Josna Rege

515. Old Papers

In Aging, Books, Britain, Family, reading, Stories, Teaching, writing on July 28, 2022 at 3:50 am

I spent most of the day going through old papers in my office, filling two massive recycling bins. It wasn’t physically taxing, but I’m emotionally exhausted tonight. I didn’t rack up many steps on my phone’s Health app, but covered a tremendous amount of ground nonetheless. The contents of folder after folder from courses all the way back to the 1990s went into the bins, half of them notes and handouts, the other half student essays and reading responses. I could have simply tossed them in lock, stock, and barrel, but knew it was necessary to look at everything, just in case; so glad that I did.

There were final papers that I had graded but never returned, and that the authors never stopped by to pick up the following semester, or that they had asked me for but for some reason or another I had failed to deliver. Every one of them gave me a little pang as I binned it (as they say in the U.K. nowadays), but I set my teeth and pressed on. I did save a handful of them, though, by outstanding students I will never forget and with whom I might possibly re-connect in the future. Or so I told myself.

I have always been bewildered by students’ lack of interest in getting their papers back as long as they are satisfied with their final grades. Of course, unlike in my day, they have the papers on their computers, but I was ever-eager to read my professors’ comments. Although it’s embarrassing to admit this, I have actually kept most of my own essays, going all the way back to my undergraduate days in the early 1970s. (There, I’ve said it; and no, I don’t think it means that I have a hoarding disorder, although it may mean that I care inordinately about what people think of my writing.) Today I hit the jackpot. In amongst the teaching notes for a course on British literature from World War II to the present, I found the original, the only copy, of my personal favorite among all my undergraduate essays.

The essay was on Pincher Martin (1956), a novel by the late William Golding, Nobel laureate and most remembered for his first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954). I’ve always loved the former as much as I’ve disliked the latter. Golding’s pretty pessimistic opinion of most human beings, especially nasty little boys, is evident in both of them. But even as it demonstrates in excruciating detail how determined we seem to be to make ourselves and each other miserable, Pincher Martin‘s deep compassion overrides the nastiness.

I was bowled over by Pincher Martin back in 1974 when I read it for the first time, so much so that in writing about it I did something I had never done before: actually revised my first draft. Until then I had written all my essays at the eleventh hour and then run to class, proofreading as I went. Most of my professors’ comments went something to the effect of, “Quite interesting overall, albeit seemingly written in some haste. A fascinating idea was emerging toward the end; if only you had developed it further.” But I wanted desperately to communicate what I understood about this book. So I worked, re-worked, and finally typed it up painstakingly—on corrasable paper, of course, given the amount of erasing that always had to be done—on the trusty Smith-Corona electric typewriter that my parents had presented me as I went off to university.

My junior year tutor—a hard-working graduate student who conscientiously slogged through everything I wanted to read, even when he didn’t care much for it himself—rewarded me with more than a page and a half of dense hand-written feedback (addressed, I now notice, to “Miss Rege”). My favorite sentence from his comments: “Your style is in large part lucid and ingratiating, avoiding skillfully the twin snares of pomposity and colloquialism.” I was proud of it, and still am, 48 years later.

Also among all those papers I found a number of email messages that I had printed out from students, friends, and family members. I saved a little pile of them as well. One was from my Uncle Ted, written back in February, 2001. He was replying to a letter in which I had listed the novels I was teaching in my contemporary British literature class, among them Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Of Lucky Jim, he commented on the early post-war atmosphere in which young men like him, recently demobilized, read it. “We all wanted to be Jim,” he wrote, “and put our fingers up to petty authority all over the shop while still being the life and soul.” That was how dear Uncle Ted wrote: I miss him so much.

He remembered Doris Lessing in connection with the campaign against the colour bar in Southern Africa and recalled wryly, “All of our crowd felt that we were more upset about apartheid than anyone else. . .Think she wrote regularly when she first got here for the left-wing Statesman journal. Had a terrific back half for literary and drama critics. First half all self-opinionated political writing, Used to say best writers worst opinions.”

But Uncle Ted’s comment on White Teeth made me laugh out loud. “White Teeth you’ll enjoy. Found it hard to credit that a girl so young could have grasped so much. Hope you don’t mind the swearing.”

Next week I will order two more outsize bins and dive into the old papers again. Wonder what I will find this time?  


Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. *sigh* I’m trying to weed out books I’m unlikely to read – either for the first time or ever – and I know that papers in box files are next. I’ve already binned (yes!) hundreds of emails clogging up my Gmail allocation, but the percentage of it used never seems to diminish much if at all. Felicitations to you for what you’ve already accomplished!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel for you, Chris! I have the book problem too, with six boxes of books from my office at work still waiting for me to find a place for them at home. With emails, what I try to do from time to time is to list them by size and delete the ones with large attachments first.. That opens up space more quickly. Thank you for the felicitations and all the best with your weeding! -J

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Finding those notes/letters from family and friends sounds wonderful. Who knows, you may reconnect with those students. Who would have thought that I would reconnect with my high school Spanish teacher when I was in my 70s and he was in his late 90s?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it was wonderful, Kristin. When the dust settles a bit I do intend to get in touch with a couple of the students who I’m pretty sure are still in the local area. How amazing that you met up with your old Spanish teacher!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hari OM
    You are doing data mining the old-fashioned way! It does take a while – but oh, the memories. Here are some gems – next might be gold &*> YAM xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! But yes, the time was well spent. There’s still a long way to go, but it is a necessary part of this rite of passage. And you’re right–it’s a treasure trove. x J


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