"I want to be dismal when I grow up", says no child, ever.
I went off to college without a declared major and
without a real solid idea of what I was going to be when I grew up. During my
very first semester at college, I took an Economics class and realized that the
Dismal Science Department was going to be my home for the next four years. Econ
was a great combination of math, analytics, history, government, business, and
people - right up my alley! For a liberal college, Smith had a fairly diverse
group of academics in its Dismal Science Department: Keynesians and Reganomics groupies
alike, game theorists, designer-dressed finance-types, the blue jeans wearing
pro-labor union set, the pro-developing world aid set, the Monetary policy wonks
who worshipped Alan Greenspan, we had it all. And I wouldn't be surprised if
the foreign-born Econ majors outnumbered the U.S.-born Econ majors 2 to 1.
Never again in my life, thus far, have I been in a room with so many female
Economics students since those college days. The coursework was very objective, highly quantitative, and in completing the 40 credits required by the department as one's major, I may have written seven papers all in all.
In order to round out my college studies, I took a writing class called 'The Short Story and Its Writer',
taught by a very memorable Professor Patricia S. (last name withheld because she
doesn't know I'm giving away her syllabus, albeit from 1997). Pat was a force
to be reckoned with. She was a petite lady, who often wore floral print dresses and skirts, offset by her icy blue eyes and steel-graying hair. Not that she came off as cold or disinterested, quite the
opposite, I think she used her 'steel magnolia' façade to both guide and challenge, to deconstruct and construct, to correct and redirect students in their writing. She spoke with a slight
accent, I think she was originally from the South, that was more pronounced as
she would slow down her speech for emphasis, or in the few times that she was annoyed
with us, when we begged her to hold class outside, as spring brought the most
pleasant of days after a bitter New England winter. "Class", she would start
loudly and then pause to look around the room, "Will be held inside.", she would
finish more softly, after her Southern-ness would add some flavor to that w.
Our class consisted of reading short stories and a few novels which were
basically a compilation of essays or short stories, and we had to write two
short stories of our own and keep a journal. Pat never limited our writing topics, but one day she made a specific request for one of our journal entries. She asked the class to write the
story that nobody wanted to write: "For your next journal entry", she would start loudly
and then pause to look around the room while a beguiling smile formed on her face, "Please write about how you
believe your parents conceived you".
I think the room collectively giggled until we
realized she was serious. Then came the laughter out of fear, the nervous
laughter, the eye rolls, the confused looks. There is no way I could write this story!
I'm sure I went about my day and
just filed that assignment with my other assignments, and as the days passed, and
I had the choice of writing that essay or doing something else, I would always
choose the 'something else'. How could she ask us to write about that topic? Doesn't
Pat know I went to Catholic school and no one ever talks about that. Out loud. Doesn't Pat know I'm an Economics major? The Dismal Science Department would never ask its students to ponder that event. Besides, when you start to bring up sex and childbirth among Dismal Scientists, the conversation often turns to the pros/cons of the legalization of prostitution for taxable revenue, and/or the human trafficking business, and/or the lifetime production/consumption of said child. Either way you slice it, it's not a light subject. And Pat
wasn't asking for some essay about sex, she was asking for an essay about your
parents (my parents!??) having sex, and this was giving me a real knot-in-my-stomach feeling that made me quickly think about something else (anything else!!). Besides, I am pretty sure the stork delived me!
(Sixteen years later I honestly don't remember
what I wrote, and back then in the Alan Greenspan days, my assignments were
saved on a floppy disk, which even if I could find that disk today, I am certain my current computer, here in the Ben Bernanke days, does not have a
disk drive for such an outdated piece of plastic.)
I went to class with a
completed assignment. I don't remember what I wrote but I remember I calculated
that nine months before I was born would roughly put you at the end of
September, 1977, very close to my dad's 34th birthday. I avoided addressing the topic of the actual conception, like the Catholic church avoids addressing its abusive priest issue, and hypothesized some story about a 34th birthday
celebration for my dad in Brooklyn in the late Seventies. I'd bet my essay included things
like my dad's sideburns and my mom wearing bell-bottoms, or something
polyester. Late September is a nice time in New York, the oppressive humidity
from the summer has usually left for the season, the air is crisp but not yet
chilly, sunset and dusk linger late enough for a nice walk home - maybe they went out for
surf & turf, maybe there were cocktails, maybe they went to a movie, maybe all of Brooklyn was dancing
around like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and they were just out for a good time.
I can write about people
and places and I can tell you that my parents enjoyed a good seafood dinner now
and then but I cannot go any further. I can guarantee you I did not call home
and I did not make this a matter of investigative journalism.
I went to class
with a completed assignment. I prayed that the Professor of Steel would not
call on me to read out loud in class. I made eye contact with no one. Several
other classmates had the same wallflower look to them as well. Yet a few
students were actually eager to read their stories (I doubt they had gone to Catholic School). One classmate, a fearless platinum
blonde with chunky glasses named Angie, had brought a photo of her parents to
add to her essay. She believed the photo to have been taken around the time of her conception and in the photo, her parents were sitting, or rather straddling, a large rock,
and were dressed for a hike. Angie's essay weaved a story that she was conceived after her parents were on a cross-country road trip and stopped to take a rest on this 'phallic rock'. Pat was eating this story up - she loved it! I thought to myself, how could I impress this revered professor with my John Travolta antics? Angie was filling in the blanks of her conception story, demonstrating a level of worldly experience I was not familiar with. The vocabulary used in Angie's essay did not overlap with my choice of words, and as the Phallic Rock story diverged further and further from my let's-count-the-days approach, I prayed even harder that Pat would not ask me to read aloud.
I went to class with a completed assignment, but I was
so naive, so literal in my interpretation. I thought to myself, 'what is a phallic rock'? I've never seen rocks
like that. Maybe Angie's parents lived out west in the big mountain states. We
don't have rocks like that in sea-level Brooklyn. I was pretty sure Angie wasn't an Econ major.
I made it through class without having to read my story. I think Pat was aware that this topic may not have been for the squeamish, and she was merciful. I really, really enjoyed that semester. I wrote my two short stories without ever revisiting the conception topic again: one involved a journalist who makes front-page news, not with her writings but with her death. The second short story was more of an unrequited love situation. But hey, those stories were more up-beat than consumption and taxes!