess it’s never too late to learn.