How meanings change
Isn't it curious how we can miss what's right in front of us, but find our way back eventually?
I remember when I might have discovered I could write.
Yes. Might have.
Isn't it curious how we can miss what's right in front of us?
But looking back, we can see it was staring at us all the while, like a ghost in the window.
Writing was one of my ghosts.
In college at Villanova, I didn’t bring much enthusiasm to my coursework.
Basketball? Ooooooooh yes.
Although I don't recall many of my undergraduate courses, my freshman humanities class shines in memory with enough brightness to break through the fog of time.
The class didn't feel remarkable when I was in it.
There are events that feel insignificant when we're living them, but grow in importance when we look back, like an overlooked painter whose work didn't come to acclaim until after their death.
This course was taught by a middle aged priest with penchants for smoking cigarettes and chasing squirrels.
He had a reputation for tough grades. Word filtered to my classmates and I that no one ever scored better than a B on the first assignment or two. And an A was said to be the rarest achievement at any point in his class.
For each work we covered, students would write a paper in response to a particular prompt related to a piece we read.
We began with a couple sections of the Bible before progressing to Plato, then another work that didn't stick in my memory.
I pulled middling to okay grades on the first three papers.
By the fourth, I was on cruise control at a low speed, and I procrastinated horribly, not even thinking about how I might approach the assignment.
All the way until almost midnight the morning before it came due.
At that point I finally sat down and ...
I don't know.
Let's call it a fugue state.
I woke in the morning, scarcely able to recall having written, which I chalked up to fatigue. (Even at that age, late nights weren't my jam.)
On my desk sat several printed pages.
I didn’t even look at them.
I put what I assumed was another mediocre paper in my bag and left for class.
A week went by after I turned it in.
At the beginning of the next class, the professor passed out the graded papers.
I half-listened as he called each student up to pick up their work, addressing them as Mr. or Ms. Lastname, which made me feel like I was in fourth grade again.
But I was jarred to attention when he finished handing back the papers without ever calling my name.
Did I forget to turn in my assignment? How could that have even happened? I wondered.
After the late-morning lesson, he gestured for me to approach, and he quietly asked me to come by his office after class that afternoon.
I sat through lunch with my friends, paying little attention to their loud argument about fantasy football, as I sweated over this upcoming meeting.
My paper must have been terrible, I thought.
He’s going to scold me.
I’ve been here for two months and he’s figured out I don’t belong.
He’s going to ask me if I’m even serious about wanting to be in college.
I stepped into his office.
It was on the small side, but with large mahogany bookcases lining opposing walls, and a small couch perpendicular to a leather chair providing a seating space. He invited me to sit with him.
He looked at me quietly for several agonizing moments.
When you’re 18, holding that space is torture, let alone with a middle aged man of God.
Finally he asked me if I knew why I was there.
My stomach clenching, and expecting him to tear me down, I admitted I had my suspicions.
He stared at me again — another long moment — before reaching into a green folder and handing my paper to me.
But something didn’t look right.
It took me a second.
All the punctuation was missing.
But how? I couldn't imagine having turned in a paper with zero punctuation, but the thought flitted through my mind, as likely as anything.
I stared at him, puzzled. Speechless.
He handed me a pen with the instruction, "I want you to put the punctuation back."
What the hell? This makes no sense. Is this a weird dig at me?
Confused, I did my best to re-punctuate it, not knowing if I could repeat the original use of semi-arbitrary semicolons that my prep school teachers led me to think were a clever thing to do.
Finished after a few minutes, I gave it back to him.
He flipped through the unstapled pages.
Quietly, but loudly, because the pages flipping sounded like thunderclaps in this silence.
Looking up at me, he blurted out, "You wrote this."
It was not a question.
"Uh. Yes?" I stammered back.
I did not understand.
He fixed me with that stare again.
"You’re sure that you didn’t have someone else write this for you."
Again, a sentence without a question mark.
"Um. Yes. I’m sure of that."
He sighed. The corners of his mouth twitched upward. "Okay then."
Reaching back, to his desk, he grabbed a pen and scrawled a big A on the first page.
He returned the paper and dismissed me into a sunny October afternoon.
It took a couple minutes of sunshine for it to sink in.
He thought the gap in quality from the previous papers massive enough that I must have cheated.
The memory ends here.
Perhaps there exists — in another life — a version of this story where it serves as a pivotal turning point.
In that life, one I didn't live here, I sit down and reflect.
I realize that I have a gift I can nurture, something worth pursuing. I switch my major to something writing-focused.
Or if nothing that drastic, I recognize that it feels good to be a vessel for the words flowing through me, and I seek more of it. I start writing regularly and see what happens.
But that’s not this life.
No, not this one.
The meaning we give things in the moment.
18-year-old me decided this meant I could procrastinate and get good enough grades.
We are all accumulations of our stories, which can be reinterpreted and infused with new meanings.
This story I tell means something wildly different to me now than it did at 18 — more than half my life ago.
It’s one of the few events from college I remember in vivid color, though it sat out of focus for a long time.
When I visited my parents' house recently for the first time in ages, this story was on my mind, and I went looking for the paper in the closet of my old bedroom, long since converted to other uses.
I found it.
Having the physical paper filled in or altered a few blanks in my memory. The paper was on Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. The big letter A was on the last page, not the first.
It's fascinating to me to read it now, as I recall this story from when I was so young.
Because in writing the paper, I chose to focus on two specific themes.
The first was the way Sophocles uses blindness — literal and figurative — to provide context to the choices the characters the make.
And the second?
I wrote about how sometimes we do the best we can with the information we have — that things have a way of working out the way they're meant to, in the timing that supports it.
And now here I am, all these years later, closing this same loop.