Today Rambling Ever On welcomes a guest post by Charles Cook.
“The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.”Proverbs 17:3
A Curse Born
The Red Marks appeared twenty-one years ago this Spring, a haunting two-decade reminder of the great academic failure. Darrell Holley, Welch College English professor, supplied the red ink to the typed pages. Although it must be confessed, the anemic work beneath the red sea was a creation all my own. A disappointment more disturbing given the paper’s subject, Gerard Manly Hopkins’s poetry.
Like many ill-fated moments, the Red Marks developed from my own choice. To play in a Saturday tennis tournament or not? On the one hand, a Victorian Lit paper was due on Monday. On the other hand, I had the best player for a partner, Neil Morgan. Riding Neil’s hard-hitting overhand serves and sweet backhands seemed a sure bet for a championship. Athletic glory won out over academic responsibility. Saturday was spent trash-talking Pi Gamma Chis and Alphas en route to Bryan supremacy on the courts. A Saturday for toiling in the library and atoning for wasting months of time was instead spent in the Nashville sunshine.
That Saturday night and Sunday, tennis laurels in hand, were spent throwing something, anything, together. The piper, of course, was paid a few days later when Holley passed the work back out. Red Marks shimmered on pages like blood from an animal sacrifice, a sacrifice gone horribly wrong. Not satisfied with blotting out the shoddy work, Welch’s high priest of English Lit filled the empty white space at the paper’s conclusion with a litany of rebuke and disappointment. The student inferred from the Red Marks he was unworthy of glimpsing Hopkins’s poetic work – much less giving opinions and analyzing the man and his poetic creations.
Students at a larger University could possibly shrug off such needed chastisement. Impossible at Welch, with classes too intimate and Literature teachers too few. On top of that, Holley was my advisor, the most crucial mentor. Not only must the Red be read, but a face-to-face meeting.
Drudging up to the third-floor Academic Building gallows, Holley dropped the bomb. He knew of the wasted Saturday playing tennis, apparently watching some of the event from a window near his office. After confessing that, yes, I was guilty and I did deserve Red Marks, I promised not to make the same choice again. Two decades obscure if this promise was uttered vocally or only within the mind’s internal cloister. Regardless, the utterance occurred.
A Curse Illustrated
Over the years many Lit. majors in many universities have experienced the plague of Red Marks. Some frame the bloody paper, a visible wound mounted on a wall, a reminder of the price paid for literary mastery. Perhaps if my Red was the result of a best effort, I too would have framed the failed effort. Sloth, laziness, and poor choices brought the Red upon my work, so instead of framing the Hopkins paper…I buried it. Easier to just burn it? Maybe. But, like Gawain’s return to Camelot wearing green for a reminder of failures and faults, the Red Marks were meant to be remembered, not destroyed.
Unlike Gawain’s choice to recall and announce daily his failure to the world through the green sash, I confronted the Red Marks on a mere annual basis. Each year the old Red wounds returning during Spring Cleaning. Every year the choice made to keep the blotched paper. Even as many other collegiate mementos were slowly discarded over two decades, the Red Marks remained. The annual re-reading of the horrid paper evolved beyond a reminder to shun shoddy work, turning into a personal curse. Each year the paper cried out that some work of merit needed to be produced, something demonstrating that the man had indeed laid away childish choices.
Better papers did come. Graduate school papers were most often finished a month ahead of due dates. The Duke Blue Devil would beckon across the quads into the upstairs crevice of the Divinity School library and down to the bowels of the library basement. No hiding place was safe from his call “Lay the work aside tonight. Join the chants and screams in Cameron. Watch the skill, feel the intensity.” A few games were attended each year, but the majority of game days were spent tending the academic garden.
Yet, better graduate papers seemed insignificant to the earlier sin committed. Something more was necessary. The Red Marks were not destroyed upon the Master’s Degree conference. They stayed boxed and hidden – reappearing once a year, a reminder and a curse, beckoning for some future resolution.
Three years ago, future opportunity became present possibility. Hope emerged, fittingly, from an old Welch classmate. “Would you help edit and contribute to a book on our religious tradition?” Here was a challenge big enough to make things right – to lift the Red Marks’ curse. To show oneself that the lesson was truly learned. For a year and a half, free moments were given over to the writer’s discipline. Nights. Weekends. Vacations. Summers. Christmas Day. The redemptive choice arose again and again. Embraced, the volume materialized. The reception received.
Like twenty previous Springs, this Spring too brought forth the dusty tomes of yesteryear. Red Marks called for a twenty-first reckoning. This year, though, new emotions. Relief. Joy. The feeling of the body when a bout with Covid recedes. There will be no twenty-second year of judgment between teacher, student, and the great poet. Red Marks shredded and discarded, taken to a dumpster for some unknown and foreign domain. A debt two decades in the making discharged, an effort worthy of the old master’s direction birthed in time for the twenty-first year. The Red Marks’ purpose fulfilled.
The curse lifted.