On Fiction

I see by my moth-eaten transcript, second quarter in college had me signed up for courses in chemistry, astronomy, Spanish and English composition. It's my experience in the latter I wish to describe today, although there were certainly some amusements in the former courses as well. Another time for them, though.

My composition class was taught by Bob Houston, an interesting bearded fellow imbued with a curious Minnesota accent. Remember, I had only been living here for less than a year, and the speech patterns encountered really stood out. A couple quarters later, I had learned the International Phonetic Alphabet from Dr. John Foster and started to record what I was hearing. It seemed so pronounced to my virgin Iowa ears. After a few years, I found that I had absorbed the Minnesota dialect, sounding for all the world as though I had been raised here.

But back to Mr. Houston. (He later finished a Ph.D., by the way). He taught a great class, and of course even in those days I loved to write. In fact, thanks to my Iowa high school, I was pretty cock-sure I already was a great writer. Mr. Houston disabused me of that erroneous belief in short order, for which I'm most grateful. Class days were spent reading our works aloud and critiquing one another's writing. And there were private sessions with the instructor as well. I vividly remember him saying that he wasn't too concerned with my syntax, but that the semantics was weak as a popcorn fart. So, I tried to concentrate on his point and make amends, shelving my all too natural arrogance. After a while, it began to make some sense to me.

One day, the class of twenty had a round-robin discussion on the merits of fiction. Now most of my fellow students were of the usual Aquarian ilk: blue-jeans embroidered with red majordomo stripes running down the inseams, shoulder length hair, beards, Army fatigue jackets sporting upside-down American flag appliques, and all the usual
omnium-gatherum you would expect of any well-dressed hippie.

Except for one guy.

Let's call him Mel. (His actual name was the result of the worst parental cruelty imaginable, so we'll stick with the pseudonym to preclude further embarrassment.) Mel was a good twenty years older than the rest of us. As I recall, he was coming back to school from some job in engineering that had dried up on him. While most of us were there to seek out an education, Mel was present merely for a bit of "retraining." I've often thought that an entrance requirement to any university should be lack of job ambition.

He was definitely the archetypal engineering nerd. Horn-rimmed glasses, a plastic protector in his Arrow shirt pocket, said pocket protector stuffed to the hilt with mechanical pencils and pens of all hues, including one geegaw which could write in any of three colors just by clicking a clever button on the barrel, black shiny wing-tips glistening like polished obsidian, complemented by white socks contrasting with the shoes to create a definite moiré pattern effect, and trousers hitched way up above the hip line. I found him terribly interesting.

Mel did little to hide his disdain of the other students, all of whom were clearly enemies of truth, justice and the American way. But what could he do but grin and bear it? After all, Composition 101 was a required class.

As I said, the day's topic was whether fiction had any inherent value. Generally in these discussions, Mr. Houston would just sit back and let the students take the reins, and today was no different. I noticed that he had an ever so subtle smirk on his face as the set-to became more and more heated. You won't be surprised to learn that Mel was no shrinking violet, and that his opinions were bound to be voiced.

Mel's opening salvo was,

"I never read fiction."

That definitely stirred some rumblings among my hippie colleagues, voices rising and tripping over one another. This was clearly going to be a battle royal...

He followed up with,

"Fiction has never changed the world."

I could no longer contain myself, responding above the din with,

"Oh yeah? Well, what about the Bible?"

The volume level in the class room plummeted 100 decibels in an instant, everyone turning to glare at me. I didn't know it at the time, but just a couple months into college, my reputation as its Most Semi-Evil Man had been cemented.

And Mr. Houston just kept smirking...

So now you know why Hobby Lobby won't hire me. 

Next installment: The Health Food Store

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