Facing the Challenges of the English Literature Course
University Campus with the Calgary Tower in the Background
I took some comfort in the fact that the English literature classes were small. The one I attended had only twenty students under the loving tutelage of Dr. Alexander. In my mind I called her Dr. Nightingale, because she was frequently teasing her students for not knowing the European songbird that had taken such a prominent place in John Keat’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. I went to see her one day after class in her office to get advice as to how to cope with my language problems. Apparently having a good knowledge of the European high school system, she pointed out that I had studied the principles of essay writing for much longer and in greater depth than my Canadian fellow students. What I would have to do was to concentrate my efforts on expanding my active and passive vocabulary and thus build up my confidence.
I became very eager to prove my ability to write well after this encouraging and heart-warming interview. Near the end of one of the Friday morning lectures Dr. Alexander announced to the class that for Monday she planned on giving us a written test on one of two topics having to do with poems of English Romanticism. Having all weekend to prepare myself I chose the topic I felt most comfortable with, I first wrote the essay on a piece of scrap paper, then memorized the three pages sentence by sentence. When I could recite the entire text out loud, I was looking forward to take the test. All I needed to do now was to rewrite the essay from memory on the official exam paper on Monday. How proud I would feel, if I could report to Biene my first A in English 240!
Well rested and as I thought well prepared I sat at my desk in the small lecture room waiting for Dr. Alexander to come in, while others were chatting about all the fun they had had over the weekend. A bit annoyed that they were partying while I had been studying so hard, but at the same time quite relieved that with their poor preparation I would have a better chance of getting a high mark on the test, I attempted to tune them out and tried to focus on the precious content I had stored in my memory. By now I was well known to the other students for my strong, not necessarily unpleasant German accent and my often-stilted way of expressing myself. Some asked, “Well, Peter, I bet, you studied really hard for the exam.”
“I studied hard enough to get by with a passing grade,” I replied trying to be modest.
Then our professor walked in with her endearing smile. Without further ado she handed out the papers and then announced, “You will write on the second topic”, whereupon she sat down apparently quite content to spend the lecture free morning watching us write.
In the meantime I felt the emotional shockwaves of her incredible announcement racing through my mind. Believing we had a choice between the two topics, I had studied for the first one. For several minutes I stared at the blank paper in front of me. The pen I held in my right hand did not move for a very long time. Then finally I began to calm down. Under pressure and time constraints, where others would fall apart, I had the ability to make the best out of a bad situation. In a creative surge I took the parts of the memorized essay, which at least by some stretch of imagination bore some resemblance to topic two, reworded them and recombined them with ideas which I had picked up at the lectures. In spite of the initial delay I was able to hand in my finished work at the end of the fifty-minute session. With some apprehension I was awaiting the return of my paper. Great was my relief when I read the professor’s comment, ‘Well written! But very weak conclusion! 67%.’