»home   »1998       »printable

The Truth, Mainly - 10/19/1998

Waiting for Carlos: A lament for a writer dying too young

I've been waiting for him for a decade or two when he finally shows up in my Freshman English class. He's a little wiry guy in a red and black plaid shirt, faded jeans, and a baseball cap, bill to the front. He's flopped in his chair, but he looks interested, and his name jumps off the class roster: Carlos Comacho.

I assign the Handy-Dandy Six-Part Ciceronian Argument. The six parts have nifty Latin names: exordium, narratio, divisio, confirmatio, refutatio, peroratio.

The class groans. Carlos still looks interested.

Done well, the assignment can result in a tightly organized piece of formulaic writing, almost always in a turgid style with nothing of the writer's own voice showing through. Rhetorical castor oil, I tell myself. Good for freshmen.

Carlos uses the assignment to attack the assignment. Formulaic writing, he writes, is never worth reading. Why, he writes, wouldn't an experienced teacher know that?

But his insubordination is a ruse. His argument against the assignment follows precisely the assigned form, the six parts all in prescribed order, all doing exactly what they're supposed to do. And the Latin is spelled right.

"Who is this guy?" I say aloud as I enter his A in the gradebook.

Later in the semester, I tell them to write research papers, complete with MLA documentation and evidence that they know their way around the library. They choose the subject. Carlos wants to do his on how Tom Osborne recruits.

"Hey," I say, "this counts a third of your grade. This is serious stuff."

"Tom Osborne's recruiting," he says, "is a serious subject."

So he writes a paper on how Tom Osborne recruits, impeccably documented and researched, including a telephone interview with The Man Himself. Even I am interested in it. Another A.

"Carlos Camacho," I say to everyone, "should be an English major."

A year later, he's in my Advanced Composition class where we all read aloud what we've written. The assignment is to write in someone else's narrative voice. Carlos has just read "Catcher in the Rye," so he becomes Holden Caulfield.

"If you really want to know about it, you'll probably want to hear about how I came to Wesleyan and all, but I really don't feel like getting into that crap," he writes in flawless Holdenese. He goes on to talk about the class itself.

The instructor, he writes, "is about 400 years old and all he does is drone on in class about these corny writing assignments so much I want to puke. Boy, but the other phonies all eat it up. Like you're supposed to commit suicide or something if you can't get the damn assignment down right. Sometimes I'll sort of horse around with old Satterfield and do it wrong on purpose, just for fun."

Then he devotes a paragraph to each of the others in the class, ending with one on Carlos himself, whose papers, he writes, are always too long:

The Truth, Mainly


"I'm not kidding. He'll sit there and read for about ten hours. I've dropped him about a thousand hints after class that maybe he was boring all of us, and that it never exactly broke our hearts when he was done, but he never gets it."

We all laugh and laugh.

Carlos becomes an English major. He goes to Stratford and London with Ann and Roger Cognard to sniff out Shakespeare's spoor. He comes back this fall for his last year at Wesleyan. He's going to write a piece of fiction for his senior project. He asks me to be one of his readers.

Here's where the narrative goes to past tense. Here's where it gets grim.

Carlos' funeral was last week, 60 or 70 years too soon. He died in a house fire across the street from the campus. Funeral flowers piled up in the Old Main office and nothing in the building was the same.

Me, for instance.

Carlos corrupted me. He goosed me into three of the seven deadly sins:

•Pride, at the wonderful things he wrote in my class, things I could pretend to be partly responsible for, although "teaching" Carlos to write was simply giving him an assignment and getting the hell out of his way.

•Envy, because I saw in him what I would like to have been at his age.

•Anger, because teachers live in part through the lives of their students, and now that Carlos' life is gone, I've been cosmically cheated.

There's been some terrible misunderstanding of the regulation that students are forbidden to die before their teachers—a sub-section of the regulation that children are forbidden to die before their parents.

I will not accept it.

Through my office window, I see a student half a block away, a little wiry guy in jeans and plaid shirt and baseball cap, bill to the front. He's coming this way. I wait for a knock at my door. High time we talked about the senior project.

I wait, but there is no knock. The burned-out house across the street mocks me, and I'm waiting, waiting.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


©Copyright Lincoln Journal Star

used with permission